Changing the way we change the world

“$25 will give a person water”…for a little while

By Susan Davis, Improve International


Spotted in this month’s Instyle magazine.

“Donate $25 at and supply one person with clean water for life.” Really?

For years, charitable organizations have been attaching “dollar handles” to development items. I was just reminded of it while perusing the February Instyle magazine (see pic). This is a fundraising method that is intended to help the donor feel like she has made a tangible difference.

Someone in the philanthropic world decided that $20-$25 is the magic number, and we see it a lot related to “saving lives with safe water,” or occasionally, with a toilet. Interestingly, this number seems to apply to all sorts of systems in many different countries.  The cost of a beer varies much more than that (and I have done extensive research).

I was going to provide a list of examples – but that might hurt feelings.  But you can find them easily by searching for “$20 water save life” or “$25 water save life.”  I found 16 – with some big names among them – without trying too hard. Even worse, these dollar handles make it into big proposals, which you won’t find online.

To be fair, there has been little understanding or documentation of the actual costs to build and sustain water systems and toilets/latrines in developing countries.  This is likely a big piece of the sustainability problem for water and sanitation systems.

However, based on recent research, we do know that $20-$25 might help that person get initial access to water, but certainly not water for life. There are maintenance and repair costs to keep the water system working – these vary based on the type of system. And while $25 might build a traditional pit latrine, it costs $1.50 – $4 per person per year to sustain the service.

Some organizations plan for the households to pay fees into a community fund for maintenance. But the WASHCost research found that those fees are not enough to cover major repairs or eventual replacement of the system (everything breaks eventually). In the pie chart below, the $20-25 from the individual donor is combined with contributions from the community, other donors, and sometimes the local government to fill in the capital expenditures wedge.  The community water fees (if collected at all) fill in the operations and minor maintenance wedge.  That leaves a lot of the pie unpaid for!

Fonseca, Moriarty & Smits, IRC, Presentation March 11, 2012

Fonseca, Moriarty & Smits, IRC, Presentation March 11, 2012

IRC developed a handy WASH Calculator to help estimate such costs, and to predict the service level with certain inputs.  This is what happens if you only contribute $25 per person to build the system:

washcalcNo service. Ouch.

So what does this mean?  It means that $20-$25 per person does not – on its own  – bring someone safe water for life. Drilling wells does not equal ongoing water services.

But it doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, give. But give smarter.  Donors need to ask tougher questions about what actually works over time, and be open to hearing a more complex story.  Or our “life-saving solutions” will continue to fail.  Quick and cheap fixes don’t work in development.  Our water pipes and sewer lines in the US don’t last forever without ongoing maintenance, repair, and replacement (and someone to pay for that), so why do we think it’s that simple in the developing world?

5 Responses

  1. Humble Sibooli

    Indeed as one of the WASH practitioners in Zambia, we should shift our thinking and efforts to begin including life cycle costs in our planning and programming. This could happen were anticipated benefits of new services and funding life cycle costs are discussed and apreciated early enough. Equally, Governments and Local Authorites should gain sufficient understanding of life cycles and how such costs could be financed. The issue here are weak systems to define financing mechanism that can work. Again, fundings arrangments for postconstruction activitie in most cases are tied to policies in place or even programming principles guiding delivery of WASH services. Were direction is seemingly not clear, financing throuhg user fees/tarifs cease to continue 2 to 3years after th facilities have been commissioned. It seems donors ad providers appreciate the relavance contributing towards life cycle costs, but the problem for is whether robust arrangements are in place for communities effectively financed the cost.

  2. Project staff from some of the “big names” that use the $20-25 figure for fundraising know very well that it is a fallacy. But mangement must feel that simple feel-good messages raise more funds. There are few critical voices in the WASH sector who dare to openly contradict them.

  3. Katie

    I certainly receive the “give $20 and supply one person clean water for life” pleas in my physical mailbox and in my virtual inbox. Particularly considering the costs of production and mailing of the former, I realize I am more likely giving $10, which isn’t really going to do diddlysquat. That said though, it is nice as a donor to feel that one’s money is making some sort of tangible difference. The communication from the organization to the donor that conveys a depth of knowledge seems to be key,

Leave a Reply