Archives For water

We’ve been thinking a lot recently about how most people view philanthropy. We’ve been thinking that they view charitable giving  as something intensely private, something that comes from goodwill, from the heart, something that ought not to be confused with the rest of life, with numbers, with market norms.

We’ve been thinking that many people don’t really want to focus on the tough issues, on the “why?” for philanthropy: That 3 billion people, almost half of our world’s population, lives in poverty on less than US$2.50 a day, that 1 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water, that 24,000 children die daily from poverty.

And then beyond poverty, the environmental challenges we face from increasing temperatures and rising sea levels to disappearing forests, from dramatic declines in fish populations to loss of terrestrial biodiversity.

We’ve been thinking that maybe we genuinely don’t have time in our busy lives to focus on what’s happening in the developing world or even the next neighborhood over, or maybe we just don’t want to see for lack of solution. What can we do, after all but write that check and feel that we have done our part?

It is true, that poverty, water shortages and the myriad environmental challenges don’t yet directly impact most of our own lives, which are full enough of each day’s stress.  So when it comes to philanthropy, to volunteering, we want to just enjoy the giving.

We prefer to contribute with emotion, with friends, regardless of the cause, without looking at numbers, statistics, without necessarily thinking about the end result. We want to give to what we know, what we assume will work, what we believe has always worked. We want the safe option, to be part of a community of people doing the right thing in the comfort of friends.

Understandable when we consider that the word philanthropy, loosely translates from its Greek roots as “love for humanity.”

But the reality is there is much more good work that could be done with the US$300 billion Americans give each year – an estimated 45 percent of world philanthropy. And the reality also is that to fix the damaged world our children will inherit, the poverty of our burgeoning world population, we must offer more than just “doing good” as an answer.

We must work against the sense of cross-purposes involved in thinking about the application of market norms to things social if we are to make the real and urgently needed change.  We must pay attention to the issues to which we are giving and use our philanthropy wisely to ensure we are indeed part of the solution.

There is precedent for doing more. We can look into philanthropy’s not so distant past to see that the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts were as innovative as it came in their charitable works. And of course it was Andrew Carnegie who so famously recognized the need for smart philanthropy, warning that most charitable acts go awry.

At essence, the philanthropy sector must draw on all resources at its disposal to build codes and gather information on and publicize successful or failed practices, we must learn to harness markets more effectively, to innovate around business models that can bring the sweeping changes we so badly need. There needs to be more tolerance of risk with charitable dollars.

Of course some of this is already happening with the growth of venture philanthropy, micro-credit and social entrepreneurship, with new models of investing for social impact, but there needs to be more and faster.

How can we promote transformation, not just in the professional philanthropic sector, but also among donors, which in turn will fuel change among implementing non-profits? How can we transform the attention paid to short-term results into a more patient investing in our future?

I recently spent some days in Bangladesh with Friendship and the excellent social enterprise’s executive director, Runa Khan. Friendship works with tens of thousands of the world’s most-vulnerable people who live in the northern Chars, remote and shifting sandbar islands that flood in winter and suffer drought in the summer.

Located about seven hours from Dhaka, these must be some of the most inhospitable habitats anywhere and consequently life expectancy for the forgotten people is only late 40s. In the rains, the islands shrink to slips of land with a few banana trees, with inhabitants and their livestock often forced to rooftops to survive the floods. In the heat of summer, the walks to the villages are often as long as three kilometers from the river through unforgiving sand.

An estimated 4 million nomadic people inhabit the 200 islands woven through the Brahmaputra river where land flattens toward the Bay of Bengal. The sand dwellers migrate from one island to another as much as 50 times in a lifetime, carrying with them their tin houses in the floods.

Climate change is clearly felt in Bangladesh’s distant northern and equally distant southern regions, where Friendship is almost alone among NGOs in working. Government reach here is also limited, Khan says. The people used to at least have certainty about the weather patterns but now the rains and droughts are harder to predict and more extreme, she says.

Friendship started its work more than ten years ago providing health care to the communities on a specially outfitted hospital barge, brought from France by Khan’s now husband, French sailor Yves Marre.  Now two hospital ships and an ambulance boat ply the Brahmauptra spending a month or two in each location, offering primary care at about US 10 cents for men, 5-7 cents for women and children as well as affordable basic surgery to the region’s weather-beaten inhabitants.

From medical care, Friendship has extended into education, (both for children and adults), livelihood and vocational support, working closely with communities to help them meet all their needs. With a staff of around 350, a complex schedule of foreign doctors and other medical professionals who fly in for specialized care, Friendship works with an estimated 40-50,000 people previously served mostly by microfinance providers, who often prayed on the extreme poverty.

