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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."