Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

wf_093014_Whatever_Glass_Hald_680x300If you’ve donated money to a water charity, congratulations. You’ve stepped up to try to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems–the fact that roughly 750 million people do not have access to clean water.

Has your donation made a lasting difference? That’s hard to know.

Big water charities point to numbers that, they say, demonstrate their impact. Since its founding in 2006, charity: water says it has funded 16,138 water projects., in its latest annual report, says that in 2013 it completed 174 community-based water projects, constructed 73,081 toilets, established 66,632 household water connections and served 606,012 people with water and sanitation. In 2013-2014, Water Aid says it reached 2 million people with water and 3 million with sanitation.

But the charities, as a rule, do not report on how many of those projects are providing clean water a year, two or five years after they were built. Some don’t know. That, by itself, is a sign that something’s amiss.


A broken well in Uganda

As it happens, the poor countries where these charities operate are littered with water projects that need repair. In what is admittedly an old study (2009), the International Institute for Environment and Development said there are 50,000 broken rural water points across Africa that represents a failed investment of US $215-360 million. Newer data on failure rates for water projects can be found here. Up to 40 percent of  rural water systems fail prematurely, and less than one percent of water, sanitation and hygiene projects have long-term monitoring, according to US AID.

That’s unacceptable.

This isn’t a new problem. Here’s Ned Breslin, the CEO of nonprofit Water for People, in a 2010 essay called Rethinking Hydro-Philanthropy:

Africa, Asia and Latin America have become wastelands for broken water and sanitation infrastructure….the general public is shielded from these hard truths as perceptions of failure could threaten “the cause” of reaching the unserved.

The images that dominate the sector—pictures of children happily gulping water from a new tap or the counter-image of women collecting water from dirty puddles—do not tell the whole story. The real image should be the one that plays itself out every day all over the world of the woman walking slowly past a broken hand pump, bucket at her side or on her head, on her way to (or from) that scoop hole or dirty puddle that she once hoped would never again be part of her life.

A new culture of accountability and transparency that transcends the nonsense that currently masquerades as reporting in the sector must emerge if poor people worldwide are to truly emerge from the drudgery of water collection.

Strong words. The good news is that the big water charities acknowledge this problem. Some formed a network called Sustainable WASH to focus on the durability of water, sanitation and hygiene projects. Others are using digital technology for monitoring.  All are taking meaningful steps to track the sustainability of their projects.

Christophe Gorder, the chief global water officer of charity: water, says:

The pace & scale at which we’re collecting data on water points is unparalleled in the WASH industry. We still have a long way to go in terms of organizing, analyzing, understanding and acting on all this information. But, we are very committed and making good progress.

rwanda3As a newcomer to the sector, I’ve begun to learn about water NGOs from reading their websites and talking to experts. It’s a complicated business, to say the least. While almost all the NGO websites display pictures like this one of smiling children enjoying clean water, they deploy different strategies, work in different countries, and focus on different markets, i.e., rural, urban or peri-urban (a fancy word for places next to a city). Some like charity : water are predominantly facilitators or middlemen: They raise money and distribute it to local partners who develop and build projects. Others like Water for People (which gets big donations from charity: water) are vertically integrated, raising money in richer countries and employing staff in the global south to build and manage projects. is best known for its Water Credit program, which provides access to small loans (average: $194) to people and entrepreneurs to spend or invest in water or sanitation projects, typically water taps or toilets. Whenever possible, Water Aid works with functioning local governments that are willing to insure that users will receive water and sanitation services over time.

Here’s what I’ve learned, so far:

Water charities are growing fast

Globally, Water Aid, the biggest of the charities, which is headquartered in London, raised £81.8 million (roughly $123 million) in 2013-14; five years earlier, it raised £43.8 million ($65.8 million). In 2013, charity: water raised $35.9 million, up from $6.2 million in 2008. During that same five-year span, revenues at more than doubled to $12.4 million from $5.5 million (when the organization was known as WaterPartners). While some gains can be attributed to the economic recovery, water is undoubtedly a hot sector.

