$25 Can’t Give Someone Clean Water for Life: The Real Cost of Sustainable Service
October 31, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I get tired of people asking me how much money actually goes back to Uganda. I used to be that person. “So, when I purchase this necklace, how much of my money is actually going back to Uganda. I mean, an individual woman, how much will she get paid for this? How much am I really doing?”
Then, I realized it’s actually an abundantly selfish question. And, it’s the wrong one. What you’re asking is, “what can I tell my friends later?” or, “how good can I feel about this purchase?” You’re looking for an instant solution – you want to know a woman in Africa has the $25.00 you just spent in her pocket. Now.
You’re really not interested in whether she is getting a sustainable future, or whether the business you are supporting is creating long term change in a village through money well spent on things like marketing and design. You’re not asking whether the woman who made the necklace you’re holding is getting business training, or even if the $25 you could hand her directly, were you on the ground in Uganda, would be spent in a place that would help her children, instead of feeding the addiction of an abusive husband. You just want to know how your purchase should make you feel.
And, it’s more complicated than that.
I have a few better questions I’d like to hear asked, instead:
How many women have you been able to hire?
Are you teaching them to handle the money you send them?
How closely connected are you to life on the ground – do you know where your money is going?
Do you have a relationship with the local people?
What role do purchases take in the mission of your company?
Are you able to meet your basic operating needs as a social enterprise?
What is your long term plan for sustainable change?
Have you seen sustainable change within your first year?
John Sauer was an invaluable resource for me when I was living in Washington, D.C. and working to help UPI launch their Global Water Issues feature. I was the most tired/busy full time student, almost full time intern/nanny in the world, and I think I almost fell asleep during our meeting, but John handed me a huge stack of information and, with it, the success of the rest of my semester and summer. When it comes to water, John really knows his stuff. He released the above chart this week breaking down what’s required for change for clean water.
Part of what I appreciate about John is his openness – his ability to call the bullshit, and to say what is really going on. He writes,
“Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) development organizations are often asked by donors to quantify their projects in terms of unit cost or cost per beneficiary. With more focus these days on evidence base, outcome contracting, and sustainability, it’s time to develop a more comprehensive approach that includes looking at life-cycle costs for WASH programs. This is a direct challenge to a cost-per-beneficiary-per-project approach, which oversimplifies what it takes to get the job done properly and for the long term.”
So, next time you buy a product from a social enterprise – ask them how they are getting the job done. Ask them what their long term plans look like. Ask how many individuals they are involved with on the ground, and how they have seen things change.
And then, maybe? You should ask if the girl running the booth is able to take a salary. And when she says yes, but it’s small, you should smile at her and say, “good.” Because, it’s possible that the necklace you are buying is enabling her to pay her cell phone bill while she works for sustainable change in Africa.