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Latest in DIY foreign aid: Plumbers Without Borders?

I figured this must be some kind of joke when I first heard about it.

But no.

It’s not a joke. It’s also not yet a legally recognized charitable organization, which gives me pause, and may just be another example of a humanitarian solution in search of a problem. We’ll return to that in a moment, after the following news report:

Here is Seattle’s KING TV’s story on some locals launching a new organization they are calling “Plumbers Without Borders

Okay, let’s first assume these folks who are starting Plumbers Without Borders, Domenico and Carmela DiGregorio of West Seattle, mean well.

Here’s their website, which is kinda clunky and disorganized. But hey, they’re plumbers — not web designers.

Still, if you click on their donate button, it goes to some other organization in New York City called charity:water. Huh? Not sure what’s the connection here. That remains unexplained. Maybe they should hold off soliciting donations until they are legally recognized as a charitable organization and can accept them for their own organization, not some guy in NYC.

(Note to the Plumbers: That guy on the video at charity:water is a little irritating … partly because I don’t know why he’s linked to your site. And partly because he reminds me of that guy on TV who sells the ShamWow rag thing).

If you click through some other links at the Plumbers Without Borders website, you end up with another colleague and fellow border-less plumber named Harry Farrel in Canada who apparently can’t quite figure out if he is doing this to advertise his plumbing services at Price-Rite Plumbing or advocating for a humanitarian cause.

All this confused messaging may be due to the fact that this is a small DIY do-gooder operation just getting started. I’ve written before about the problems of DIY foreign aid, of people thinking a well-intended idea is good enough. Here’s another, even less charitable, piece by David Algoso at Foreign Policy mag.

But really the main problem is the average person can’t tell what’s going on here with Plumbers Without Borders. And without legal certification by the Secretary of State, we can’t even know if this is a bonafide charitable organization dedicated to helping the poor — or something else.

On the broader level:

A much bigger problem with the whole Plumbers-Without-Borders idea is that water and sanitation problems are usually the result of a breakdown (or lack) of a public utility system, the local municipality’s water supply or sewage system. If not due to disaster, these are large-scale failures of governance and basic infrastructure that actually can’t be solved by some guy with low-slung Carhartt pants coming in to reconnect a P-trap.

But hey Dominico and Carmela, you don’t need to don’t listen to me. My plumbing skills are crap.

My primary beef here is with KING TV anyway.

Given the explosion of do-gooder organizations in this region (along with a history of some organizations actually doing more good for themselves than for the needy), we in the media need to do a better job of vetting these organizations before publicizing them. Why not at least wait until they are a legal charity?

Even better, check with all the hundreds of other organizations working on the problem of water and sanitation in poor countries to see if this is actually an effective, strategic way to help people — as opposed to just a nice idea.

Okay, I didn’t do that before complaining. But then again, I’m not the region’s leading TV news station.

I hope Plumbers Without Borders proves to be a legitimate and well-thought-out endeavor launched by local craftsman seeking to apply their skills (plumbing, I know from painful experience, is indeed an art form) to help the poor and needy.

But before we get all excited and help them with their fund-raising, let’s wait until organizations like Plumbers Without Borders are established as legal charities and have websites that don’t look like they got thrown up yesterday.

Sorry if it seems like I’m picking on the plumbers. But this is a good example that these kind of charitable endeavors are growing in popularity here, and are in a sense becoming a local industry, which requires more transparency and accountability before we jump to heralding the next Mercy Corps or World Vision.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.