Give charity: water credit for its fundraising savvy. (This is an organization with a 63-page brand book. Really.) Its founder, Scott Harrison, a darling of Silicon Valley, has been profiled in The New York Times magazine, Fast Company and Wired. It’s easy for supporters to start their own campaigns — more than 64,000 have done so, many at birthday parties — and it promises that it will “send 100% of what you raise directly to the field.” Private donors and foundations cover staff salaries and overhead; this is an appealing pitch, although it reinforces negative stereotypes about overhead. has Matt Damon, who by all accounts has invested his time and smarts in the nonprofit. As if that weren’t enough, corporation foundations love the microfinance model. Donors include the foundations of PepsiCo, Mastercard, Bank of America, Caterpillar and IKEA, according to Inside Philanthropy. 

Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize that charity can’t possibly solve the global water crisis. “For about $30 a person, we know how to help millions,” says charity: water. At that rate, providing clean safe water to 750 million people will cost $22.5 billion. 

It’s hard to evaluate water NGOs.

GiveWell, a organization I admire, investigated water charities back in 2011 and was unable to “prioritize” any of them as a top charity. GiveWell is careful to note that this does not constitute a negative ranking of the charities; some declined to provide the very detailed information that GiveWell sought, and others were “de-prioritized” for reasons that remain unclear. In 2013, GiveWell did a thorough review of research into water quality innovations like filtration and chlorination to see how effective they are at preventing waterborne diseases, particularly diarrhea. It found that “in development world settings where diarrhea is endemic, because of a lack of sanitation, hygiene and access to safe water, the evidence for the effectiveness of these interventions is unclear.”

Sustainable WASH has encouraged water NGOs to sign its charter (many have done so) to complete a self-assessment (fewer have done so, they’re listed here) and to conduct third-party assessments of their sustainability (a work in progress, none have done so). Building off the work of a small foundation called the Fontes Foundation, Sustainable WASH is supporting the development of a metric called Water Person Years that would measure the number of people served over time. “That changes the whole incentive structure,” says Brian Banks of the Global Water Challenge and Sustainable WASH.

Naively hoping to get some reliable numbers myself, I asked Water Aid, charity: water, and Water for People how many projects they installed in 2010 and whether they are working, five years later.

None of the four charities had begun comprehensive monitoring in 2010, so I couldn’t get answers, although all provided selected data by email.

At charity: water, Christophe Gorder said that during Q1 of 2015 the group visited 1,089 sites that were two to eight years old, and found that 87 percent were still working. said that a third-party evaluation of about 9,132 loans, most in India, had found that “97 percent of the water improvements were found to be in working condition.” I asked to see the report and was told it wasn’t public.

Vincent Casey, a program manager with Water Aid, told me that “a study of four countries (one from each region we work in) looking back five years found that in the case of water supply, 76% of 2560 water points installed (serving approximately 307,000 people) were still working. Around 24% were down but of these, 40% were due to be fixed the following week.”

Water for People has the most extensive reporting–no surprise since Ned Breslin has been outspoken about sustainability. It devotes a platform called Re-Imagine Reporting to detailed, country-by-country results of its monitoring, including financial data. Its monitors use a software platform called FLOW that was developed by Water for People but, because of significant demand from others, was transferred to a Dutch nonprofit called Akvo, which makes it available to numerous NGOs, foundations, governments and companies. Mark Duey, a Water for People executive, to me by phone that monitoring and evaluation “sounds boring. It’s not sexy, But it’s really critical.”

The results of these surveys are not comparable. Nor does the industry have a good benchmark of what constitutes success, as Vincent Casey of Water Aid explains:

There is not enough data from enough places with sufficiently robust benchmarks to cross compare. Data from one district where the local government is well capacitated and where there is a diverse economy generating sufficient revenue to keep services running may show higher percentages. Data from a poor, remote, marginalised district with weak local government capacity and a limited cash economy may show lower percentages. Comparing the two without taking the background context into account would be like comparing apples with pears.

So I asked a couple of smart people…

In theory, could a donor or group of donors – or even a smart grad student, with time  — identify the most effective water NGO?

Here’s how David Zetland, an academic, a blogger at Aguanomics and author of a new book called Living with Water Scarcity, responded:

Well, you’d have to run a randomized trial, “giving” water to half the communities and leaving the other half to figure out their own solutions.

