Water And Sanitation Expert Ned Breslin Challenges Industry Routine In Africa
As resource distribution issues grow increasingly global, so do the organizations dedicated to solving them. From the Wounded Warrior Project to Water for People, Ned Breslin has used his experience to transform how nongovernmental organizations approach issues of water and sanitation in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Breslin, who now leads Colorado’s Tennyson Center for Children, was introduced to water and sanitation issues during his time as a student at St. Lawrence University. He’s since spent over two decades living and working in African communities. One of his early experiences with women and water became a lasting motivation in his career.
Breslin was working along the Ethiopian border, with a migrant community known as the Gabra. His organization was trying to strengthen the community’s ability to migrate 12-15 times per year without depleting permanent water resources.
“I remember this one morning I got up. It was early, like 6:30 or 7 in the morning. And there was a caravan of people crossing the desert--they were all girls or moms, with camels, and they had huge water sacks, camel skin water sacks on the backs of their camels. And we were talking--you know, it was hot, the wind's starting to blow, the sun's up--and I'll never forget it,” Breslin told KGOU’s World Views. “There was this girl, and she was probably 12 or 13 years old. And she was angry. She was really angry. And she was angry about two things. She was basically saying, ‘why have we stopped and talked to this [white guy], because we have a long way to go.’ And if you looked across the desert, you had no idea where they came from, and no idea where they were going.”
During that first trip to Ethiopia, Breslin was struck by the gender dynamic at play in water issues.
“He was basically saying, that's my mom. And I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life. And I was outraged by that. Completely outraged by that,” Breslin said. “And so water and sanitation, to me, has always been a women's issue. It's a girls' issue. If you care about those things, if you care about girls and women, then water and sanitation is for you.”
When Breslin began to work on water issues from an NGO sector, he quickly identified structural problems that limited the sector’s impact. He says during the 20 years he spent in Africa, he spent 70 percent of his time fixing failed water projects.
“It isn't about just putting in a hand pump, and saying ‘Voila!, there you go, off and manage it.’ It's about building up supply chains around it. It's about building up financial responsibility, and management around. It's about making sure the water quantity and quality is sufficient for the whole area. And it's about getting government to do its job,” Breslin said.
By engaging local governments in the funding and decision making process, Breslin and Water for Everyone saw notable improvements in local water infrastructure. Now, after a career in multiple organizations across the nonprofit sector, Breslin still sees a future for innovation in the area he has coined “hydrophilanthropy.”
“I think there's a growing recognition that, show me you can leverage the funds you have, and multiply them--and that's actually a more compelling story, frankly, to a donor,” Breslin said.
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On his introduction to water issues
I was fortunate when I went to university--I went to St. Lawrence University in upstate New York--and there was a professor there from Somalia, named Ahmed Samatar. He saw something in me. I still don't really know what. And he kind of threw me into northern Kenya. St. Lawrence has a program there. It's a really good program. And Ahmed was--He's kind of a generalist. Maybe leans a bit towards agriculture. And I ended up on a water project, up on the Ethiopian border.
On bringing his strategies to different types of nonprofits
We basically designed city-wide initiatives where we said, "Could you imagine a situation where every veteran and their family within the city of Norman, or Oklahoma City, or Houston, gets the support services and care that they need, and serves and contributes and reshapes the city? Can you show, not only how you unleash veterans in a new space, but can you also show how unleashing veterans changes and improves cities for good? So it got me thinking, yeah, the principles are the same, even if I went from taps and toilets to veterans in the US. It's kind of fun.
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Ned Breslin, welcome to World Views.
NED BRESLIN: Thanks so much for having me.
GRILLOT: It's great to have you here. So, you've had this long history as a social entrepreneur. You've won an award for social entrepreneurship. Tell us a little about the work that you've done, mainly in the area of water—how did you become a social entrepreneur? How did you do that, why did you do that, how did you end up spending so much time in Africa?
