With Matt Damon, KC's Gary White brings water to developing countries. Maybe he could turn on some ideas for our third-world streets 

Kansas City makes it easy to lose faith in people.

Elected officials often act like schoolchildren. In the local corporate world, job-shredding incompetents outnumber innovators. A list of the metro's 200 most repulsive inhabitants would include a fair number of clergy.

But every once in a while, someone so decent ... so breathtakingly effective ... emerges from the heap of mediocrity that passes for leadership in KC.

Gary White is an engineer by training and a Catholic relief worker at heart. Twenty years ago, he took on a mission to improve access to clean water and sanitation in the developing world. His initial fundraiser took place at a Knights of Columbus hall along the Blue Ridge Cutoff. The day-after-Thanksgiving dinner raised $4,000 for a water project in Honduras.

Today, White is the executive director and co-founder of a standard-setting nonprofit called Water.org. The other co-founder? Matt Damon.

White met Damon at a 2008 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. Damon was already involved in relief efforts through the H2O Africa Foundation, which he created in 2006. The actor liked White's ideas. H2O Africa made a grant to WaterPartners, the organization that White had started with the help of St. Bernadette's Catholic Church.

White and Damon stayed in touch. White says Damon is "incredibly knowledgeable about the water and sanitation crisis."

The engineer and the movie star eventually came to a decision to merge their nonprofits into Water.org. Through H2O Africa, Damon had the ability to tell a story and raise money. White, meanwhile, could deliver results. "We really knew how to get stuff done on the ground," he says.

Last summer, White and Damon traveled to India. Following local custom, they broke open coconuts on the front stoop of a home in Hyderabad. India is where White has had the most success with an initiative called WaterCredit. The program makes small loans to individuals and communities. In India, the loans have helped people build toilets and connect pipes to existing utilities. White says 98 percent of the loans have been repaid to date.

White's application of micro­financing to the water crisis has made him a star in the philanthropic world. Last spring, Jeff Skoll, eBay's second employee, presented him with the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. The honor carried with it a $765,000 grant.

White does good, and he does it well. I recently paid a visit to his office. He's on the 18th floor of the downtown building that AMC Entertainment uses as its headquarters. Nothing about his appearance or his surroundings betrays occasional jet travel with the likes of Jason Bourne.

His nonprofit operates in Africa, South Asia and Central America. But I took some lessons from our conversation that I think would benefit anyone — especially Kansas City's prestige-minded "leaders."

See the World

As a student in the mid-'80s, at what's now known as Missouri University of Science and Technology, White took a trip to Guatemala. "Basically, I wanted to know what was going on in the world and see how I could help," he says.

White was looking for a way to combine his knowledge of engineering with his commitment to social justice. In the slums of Guatemala City, he walked streets running with sewage. He watched a girl carry home water scooped from a filthy container.

About 900 million people worldwide lack access to safe water. An even greater number go without decent sanitation.

White began to puzzle it out. Why does the problem exist? Why are the existing solutions sub-optimal?

It wasn't enough to care. White needed answers if he was going to make a difference. "Get that idea and then really execute with excellence," he says, "then I think the world discovers you."

Screw the Conventional Wisdom

When White began working in what he calls "the water world," the conventional wisdom was that people without water are uniformly poor and need a charity solution, so you drill wells for them.

"But there's never going to be enough charity in the world to get water and sanitation to that many people," White says. "So you have to look for more innovative solutions."

One of White's early insights was that the safe-water movement needed to work with communities to be effective. "We've never gone and built water projects," he says. "Our philosophy is that there's plenty of expertise in the developing countries."

White believes that working with local groups delivers better results and increases the chance of long-term success. The local partners are carefully screened and monitored. Universities in the United States and India have conducted third-party analyses of various projects.

White and his team also developed a model that emphasizes education. A faucet spouting clean water can't help that much if the people using it don't understand the link between hygiene and health.

Gifts Can Be Curses

Water.org is a charity. But White doesn't really like the word.

"People share in the cost of these programs," he explains. "They share in the sweat equity. You train people how to operate and maintain systems themselves, whether it be a hand pump or a gravity-flow water system. You empower the technicians in the community.

"You also bring women into the water committees that oversee and run these operations. Because it's women who are spending all their hours walking to get water every day, so they have a much greater stake in the system staying up and running."

Today, White says, groups working to meet the safe-water challenge don't get involved without training, cost-sharing and hygiene components. All of that, he says, is "a price of entry."

Technology Might Not Save You

White doesn't like to wait for silver bullets. He doesn't expect a miracle pump to make water more accessible to the millions of people who need it.

The idea for microfinancing emerged from WaterPartners' experience in places such as India, Haiti and Kenya, where people who live in informal settlements may rely on the local "water mafia." White says it's not uncommon for people in developing countries to go to loan sharks to pay for toilets and water connections.

WaterPartners developed the idea of making credit affordable. The thinking was, people who are used to dealing with loan sharks would have no trouble paying back a small loan and a reasonable water fee.

Borrowers have taken out $1.8 million in WaterCredit loans (average loan size: $148). The default rates are so low that commercial banks are getting involved.

A Good Idea Resonates

White discovered that microfinancing, in addition to being effective on the ground, was also compatible with the mind-set of many potential donors, especially those in Silicon Valley.

People who made their money in tech or venture capital wanted a model different from traditional East Coast philanthropy, much of which is focused on the arts, White notes. "They wanted high returns on investment. They wanted to see metrics. They wanted to see leverage."

The Open Square Foundation, based in Palo Alto, California, made a $1 million grant that helped launch the WaterCredit initiative in 2003. Open Square increased the gift to $4 million in 2008.

"The good thing about West Coast philanthropy," White says: "Success there is much less determined by who you know and connections than it is the power of your ideas."

Location Doesn't Matter

White says he raises a few eyebrows when he tells potential funders and others where Water.org is based. But a Kansas City address hasn't stopped the work from getting noticed. "It's kind of like, 'Oh, that's interesting' as opposed to 'I can't work with you.'"

White doesn't expect that Water.org will have to relocate. "We've gotten this far here. That was the hardest part — kind of getting on the map."

Kansas City is not Port-au-Prince or Nairobi. But it's not a model of efficiency and equality, either. The principles that have guided Water.org would seem to offer benefits here as well.

In our developing world, the conventional wisdom said the rising tide of corporate tax breaks and giveaways would lift all boats. But the East Side is a mess of violence and poverty, and a snowstorm mocks the city's ability to deliver basic services.

What if, like Water.org, Kansas City looked for more than just a "charity solution" for its poor? What if, instead of passing out grants to the usual suspects, the city and its institutions looked for ways to leverage assistance into something that lasts?

At least one of White's principles seems to be under consideration. Last year, Mayor Mark Funkhouser assembled a task force to address the lack of economic activity in the urban core. One idea to come out of the initiative, called New Tools, is a microcredit institution.

I haven't seen any lenders step up yet. But maybe the mechanism that built toilets in Hyderabad could bring machine shops to Prospect Avenue.

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