This is a guest post by Marla Smith-Nilson, executive director of Seattle-based Water 1st International and one of the original founders of Water.org. Marla, an engineer by training, likes to build things that work and measure effectiveness. Two recent articles in the New York Times set her teeth on edge, one about charity: water and another about Water.org, largely because she felt they contribute to a central problem in what, for lack of a better way of putting it, we can call the humanitarian water aid industry.
The effort to expand access to clean water in poor parts of the world is getting a lot of attention by The New York Times lately. That’s a good thing. What’s not so good is when the attention is diverted away from the central problem in the international water sector – lack of proven effectiveness.
The articles I’m focused on present two differing strategies aimed at providing permanent solutions to the biggest problems of the world’s poorest citizens: the Robin Hood approach of charity: water and Water.org’s “market-based” approach advocated in the NYT’s Opinionator blog.
When it comes to providing specific solutions to meet the water and sanitation needs for the estimated four billion people lacking reliable access to clean water, both approaches can work well.
For many rural, subsistence-farming communities, the subsidies that charity: water provides to local organizations to build wells are a god-send. I also agree with Water.org, that there is a place for microfinance in the water and sanitation sector, and that approach allows us to reach more people efficiently and effectively.
This isn’t an either/or situation. Both work, but there is also a third way and a fourth way and so on. Water 1st, the organization I work for actually incorporates a little bit of everything into our projects depending on local conditions: We provide subsidies in some locations, loans in other locations, and a grant/loan combination in other locations. Some of our projects have paid plumbers and builders and others use volunteers.
What the media seems reluctant to report is that the international water and sanitation sector is a huge ‘industry’ that ranges from small NGOs serving one small community all the way up to multi-lateral agencies like the World Bank. This reality is not what’s portrayed in the standard media narrative of the caring, well-intentioned humanitarians digging wells in poor communities.
Turns out, this huge industry has a dismal track record of actually solving the problem of access to clean water at any level. Continue reading