07 April 2011

Things I Like: Water for People

I have been thinking a lot about how I can be more positive in this space. It is often too easy to point out what is wrong and not working, but much harder to say what is working. It should not be this way and I admit that my tendency is to jump to criticism rather than praise. As a way to combat this, I am starting a new series. The idea is simple, once a week I will post on something I like in the aid and development world. It might be an idea, an organization, a person, or an innovation. The point will be to stand behind something that I like. Comments especially encouraged here.

I had never heard of Water for People until a few months ago when the CEO, Ned Breslin, came to do a talk a UPenn on the organization. I heard about it the morning of from my roommate and decided to take the bus over and check out the talk. Water has become a trendy topic and I have been a bit worn out by the slick marketing and poorly supported data. Needless to say, I went expecting to leave with an even worse impression of the sector.

Breslin set aside any my concerns when he told the story of a girl named Fanta. I forget which country he was visiting, but he told the same story we hear of meeting the young girl who is not in school because she is fetching water. Breslin assisted the girl by carrying it for a bit, but had to continually switch arms under the strain of the heavy water bucket. He told of the time it took to carry the water, how hard it was, the fact that the girl was missing school and how it contributes to a problematic cycle.

This is where most talks about water (or even aid in general) make a shift to how the person or organization brings a solution. However, for Breslin, there was one more part to the story. As he was walking with Fanta, they passed a water pump. He asked the young girl why they did not use it and she told him the second part of the usual aid story; people came in, dug the well, water flowed and everyone celebrated. Only, he heard and saw the end result. The pump broke down and was not fixed.

This is where Water for People comes into the story and is why I like the organization. They emphasize on the fact that the project actually starts once the water begins to flow, not when the first donated dollar comes in. But the things they do well do not stop there. Because of this shifted focus, the burden then goes to monitoring and evaluating projects.

Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW) allows them to monitor their pumps using mobile phones, GPS and Google Earth. Supporters can actually go and see what is happening to the pumps around the world. This allows for them to be better educated about what they are supporting and forces Water for People to address issues rather than hide them.

Better yet, the goal of Water for People is to work with communities so that they can be able to fully fund the installed water pump after 10 years by themselves. They are literally trying to put themselves out of business with each pump they install. This is what aid and development programs should be doing.

 Some talk about it, but here is an organization that actually does it.