BRESLIN: Well, I was fortunate when I went to university--I went to St. Lawrence University in upstate New York--and there was a professor there from Somalia, named Ahmed Samatar. He saw something in me. I still don't really know what. And he kind of threw me into northern Kenya. St. Lawrence has a program there. It's a really good program. And Ahmed was--He's kind of a generalist. Maybe leans a bit towards agriculture. And I ended up on a water project, up on the Ethiopian border, and if you can imagine what that looks like-- and the people who live there are known as the Gabra, and they migrate quite extensively, 12-15 times a year. So they're very mobile. They move between Ethiopia and Kenya, and they don't really recognize either state. They kind of talk about "what's going on down there in Kenya, and what's going on up there in Ethiopia." They see themselves as quite independent. And you know, the work was fascinating. We were looking at a whole bunch of ways to strengthen their ability to migrate without depleting water resources, permanent water resources. So there were a lot of dams and reservoirs and things to keep them in non-permanent water sources for a little longer, so the environment could regenerate. And I remember this one morning I got up. It was early, like 6:30 or 7 in the morning. And there was a caravan of people crossing the desert--they were all girls or moms, with camels, and they had huge water sacks, camel skin water sacks on the backs of their camels. And we were talking--you know, it was hot, the wind's starting to blow, the sun's up--and I'll never forget it. There was this girl, and she was probably 12 or 13 years old. And she was angry. She was really angry. And she was angry about two things. She was basically saying, "why have we stopped and talked to this [white guy], because we have a long way to go." And if you looked across the desert, you had no idea where they came from, and no idea where they were going. And the second thing that really struck me was, she was basically saying, that's my mom. And I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life. And I was outraged by that. Completely outraged by that. And so water and sanitation, to me, has always been a women's issue. It's a girls' issue. If you care about those things, if you care about girls and women, then water and sanitation is for you. And I ended up spending the next 20 years in Africa, and another 10 back in the United States working on water and sanitation issues. What you're talking about is the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, so we were honored. I was running an organization called Water For People in Denver, Colorado, and we had programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And we basically kind of blew up the way the sector operated. We basically said, we're actually getting nowhere. We're doing these little bitty projects all over the place, a project here, a project there--there's no real flow to it. And the sustainability isn't very good, the monitoring isn't very good. And frankly, if we were going to imagine a way to solve this problem, we wouldn't work like this at all. So, we came up with a program called "Everyone Forever." Which is very simple: we basically identify 30 districts and cities around the world, so not a village, but hundreds of thousands of villages within a geographically defined government area--so there's a local government, or a city government. And we said, the outcome of our work has to be that every family, every school, and every clinic got access to water and sanitation and never needed an international NGO ever again. And those are two things that are quite measurable. And so what we did is we unlocked Ministry of Finance money. We took very small amounts of philanthropic capital that we had. You know, everyone always talks about oh, we need more money, we need more grant money, we need more money from USAid, blah, blah, blah. And we said, no. Actually, there's a ton of money out there within the Ministry of Finance that's not being utilized, so let's use our philanthropic capital. Let's get money flowing from the Ministry of Finance. Let's help districts and cities become good investments so they manage their money well, they implement effectively, they report on it--and let's model what a world looks like where everyone has access to water and doesn't need external support again. People thought we were nuts. There were kind of patronizing comments about it, you know, this small NGO in Denver, who do you think you are. But then one district got full coverage, verified by the national government. Then another district got coverage. Then all of a sudden, all these districts started moving forward. Mayors started to brag. They basically said to other mayors, "I'm solving a development problem, and I'm accessing Ministry of Finance money, and once I finish with water and sanitation, I'm going to do Everyone Forever in education, or agriculture, and I'm going to not only be the best mayor in this town, but I'm also going to run for president someday." And it's amazing what a little competition does. So, the Skoll Award was basically in recognition for our work in reimagining the way the water sector could operate, by getting government more involved, getting government more financially involved, and using philanthropic capital as it should-- As a catalyst, but not as the sole driver.
GRILLOT: Well, I want to get to that concept of the philanthropic work, because I'm really intrigued by some of the writing you've done, and you talk about rethinking “hydrophilanthropy.” And I want to talk about that in a second, but when you refer to-- Just for clarification, when you refer to the way in which the water sector works, can you just be a little more specific? I've got visions in my head of the technical side of things, and the technology of providing clean water, and moving that water, and then obviously managing these relationships, creating coalitions, using government and other resources to make this happen. When you say that these communities have full coverage-- What exactly are we talking about when we talk about the water sector, all the people that are involved, and when you pointed out water coverage-- Can you just clarify that?
BRESLIN: Sure, it's a great question. So, you know the story. You know this girl. There's a girl in ratty clothes who has a bucket in her hand. She walks down a path. She misses school. She goes to this disgusting puddle at the bottom of a hill. She fills it up, she puts it on her head, she walks back and she does that all day. The family gets sick, and all that. That's sort of the story of the water sector. There are all these girls going and fetching water. What the water sector has never told, or rarely tells, is that girl was passing a hand pump, or a tap, put in by an NGO or a government agency or USAid or something like that. So the water sector is generally operated based on input. So you have a girl, you have a community without water, so let's just put in infrastructure. And Africa, Asia, and Latin America are riddled with broken infrastructure. When I lived in Africa for about 20 years, I spent 70 percent of my time fixing failed water projects. And the reason it didn't work is because the problem is much more complicated. It isn't about just putting in a hand pump, and saying viola, there you go, off and manage it. It's about building up supply chains around it. It's about building up financial responsibility, and management around. It's about making sure the water quantity and quality is sufficient for the whole area. And it's about getting government to do its job. And so what we did was instead of doing what every other organization was basically doing--"I'll pick a village and put in a project, and cut a ribbon and tell a good story"--we basically said no, we're going to build the water ecosystem around not just this village, but every village within this district. We're going to track results for 10 years, which was unheard of at the time, because people tracked it just from implementation. We're going to identify the things we did well that we, not just Water for People but others, collectively, did well to ensure that water flowed forever--again, without external support--and what are the things that didn't work, so that we could constantly improve. And so the sector moved away from bitty projects by projects, and kind of counting beneficiaries, counting the number of people who got access to a tap, to saying well, how many people have access to a tap in five years? How many people have access to a tap in 10 years? And the requirements to get that to work are much more complicated. Just think about your water utility, right? Your water utility was built in Oklahoma how long ago? Decades ago, right? You expect water every day. You don't know how. You pay for it. But you don't know how. And you know if it busts, or if there's a pipe break, it's probably on the news, but they fix it really fast. And so all the things around that utility that make water flow to your house every day are what the water sector has historically not done in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They just put in a utility and hoped it worked. Does that make sense?
