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Matt Damon and Gary White: Invest in women to solve the water and sanitation crisis

April 27, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC
Women are leading in solving the global water and sanitation crisis; they only need the resources to get there.
Courtesy of Water.Org

Twelve years ago, we set out to prove the value of investing in access to safe water and toilets for people at the base of the economic pyramid. Now, with the lessons of a global pandemic well embedded in our consciousness, it’s clearer than ever that the water and sanitation crisis simply has to be solved—by our generation of investors, right now.

As with other great social and environmental challenges, women are leading the way; they only need the resources to get there.

When we write that water and sanitation are valuable investments, you can well imagine the importance they hold for the communities that need access to them. These are the kinds of investments that go far beyond an economic payoff. 

However, the economics are quite astonishing in themselves, so let’s start there. The World Health Organization estimates that investments in water and sanitation services generate a 430% return through alleviated health burdens and higher productivity, especially for women. 

We have no reason to doubt that calculation. The two organizations we have founded, Water.org and WaterEquity, have collectively brought small water and sanitation loans to over 34 million women and men—with transformative results. Most of the borrowers are women, in fact, and they put the loans from our microfinance partners exactly where they are needed. They are repaying those funds at a rate above 99%.

This is why we are so convinced that an explicitly feminist, or gender-lens, approach to investing is the future of the water and sanitation effort, and maybe the future of everything. Globally, women and girls spend 200 million hours every day collecting water and 266 million hours every day finding a place to relieve themselves, even under COVID-19 conditions. An unbelievable 1.25 billion women living in poverty don’t have access to a safe toilet. These women aren’t a problem to be solved; they are a force for change that can’t be ignored.

In the world of water research, this is well-recognized. A World Bank analysis of more than 100 water projects found that those initiatives with the simple foresight to include women in planning and policymaking were six to seven times more effective. United Nations Development Program data from Asia and Africa shows that the involvement of women in shaping water policies and institutions gives whole communities greater, more sustainable access to services

That recognition needs to lead to something, and soon. Women still have very limited roles both in implementing and funding change. They make up less than 17% of the water and sanitation labor force in developing countries. Public investment in women’s economic empowerment currently represents just 2% of development assistance funding

On the private investment side, only 12% of the decision-makers at venture capital firms are women, and in 2020, only 2.3% of venture capital went to women-led startups. Challenging this are the findings of a recent study by Boston Consulting Group that businesses founded by women deliver double the return of those founded by men.

Where do water and sanitation fit into this very lopsided puzzle? Improved services make a big difference to women in terms of health, time savings, and workload, not to mention improved security in not having to traverse crowded city streets and lonely forest paths. Having access to safe water and sanitation at home means women are free to earn extra income and girls are free to study or, as we were once told by a particularly confident schoolgirl, simply play

Water can be the difference between a life where you are living out your potential and one where you are locked in a cycle of poverty, spending each day making sure you can make it to the next—which too many women and girls are still compelled to do.

In response, we believe in extending loans to those who are most likely to succeed in bringing water to their homes and communities. Women take out 87% of the microloans provided by our partners, and their 99% repayment rate reflects these borrowers’ financial savvy: in the day-to-day running of their households, the needs of their families, and the income-earning opportunities they can pursue.

These women are achieving amazing things, and we are proud to be able to connect them with $2.6 billion in capital provided by our 154 partners who drive the model forward. It’s increasingly clear that investment in, with, and by women can solve seemingly intractable challenges for people living in poverty around the globe.

Matt Damon is cofounder of Water.org and WaterEquity.

Gary White is CEO and cofounder of Water.org and WaterEquity.