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Q&A With Water for People's Eleanor Allen

Eleanor Allen with Santos Mendoza CastrejAâ-n and Beatriz Alvaradoweb

Water for People's Eleanor Allen (left) celebrats improved hygiene in Peru. Courtesy: Water for People


In July 2015, Eleanor Allen traded her job running a global water business to take up the reins at a global water nonprofit. Deeply affected by an early-career Peace Corps experience, Allen has always looked for ways to be most impactful with her life. Now, as Water For People’s CEO she’s part of changing lives across Latin America, Africa and India through the organization’s Everyone Forever model, where the endgame is sustainable, safe water and sanitation for every home, clinic and school in partner districts. Headwaters senior editor Jayla Poppleton interviewed Allen about her role in advancing an organizational strategy to meet the most basic of all human needs. 

 *This is the full transcript of the abridged interview that was published in the magazine.

HW: Your website states that 1.8 billion people worldwide don’t have access to safe water and 2.4 billion lack access to adequate sanitation, that women and children spend more than 4 hours walking for water each day, and that more than 840,000 people die each year from water-related diseases. By comparison, our water-related public health concerns in the United States sound like “first-world problems.” Can you provide additional perspective on what it means for so many people to lack access to these basic services?

EA: The big impacts that access to water and toilets have on people are having time for family, education, and work, and therefore a better quality of life. Imagine you had to walk for up to several miles to get water, bring it home and (maybe) boil it: you’ve just lost a few hours. The huge impact, particularly on women and children, is that’s time you’re unable to care for your family, you’re unable to work, or you can’t go to school. That has a huge ripple effect into economic productivity and quality of life. Giving people time to develop their families and their own economic prosperity is huge for the global economy, and that leads me to health. Getting people safe water provides a big boost in public health. If you’re not dying from water-borne disease, then you might be sick. Then you can’t work. This is a huge drain on productivity. We know that there is a five-fold return on investment for every dollar invested in water and sanitation on the economy for the boost in productivity. Children in developing countries have to work really hard to get an education, especially for girls, because they’re either walking for water or they’re not going to school because they have other work to do or they have their period and the schools don’t have toilets. One in four girls don’t finish elementary school versus one in seven boys. Girls are hugely at a disadvantage early in life. This leads to two-thirds of illiterate adults being women. This all changes dramatically when these basic fundamentals of life – water and toilets – are met.

HW: Water For People works in nine different countries, impacting 4 million lives. How did you choose these specific regions?

EA: In a way our countries chose us. We used to be in about 40 countries – all through connections of someone at Water For People or on the Board. We were building small projects all over the world, mostly with volunteers. When the volunteers returned home to the U.S. there was no one left in the communities that knew how to repair the infrastructure when it broke, and no money or spare parts to do so either.  It wasn’t just us that worked this way; it was pervasive. This is still chronic problem globally although many organizations are adopting a more sustainable systems-change approach like Water For People uses. Traditional water and sanitation development from the developed world to the developing world had a patronizing element – we’re giving these “gifts” of infrastructure and then we feel good. What these givers failed to realize was that the infrastructure is the smallest part of the gift. The gift we need to give is the education, capabilities, and institutions to operate and maintain the infrastructure so that it continues to work.

Five years, in 2011, ago we changed our strategy and created Everyone Forever. We went down from 40 countries to the nine countries we’re in with the mission to get sustainable water and sanitation services, forever, to every family, clinic and school in the districts where we work. We chose these nine countries because these were the places where we had the best relationships with governments, which we felt was critical to our success as we began creating service authorities. Getting everyone access to services by building the infrastructure is one challenge. Have the services last forever is definitely the harder part, and it is fully dependent on the local communities and the government – not Water For People. We help enable this shift to local empowerment/ownership by setting up local partnerships, having the government buy-in, and developing the institutions that are the equivalent of municipal water and sanitation utilities. The other thing we did in 2011 with Everyone Forever was redraw where we work in each country. Instead of delivering little projects in different places around our 40 countries, was that we took on large geographies, or districts, which is basically like a county, within our nine countries. We have 30 districts, and each district has tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people, and in each district there are dozens to hundreds of systems. In all 30 districts together we are working with 4 million people.

HW: When you’re working to increase access to “improved” water or sanitation, what does “improved” mean in practice?

EA: Improved means you don’t have to walk to a river, creek or other “natural” water source with your jerry cans to collect water. You either walk to a community hand pump, a community tap or you actually have a tap in your house. It’s taking the water from its natural state into some sort of infrastructure to get it closer to people, and hopefully with some treatment, when required, to make it safe to drink. Our ideal is getting everyone a household connection. We’re not there by any means but that’s our ideal. And our ideal is also that it’s not just the water from the creek in your house but it’s safe to drink. Those two things sound straightforward yet they are very hard to achieve. We take for granted our incredible, reliable, invisible infrastructure in the US. Yet to get to where we are today we started in the same place where we are in the countries where Water For People works. So it is possible to solve this crisis.

