charitable fund-raising

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The problem of cheap water (fixes) | 

Water pump, Mali
Water pump, Mali

Guest Post: Improving access to clean water is one of the most important, and popular, efforts in the humanitarian sphere. Depending upon whose estimates you use, anywhere from one-sixth to one-third of humanity lacks reliable access to safe, clean drinking water.

Many organizations like the popular group charity:water raise funds for their efforts by successfully marketing the idea of of a simple, cheap fix – “Just $20 can provide a person with clean water.”

In this guest post, Marla Smith-Nilson of Seattle-based Water 1st International explains why it’s not so simple and that cheap fixes are as prone to creating headaches as cheap beer.

See accompanying post Two very different views of charity:water

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By Marla Smith-Nilson

When I was in college, my group of nerdy engineering friends decided to apply our technical expertise to analyze beer cost-effectiveness – to see how little we could pay for drinkable beer.

We tested the usual low-budget beers, starting with Budweiser and Pabst, eventually moving to lesser-known beers (in Tucson, in the 1980s, that meant Yuengling and Schaefer beer). We concluded after extensive data analysis and empirical analysis (at the expense of sobriety, and sometimes our digestive tract) that anything cheaper than a $2 six-pack was not worth drinking.

Perhaps you’ve tried the same test with, say, generic brand toilet paper or by purchasing a Yugo car. My son recently had a similar experience with a certain brand of $5 pizza, which I discovered when he and his friends were using the slices as Frisbees instead of eating them.

At some point you conclude that it’s just not worth saving any more money. I believe the same is true with water projects in poor countries.

Over the past few years I’ve seen fundraising pitches from other organizations with claims like “it only costs $20 per person” to provide clean water or save a life. Charity:water is not the first organization to use this marketing tool, but they are probably the most well-known (and most successful). These are very effective pitches. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the fund-raising pitch does not necessarily translate into actually providing people with reliable access to clean, safe drinking water. In fact, promoting such a simplistic message may do harm.

Truth-out ran an interesting piece recently questioning the impact of charity:water’s projects. Some may legitimately defend charity:water, pointing to all they have done to raise awareness of the water issue via social media. I give them credit for that. But the ultimate question is, or should be anyway, if this strategy works to get water to those people who need it most in the most effective and sustainable manner. On that score, the jury is out. Here’s why:

$20 per person doesn’t buy convenience.

Organizations operating in the water field are not using a common definition of the term “access” to clean water.

Ethiopia water line

On a recent visit to Ethiopia, I talked with women waiting in a 2-hour long line in Tutekunche, Oromia, to collect water.

This project meets the common definition of “improved water source” – a sealed water catchment chamber built to protect a pristine spring source. But the quantity of source water was insufficient for the size of the community, especially in the dry season, and the completed project was not conveniently located for all users. Continue reading