Business model design

Measuring the Water Crisis – Blog Action Day

We tend to tell the story of developing world crisis in numbers:

  •  Almost 1 billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water.
  • That’s one in eight of us.
  • Every day more than 4,000 children around the world die from diseases caused by poor water sanitation
  • In Africa alone, people spend 40 billion hours every year just walking for water.

These statistics are abominable, shocking. But do they motivate us to act, or make the right decisions about what we can do about the water crisis?

Ned Breslin, CEO of the nonprofit Water For People, argues that this metrics-focused way we tell the water crisis story tends to result in inefficient and ineffective philanthropy. Western world foundations, NGOs, and government groups, and even private citizens get excited about raising money for a well or a number of handpumps. But Breslin points out a growing catastrophe of failed water implementation efforts. In his January 2010 essay “Rethinking Hydro-Philanthropy,” Breslin cites statistics of the long term failure of these efforts, and the key steps that donors, NGOs, local governments and communities should take to create long term change.

A typical story about the water crisis may also use the story one child that misses school to collect water for his family, or one mother who risks disease because her only available supply is a muddy ditch. Yet the truth is that this child and this mother are often walking by broken failed water infrastructure project attempts by government and aid agencies, poorly engineered solutions that solved an immediate need, but did not succeed in the long term. These numbers are what Breslin considers as more relevant: 50,000 rural water points broken in Africa, $215 – $360 MM of investment wasted because of poor programming and careless implementation.

Breslin proposes a shift in defining the metrics of success:

“Success will require less single-minded focus on the absolute number of people without access to water and sanitation facilities and more focus on the serious questions around long term impact and sustainability. So that years after the cameras have left, the donor reports have been filed, and the press release circulated, the community is not forgotten. A new partnership between philanthropists and development agencies would focus less on how much money the sector supposedly needs to solve the global water challenges and more on how creative philanthropic giving can be used as leverage to install financial responsibilities for improved water supply and sanitation on communities and governments in developing countries.”


So how to shift? Smart philanthropy means defining a long term, financially sustainable business model, looking at donations through the lens of long term outcomes. If you’ve ever been asked to give money to a water crisis project, it is often to cover the costs of an installation project, with money then transferred to an NGO the group themselves travels to the field to implement the project themselves. Ceremonies are launched, ribbons are cut, and the funders go home gratified. But the installation project may not last beyond six months without the proper long term model of maintenance and care.

Instead of approaching the water problem as welfare, and instead thinking of the crisis as an economic development issue, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs are likely to have a greater impact. “Paying 100% of the costs of project implementation establishes dependency from the start.” The underlying message of “free water systems” – communities are unable to organize to implement these projects themselves.

A more creative and financially sustainable approach is to co-invest with local communities and local government, focused on investment over time to match the true cost of maintaining water infrastructure systems. Funding works when used the way it is in the developed world – as leverlage for matching local investments, rather than patronizing and absolving local governments of their financial responsibilities. Projects are then owned by the local community, not branded by the NGO or philanthropist, and look to a wider range of long term transformative results.

So when sending a check to a water charity on Blog Action Day, check to see how your preferred fundraising group or NGO measures their success. What to look for:

  • How many people are helped in the years that follow the first implementation project (rather than “saved” on that first exciting day).
  • Does the quality and quality of water meet host country government standards over time (3 years, 6 years, 10 years out?
  • Is the system inoperable for no more than one day per month?
  • Does the number of users meet host country standards?
  • Most importantly: does the community have the ability to maintain and replace their water system without seeking significant additional charitable support?

The final metric is the “real measure of whether the water and sanitation poverty cycle is truly broken.”