Future of Aid: Where’s the Impact? | 

This originally appeared in the Brookings Institute blog.

Where's the impact?
Where’s the impact?

A results-oriented aid agenda for Africa has picked up steam in the past few years. Last year closed with excitement about cash transfers. Researchers in Western Kenya found that just giving people money was an effective form of assistance. As the MIT report notes, GiveDirectly recipients increased household asset holdings by 58 percent compared to the mean control group, and did not increase spending on tobacco or alcohol. Thus, the once cast-aside form of aid is making a comeback on the strength of evidence and research. GiveDirectly is only the tipping point for a new way of thinking about aid in Africa and elsewhere.

An era of evidence-based aid is here. GiveDirectly is a new standard because it has proof that evidence-based aid works and what it can actually accomplish. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have often talked about the potential of a given intervention and tell the stories of the people who benefited. Now they will have to talk about evidence. Donors want to know whether a project works and what is actually achieved. The charity evaluator, GiveWell, gives charity recommendations based on cost-effectiveness and whether there is proof that what is being done has an impact. It has analyzed 136 charities and has recommended only four: GiveDirectly, Deworm the World, the Against Malaria Foundation and theSchistosomiasis Control Initiative.

GiveWell is not alone. AidGrade is employing meta-analyses of existing research to learn what different programs actually accomplish.  Users can see how effective interventions are at achieving a given target (i.e., increasing school attendance, eliminating stunting, or creating business profit) and donate to an organization that is effective at creating such impacts. GiveWell’s recommended charities are listed there, as well as the microfinance organization Kiva and the clean energy organization the Global Village Energy Partnership. Continue reading

Bornstein calls out charity: water for simplifying clean water solutions | 

Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify, pumping water at the well that bears his name in Giramagogo, an Ethiopian village.


Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify, pumping water at the well that bears his name in Giramagogo, an Ethiopian village.

Despite what some may say, solving the world’s water crisis is not so simple.

David Bornstein picks up on a recent New York Times Magazine article that profiled a trip of high profile philanthropists with charity:water. The organization that has managed to move millions for clean water receives a rather soft treatment from the piece that raises some questions for Bornstein. He points to promising examples of clean water solutions and criticizes the way that charity:water has simplified the problem.

The organization’s fundraising is guided by the imperative of giving its donors a satisfying experience. However, to do this, Charity: Water has had to simplify the problem and narrow in on one piece of the solution — the piece with the most potential to deliver that experience: individualized water projects, like wells or purification systems, that can be photographed, located on Google Maps, and commemorated with plaques featuring donors’ names. To get the work done, the organization identifies partner organizations across the developing world with track records of delivering results, and provides flexible funding to meet local needs.

To be fair to charity:water, the organization has undergone a lot of learning since it was founded. Founder Scott Harrison is working closely with veterans in the clean water space and the organization made changes in the past to its claims in order to more accurately reflect its impact. Further, charity:water is getting in on the tracking game by installing computer chips to track whether wells are actually working and being used. Continue reading

Two very different views on charity:water | 

Scott Harrison
Scott Harrison

You’ve probably heard of charity:water, one of the more successful philanthropic organizations out there working to help bring clean and safe water to poor communities around the world.

The reason you’ve probably heard about charity:water is because the media, in general, are enamored with the founder — his story of personal redemption and his compelling fund-raising strategy that some say represents a revolutionary new way to pursue humanitarian goals.

A recent story in Wired, Scott Harrison’s mission to solve Africa’s water problem, is a good example.

There are many successful water charities working in the developing world. But it is the way that charity:water has gone about fundraising that makes it notable — and that has attracted active and enthusiastic support from the tech world’s leading founders, from Spotify’s Daniel Ek to Square’s Jack Dorsey.

“Scott is awesome,” says Daniel Ek, Spotify founder and now long-term donor to charity:water. “He runs charity:water like a great startup. He understands virality and evangelism better than most folks in the industry. He’s disrupted the whole charity model.”

Others like Marla Smith-Nilson of Water 1st International say Harrison’s approach — though clearly a massive (and awesome) success when it comes to messaging — is actually just a hipper, newer and web-based variation on a well-worn theme in the history of philanthropic fund-raising.

The problem, Smith-Nilson says, is that raising money and getting everyone enthused doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term improvements. It may actually undermine sustainable progress. Read her post.

Truthout recently went even farther, with an investigative report  The problem with charity:water:

Charity: water is widely praised for its innovative approach to raising money to provide safe, clean drinking water for people in developing nations. But questions about its impact and methods remain.

It’s  bit of a ramble, the Truthout piece, but it does make some fairly disturbing points.

  • First, charity:water raised something like $27 million last year but cannot tell donors how many of its water projects are still working (water projects have high failure rates).
  • Secondly, charity:water’s ‘innovative’ dual bank accounts (one for funding water projects, one for operations) make it difficult to know where a lot of the money actually goes.
  • Finally, the simple messaging — $20 per person gets them clean drinking water — promotes a simple fix mindset that is both a bit misleading and undermines the increased recognition within the humanitarian water sector of the need for systemic, infrastructure changes if people are to get reliable access to clean water.

Read these two pieces for two very different views on charity:water. And then read the guest post by Smith-Nilson.

The concerns raised are not unique to charity:water, or even to just the water sector of the humanitarian community. But it’s easier to see when done in high-profile.

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


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