A Beer With Bill Gates: Some Advice on How to Succeed in a Critical Funding Niche

Fixing a broken water pump outside a rural healthcare center in southwest Ethiopia that had no water for months.

Fixing a broken water pump outside a rural healthcare center in southwest Ethiopia that had no water for months.

The hand pump outside the healthcare center was sitting on top of a virtual swimming pool of fresh water only meters deep. But they said the well was dry and the healthcare facility had operated without water for months. I’d heard this same story scores of times before—it wasn’t a lack of water that was the problem, it was the pump. So as I was helping community technicians diagnose and repair another hand pump (this was number 55 for me in Ethiopia, but I’ve seen this all around the world), a friend challenged me to think about what I might say to Bill Gates over a beer. The Gates Foundation is an important funder of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), a critical area of philanthropy because without safe water, nothing is attainable—health, education, economic security, human security—even beer.

Given how fundamental access to safe water is to life itself, it’s tragic that some 50 percent of well-meaning water projects around the world fail. Not just in Ethiopia, where I was recently on a trip that focused on the absence of WASH in healthcare settings, especially maternity wards (a global curse with a devastating impact on health and healthcare.) The world is littered with inoperable wells, missing handles and rusty pumps, a testament that the development community, including funders, has much to learn.

Bill Gates is the philanthropist who, more than practically any funder in this space, understands and has studied the sustainability of WASH projects. Given the increasing number of organizations interested in funding and implementing WASH—from the corner church to nonprofits to multilateral organizations—I’d first ask him to share his extensive experience and knowledge about what works, and as important, what doesn’t.

Construction is the easy part. Yet most funding is targeted to a specific intervention that must be delivered on an artificial timeline due to budget or grant cycles. From my 30-year engineering experience working on water projects on five continents, I see success boiling down to two things: assessments and operations—the “bookends of water.”

That no one ever posed for a photo op with an assessment report is not lost on me. But this initial phase is critical to sustainability. The assessment helps to ensure that “the right project is being done for the right people at the right time.” Too often, an assessment is viewed only as the necessary step needed to obtain funding for a project. For example, in one Guatemalan community I know, the water committee worked very hard with funders to design a deep well, tank and distribution system. The problem was that the well was really deep, over 600 feet, and the pump had to be powered by a diesel generator. Within one year of that ribbon-cutting, the community could no longer sustain the project because the diesel cost was approximately 28 percent of their incomes. You cannot imagine the heartbreak.

By contrast, in a different municipality, after a full assessment, design and economic analysis, which included visiting over 1000 homes, it was determined that multiple wells could not be financially sustained for many of the community members. So a new plan was proposed for a shared well for the communities. This significant revision required another year in order to develop trust between those communities, and a plan for financially sustainable operations. But most organizations and funders simply do not have the patience or funding for this necessary step prior to implementation.

Certainly, we love to talk about how a successful WASH project can lead to healthier children, stronger community structure and leadership development—all true. But I would ask funders to think about the risk to the community of a failed intervention. Some have remarked to me, “Well, they did not have water before, and unfortunately, they don’t have it now, but at least they are not worse off.” Not true. A failed intervention can lead to a shift in the community’s risk model, undercut trust in local organizations and government, create a reluctance to allow interventions on other projects, and alienate and even banish the community champion. I’ve seen it, and it breaks my heart every time. International development can, indeed, be harmful when it violates the basic humanitarian principle of “do no harm.”

So, Bill (if I may), I would ask that you encourage funders to prioritize and provide more funding for WASH assessments as well as the other “bookend of water”: operations. Operations is not monitoring and evaluation that generally sunset; it’s operations over decades, if we have done our jobs correctly. In my experience, only 40 percent of WASH projects that are adequately assessed also have the sufficient human capacity to be sustained. It’s what I call the “WASH Death Spiral.”  Again, I turn to communities I’ve worked with in Guatemala, a country I know well.

A new water system in one community needed little maintenance, so the service fee for users was significantly reduced. Fast-forward—the community eventually grew to the point where the water supply was no longer unlimited. But as service was reduced, more and more users refused to pay, leaving insufficient funds to maintain the now aging system. This, of course, leads to an even lower service level, more frustration, and the inevitable “WASH Death Spiral.”

Contrast that with a nearby community that also has the support of a local circuit rider named Diego. Circuit riders are technicians who spend their days visiting scores of rural water projects to do preventive and ongoing maintenance, providing technical and organizational support to a community. Their role is critical. Diego assisted with design and construction, and continues to support difficult repairs, but perhaps his most important role is the organizational support he gives to the local water committee. He’s an unbiased third party who can intervene over billing and collection disputes. In my experience, I have been called to provide organizational support as often as engineering solutions.  

Too many times, funders focus on the “beneficiary headcount,” and lose track of what a sustainable WASH system really is: a system that the community can own and operate long term, technically, financially and independently. Local governments also share responsibility; no community can be expected to deal with every situation. Donors really need to get away from the idea of supporting individual communities and water points and counting heads, and instead move toward strengthening the entire system that keeps water safe and flowing.

So as I finish my beer with Bill Gates, I’d suggest that more funding could be spent on supporting existing systems, with a focus on the number of beneficiaries who receive water and sanitation each and every year, not the number of new systems and their beneficiaries.

I understand it’s a major shift, as nobody has ever cut a ribbon to celebrate the ongoing operations on an existing WASH system. But I, for one, would drink to that.

Michael Paddock is a civil engineer with over 30 years of experience. His professional career was spent managing teams of over 100 engineers designing infrastructure projects over $1B and was the youngest-ever recipient of Wisconsin’s “Engineer of the Year” award. After a near-death cancer experience, he was motivated to begin a pro bono engineering career that has delivered projects with Engineers without Borders USA and other nonprofits in five continents over the last 20 years.