Funding sustainable development

John Oldfield

Small civic groups and church fellowships often assume that global problems are out of their philanthropic reach, but often this isn’t true.

For example, water and sanitation are the foundation of sustainable development. They contribute to child health, to maternal health, to poverty alleviation.

If you’re spending four or five hours a day hauling water, you have no time to educate yourself, no time to engage in business, no time to take advantage of many of the other types of initiatives a grantmaker might fund.

Two million children under age five die each year of water-borne diseases, primarily diarrhea, yet approximately 90 percent of these deaths are preventable.

We don’t need to find a cure – we know it. And the solution is attainable, even by the most modest of funders.

In bite-size: for smaller groups

When thinking about global issues like safe water and sanitation, people tend to go from denial directly to despair. What can one man, one woman, one church group do about a problem so vast?

But often global challenges break down into bite-size pieces that can be tackled by individual groups.

To provide a rainwater-catchment system and storage tank for a community in Kenya costs as little as $3,000-$4,000. A community-led sanitation and hygiene campaign in Cambodia can be supported for $10,000 – $15,000. And providing safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene promotion for a school in Latin America costs between $10,000 and $20,000 on average.

A faith community or civic group should work within the structure of its own organization to identify a need. For example, religious groups often have sister faith communities in other parts of world. Very likely they will have needs locally that they know how to solve, but lack the resources.

The next hurdle is expertise. While a check and a group of enthusiastic volunteers is enough for some projects, others require greater technical knowledge.

Water and sanitation projects, for example, are generally not something that can be done by a church elder who heads out to Tanzania for a month. They take a lot of planning and require long-term management.

To fill this expert management role, your group might want to work with an implementing partner with ample experience in your chosen area, like the water-and-sanitation experts listed on our website.

Your group’s level of hands-on involvement and follow-up responsibilities will depend on the partner organization you choose and the scope of the project.

Sustainability should be a prominent part of the discussion with any project. It’s important to leave a finished project not only with the expertise to fix what breaks, but also the finances to do so, so local financial sustainability is critical.

Arguably the most important aspect of sustainability, however, is sociocultural.

You can go out there and put in a water pump, and out comes great clean water, but people refuse to use it because they think the river god feels slighted.

The most important and oft-neglected aspect of addressing global needs like water and sanitation, then, is behavioral change. Unless the community owns your project from day one, it will not be sustainable technically, financially or socioculturally.

Everyone talks about sweat equity and that’s great, but asking the recipients to put some financial skin in the game is also crucial for a project’s success.

The recipient communities need to pay for a part of the project upfront in cash, even if it’s only 2 percent. Or perhaps the community agrees to put together a fund for repairs, so that every year when the crops come in, each family contributes a set amount.

Typically the best approach to global projects like water and sanitation issues is to educate, implement, then educate again. Start with the “software” – work with the community, establish a village water committee including women, mobilize the community to better participate in the project and truly take ownership from the first day.

Then after the project is built, continue to educate and mobilize the community, for example launch a handwashing promotion campaign to make sure waterborne diseases are decreased.

And follow up. We encourage groups to do at least three years of monitoring and evaluation. By putting that on the back end, you’ll make the front end more successful.

Leveraging change: For mid-size groups

If you’ve got hundreds of thousands or a few million to spend, you might consider a broader approach.

Choose a geographically-defined region where your group is already established. You might want to consider choosing a vector or specific approach to the problem, like “water and sanitation in schools.” Larger groups doing larger projects not only need to work with experienced development organizations, they also need to establish a very positive relationship with the local government at different levels to make sure that the solutions that are envisioned actually do meet the region’s needs.

Taking on a specific problem in an entire state, district, or province and aiming for 100 percent coverage can create very interesting headlines: “100% of Schools in District in Southern Guatemala Now Have Access to Safe Drinking Water.” 

This will likely encourage the neighboring districts and provinces to do the same, and eventually inspire the entire country to take up the challenge.

John Oldfield is executive vice president of Water Advocates, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing American support for global access to safe, affordable and sustainable water and sanitation.

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