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Keep Calm and EF On

by Mark Duey, Chief Programs Officer, Water For People

Deadly global pandemic. Worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Over 25 million jobs lost in the US in five weeks! All thanks to a highly contagious, smaller-than-bacteria, nucleic acid wrapped in a coat of proteins whose bubble gets burst with soap. Seriously, people? Not even in Hollywood.

Leaders of any organization should have already cut costs as much as possible (we have), should be scenario planning like mad right now (we are), and should develop a plan for when and how employees can get back to business as usual (we will)! But it seems every day for the last month, I’ve been asked what Water For People is doing in-country to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. It is a natural question. We’ve been entirely focused on water, sanitation, and hygiene since our inception, and these things have become top-of-mind as the impact of COVID-19 swells around the world. My answer might surprise you…exactly what we were already doing prior to the crisis!

I know very well this is not what our Business Development team wants to hear, with billions of dollars’ worth of short-term COVID-19 fundraising opportunities out there. "Let’s get in on this!" I also know very well this is not what our Marketing and Communications team wants to hear, as most nonprofits push out already tired "emergency" appeals to their bases. "We need fresh content!" This might not even be what our Global Programs team wants to hear, as we all feel an inner stress and urgent desire to do as much as we can, right now, to keep this crisis from causing disastrous impacts in the countries where we work. 

But I truly believe what the world needs now more than ever, is Everyone Forever!

Everyone Forever (EF) means water and sanitation that lasts – for every family, clinic, and school. It sounds simple, but it’s actually a big shift in the status quo. In most water and sanitation work, the focus is on short-term wins – building a few wells or toilets without considering how they will keep serving people long into the future. We used to operate that way, until we realized it wasn’t working. When pumps and toilets broke, no one could fix them. This left communities back where they started. So, in 2011 we conceptualized the Everyone Forever model. It means what it says –everyone has water that lasts forever. We partner with local governments, businesses, and individuals, providing the support they need to bring clean water and sanitation systems to their own communities. Then we ensure they have the resources they need to maintain those systems now and in the future. The local government provides the structure. The local shop owner provides the materials. The local entrepreneur makes repairs. And the local family gets clean water for a lifetime. This is what the world needs.

This is what the world does NOT need:

  • Billions of dollars of post-emergency infrastructure built without ensuring sufficiently strong local systems are in place to sustain it! I saw how this happens with my own eyes during my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras (2004-2006). I witnessed hundreds of failed piped water systems that were built by many different well-intentioned organizations with the massive influx of international aid that inundated Central America after Hurricane Mitch devastated the region in 1998.
  • Uncoordinated, one-off efforts by every organization that manages to get in on the COVID-19 response funding pie. I roll my eyes as I now see different handwashing posters and videos branded by every nonprofit out there. Next will come the handwashing trainings in communities tired of seeing the same employees of those same organizations coming around again to talk to them about something else. Efforts must be focused on building the permanent capacity of local health departments and school districts to respond.

Other important COVID-19 lessons and reflections:

  • Hopefully everyone on this planet has heard about handwashing by now. I think there’s a pretty good chance they have. But good luck if you are one of the 2 Billion (yes with a "B") people who still do not have access to handwashing and clean water. Sadly, there are 842,000 non-COVID-related deaths each year due to the lack of safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene.
  • Maximizing impact in WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) requires being part of a collective action initiative focused on strengthening WASH systems. This is a wonky description of a formal collaboration by different organizations working together to achieve greater impact. By working together, we can create fundamental, long-term change with local and national governments and the private sector to achieve availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Agenda For Change (of which Water For People is a founding member) is a great example of collective action focused on strengthening WASH systems. A strong local and national WASH system is essential to manage and recover from disasters of any kind.
  • Although the impacts of COVID-19 have been strongest in urban areas, rural areas, which have weaker health system capacity to respond, are very much at risk in this and future pandemics. (It might be a surprise to some, but people in rural areas actually do often come together in markets, schools, churches, etc.!) Local governments must be staffed and resourced sufficiently to act, not only during a time of crisis, but always. In addition, local governments must also work in partnership with the local private sector to ensure all communities, schools, and health care facilities keep clean water flowing over time. Our efforts in Bolivia to draft and promote a national policy to require local governments across that country to create water offices is an important example of this type of work, as is our strategic partner IRC’s new initiative in Burkina Faso.
  • Behavior change can be achieved at a massive scale (if we humans want to) in a relatively short period of time. Another inspiring and relevant example for us is Cape Town which, when facing "Day Zero"
    back in 2018, managed to reduce its water consumption by more than half.

If you’ve made it this far, you are likely either a) someone who has already given or is considering giving to Water For People, b) work in a company or foundation that is planning a COVID-19 response investment, or c) work for a bilateral or multilateral and want to know what we are doing in response to COVID-19. To all of you, I say: PLEASE invest now in Water For People, or for that matter (in the spirit of collective action) in any of the Agenda For Change members. Investing NOW will help us ensure our partners are ready for NEXT time. Sadly, it’s too late for the communities that aren’t ready now. Water For People has known this for years! This pandemic only proves how right we’ve been. Don’t let this happen again. We have the solution, but it takes time and money and commitment to scale Everyone Forever, now more than ever.

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