Modern Day Patriots: Gary White

This Independence Day, FOX Fan is honoring modern-day men and women who have devoted their lives to a cause. From feeding New York’s hungry to healing the smiles of children around the world, the contributions of these five people are vast. Their work serves as an inspiration and a reminder on this July 4th to fight for what you believe in.

Gary White is the co-founder of WaterPartners International, a U.S. organization working to provide clean water to people in developing nations. What began as a single fundraising event, has grown into a life-time project for Gary, one that has already helped thousands of people around the globe.

FOX Fan: What is the mission of WaterPartners International?

Gary White: WaterPartners’ mission is to empower people in developing countries to gain access to clean water and basic sanitation. WaterPartners’ vision, my vision, is the day when everyone in the world can take a safe drink of water.

FF: WaterPartners began as a single dinner, correct? How did the organization take off from there?

GW: WaterPartners began in 1990 with a fundraising event held in a church hall that I organized to build a water system for a village in Honduras. Those humble beginnings started a ripple that expanded across the country to include many more supporters. WaterPartners was formally incorporated in 1993, and since that time, it has helped hundreds of communities obtain safe water supplies and improved sanitation systems in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In 2004, WaterPartners launched pilot projects for its WaterCredit Initiative in Bangladesh and Kenya with the support of the Open Square Foundation and Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. WaterCredit facilitates small loans for water and sanitation for people without access to commercial credit. Today, more than 110,000 people in India, Bangladesh and Kenya have received WaterCredit loans. A recent $4.1 million grant from the PepsiCo Foundation is helping WaterPartners scale up its WaterCredit efforts in India. In 2009, WaterPartners received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship for our efforts in bringing about large-scale, system change in the water and sanitation sector.

FF: What made you decide to dedicate your life to this cause? Why is it such an important one to you?

GW: I believe that if you see something wrong with the world, you should work to fix it. It still boggles my mind that as far as we have progressed as a global society we still have not found a way to get safe water to those living with out it. Today, one in eight people on earth lack access to clean drinking water and twice as many people, 2.5 billion, lack access to a safe toilet.

There is a great urgency here – every 15 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease. We’re not waiting on a magic cure; we know how to bring people clean water. The solutions are available and affordable: only $25 brings someone access to clean water for life.

I’m doing everything in my power to convince our global community that we must invest in bringing people access to these most basic necessities. Per dollar invested, there is no other intervention that brings about greater improvements in health and economic development and reductions in child mortality than access to safe water and sanitation.

FF: What is the most challenging part of your work?

GW: The most challenging part of my work is developing solutions that are effective and scalable. There will never be enough philanthropy in the world to get safe water and sanitation to all those in need. Simply drilling wells for people for free—straight charity—is not scalable. We need smart philanthropy that works within the slipstream of market forces. It is challenging to find ways to help people that employ market-based approaches and still helps them emerge form poverty. I believe we must serve people at the bottom of the economic pyramid and act in their best interest. For those in extreme poverty that means subsidies. For others, it can mean affordable credit so they can pursue water and sanitation solutions that best meet their own needs. This work is challenging because it calls for more than a one-size-fits-all solution.

FF: What inspires you to continue this effort on a day-to-day basis?

GW: I am inspired by the countless people I encounter who are working tirelessly to make safe water a reality in their slums and villages. With both our grant-based and WaterCredit-based programs, the people we serve do the hard work of getting projects built and operating and maintaining them. It is difficult to describe the dramatic change these communities experience once they have ready access to safe water. Instead of walking hours each day and then drinking water that causes disease and death, people now have safe water nearby. Each time I see a child growing up and going to school – a child who would have perished without the safe water project – I am re-inspired to continue this work.

FF: WaterPartners’ goal is to work with local people to build water systems. Why is community involvement so important?

GW: For a project to be successful and sustainable in the long-run, communities must be viewed and must view themselves as the owners of the project. All of our projects are demand-driven, which means that the communities have asked for the project and are invested in it from the outset.

Communities select, with technical input from our local partner organization, the type of project, what local materials to use, where it will be located, and how much it will cost. This ensures that the technology selected for the project – and the cost associated with it – is appropriate to the community and their particular situation. Plus, when local technology is used, materials are readily available, which allows projects to be quickly and easily repaired.

Communities also participate in the construction of their water project, which helps to reduce capital costs of the projects, and increases community commitment. In addition, it allows the community to better understand how the technology works. All water systems require regular maintenance and at some point, repair. WaterPartners equips community members with the skills and strategies needed to handle system maintenance and repair. The regular maintenance fees collected by the communities’ water committees pay for these costs. Helping communities to address such needs is integral to providing lasting solutions.

FF: Is there a story of a person, family, or community that WaterPartners has helped that has particularly touched or influenced you?

GW: An experience in India helped me realize that we could leverage resources from the people in need of clean water and sanitation to complement the funding we received from donors. I was talking to Gowrammal, a 65-year-old woman in the Valmiki Nagar slum of Hyderabad. Each day, she traveled down a steep, rocky hill to an open field to defecate. Desperate for a toilet and the dignity it would provide, she took out a $50 loan from a loan shark at a 110% interest rate. This was a woman who earned about $5 per week as a street vendor. I realized how access to affordable credit could empower Gowrammal and others like her to seek water and sanitation solutions.

FF: Do you envision yourself continuing to work for this cause for years to come?

GW: Absolutely – as a social entrepreneur I love to innovate and the global water and sanitation crisis demands new and creative solutions. I love coming to work every day and finding fresh ways to approach this problem and to inspire people in the US to help. But, the most important reason I remain committed to this cause – and will for years to come –is my firm belief that with the right approaches, in my lifetime I will see global access to safe water become a reality.

For more information on WaterPartners International, click here.

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