A fortunate few find their life’s work during their junior year in college. Such was the case for Gary White when he was on a mission trip to Guatemala.
“It was my first trip out of the country,” he told Global Atlanta while visiting Kennesaw State University for the March 15 opening of its School of Conflict Management, Peacebuilding and Development.”
“I visited the slums. I saw the water. I saw the sewage,” he added. “I’d had social justice instilled in me from an early age. I had attended a Christian Brothers high school and I was interested in engineering.”
He chose civil engineering as his major at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., saying that the course of his lifework was set at the crossroads of engineering and social justice.
Once he received his master’s degree, he went to work for Catholic Relief Services and soon headed up their water projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Some 30 years later, he still is devoted to improving clear water availability around the world, and modestly calls himself a “one trick pony.”
Even so he is much in demand these days ranging from attending a panel at Kennesaw State to joining the actor Matt Damon, his partner at water.org, on the Trevor Noah late night Comedy Central tv show.
Their awareness that water scarcity was a pressing global problem brought the two together from their independent initiatives to break down barriers between people and access to safe water.
While working abroad, Mr. Damon became aware of the wide gulf separating the nonchalance with which the developing world takes water for granted and its scarcity in developing countries. He then recognized that Mr. White’s insight to provide a market based solution is a valid means of providing deprived populations access to water.
Mr. White told Global Atlanta that institutional lenders were hesitant to provide loans to those in need of water because of a lack of repayment guarantees. Also, direct philanthropic efforts to build wells weren’t extensive enough to provide the accessibility that a global crisis demanded.
According to his calculations, It would take about $1 trillion to solve the global water as of now with about $8 billion from development assistance and philanthropy currently being collected to solve the crisis.
His insight was to ease the plight of those either scavenging for water daily or paying for it from water vendors by providing them with philanthropic dollars with which they could connect with local water systems.
He calls his method “water credit” that enables financing from the “bottom up and not the top down.”
His breakthrough, he said, was built on the original micro financing movement launched by Mohammed Yunus. Instead of making loans that the recipients could hardly afford to pay back, however, he noticed that the poor in many cases were already paying for water. If they received philanthropic loans directly to help with these costs, he decided, they would have savings with which to pay back the loans.
“If you have a utility serving a city, it should be serving the poor as well,” he said, pointing to “a market failure” for not providing a necessary service. “Let’s try to nudge the system toward the poor.”
Once the microfinance institutions realize that their loans are going to be paid back — and Mr. White cites figures that show these loans are paid back more than 97 percent of the time — then the institutions can go to capital markets and raise even more money.
With Mr Damon’s help, water.org has been raising funds through individual as well as corporate donations to such an extent that it was able with the backing of the Stella Artois brewery to advertise on the television production of the Super Bowl.
The water.org website claims the purchase of a Limited-Edition Stella Artois Chalice helps provide five years of clean water to someone in the developing world. This year’s collection features hand-crafted designs by female artists from Mexico, India and the Philippines.
The day following the Super Bowl, water.org raised $100,000 from the sale of the chalices with $3 from each sale going to help provide people without clean water to get it, Mr. said. He also underscored that the Super Bowl ad was paid for by Stella Artois, which is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev.
water.org also has been able to raise funds from a score of foundations linked to large corporations such as Ikea, Caterpillar, Cartier, and Conrad Hilton. Bank of America is a corporate sponsor, but the Coca-Cola Co. surprisingly is not.
Mr. White cited Coke’s efforts to “support the cause,” but acknowledged that its largest grant came from PepsiCo.
After years of focusing on the water crisis, he had no problem explaining his willingness to speak on the Kennesaw State panel during the opening ceremony for the new School of Conflict Management, Peacebuilding and Development.
“Water scarcity leads to the movement of populations, and when people move they move into areas inhabited by other people which creates enormous conflict,” he said citing just one of the crises provoked by poor management of water resources.