Matt Damon And Gary White On The World's Water Crisis

Apr 21, 2017
Originally published on April 21, 2017 7:09 am
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Hundreds of millions of people lack access to clean water. And our next guests have been working to change that. The actor Matt Damon is a founder of along with co-founder Gary White. And we sat down with both of them yesterday afternoon in Washington, D.C., at the spring meetings of the World Bank. Matt Damon told us it was a trip to Zambia that really got him interested in this issue. He met a young girl who was collecting water for her family.

MATT DAMON: She came into the hut and grabbed a jerrycan. And we walked about a mile together, where there was a well in her village. And as I was talking to her on this walk, I kind of had this great connection with her. She was 14 years old. And I started to ask her - I started to grill her about her future and said, are you going to stay here in the village? Is this where you want to live? And she said no, no, no. I want to move to the big city. I want to go to Lusaka. I'm going to be a nurse. And I just had this great connection with her.

And as I was driving away, I realized that had someone not had the foresight to sink this borewell in her village, the conversation would have been quite different. She would have spent her life, her entire day, scavenging for water. She wouldn't be in school. Water collection falls, you know, disproportionately on the women and the girls in these families. So a lot of girls aren't in school because they're scavenging for water for their family.

GREENE: And so Gary, you guys are here at the World Bank talking to a lot of finance ministers from around the globe. What is your central message right now?

GARY WHITE: Well, the central message is, you know, we need to work on finance not just from the top down but from the bottom up. And so what we've created is water credit because the poor right now are paying billions of dollars in terms of the coping cost every day. If they're not scavenging for water, like Matt mentioned, they're paying for it to water vendors. You know, I've met people in Honduras who are paying 25 percent of their income to get their water from these vendors, water of dubious quality.

And so the whole concept is let's redirect all of those billions of dollars to help people get access through loans. So instead of paying a water vendor, you pay your loan payment each month or week. And you use that loan to get a water connection to the utility because it might cost $200 to get connected and to get the plumbing and to pay for the right to do that or to build a toilet. And so that's the whole concept here.

GREENE: So was traditional charity just failing to get enough people access to clean water?

WHITE: I think so. I think the demand out there is still 663 million, 2.4 billion who lack sanitation. So the water and sanitation crisis is still huge for so many people. And yes, traditional philanthropy was never going to be enough. It would take about $1 trillion to solve the global water crisis right now. And what we're seeing is basically $8 billion a year in kind of development assistance and philanthropy going in. So...

GREENE: That's not going to make a dent.

WHITE: It's not going to make a dent, so we have to look at more creative solutions and using that philanthropic money as a catalyst to correct these market failures.

DAMON: Gary's being - he's being a little modest because this was a really incredible innovation and an insight that he had which, in retrospect, doesn't seem like a lot. But at the time, he really had to bring people around to his way of thinking, which was just, A, that poor people were already paying. Right? And so that was the first insight after spending so many years in these communities.

And they didn't have savings, but they were paying on a daily basis. But if you could front them the money, they would be able to pay it back. His hunch was - I mean, you know, as he said, these things are paying off at 99 percent. And we - you know, we've reached now over 5.5 million people.

GREENE: The numbers are large and impressive. But I wonder if there's, like, one story or person, Matt, that stands out to you who you've come across in your travels.

DAMON: There are a lot of stories. I mean, every trip we go on, we meet people, and there are these incredible stories. I mean, there was a girl in Haiti. I remember having this conversation with this real hotshot little girl. She was like 13. And my oldest at the time was 13, so this would have been about five years ago. And I asked her - now that she had access to water 'cause she had been spending, you know, hours every day collecting water - and I said, well, what are you going to do with all this free time? Are you going to do homework? And she looked at me like disdainfully and said, like, I don't need more time to do homework. I'm the smartest in my class. And the way she said it, like, I knew she was telling the truth.


DAMON: And I said, so what are you going to do with all this extra time you have? And she looked me right in the eye and she goes, I'm going to play. And it just buckled my legs because - at this idea that this kid hadn't had time to play. She hadn't had time to be a 13-year-old girl. And again, it's one of those other incalculable kind of impacts that this can have when you bring somebody access like that.

GREENE: Matt, you know, there's some big American foundations and companies that are coming to give to your cause. I just think about the moment where we are in this country - there's a debate about, you know, whether more focus and resources should be given to people in the United States who might be out of work, who might be impoverished, who might even struggle to get food and water. I mean, make the case to an American that it's worth taking some resources and money out of this country and sending it abroad instead of focusing it here at home.

DAMON: Sure. Yeah. Well, for one, I don't think it's a zero-sum game, you know. But I think it's a lot less of a percentage of the budget than people realize. And it's smart money. I mean, for every dollar you're putting in to the water sector, you're getting back seven. So it just makes sense. When we were talking earlier about - James Mattis said - the defense secretary said, you know - I'm paraphrasing - but essentially what he said was, you know, for every dollar you're taking away from the soft power, you know, you're going to have to buy me more bullets, you know.

And so I think, depending on the angle at which you approach this thing, you know, whether it's from a national security perspective or whether it's from the moral perspective or whether it's just from a practical perspective, these things really work. And that's another thing Americans who are polled constantly about this stuff really respond to, is they respond to stuff that works.

GREENE: I was just talking to Stephen Moore, who's one of Donald Trump's economic advisers. And he said that there is just no clear evidence that at least development programs that are funded by government have raised living standards in Africa and elsewhere. Is - does he have a point?

WHITE: Well, we know that 2.5 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the last two-and-a-half decades. And I think we do need to look more rigorously about how we deliver subsidies and philanthropic capital and so on.

GREENE: You think some money has been wasted in the programs...

WHITE: Oh, yeah, undoubtedly. We can see that with the water projects that have failed, you know, around the world. But the key is this isn't just all about charity anymore. This is about impacting investing, for instance. So you know, work creating - we're correcting market failures that open the door for capital to flow in that doesn't have to be charity.

DAMON: The other thing I would just add to that is just, you know - and I think that's a tendency that we all have. It's very easy for us to go, oh, there's waste, you know, so let's just not do it anymore. And I don't think that's the answer. I think the answer is let's do it better and let's do it smarter. And there are ways to do it if you stick to it.

GREENE: So you welcome some conservatives sort of holding your feet to the fire and...

DAMON: Of course, yes. Yeah.

GREENE: ...Saying more and more show us that this is actually working?

DAMON: Of course, yes. Yeah.

GREENE: The voice there of Matt Damon, the actor, and also Gary White. They are co-founders of

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