Then you’d want to compare health and wealth outcomes after a few years, to see if the charities had impact.

If I had a grad student on this for a few years, I would have them compare baselines for ALL charity-assisted villages and THEN compare those after a few years to see how the charities ranked in their relative outcomes. That’s feasible, in the same way as it’s feasible to compare survival rates from heart surgery across hospitals or university graduation rates, BUT you need to try to compare for the baseline. Some charities may be better at picking good villages. Others may be better at building capacity. The first should not get as much credit as the second.

Bottom line: it’s possible and feasible but it takes time and effort and… “program evaluation” is VERY under-pursued for obvious reasons (don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, even if it’s dying…)

Brian Banks of the Global Water Challenge said:

The difficulty comes not only from data availability (which we’re working to address through the Water Point Data Exchange), but in the question itself. Effectiveness is an incredibly difficult to define…You have water treatment initiatives, pipes and taps projects, so called “software” or capacity building projects, projects that incorporate more or less hygiene, and some that involve environmental protection….

Unfortunately, the sector still hasn’t come around a single definition of effectiveness, or even a single goal for water projects (i.e. economic empowerment, health improvement, educational outcomes, etc.). In this way, a highly effective project that focused extensively on capacity building may directly impact fewer people (i.e. higher cost per water person year), but be effective in improving the sector at large. There just isn’t a great way to compare apples to apples, as every project has so much nuance, especially when considering aspects such as reliability, affordability and quality.

In short, while there is merit in exploring this, it has proven to be exceedingly difficult to compare different organizations against a common standard of effectiveness.

Well, that’s discouraging, but…

The water charities are getting better at monitoring.

You’re going to have to trust me on this, because this post is already long. But all of the water charities understand that monitoring is vital, not merely to appease and attract donors, but to improve.

As Water Aid’s Vincent Casey put it: “It’s about NGOs being transparent, and learning from one another what’s working and what’s not working.”

Technology will play a key role.

At charity: water, there’s excitement over a $5 million project, launched at the end of 2012 and funded by Google, that has developed remote sensor technology that will monitor whether water is flowing at any of its projects, at any time, anywhere in the world.

“Really the quantum leap is going to come with sensors,” Gorder told me. “We’re just a couple of months away from deploying thousands of these. The level of accountability will be huge.”

To pay for repairs, when needed, charity: water has launched a new monthly subscription program called Pipeline — although in an ideal world, those costs would either be built into the up-front cost of the water project or, better, paid for by fees collected from users. Gorder says that sustainability and monitoring are built into the project costs but “we commit to our donors that we’ll prove to them where every dollar was spent, so we want to put an end-date on when we spend their money, so we can report back to them, Typically, this is a 21-month process.”

Donors want feel-good stories. There’s not much emotion in seeing an inspector with a clipboard checking out a five-year-old project….even if that would be the wisest use of donor funds.

So is the glass half-full? Or half-empty? 

As often happens when I explore new arenas, I’ve emerged from my shallow dive into the water sector with more questions than answers. This time around, that’s partly because the water charities have a ways to go when it comes to transparency.

There’s no doubt that they could do better. A small, Seattle-based water NGO called Splash that values monitoring and evaluation maintains a website called Proving It that is model of transparency and accountability.

The Global Water Challenge, meantime, is developing common metrics, through an initiative called the Water Point Data Exchange that will be launched next month. Brian Banks, who’s part of the effort, tells me: “In a sector where sustainability wasn’t even a mainstream consideration a decade ago, we’ve seen inspired progress.”

Still, there’s lots of work to be done. Institutional donors that support the water NGOs could invest a percentage of their grant money into initiatives to evaluate and improve the entire sector. We could use the water equivalent of Animal Charities Evaluator.

At the very least, each water charity could set clear goals and timetables. (“Everyone deserves the right to clean, safe, publicly-accessible water” is not a time-based goal.).They could better explain what they do. (They work on sanitation, but you don’t often see pictures of toilets on their websites, for obvious reasons.) They could report on their mistakes, and how they learn from them. (It’s possible.)

Other questions on my mind: How can governments be shamed/encouraged to deliver clean safe water? What role can the private sector play? Why do more poor people have cell phones than water? And, when I do another post about water nonprofits, what should my focus be?

