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

Having worked in the nonprofit field for over 20 years, I know that in order to raise funds there is a temptation to over-simplify problems and solutions. In today’s information-saturated world we have less than two seconds to make an impression on a potential donor who visits our website. That leaves little room for telling the whole story, which takes longer than two seconds and doesn't always help us raise funds.
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.

Having worked in the nonprofit field for over 20 years, I know that in order to raise funds there is a temptation to over-simplify problems and solutions. In today’s information-saturated world we have less than two seconds to make an impression on a potential donor who visits our website. That leaves little room for telling the whole story, which takes longer than two seconds and doesn’t always help us raise funds.

The truth in the international water and sanitation sector is that we are terribly lacking in standards and accountability.

Although organizations like mine talk about providing “access to clean water,” and the United Nations even set a Millennium Development Goal of reducing by 50% the proportion of people in the world who lack access to clean water by 2015, there is actually no universally-accepted definition of what “access” means.

Ethiopia water lineDoes “access” mean water is piped to someone’s home 24-hours per day or does it mean they have to walk one mile to a single hand-pump that they share with 2,500 neighbors? Right now it can mean both because it is not defined. And if access is not defined, how can we evaluate the success or failure of a project aimed at achieving this?

It’s important to recognize that the world’s poorest people still have similar values and preferences to you and me when it comes to water access. They would prefer the system that pipes water to their home 24-hour per day over one that still requires a long walk and waiting in line to fill containers. Poor people have to be smart and resourceful; they know that less time collecting water means more time to devote to other activities. As my public health training also tells me, less time collecting water means that people won’t avoid hand-washing just to save on water, this being one of the most important preventative medicines known to man.

More importantly, preference is strongly linked to long-term success. When someone really values something, they tend to take care of it.

The charity: water piece mentioned an important statistic about project failures that hinted at the complexity of this issue. An estimated 35-50% of water projects fail within 2-5 years after they are constructed. The main reason for this failure is not that we are still waiting to invent the perfect approach. Like I said earlier, there is no perfect approach. Projects fail because as a sector we are not following up to see if our good ideas have turned into long-term successes. Monitoring and evaluation is important in any endeavor, allowing organizations to learn from past experience and take corrective actions. Long-term success means visiting the communities time and time again to learn how and why some projects are succeeding and when and why others aren’t and what the sponsoring water organization can do to change that.

Estimates are that less than 5% of organizations follow-up on their projects post-construction. That means that project failures and challenges aren’t being turned into learning experiences and improving the next projects. It doesn’t matter where the money comes from to fund the solutions – we will never reach a goal of clean water for all if we continue to take two steps forward and one step backward.

In addition to setting important standards for water quality, quantity and convenience, I believe a system for independent assessments is the way forward, allowing the many different possible solutions, adapted to local conditions, to be assessed according to the same standards.

Then it won’t be up to journalists or donors to make assessments about one approach versus another or rely on the information provided by organizations that need to raise funds to survive. Instead, donors and media can focus on what really counts – directing their attention and funding to the organizations that have proven they can effectively provide solutions to a very important problem. Water 1st International, charity: water, and numerous other international development groups are working hard helping the world’s poor meet their most basic need – water, but there is still a long way to go. With the right approach the road will be smoother and faster.


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