Khan points out that although microfinance can work for people with at least some education and means of support, it is often not appropriate for the poorest, who will use any available funds simply to buy food for their families.    Many lenders, she says, show up on the islands with offers of cash, promising interest rates of only 10 percent annually. Without knowledge of basic arithmetic, the people take the money, spend it and then must meet the payments that often add up to rates closer to 50 percent, she says. And these are some of the better microcredit institutions. Money lenders charge as much as 120 percent.

“When we first start working with a char one of the first things we must do is unwind the microfinance loans,” Khan says. “People at that level of poverty need grants and other forms of support not loans.”

Khan says that the char people more than anything need, “hope for tomorrow” and Friendship offers education where there were no schools, healthcare where there were no doctors, livelihoods where people had none, community organization where people were disperse and disaster preparedness where there wasn’t any. A focus is on discussion, trading information, and building savings to prepare for years where the floods or droughts are life-threatening or force a relocation.

Friendship is also working to create a harmonious environment in the stark landscapes, building appropriate and local farming techniques for sand, bringing in solar where they can – with an emphasis on keeping people in their places of birth. Without Friendship, many people from these regions have swelled the slums of Dhaka in search of work.

Schools can be disassembled in three hours and moved to higher ground, girls are taught weaving and dying – skills that help them contribute to the family income and avoid an early marriage (12-14 was the norm before Friendship arrived). Community health workers are trained and sent to the villages, where they teach local people about nutrition, sanitation, about warning signs in a pregnancy and basic child health techniques. They also can dispense basic medicines.

“We listen to the communities, hear their needs and respond in ways that are appropriate,” says Khan of Friendship, which is surely one of the more innovative organizations I have seen.

Asia Water Project: China

Lisa Genasci —  February 25, 2010 — 1 Comment

The ADM Capital Foundation and Civic Exchange today launched in beta the Asia Water Project: China and AWP’s first piece of commissioned research, Water in China: Issues for Responsible Investors, authored by the independent research company Responsible Research, which is Singapore based.

Feels great to get the water portal birthed and visible, even if it’s only in testing phase ahead of the official launch on March 18 in Hong Kong. That will happen with IPE’s Ma Jun, who was the inspiration behind the water portal. It was a desire to translate Ma Jun’s data from the IPE website that names and shames water and air polluters in China, (see Jan. blog) that first inspired ADMCF to create AWP. Ma Jun, who wrote the first major book on China’s water crisis in 2000, uses only government emissions and penalties data on his site and in that way has been allowed to work relatively unimpeded in China.

ADMCF saw there was space to fill a lacuna in information relating to China’s water supply, management and pollution and at the same time better inform investors. We see there are both risks and opportunities in China’s growing crisis. Informed investors can help shape how companies respond to water challenges. Ina Pozon, who has built and manages AWP and ADMCF environment director, Sophie Le Clue,  have worked tirelessly in recent weeks with freelance writer, Pua Mench, to get the site in shape. Still work to do but today we are a big step closer!

Bloomberg sponsored today’s event, which featured Christine Loh of the CE, Lucy Carmody of RR and Guo Peiyuan of Beijing’s SynTao, an AWP partner and participant in the RR water research.

The research, found here: http://www.asiawaterproject.org, showed that China may be looking at trade-offs between access to clean water and economic growth. At the national level, China’s water shortages are thought responsible for direct economic losses of US$35 billion every year.  This is 2.5 times the average annual losses due to floods.

The report points out that sectors where China dominates globally, such as in steel, textile, paper and forest products, are heavily water intensive. Fluctuations in quantity and quality of water supply in these industries carry significant potential risks to earnings.

The new report draws on case studies from ten industries that have the most impact on water in China including agriculture, forest products, textiles and beverages. As water becomes increasingly material to investors in China, they will need to be more pro-active in looking at how listed companies are addressing supply issues.

While there is some understanding of water-related risks to companies and investors, “a key barrier is the lack of reliable, comprehensive information on water issues in China,” according to Ina. “The Asia Water Project has a unique role to play in fast-tracking this trend, through its commissioned research and its new web-based information portal.”

Earlier this month, the Chinese government released the findings of a pollution survey that show water pollution levels in 2007 were more than twice the official estimate, in part because previous reporting had failed to take agricultural contamination of water supplies into account.

Christine Loh reads this as good news that the Chinese government has done its homework and now understands that “the problem is as big as it is urgent.” She anticipates that “there will be more dialogue and debate in China this year” as government plans require reductions in wastewater pollution that are not easy.

The new investor report  also highlights some shocking statistics: 70 percent of China’s rivers and lakes are “significantly” contaminated, 50 percent of the country’s cities have polluted groundwater and over 30 percent of China is affected by acid rain.