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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.

Bornstein raises one important issue, that of the benevolent foreigner. Organizations like charity:water make the case that individuals, through giving/petitioning/volunteering can make a difference in another person’s life. The powerful message motivates people to act. Look no further than the fact that charity:water, an organization that does not actually do water projects, manages to move more money to clean water than any other nonprofit. That is a testament to the power of that story.

Charity: Water aims to show through the growth of its philanthropic work that the world’s water crisis is solvable. The message it effectively conveys is: if enough affluent people in the West were generous enough to pay for water projects in poor countries, we could fix the problem. This message is misleading — and it doesn’t serve the interests of the organization’s donors, other water organizations, or people who are beyond the reach of Charity: Water.

The problem is that it can continue the idea that outsiders are the saviors. At worst it strips dignity and agency from the poor by empowering the wealthy. Such a narrative can lead to investing in projects that provide quick wins as opposed to the long term slog that may take years to yield impact. The problem extends to other aspects of development whether it is providing immediate food aid or donating books to schools.

I am interested in the water sector because I am seeing the way that it is changing towards developing long-term community-based solutions. Water for People sets its projects up so that they phase down responsibility and transfer over wells to communities. It takes many years for it to happen, but it ensures that a well is dug where the community actually wants it and will support it.

My hope is to take a closer look at the projects that are underway. Actually see whether charity:water is supporting the best or worst aspects of clean water.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]