Students Speaking Up and Taking Action: Penn’s Year of Water

The Center for High Impact Philanthropy is contributing to Penn’s 2010-2011 Year of Water by highlighting the ideas and actions of students and social entrepreneurs within the Penn community. Last week for’s Blog Action Day on Water, Sascha Murillo, research assistant at CHIP and a senior in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences (SAS), Health & Societies program, shared her Notes from the Field about her international experiences with Penn Engineers Without Borders. This week, Amy Woodrum, a new intern at CHIP and also a Penn SAS senior and Health & Societies major, makes her blog debut on the topic of Water.

I had the chance to revisit a post about the drawbacks of PlayPump International and the risks of innovation in philanthropy—how trying to do too much often falls short for the individuals who need it most.

Oftentimes, new approaches can emerge from a focus on a donor’s internal need to innovate than from a “needs-on-the-ground” focus on the external impact of the donation. While groundbreaking approaches to philanthropy have the potential to reinvent a global issue, it’s important to be wary of a “magic bullet” to solve decades-old problems that are complex and require a multi-factorial understanding of an issue. In this push for innovation, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that perennial problems require long-term cooperation with local communities, and site-specific solutions to global issues.

This concern is particularly relevant when considering the issue of water access and sanitation, also last week’s Blog Action Day annual focus, and a topic being highlighted at Penn through the University’s 2010-2011 Year of Water. With nearly 1 billion people without access to safe drinking water, and approximately 42,000 deaths weekly from unsafe hygiene and sanitation, water purity and access is one of the most serious and widespread global issues we face today.1 Additionally, lack of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene contribute to leading causes of deaths for kids under age 5.2

Although these figures seem daunting, problems of access and sanitation occur on a community-by-community basis. Implementing a broad-based solution without understanding the unique barriers each community faces in water access and sanitation will inevitably lead to failure. In this manner it is important to look for organizations that possess local knowledge of the causes and social determinants of water insecurity. Philanthropic efforts that don’t empower individuals in the community or plan for long-term sustainable solutions will deter local acceptance of the changes that are occurring. Additionally, behavioral modifications will be increasingly difficult if the community is not involved in the planning or implementation of a solution from the beginning.

I followed up with the fate of communities who had implemented PlayPump International’s water pumps, and learned that most of the defective pumps were handed over to Water for People, a nonprofit whose guiding philosophy approaches the massive problem of water access and sanitation from a local perspective to ensure sustainability:

“We keep it local: We believe that water, sanitation, and hygiene problems are most effectively solved using local resources. We keep good company: We search out trusted partners who share our vision and work together to build long-term relationships based on trust.”3

Water for People is just one of many organizations that empower communities by breaking down massive problems on a case-by-case basis. Although we have a long way to go in water sanitation and accessibility, approaches like this are an important way to combat worldwide problems, one instance at a time.

Our work at the Center hasn’t included a profile of the cost per impact of  Water for People’s model but as Amy noted, it is good to learn of organizations who recognize the importance of being connected and involved with the communities they aim to serve. Brittany Young, Penn SAS sophomore and founder of A Spring of Hope,  gave a brief recount of her “on-the-ground” experience when visiting South Africa:

I watched the upsetting Frontline report before heading off to South Africa this year, and while there, actually encountered a broken Playpump, reflecting the same message as the report. A Spring of Hope met with the high school that made use of the pump, and the principal told us of its ills. First off, high school students were never very interested on spinning on the playground-style wheel. Their minimal involvement halted when the pump stopped operating for the first time. It now hasn’t worked for over a year and students tote expensive bottled water to school.

We hope to hear more from Brittany, Amy, Sascha, and other Penn students and young social entrepreneurs as they navigate their academic challenges, along with real life experiences, in the quest to improve social conditions and generate positive social impact.

1 “Facts and Figures on Water Quality and Health.” (2010) World Health Organization. 13 October 2010.

2 UNICEF. (2006). Progress for Children: a Report Card on Water and Sanitation (5th ed.). New York: UNICEF.

3 “Mission, Vision, and Guiding Principles.” (2010) Water for People: The Current of Change. 13 October 2010.