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It’s Time to Stop Playing Around – 20 Years and Where Are We?

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Written by Dan Haseltine

Since 2000, 1.8 billion people have gained access to basic drinking water services, however more than two billion continue to lack safely managed services. Our work partnering with community-based organizations in sub-Saharan Africa is key to finally solving the WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) crisis. As we near World Water Day and our twenty-year anniversary, here’s a reflection from our co-founder Dan Haseltine on change he’s seen in the field, clean water organizations, and the continuing need to buckle down and solve these problems for good.

It’s Time to Stop Playing Around

I have been writing about the challenges surrounding HIV and the water crisis in Africa for nearly 20 years. When I began writing, there were very few organizations dedicated to the work of gathering resources in the United States and applying those resources for building water points and raising awareness that a water crisis existed in the world.

Now, it seems that there is a new organization popping up every day with the aspiration of solving the water crisis. The level of awareness has grown exponentially over the last two decades along with thousands of opportunities to give financially to organizations with new technologies or methods for changing the course of life for people in communities where safe, clean water is scarce. The stories are compelling, and they have given us a foothold toward understanding what is at stake when we talk about the water crisis. You would think we were on the verge of solving the crisis by now.

I know I stepped into this work with a goal of ending the water crisis in my lifetime. I saw the coming wave of interest in this field. I felt the groundswell of energy as water became a topic of interest for people in the larger philanthropic conversations. There was fresh wind in the sails when celebrities like Matt Damon, authors like Don Miller, and marketing-savvy entrepreneurs like Scott Harrison put their chips in the game. There was added electricity when Bono, Bill Gates, and Steve and Jean Case began funding water-centric programs. It seemed as if we had hit a much-needed stride. We had reached a tipping point and the weight of the collective momentum would yield a solution to the problem at hand.

It is time to stop playing around.  It is time to use our resources to strengthen, serve and support local experts. 

Why must I sit and write another blog post about the water crisis? Why am I bringing this problem before you again? How much money, time, energy, creativity, prayer, thought, celebrity, influence, crowdfunding, non-profit starting, and blog writing is it going to take for the scarcity of clean water and health disparities that follow to finally end?

Haven’t you given enough?  Haven’t we all done enough? 

If you catch a bit of exasperation in the tone of this post, you are reading it right. 

Responsibilities of a Clean Water Organization

Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission, sat on the Jars of Clay tour bus when Blood:Water was forming. He described how it is vital to present our challenge to others with 80% hope. If we are going to tell the story, don’t overwhelm people with the weight of the insurmountable odds. Be honest. And recognize that God, and the people closest to the challenge are a deep well of true hope. People are resilient, capable, and thoughtful in their own approaches to solving the problems at hand. 

We took that advice to heart and found that it made us pay more attention to the people closest to the challenges.  There is not a single large international aid organization capable of pulling the solution out of their toolbox. 

People are resilient, capable, and thoughtful in their own approaches to solving the problems at hand.

There is no marketing genius, influential writer, actor, or influencer with the ability to offer a real solution to the water crisis.  The solution is, and has always been, in the hands of the local people intimately impacted by the challenges we all would like to solve. 

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Unfortunately, the vast majority of international organizations are structured for projects that minimize the role of local experts. And if there is a way to describe this challenge giving 80% hope, it must be how we present local expertise, local leadership, and local solutions.

20 years is a long time to focus on a solution to a problem. It is long enough to see the trend of boutique, project-based water organizations come and go. It is long enough to see the grossly short-term, minimal health impacts of borehole well projects constructed outside of local ownership and without the influence of local leadership. 20 years is long enough to see the difference between a community-based, comprehensive WASH program versus a single borehole well. Haven’t we all been in the conversation long enough to learn that healthy local water organizations lead to healthy communities? Haven’t we all invested enough in this water crisis to recognize that the good feeling of giving money to drill a well is as fleeting as the lifespan of that well? I often wonder when people will grow tired of wasting their resources on water projects that fail within 18 months of construction.

20 years is long enough to see the grossly short term, minimal health impacts of borehole well projects constructed outside of local ownership and without the influence of local leadership.

Doing the Work

This World Water Day, I am writing with a bit of fire in my belly. It isn’t that I need to feel important or right. There is a lost sense of urgency in the way we think about the water crisis in Africa. We have gotten accustomed to the slow and insignificant strides taken to end the water crisis. It feels like it will always be a problem.  

The water crisis has fallen into a space where unsolvable problems linger in the mind of the public conscience. So, I am writing because there are children, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters who are still dying from health disparities born out of this water crisis. People are still suffering while the international aid community feeds their egos and builds their organizational longevity when we should all be working ourselves out of a job.

We know how to end the water crisis. We know that the water crisis ends when locally-led, empowered, and capable organizations attack the problem with skill, expertise, and efficiency.  It is time to stop playing around. It is time to use our resources to strengthen, serve, and support local experts.

We are serious about ending the water crisis. Are you? 

Gratefully,

Dan

If you want to join us, and our partners, in ending the water crisis through sustainable solutions that create real change, click here to make an impact this World Water Day (March 22)

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Only 14% of funding from international donors goes to local organizations in Africa

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100% of Blood:Water’s program funds go to local partner organizations in Africa

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