HW: What is the benchmark for establishing what constitutes “safe” drinking water across all of these varied locales?

EA: Every country has different water quality standards as well as a different standard to define the distance from each house that is reasonable “access” to an improved water source. It would be much simpler to have a global standard! We follow country systems and standards. Having safe water can be achieved in two ways: One, by delivering it through a system so that it is safe from the community tap/household tap/community well, like we have here in the U.S., or two, by assuming that people will take it from the community tap/household tap/community well and treat it at home using filters or chlorine to make it safe. The second method opens up more potential for recontamination if the home filters no longer work, or if it is treated then transferred to a dirty container, etc. So we strive to have it safe at each household. We still have a long way to go to achieve this goal yet it is our ideal, just like in the US. Even in the U.S. we need to be constantly vigilant to keep our water systems safe – think Flint, Michigan. We do know that when systems work and are properly managed water quality can be assured.

HW: How have you personally seen lives transformed as a result of gaining access to improved drinking water and sanitation?

EA: There are so many stories. Children in Guatemala that were malnourished due to parasites from poor water quality are now able to grow and thrive. I specifically remember one time after a community water system was inaugurated in the Dominican Republic, a woman, Doña Lucia, who I knew well, came up to me and gave me an egg. She said, “Elena, we are so happy as our lives have changed forever. Thank you. This is all I can give you to thank you.” It really changed their entire lives. And it was the best egg I ever had!

Toilets are pretty amazing and life changing too, especially for women. They can become a status symbol. Especially for women when they no longer have to risk rape and ridicule when open defecating and have the dignity and safety of their own toilet. In Sheohar, a really poor part of India where we work in Bihar state, there is a high rate of open defecation. There’s this huge push for toilets in all India as Prime Minister Modi is trying to end open defecation by 2019 with his Clean India program. That means he is trying to get 600 million people to not only get toilets, but to use them too – much harder. This is changing entire cultures’ millennia and tradition in just a few short years, and people need to be educated on why they should change, which takes time. Often toilets that are given away are not valued or understood and are used as a storage shed, and open defecation continues.

There is an interesting social phenomenon of demand creation for toilets by making them something desirable so they are valued. Then people will pay for them. There are more cell phones than toilets for this reason – people want cell phones more! However, developing a product that is desirable and affordable helps create a pull so and drives a “keeping up with the Joneses” phenomenon if the neighbors have the latest model and then you want it too. This goes for toilets too, especially if they have septic tanks that are visible, which is a sign of wealth. Basic toilets are available in India with a subsidy through Modi’s program. Where people are using them is where they’ll take the subsidy and they’ll put in extra money to get the septic tank or tile the walls or paint the outside – and they are so proud of their toilets! I met three women, Priya, Mallika and Sonya, in Sheohar. They went together to get a loan for toilets for all three of them. If any of them defaults the others pay. They are neighbors, so they won’t miss a payment without hearing about it. With this loan they could get the nicer toilet – and they love their toilets (they were really nice)! It’s interesting that when market movements are created to drive demand, there’s much faster change and more people get toilets. If you want something that you will be proud of and that you like, you will invest in it. This is how the toilet movement is taking off and moving faster and faster, not only in India but in Africa and Latin America too.


HW: Water For People makes a long-term commitment to monitoring its projects. Do you measure reduced rates of illness as part of that?

EA: We have really robust monitoring criteria for water and sanitation supply and usage. We measure access, level of service, water quality, reliability, and many other things that are pretty germane to water and sanitation. Every year we improve them and we can see how progress is made. For 2017, for example, we updated our monitoring to align with Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6). Progress is not always linear and up-and-to-the-right, as we would like. It mostly goes up and sometimes goes down when we have issues with floods and droughts, but also keeping up with that maintenance is crucial to sustained success. Our task is to transfer the monitoring and evaluation tasks from our local employees to the municipal employees that we’re training. They want to understand it and continue it in order to improve. It’s an interesting process of transitioning operations and maintenance responsibilities as we start to exit from some of our districts. Then it becomes all about them to continue to maintain levels of service, which is what we want.

A more difficult task is how to measure social indicators that can be linked to safe water and sanitation, like improved health and better school attendance. We have dozens of metrics, but we do not measure these types of changes. We do know anecdotally that there is socio-economic progress in our communities once they have reliable services. We have also been monitoring the connection between malnutrition and poor water quality (as I mentioned above), because if your belly is full of parasites, it is hard to get the food to you instead of the parasites. If kids get safe water and parasites go away, they’re in more school and they’re able to pay better attention and have a better chance of success. 