18 thoughts on “Water taps and information gaps

  1. Pingback: Accountability Lab
  2. Brian Banks says:


    Thanks so much for this incredible writing, and for letting me chip in a few thoughts. Clearly, the issue you touched on really resonated with folks throughout the sector. I’ll touch on the point of a common metric, as that is where my focus is right now as we prepare for the launch of the Water Point Data Exchange next week.

    I certainly agree with Ned that it is not worth delaying monitoring and learning until we can settle on a common metric. That said, there is distinct value in creating a core of common information. This has less to do with being able to compare organizations, and much more with the ability to learn in a more coherent way. The goal of that learning can be, as Stef suggested, to improve the way we innovate, be better advocates, or more effectively watchdog. However, none of those can be achieved without access to information. Organizations can only be as effective in these roles as the information they have. It is hard to advocate if you don’t have the full picture of what’s needed, and even harder to watchdog if you are working from limited information. While many organizations (including those above) have done an extraordinary job learning from their own work, we can only accelerate that process by by learning in a more collaborative way.

    This is where the role of common metrics comes in. It doesn’t meant that all organizations need to measure all of the same things all of the time. Rather, it simply suggests that we can learn more when we can share our information with each other. While we could all send around our own reports, metrics, and pictures of maps, it is incredibly costly to actually learn from that. If we can share information in a somewhat common way, we can reduce transaction costs and suddenly begin to build off of each-other’s work.

    The work we’re supporting on the Water Point Data Exchange aims to achieve that vision in the very specific area of water points. As we’ve been curating data, we’ve spent hours doing extensive outreach, transforming coordinates, mapping fields, consolidating data, and much more. Now, if someone wants to see all of the data available, the transaction cost is significantly lower for them. Put another way, it’s now easier than ever to learn from others. And the power of that learning can be immense. From seeing what happens years after investments, to figuring out what areas should be prioritized for future investments, to better understanding determinants of water point lifespans – we can now begin to learn like never before. And that is just the beginning. Ultimately, donors, NGOs, and especially governments can all be most effective in playing their respective roles with access to the full picture. And we all have a role to play in helping to paint that picture.

    We look forward to your future thoughts on the topic, and really appreciate your great work on this.

    Brian Banks
    Director of Strategic Initiatives
    Global Water Challenge


  3. Reblogged this on Rural Water Supply Network and commented:
    An interesting blog post that has kicked off some interesting responses


  4. Dear Marc

    Great blog – and interesting points also raised in these contributions underneath – and I would echo and endorse them. A few points I would like to add:

    The ‘beneficiary’ numbers game is a futile one, but NGOs/Charities get drawn into it because that’s what marketing and fund-raising folk demand so that they can craft simple elevator pitches to the public donors, political leaders, institutional donors and for annual reports and websites. Communicating complexity is not easy because when it comes to institution building (which is really important) it becomes harder to attribute cause and effect (i.e. my $10 achieved ….what?)

    A problem I have with the XX thousand people given access to water is that it says nothing about the quality or reliability of that water service. These numbers are also often based on assumptions like 1 handpump serves 400 people. Is that really an acceptable level of service? First thing in the morning that can mean a long queue…

    This numbers game, and many of the issues raised in your post are not just about water charities – even WaterAid’s budget pails in comparison to the finances provided by bi-lateral aid agencies (USAID et al.), UN agencies and Development Banks. Water point data from countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia shows that their rural water supply schemes suffer similar failure rates. Though actually, it has been argued that the failure of water point is not important, what is important is how long it takes to get it fixed – the resolution that Susan talks about.

    Water point failure starts early: research is getting underway in Uganda, Malawi and Ethiopia ( to look at all the complex interactions, but what emerged from the catalyst phase of the project is that many boreholes and handpumps fail in the first year because the boreholes have been drilled badly, in the wrong place and/or the pump has been installed badly. Water Point data from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Tanzania shows that around 20% of handpumps/boreholes fail in the first year – which is shocking. This is why WaterAid, UNICEF and Skat Foundation are collaborating on professionalising the water well drilling sector in Sub-Saharan Africa through a Code of Practice for Cost Effective Boreholes ( Drilling supervision and good siting is essential, but it often doesn’t happen.

