Difference Maker

Gary White's goal: bring clean water to a billion people who lack it

Gary White cofounded Water.org with actor Matt Damon. His success secret: Making sure local people are deeply involved.

By , / Correspondent

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    Gary White (c.) kneels beside a young helper at a water pipeline construction site in Ginchi, central Ethiopia, in 2006. As a civil engineering student, he visited Central America and saw the need for clean water and sanitation. That’s when he started ‘to try to figure out how I could make a difference,’ he says.
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Nearly 1 billion people today lack access to safe drinking water. About 2.5 billion go without basic sanitation like a decent toilet, according to United Nations statistics.

If Gary White realizes his vision, everyone in the world will have safe water and sanitation.

It's a big, audacious goal. But those who speak with Mr. White, the executive director of Water.org, the nonprofit organization he cofounded in 2009 with actor Matt Damon, find it's not long before his can-do energy and thoughtful demeanor persuade them that he just might pull it off.

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White has spent 20 years working in the trenches of what he calls "the water world" – the network of charities, relief groups, foundations, municipalities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) trying to solve the world's water problems.

His innovative, counterintuitive approach already has brought safe water to about 1 million people in eight countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It has also garnered multimillion-dollar donations from major foundations and made White a star, not just in the water world but in the larger sphere of global philanthropy.

"Gary comes to the problem of water access with the rigor and thoroughness of a brilliant engineer," says Claire Lyons, global grant portfolio manager for the PepsiCo Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the food and beverage giant.

"Gary is not out there to be a star," Ms. Lyons says. "That is not what drives him. But he does understand, with savvy, that what he has been able to achieve has great value. And now he is able to leverage that experience incrementally. And the humility that comes with just who he is as a human being is a selling point to others."

PepsiCo Foundation has invested $4.1 million in Water.org to support WaterCredit, an innovative program that uses micro-finance to help solve the problem of access to clean water.

WaterCredit was the result of what White calls an "orthogonal insight" – his term for inspiration that comes when seemingly unrelated ideas intersect to solve a problem in an unexpected way.

Most poor people have some money, White realized. But they have to spend an inordinate amount of it to buy water from private vendors. Many urban poor could connect their houses to a public water supply but lack the $100 or so to pay for it.

WaterCredit was launched in India in 2007. As of last June, more than 51,000 loans averaging $120 each were made by local microfinance partners rigorously vetted by Water.org. These loans have benefited more than 300,000 individuals and have been repaid at a rate of 97 percent.

The loans also make more charitable dollars available to those in absolute poverty, for whom a full subsidy is necessary.

White planned to be a civil engineer when he was a student in the early 1980s at what is now the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. A trip to Central America changed all that. In the slums of Guatemala City, he walked streets running with sewage and saw children carrying home containers full of contaminated water.

"That was really a seminal moment for me," White says. "When I saw that intersection of engineering and the whole water and sanitation crisis, that's when I started to learn more about it, to try to figure out how I could make a difference."

After college, he worked for Catholic Relief Services on projects in Latin America and the Caribbean and went on to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During that time he formed WaterPartners, which attracted grants from philanthropies.

One such grant was from H2O Africa, a group cofounded by actor Matt Damon. After a lengthy courtship, WaterPartners merged with H2O Africa in 2009 to become Water.org.

Early on, White became frustrated by the staggering rate of water project failures. In the 1980s and '90s, an NGO typically sought out a needy community, drilled a well for it, celebrated with a plaque and a photograph, and called it a day.

The projects "were very much top-down, very charity-driven without a lot of focus on long-term impact and results," he says. "And projects were failing at a tremendous rate, about 50 percent."

White's approach is different. Communities that want a water project must take the first step and contact a local NGO certified as a Water.org partner. Community members are seen as partners and must assume responsibility for construction, hygiene education, collection of water tariffs, and maintenance of the project.

The community also must pay at least 10 percent of the cost, either in cash or building materials, or in sweat equity.

"The fact that they invest their labor and their cash increases the likelihood that [the project] will be sustained," he says.

Water.org has an impressive record of success. White has received many awards and recognitions, including induction into the Philanthropic Hall of Fame in 2008. But there's still a long way to go. Does he really think his goal can be attained? "Oh, yes," White says. "We're going to get there."

• To learn more, go to: Water.org

• For more stories about people making a difference, click here.

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