GRILLOT: Absolutely makes sense. Thank you for that clarification. Now, let's talk about the money side of things, because clearly these types of projects require resources, financial and human resources. NGOs have often come under fire about how they go about spending these types of resources, or earning these types of resources. But just tell us a little about what you've called "hydrophilanthropy," which I presume is charitable giving, or some sort of process of supporting these types of water projects. How should we rethink them, since that's basically the title of one of your projects?
BRESLIN: So, yeah, it's a funny story. I was basically sitting in Denver in 2007 or 2008, and I was crabby. I was in a really bad mood. So I did this stream of consciousness paper called "Rethinking Hydrophilanthropy," which basically said a lot of the things I'm saying now. We need to clarify who's financially responsible, and what is the role of external aid. It can't be dominated; it has to tie in with other financial flows in the areas. We have to monitor long-term results. We have to move from inputs to outcomes, and all of that. It was like a white paper, and I gave it to a couple people on staff, they made a couple really good comments, they helped me make it better, and then I literally shared it with 10 people. And at the time, I never thought "put it on the web," or anything like that. I just shared it with 10 people. And it really took off. And so now, you can actually find that paper in classrooms across the US. It's so strange to me, because again, it came from real crabiness. I was not in a super creative mood. And basically, we built Water for People to encapsulate the ideals of that paper. So it's all about long-term results, using philanthropy for catalytic purposes, not just to-- We're never going to have enough money to solve it with philanthropy, so stop pretending. So how would you use it if you don't have enough money? How can you be creative? And it was all around that, that people seemed to grab onto. Which was fun.
GRILLOT: So are there opportunities--I love the story, by the way, that crabbiness leads to such--
BRESLIN: It's a crabby paper!
GRILLOT: I think that probably happens a lot. People get frustrated, perhaps, in that type of process, particularly when we talk about resources and raising funds to do these types of projects--from people who don't have these kinds of problems, that see these problems as very far away. So, how does that translate? Do you see that these types of charitable activities have really kind of picked up, and you see a better future, given that we've been rethinking hydrophilanthropy?
BRESLIN: Yeah, I think what's happened is even though the debate among nonprofits is still around--"we need more money, we need more money." I think there's a growing recognition that, show me you can leverage the funds you have, and multiply them--and that's actually a more compelling story, frankly, to a donor. So if I say to you, "I need five bucks to help a girl," maybe you'll give me that. But if I say to you, "I'm going to take your five bucks, and I'm going to blend it with government resources and other funding, and it's going to equal 50 bucks, and I'm going to be able to now, because of that money, design more comprehensively and more thoughtfully so that actually, I never have to ask you for money again." Which one would you buy?
GRILLOT: And that works.
BRESLIN: And it does work. I think what we did, in a very humble way, is we kind of modeled-- You know, when I left Water for People about two years ago, we were about $18-19 million per year. And we were leveraging way more than that from governments, and all that. and it didn't come through us; we just got money flowing. And so we were kind of questioning with our actions-- Why do you need to be a $100 million organization? Why do you need to be a $400 million organization? You can actually do a lot with $10-20 million, which is not easy to raise, but it's a heck of a lot easier than $400 million. And so, what if we reimagine the conversation, and reimagine the funding flows, and create an environment where philanthropic capital unlocks other capital for greater impact?
GRILLOT: That's a great segue, I think, because you mentioned you left Water for People, you moved on to some other projects--the Wounded Warrior Project, now doing private consulting--but do these types of ideas transfer from one sector to another, and are you able to-- What you called “hydrophilanthropy,” now working in a different sector?
BRESLIN: Yeah, it was really fun. Part of the reason I jumped was-- This idea of Everyone Forever, it's being called different things, but it sort of took off. Different governments took it up, different nonprofits took it up. I was actually like, I wonder. I wonder the question you just asked: Could this apply somewhere else? So I said, let's try it in the veteran community. So I joined Wounded Warrior Project, which does really interesting work. I know there's a lot of chatter about it, but it does really interesting work. And we basically did the same thing. We basically designed city-wide initiatives where we said, "Could you imagine a situation where every veteran and their family within the city of Norman, or Oklahoma City, or Houston, gets the support services and care that they need, and serves and contributes and reshapes the city? Can you show, not only how you unleash veterans in a new space, but can you also show how unleashing veterans changes and improves cities for good? So it got me thinking, yeah, the principles are the same, even if I went from taps and toilets to veterans in the US. It's kind of fun.
GRILLOT: Well thank you so much for being with us today, Ned, and sharing our stories. We'll provide more information to our listeners on the web. Thank you so much for being here.
BRESLIN: Thank you for having me.
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