    Beware low-hanging fruit bats! They offer tempting quick wins, but underlying problems are not addressed then external interventions will have little lasting benefit – a recent development bank evaluation of their inputs to the Nigerian water sector concluded that almost all their investment had failed! Where we see the most success is where international organisations (charities or donors) are patient. Lasting change doesn’t happen in a 3-5 year project. Establishing a successful WASH Sector Performance Reporting and Joint Sector Review process in Uganda came through a long term partnership between the government, Danida (Danish Aid Agency) over more than 10 years. Trust and healthy working relationships are at the heart of this – and these are often in short supply, particularly in fragile states where the need is greatest.

    Sean Furey
    Skat Foundation / Rural Water Supply Network Secretariat


    1. I double-checked the reference for Nigeria, and it isn’t actually that recent, but highlights some of the challenges faced by big development cooperation agencies: HALL (2006) Water and Electricity in Nigeria, Public Services international Research UNIT, University of Greenwich, UK, Available from


  5. Ned Breslin says:


    Super piece and my thanks for the courage to build this out. A few quick comments.

    First, I am no longer so keen on common metrics simply because it has been used for too long as a way to delay the needed monitoring and reflection in the sector. Organizations that invest in monitoring for improvement tend to shine regardless of the indicators they use, and I think the focus should be on these positive deviants as a way to pull the sector forward.

    Second, Water For People did considerable monitoring work from 2007-2010 but we built FLOW because paper based monitoring was error plagued and slow. FLOW – and other like technologies – helped reduce error, reduce time from collection to data analysis and helped us create the conditions for programmatic pivots to address weaknesses. FLOW and Re-Imagine Reporting allowed us to help local governments monitor all projects in their districts – not just Water For People-financed work – to great effect.

    Third, to me the real question is not the collection and transparency of the data but really exactly what I said above – what aspects of the work seem to be working (and if strong build/reinforce that work) and what parts really are not achieving the desired results (and thus stop doing that and change direction for better results). Frankly that ability to shift based on results is what is really missing from the debate. We have a world where data is not collected (bad problem) and a world where the examples of taking that data and rethinking work is even rarer. Again, highlighting those that pivot to improve is a good way to pull the sector.

    Finally, I believe this is an issue of organizational culture and not quite so techie as it often appears. Great organizations have great cultures where data is valued, acted upon, and “bad results” are seen as an opportunity to improve and innovate. Building those cultures requires strong leadership to weather the bad news, and allow staff the opportunity to ask hard questions and not fear reprisal from organizational leaders, partners or donors. Lots of good example of this courage in action in the non-profit sector, and sometimes lost when we focus too much on collecting data.

    Great piece and my thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Ned. I agree–we probably need more data and better organizational cultures. I will seek out examples of what you called “this courage in action in the non-profit sector,” and try to showcase those.


  6. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ve often puzzled over this same question.

    It seems perfectly reasonable when donors fund potable water projects in poor places because they are responding to a few simple, self-evident propositions:
    1. People need to drink water to stay alive
    2. Drinking dirty water makes people sick
    3. Very poor people or their children sometimes spend a lot of time fetching water

    Yet, as you say, it’s all too common to find the systems broken after just a few years. The result is often the same even when project teams provide training in the skills needed to fix the system when it breaks.

    So what’s going on? Let me offer a bit of heresy…

    In talking with people in poor communities in Latin America for the last 30+ years, I’ve rarely heard them say that more accessible or better drinking water is their top priority. Unless that’s the only thing a donor is offering. With so much that is so precarious in their lives, why are we surprised that the poorest people don’t choose to spend their own limited resources to fix a broken system, but revert instead to whatever source they used before the system was built? And when their lives are not precarious, can we imagine why a cell phone be more valuable to them than an “improved” drinking water source? Are we sure we would make different choices in their place? When we let the poor be protagonists rather than just letting them participate in the things we decide are most important for them, they’re much more likely to sustain whatever investment or activity they choose.

