As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic in the early 1990s, Eleanor Allen lived with a family whose granddaughter, a child name Maria, died of diarrhea. That changed her life, she says—but not right away.
Trained as civil and environmental engineer, Allen spent 16 years rising through the ranks of CH2M, a big global engineering firm, working on projects around the world, notably the management of the infrastructure of the 2016 Rio Olympics. She worked for another two years as global water director of Arcadis, overseeing a $450m business for the engineering consultancy.
“I had no plan to do nonprofit. I had a great job. Made a lot of money,” Allen told me. Then she was invited to apply for the job of CEO of Water For People, a nonprofit she knew well. It was her dream job, she said. She was hired in 2015, and has not looked back.
Water For People is not as well known as charity: water or Matt Damon’s water.org but people who know the WASH sector — WASH stands for water, sanitation and hygiene — tell me that it is one of the very best water charities. Water For People stands out in a crowded arena for several reasons: It has a clear and achievable strategy, it focuses on a limited number of countries, it measures its performance transparently and, importantly, it seeks feedback from those it aims to serve.
Water for People has been around since 1991. For twenty years, it operated much like many water charities –installing wells or taps, working in many places (40 countries!), often not asking for much from the communities where it worked and paying scant attention to what happened after a project was built. This approach, which remains all too common today, bred failure.
In Africa alone, an estimated 50,000 rural water points are broken and US$215-360m of investment has been wasted because of poor programming and careless implementation, according to Rethinking Hydro-Philanthropy, an influential 2010 manifesto from Ned Breslin, who then led Water for People. “Africa, Asia and Latin America have become wastelands for broken water and sanitation infrastructure,” Breslin wrote, vowing to build “a new culture of accountability and transparency that transcends the nonsense that currently masquerades as reporting in the sector.” (For more, see my 2015 post, Water taps and information gaps.)
Today, Water for People is focused. That’s smart: most effective organizations do only a few things well. The NGO aims to provide safe water and sanitation, i.e., toilets to four million people in nine countries–the ones they thought had the best chance of success, based on the strength of their government partners–by 2020. Time-based goals are important; without them, it’s hard to hold nonprofits accountable.
Ultimately, the global WASH crisis–which kills an estimated 840,000 people a year, many of them children — will have to be solved by governments. An estimated 1.8 billion people around the world don’t have safe water to drink and another 2.4 billion lack access to adequate sanitation. But philanthropy can help show the way, and that’s what Water for People aims to do.
As Allen explains it, WFP works from the bottom up and the top down. Its local water projects are always done in partnership with local governments. It never fully funds them, in an effort to insure that communities take ownership of their water services. Many water charities accept so-called sweat equity from the communities, but WFP insists on cash co-financing. As a project is being built, its staff trains local people to operate and maintain the systems and to finance them by collecting rates from users. “We build utilities,” Allen says. That’s not dissimilar to the way water systems operate in the US. Contrary to what folks at the UN say, water is best thought of not as a human right, but a scarce resource to be allocated and sustained by regulated markets.
Sanitation, too, can be market-driven, although not in a way that follows the western model. WFP calls this “the other stuff—the stuff that is not as pretty to think about or even to deal with, but is just as important—like emptying septic tanks, building toilets, and providing sanitary napkin containers and services for female students.” Because it’s too expensive to build sewers and water treatment plants in poor, rural areas, WFP the backs a small-scale, for-profit model: Local entrepreneurs who sell toilets to poor people and then haul away the waste to be recycled as compost or briquettes for cooking. (For more, see Selling Toilets, my 2016 post.) Allen, who spent much of her career as a wastewater engineer, tells me that she loves the complexity of solving the rural sanitation challenge.
Finally, WFP advises national governments in Rwanda, Uganda, Bolivia and Honduras, countries where they have worked for years become trusted partners. They operate, in essence, as consultants, with the goal of helping those countries get clean water and safe sanitation to all their people. It’s relatively low-cost work with a lot of potential.
WFP does all of this on a relatively modest budget. It spent $20.3m in FY2016. Most of that money comes from foundations, including the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the One Drop Foundation and the UK-based One Foundation. Charity: water is also a major supporter.
My friend Louis Boorstin, managing director of the Osprey Foundation, who formerly led the WASH program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, writes:
Osprey supports WFP for several reasons. First, WFP understand that delivering sustainable and affordable WASH services to the poor means strengthening the permanent local systems for providing those services, not just digging wells or building latrines. So WfP works closely with local government and the private sector and communities to make this happen. Second, WFP is the right size – it’s large enough to work at scale within and across countries but small enough to be flexible and adaptive. Third, WFP promotes a culture of openness and learning, so it candidly acknowledges when mistakes are made and improves over time. Fourth, WFP sticks to its strategy, meaning that it only accepts funding that is consistent with its approach.
You can see for yourself how WFP is doing on a platform it calls the EF Tracker. (EF stands for Everyone Forever.) So, for example, in the Rulindo district of Rwanda, home to about 288,000 people, where WFP has been working since 2012, 58 percent of the people have access to clean water, 46 percent have latrines that they use and maintain, and 46 percent of the people are satisfied with their water. WfP has spent about $18.4m in the district and needs to spend another $17.1m to reach everyone.
Data like this isn’t all that useful for donors, unfortunately, because there are no metrics enabling one charity to be compared to another. But it’s essential for learning, and Allen tells me that WFP still has a lot to learn. The work of getting water and sanitation to the world’s poorest people, she says, is “much more complicated than anything I ever did in consulting.”