Marla Smith-Nilson


Guest Op-Ed: Water projects everywhere, but little accountability | 

Marla Smith-Nilson and friends
Marla Smith-Nilson and friends
Water 1st

This is a guest post by Marla Smith-Nilson, executive director of Seattle-based Water 1st International and one of the original founders of 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, 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’s “market-based” approach advocated in the NYT’s Opinionator blog.

Water pump, Mali
Water pump, Mali

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, 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

On Water Day, a chat with Marla | 

Welcome to the inaugural Humanosphere podcast, featuring a look at recent news highlights in global health, aid and development as well as a guest interview. This week we look at water, briefly review the Gates Foundation’s push for a better condom, explore the legitimacy of TOMS Shoes’ sales pitch and ponder the Obama Administration’s latest attempt to convince people it actually has a global health policy agenda. Produced by Ansel Herz.

Featured Guest: Today is International Water Day and so we’re talking to Marla Smith-Nilson, director of Water 1st International. We ask if these annual concern days actually do anything, why so many water projects still fail and if we are making progress in making sure everyone has access to clean water.

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.

Water advocate questions why the Gates Foundation is so stuck on the toilet | 

Water 1st

Marla Smith-Nilson and friends

Marla Smith-Nilson is director of Seattle-based Water 1st International and has worked for decades trying to improve access in the developing world to clean water and safe, healthy sanitation.

Smith-Nilson said she welcomes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation decision to get more involved in water and sanitation issues. But she is concerned that their primary interest in re-inventing the toilet is focused too much on the simple fix. Here are Smith-Nilson’s thoughts:


Today, 2.5 billion people lack access to both a safe, convenient water supply and a sanitary toilet – a situation that stems from but also drives poverty, illness and inequality.

As someone who has worked for 20 years on water and sanitation needs in the developing world, I welcome the Gates Foundation’s increased interest and investment in addressing these twin problems.

But I am concerned with their emphasis on reinventing the toilet — or with any solution that is based primarily on solving the water and sanitation problems by virtue of a technological advance. I’m an engineer by training and hardly opposed to technological progress.

The fundamental challenge in water and sanitation is not so much a technological hurdle to overcome as it is a systems problem that simply cannot be resolved by trying to fix any one part in isolation.

Continue reading

World Water Day: Activist frustrated with fleeting fixes | 

World Bank

Water pump, Mali

Today is World Water Day and there’s a big meeting in South Africa as hundreds, or maybe thousands, of organizations are putting out their messages aimed at pretty much saying one thing:

We’re heading for a crisis — or more accurately a bigger crisis that will affect many more of us — if things don’t change.

Anywhere from one-sixth to one-third of humanity right now lacks reliable access to safe, clean drinking water (it depends upon whose estimates you use). Even more lack access to proper sanitation, which contributes to the vicious cycle of water degradation.

Due to our growing global population, increased urbanization and pollution, intense use of water for all sorts of industrial, agricultural or other technological processes, the number of people with poor access to safe water is predicted to rise to two-thirds of the global population. That’s if we don’t work to both expand access to safe water in poor countries while reducing waste in the rich world.

There are many organizations working on this problem. In Seattle, PATH has been pioneering a number of inexpensive technical innovations aimed at improving water safety and the Gates Foundation, though it does put some money ($75 million) into water issues, is focused largely ($140 million) on finding solutions to the problem of sanitation in poor countries. Even the Nature Conservancy, its branch in Seattle, works on global water issues.

Water 1st

Marla Smith-Nilson and friends

But one Seattle resident, Marla Smith-Nilson, has been at this longer than most.

Smith-Nilson is founder and executive director of Water 1st International, a local organization that is working on water and sanitation projects in Bangladesh, India, Honduras and Ethiopia. Water 1st is only about six years old.

But Smith-Nilson has been working on water issues in poor countries for 20 years, having helped launch the much-bigger and high-profile organization — the one that has recruited actor Matt Damon as spokesman for the cause. Continue reading