    Bob Kaplan, Inter-American Foundation

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks, Bob, I have a feeling you may be onto something here. I like the idea of inviting “the poor to be protagonists rather than just letting them participate in the things we decide are most important.” The microfinance model being promoted by would seem to be one response to this–people don’t borrow money unless they really want to own something–although I don’t understand how it applies to community water systems. Cash transfers such as those delivered by Give Directly take this idea a step further,


  7. Marla says:

    Dear Marc –
    Thank you for this blog. This is an issue that has plagued the water sector for decades. I can point to reports from the 1970s that discuss a 50% project failure rate. It is quite astonishing that the failure rate has not really changed in the last 30-40 years, even though the sector is well-aware of it.

    I agree with that the lack of rigorous follow-up is a contributor. Simply put, if an organization is not aware of the status of its own projects, they cannot invest in their own learning. But we have also been talking about the lack of follow-up for at least 20 years now . . .

    So why are we still having this conversation? Here’s my perspective.

    1. Implementers of water and sanitation projects will continue business-as-usual until demonstrating projects are long-term successes impacts the bottom line (right now, we basically get to fill out our own report cards)

    2. In poor nations, charities and the public sector are not using a common definition of the term “access” to clean water and toilets.

    Nonetheless, I believe this is a solvable problem. In response to accountability issues in other sectors, some nonprofits have created a form of self-regulation through industry associations that have rules or standards for membership that exceed legal requirements. Obviously the incentive for nonprofits to participate in such an organization is to differentiate their work from other organizations for their funders.

    One example is the financial audits most US-based charities have each year. We hire a CPA to express an opinion with regards to our financial statements—as to whether they are presented in conformance to GAAP or Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. A nonprofit organization called the Financial Accounting Standards Board establishes these principles. The GAAP is not written in law, and nonprofits are not required to have an independent audit. But we spend money on an audit because we want to have that information to share with our donors.

    In other words, I think all of us working in this sector should commit to meeting design standards for water and sanitation projects and subject ourselves to independent evaluation.

    My organization (Water1st) has attempted to put our money where our mouth is via creation of the Water for Life Rating system ( The Water for Life Rating system uses criteria developed by about a dozen leading water organizations that define things like sustainability and access to water and toilets. These criteria are then applied in field evaluations of programs (not self-reported data).

    I think there are a few other similar efforts out there, but I don’t know enough about them to comment. Water1st would be willing to be part of whatever independent audit effort catches fire. We just want to see it happen.

    I believe the Water for Life Rating system (or something equivalent) is an effective tool for rapid assessment of long-term sustainability of water and sanitation programs implemented by NGOs and the public sector. Based on our experience with the Water for Life Rating system so far, we believe such a system can be useful for donors in assessing whether or not their restrictions are positively or negatively impacting the long-term success of the projects they are funding. A rating system also allows for a field-level exchange of knowledge and ideas between practitioners because the ratings are open to participation by independent organizations and public sector professionals. And perhaps most importantly, by applying the same criteria, donors can identify high-performers in the WASH sector operating in different countries and contexts.

    This would then allow donors to direct investments to the highest performers, in turn incentivizing organizations follow-up on their own work, improve the planning and execution of future projects, take any corrective action necessary to improve the functioning and impact of existing projects, and build a knowledge base of experience.

    The Water for Life Ratings we have conducted so far are not unreasonably expensive. They are about the cost of our annual financial audit (about 1% of our annual expenses) but in my opinion, give donors much more important information. Given the cost of failure out there, I think spending 1% of our budget to have an independent review of our work is a good investment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks, Marla, I think the idea of audits/ratings is an excellent one, and I agree that spending 1 percent (or more) of a budget to get independent reviews is a good investment. I’m glad to hear that Water 1st is advocating evaluation. The question is, what will be the incentive for other water charities to go down this road? I suspect it will be donor-driven, and not by individual donors. Perhaps I should reach out to the institutional funders of water projects such as corporate foundations to see what interest they would have in supporting follow-up and evaluation.


