Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Good Scratch

I made the mistake recently of asking a British friend of mine “What are the first three things you do in the morning?” His reply: “Well, I finish me gin from the night before, I smoke a ciggy, and I have a good scratch.”

I suspect that safe, clean water will be more important for those of us with less vigorous mornings.

Imagine your morning without water. Imagine your bathroom trip, your shower, your coffee/tea, imagine brushing your teeth without water. If you woke up and realized your home didn’t have safe water, what would your first three actions that morning look like? Forget the first three things – what is the first ONE thing you would do?

Water is vital not only to our morning rituals in the developed world; water is life in its barest essence. Water is security, human security.

Without water, women and families in Africa, Asia, Latin and Central America and elsewhere spend significant parts of their days NOT learning, NOT working, NOT being productive members of society, NOT watching their children play. We in the States are increasingly aware of this challenge abroad – throughout the developing world – and are increasingly active on behalf of the issue. Yet effectively tackling the global safe drinking water and sanitation problem is not as easy as driving to the local soup kitchen and ladling soup to homeless people on Thanksgiving - which reminds me - do that too. Ensuring that poor communities in Africa, Asia and elsewhere have safe water and sanitation is tough work – and requires money, political support, thoughtfulness, and patience. And of that list the most important may well be thoughtfulness.

The recent announcement of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation’s commitment to the sector - called the Global Water Initiative - is an important one, and one which displays many of the best – or at least emerging practices in the sector. It is also an announcement which merits MUCH more attention in the media than it received. John Sauer nailed it in The Huffington Post, trying valiantly to get this announcement the coverage it deserves.

$150m is important. Having a name like Buffett associated with its support for the global safe drinking water and sanitation sector is important in that it minimizes the risk of the next philanthropist getting on board. The focus on both water and sanitation is important. However, arguably more important are the Global Water Initiative's (GWI) efforts to streamline and decentralize decisionmaking throughout the entire process. Long before the formal launch GWI was consulting with a select group of several of the finest implementing organizations on the planet. Long before the launch the GWI was looking at ways not simply to build more systems but to catalyze systemic change in the world's most vulnerable communities. Long before its launch GWI was looking at ways not to measure quarterly or even annual results, but looking at what it could achieve over a ten year period and beyond. And long before its launch GWI was streamlining the process of distributing these grants and the process of receiving these grants in-country, so the focus could be on making the work itself as sustainable, as holistic and as inclusive as possible.

I myself would have chosen fewer countries to minimize dissipation of effort, and to make it more likely that this initiative will produce meaningful successes at scale - the sort of successes that generate headlines like "Every School in Guatemala Now Has Access to Safe Drinking Water" and "Every HIV/AIDS Clinic in Uganda Now Has Private Sanitation Facilities." It is money, it is political support, it is lots and lots of technical know-how and elbow grease that will push this sector onward. However, it is thoughtful initiatives like the Global Water Initiative that are likely to demonstrate not the gravity of the water problem or quick technical fixes, but how solvable the problem is if approached thoughtfully.

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