charity: water – pushing boundaries for better projects & more accountability

After this year’s ‘Water & Health’ conference at UNC, I visited some organisations along the East Coast of the US. On Wednesday 23rd October, I visited the headquarters of charity: water in New York. The largely open-plan office was quietly buzzing with activity.

charity: water was founded in 2006 by a young night club promoter, Scott Harrison, who decided to put his considerable influencing and networking skills to a new, more productive (as he saw it) purpose.  His idea has been to tap into a different demographic than is usual for charitable donations – those below the age of 40, who have grown cynical of what charities actually achieve. To do this they use social media and celebrity endorsement (charity: water is currently the featured charity of Depeche Mode’s latest tour).  Their hook is a 100% model where all money donated goes directly to projects, implemented by established NGO partners such as Water For People, Water For Good (ICDI), Splash and World Vision.  The completed projects are shown on the website, as part of proving that work has been done.

Overheads are funded separately – either from direct corporate donations (a poster in reception thanks the companies that donated the office space, IT systems and other infrastructure) or from angel investor philanthropists who are willing to invest in charity: water to achieve humanitarian results.

For the implementing partners, the advantage is that they tap into a project funding stream that their own fundraising probably wasn’t reaching. The challenge is then delivering completed water projects in 13 months that donors can then find online within 18 months of their donation.

The drive for accountability and transparency in WASH project implementation is highly commendable, and long overdue. However, it is clear that Scott and his team have been on a considerable – and accelerated – learning curve. The challenge they – as with the rest of the sector – are grappling with is how to create lasting improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene provision? It’s nice to have a photo and a description of a completed water point, but how do we go further? How do we make sure that those water users aren’t left with a broken water point, 2, 3, 10 years down the line?

I was met by Jonna Davis (Senior Water Program Officer) and Robin Cho (Water Program Officer). Over lunch, they explained that their biggest issues at the moment are what is being measured? Why is it being measured? What is the quality control for that information? Project reporting should not be a hindrance, but good quality data and narrative reporting is essential for management and public accountability.

Back at the office, Christoph Gorder, the charity’s President, explained their current that their monitoring and reporting is based on a simple spreadsheet with a relatively small number of performance and identification indicators.

“Because we’re an organization that’s not implementing, but rather funding other WASH organizations, we’re only as good as the best in the industry.  So, when it comes to data, we’re pushing to get better, more consistent, more actionable data. But, the reality is that good data remains a challenge across the sector,” said Christoph.

“We need to make this better but our concern is that WASH specialists will make it too complex – standardised monitoring needs to be light because gathering good quality data is such a challenge,” he explained.

His views were echoed at a recent Sanitation Water for All meeting that I attended where the feedback from African finance ministries about the WASH sector in general is that it is “fragmented, has poor data and a poor record on sustainability”.

The final discussion I had on my visit was with Robert Lee, who is heading up their Google-funded research project to develop an accurate low-cost, robust sensor that can be fitted to handpumps (watch the video above). The sensor will work with several different designs, such as Afridev and India Mark II pumps, as well as on piped schemes. “We are running with more than one design at the moment to see which one works best in different contexts.”

I am interested in their progress as there a number of teams working on similar solutions, including Oxford University in the UK, Sweetlab (University of Portland) and Welldone.org in the USA, Water For People in Uganda and Susteq in the Netherlands. There is likely to be no single right solution, but I’m really hoping that at least one of them will make it easier to keep rural water services going.  How such technologies are introduced, when ready, is critical and I hope that with at least some of them the Technology Applicability Framework will be used.

“Water point and project report data is often a mess” said Robert. “Collecting data just because it can be collected isn’t good enough; it needs focus and needs proper analysis.”

Working with REST, an NGO in Tigray, Ethiopia, they have been putting trackers on vehicles and tracing parts, and monitoring man-hours. Meanwhile, a voluntary McKinsey consultant has been working on what a management model for a rural water service in this region would need and what implementation and management costs are needed. Google want to see that there is some impact from the smart monitoring such as being able to accurately determine how much subsidy is needed to the implementation organisation to continue to provide services.

charity: water is growing. Fast. “When I started in 2010 there were 16 of us,” explained Jonna, “Now we’re nearly 70”. The majority of the in-take are on the fundraising side but extra WASH expertise being brought in because they have the ambitious goal of increasing their project spend from US$ 30 million to US$100 million in the next three years.  To do that, selecting good projects and good project partners will be critical.

“If we invest US$100 million then how much will it cost to keep those services going for at least ten years? We need to find that data and the skills to use it so that we get some good answers,” said Robert.

There is little doubt that in just a few years, charity: water has become a major player in the rural water sector. The ‘tech start-up’ mentality means that they are not afraid of taking risks challenging old assumptions, but they are also mindful of not repeating old mistakes.  Their level of energy and innovation has the potential to benefit everyone in the sector, and water users most of all.

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