  8. Stef Smits says:

    Dear Marc,

    What an excellent blog. It is so refreshing to read your perspectives as a “new-comer to the water sector”, as in one blog you immediately come to the core of the issue. Because of all the points you make – and more – , I agree that it doesn’t make much sense to say which charity is more effective than others. It wouldn’t even make much sense to say which government is more effective in providing water services. It would be very difficult to crunch the numbers on whether, let’s say, Kenya’s government is providing more services per US$ invested than Tanzania, or the other way around. The more interesting question is how a government like Kenya’s or Tanzania’s can improve on its own practices, within its own context, so that it becomes more effective and efficient. And in that quest for effectiveness there is a role for NGOs, but it may differ per country. Though, i tend to agree with Susan, that more often than not, NGOs should focus on the not-so-sexy tasks like developing maintenance plans for municipalities, giving inputs into the review of the regulations for water committees, or crunching the numbers on a district’s water budget to make sure that public money is spent well. Only in the few cases (emergencies or failed states) do i see a role for charities in drllin boreholes or building toilets. And why is that? If you do the finances, it becomes clear that the vast majority of investments for WASH come via the public sector (national governments, bilateral donors, development banks). The NGO/charity sector will always be relatively small in size (financially) compared to the public sector. So, it is then best to use the funding to do what the public sector doesnt do, and not spending it on more or less the same. So that niche is in 1) innovation (trying new maintenance methods or improving managemetn models), 2) advocacy to the public sector to adopt some of these innovations and 3) being a watchdog, ensuring that the public sector sticks to its water commitments and does so in an efficient manner.

    Now some of the charities that you mention – and those are in my view indeed some of the best water charities – do drill boreholes and build toilets. Should they then stop doing so? there my answer would be a tentative no. In order to be an innvotor, to be an advocate and to be a watchdog, charities must understand the nitty-gritty of the water sector in detail. the only way to learn that, is by doing some on-the-ground implementation. But that should NEVER be the only thing charities do. If the only reason for charities to build new water points is to reach an X number of unserved, i dont see much value. But if the reason to build new water points is to innovate and to learn and to build partnerships with local government, charities really add value. and that is what some of the great charities like WaterAid and Water For People do. But it must always be implementation alongside innovation, advcoacy and watchdogging.

    With your respect to your final question on the next focus of a blog on water non-profits, may i suggest you focus on water for-profits? Many non-profits throw around phrases like “strengthening local private sector”, “promoting water entrepreneurs’ or “setting up sanitation businesses”. It would be interesting to dig into some of the sense and non-sense of private sector development by NGOs.

    Best regards

    Stef Smits
    Senior Programme Officer
    IRC (

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Improve International says:

    Hello Marc – I’m glad you’re bringing attention to this critical issue (water point failure rates). It’s one of the reasons that Improve International was founded. Your most important question comes at the end – the role of governments. This is an issue that the smart people at IRC ( have been investigating and promoting. Several developing country governments have ambitious plans for water and sanitation coverage, and even some funding, but don’t have the human capacity needed to pull them off. And the capacity for management and maintenance of water points is weak is many places. NGOs could probably help more by supporting governments and maintenance than by directly building water points.

    As for a common standard, rather than looking at the methods of who built the system (whether non-profit, volunteer, government, or for-profit), we could look at the service levels provided by the water system – this considers not just functionality (reliability) but also quantity, quality, and accessibility. User satisfaction could also be included. (

    We have addressed the many reasons for water point failure and non-profit responsibility in our report Guidelines for Resolution of Problems with Water Systems (available free here: Also a point of clarification: given current available functionality studies (including several national or other large-scale surveys), weighted by number of water points, the AVERAGE non-functionality on any given day for water points in developing countries is about 35%. I’m happy to share the spreadsheet with the data & links to studies if you’d like it. The Water Point Data Exchange that Brian Banks mentions will provide even more substantial data across several countries.

    Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks so much for this helpful comment, Susan. I wish I had come across your study before writing this point. I think the finding that average non-functionality is about 35 percent is striking. I look forward to learning more when the Water Point Data Exchange is rolled out.

      This is also really provocative: “NGOs could probably help more by supporting governments and maintenance than by directly building water points.” I instinctively felt the same way as I researched this story. I’m guessing the problem is that it’s a lot harder to raise money for “capacity building” than it is to raise money to build a well. Perhaps there’s a role to play here for the larger foundations, which (we hope) are focused on impact.

      Liked by 1 person

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