By Susan Davis, Improve International
“Donate $25 at xxx.org 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!
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:
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?