HW: How does Water For People transfer technologies and systems developed or refined in the U.S. to the communities in which you work?

EA: The technologies that we use are really basic and they have to be locally available. There’s no silver-bullet technology, although a lot of people would love it if there was! Technology is part of the solution and enables change. The real solution is setting up the systems and the governance and the institutions. Most technologies that we’re using come from the countries we work in. That’s the most sustainable, practical and cheapest way to build our systems. Most of the ideas come from where we work now, too, because our engineers are mostly local. We definitely have a direct line back to all of the engineering firms in the U.S that support us. They were our founders and they are still our partners. I come from these roots too! When we’re on the cutting edge of design in our countries (e.g. fluoride removal in water or membrane systems for latrine pit dewatering) and our local engineers do not have the experience or know-how, we can tap back into our resources here in the U.S. It makes us really unique because a lot of other nonprofits don't have the roots or connections that we do into the engineering community. We have this huge resource pool of really interested, enthusiastic fans who also really want to help solve the global water crisis. We are thankful we are able to get that support when we need it.

HW: Water For People promotes co-investing and co-financing by local entities. Tell us about why this local buy-in is important to project success.

EA: Across all of our nine countries’ programs together, the average that the municipalities co-invest in the capital phase to construct the systems is about 35 percent. In our experience when people co-invest they have skin in the game and are more committed to the success of the programs. We have one country, Rwanda, where the national government also funds part of our work. For operational expenses the service authorities set rates that cover their costs, and typically the systems are metered. We can help them do this using a rate model that we developed called “At What Cost” that helps the communities develop the right rate for their system. That is opposed to the prevalent “let’s just decide what everyone can pay” approach to rate setting, which always ends up being too low. And then when a pump breaks you have to go and get an “emergency” rate collection to replace the pump. That is typical and we’re trying to get away from that. If you just pay every month, and the pump breaks, you have the money saved.

We also promote women being part of the water committees, service authorities, and policy makers in their communities. Allowing women to be decision makers in their communities helps galvanize community buy-in. They’re often the ones that are home and they are often the ones who are most vocal about water and sanitation because it affects them more. So getting them empowered and engaged early often helps lead to success later. We also help facilitate microfinancing to families, often for toilets. Most of the loans are to women and they often have a higher payback rate than men.


HW: Why should Colorado organizations, particularly the water community, be investing in the outcomes you’re trying to achieve?

EA: While water is always a local issue, it is more often becoming a global issue. In fact it is the top global risk, according to the World Economic Forum. As water professionals, we have the know-how and financial ability to help solve the global water crisis. I feel that we should do whatever we can to help others have these basic services that we have enjoyed our entire lives living in the US.

HW: The U.N. Sustainable Development Goal No. 6, SDG6, released in January 2016 aims to achieve universal availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation services by 2030. Is this doable, and what do you think it will take to get there?

EA: The rate of investment globally right now is around $10 billion a year in water and sanitation. And it’s $50 to $100 billion per year to get to SDG6. That is five to ten times the investment we are making today between government, aid, philanthropy and corporations. This additional funding needs to come from national governments through higher taxes or reprioritization of national funding, and aid needs to increase. As a philanthropic entity we are tiny compared to the real investment required. Yet we are a catalyst and we are synergistic with the other funders.

On the scale of the world economy, $50 billion to $100 billion is really not that much money. The money is out there in the world – we spend that much on Black Friday every year! My belief is that money needs to be reallocated for this purpose, to finally solve this crisis. And 2030 with SDG6 gives us a great target to shoot for.

Plus there is a return on this investment – 5:1. And the good news is that there is a solution to the global water and sanitation crisis. We know how to solve this crisis; it needs the investment. But it’s not just the money; it’s also the leadership to build the institutions, national systems, and regulatory frameworks to support water and sanitation. I think we’re well on our way to SDG6 for water. Sanitation is more complicated and we’re much farther behind. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens over the next 14 years on the road to 2030. One hundred and ninety three countries signed the SDGs and said they could achieve them. Most, if not all, don’t have a plan yet on how to do this. We are helping develop country plans for Uganda, Rwanda, and Bolivia. The next several years will be very exciting as the bankable investment plans are built to support these national plans for full coverage. I am glad we are part of this movement!


HW: What keeps you personally motivated in the face of such a daunting task?

EA: I am energized every day when I see the progress we are making. Our work is complicated and difficult, and on some days I wish we could make progress faster, but I have peace of mind knowing we are doing the right thing. And we have proof that we are making progress to help solve a crisis that is solvable. I take great comfort in knowing that we are reaching millions of people and changing their lives. Forever. Small investment in what we do results in a large reward.

Hear more from Eleanor Allen about Water For People’s work by tuning into her June 2016 TEDx Talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=--uWCAOehOo.


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