Water expert taps punk rock for inspiration

Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People. "I think the biggest challenge is we’ve got to get away from inputs. We’ve got to stop counting people served as if it’s McDonald’s," Breslin said in an interview with Devex on the sidelines of the Social Good Summit. Photo by: Kris Krüg / PopTech / CC BY-SA

Ned Breslin, CEO of nonprofit Water for People, drew on the language and resistance message of punk rock to overcome a childhood of abuse.

That spirit of resistance continues to inform his view of entrepreneurship and doing good, a message he shared with attendees at the Social Good Summit this week in New York.

Breslin spoke with Devex about how gains in local water and sanitation administration require development implementers and local, national and global policymakers to “turn the water sector on its head” by accounting for success and failure in new and more transparent ways.

Here are a few excerpts of our conversation with the CEO of Water for People:

In your presentation you mentioned that Water for People is launching a new platform to upend the water sector. Can you tell us more about that?

Water for People is trying to turn the water sector on its head by going form a focus on inputs and beneficiaries to outcomes. So, does water flow all the time? Do lives really change? Do people start expecting water and sanitation all the time, as opposed to it being unexpected and rare? What we’re doing is saying we’re going to track our work for ten years. We’re going to do it completely transparently. We’re going to say what we do well and what we don’t do well. We’re going to drive people in to help solve these bigger problems by identifying our weaknesses, not just our strengths but our weaknesses and luring others in to the fray.

The program is called “Everyone Forever.” It takes 30 districts around the world and drives to full coverage, so every family, every school and every clinic has access to water and sanitation and they never need another international NGO again. We track results and put them on a web-based platform called “Reimagining Reporting,” so you can see what’s working, what’s not working, how much money we’re spending, what we’re spending our money on, and what we want to change as we move forward. We’re partnering with 30 local governments around the world and helping them draw money down from national ministries of finance to put some financial skin in the game. Every country around the world has money for water and sanitation, but they just don’t use it, so we’re trying to clean up that system, get things going really well, and hope it’s so compelling and so powerful that it spreads to other districts, and that’s started to happen.

Some people would probably be surprised to hear that in an era of tight development budgets there is money that goes unused. Can you explain why that is, and what Water for People is doing about it?

Every country, including ours, has a law to decentralize work to local governments. But I think ministries of finance look around and, rightly so, say “I wouldn’t give you a dime.” In finance departments, for example, things are pretty chaotic. So, we spend an enormous amount of time, which is not particularly sexy or cool, working with district departments of finance … so that they actually become a good investment for the ministry of finance on their financing, accounting, auditing, procurement tendering, all that kind of stuff, so that they actually become a good investment for the ministry of finance.

What’s happened is [that] there is a whole new breed of mayors around the world, who see being a mayor as a launching pad to a bigger position, but doing that means that you have to deliver. So they like the “Everyone Forever” program around water and sanitation, because they’re lacking on that particular development challenge, but they also like the fact they’re able to draw down money, not just for water, but for health and education, and other mayors, frankly, are jealous. They’re saying, “Wait a minute. I want a piece of that too.” It’s starting to change the story at a grass-roots level, where you’re getting mayors in different countries fighting to push their national governments to start driving water and sanitation in a fundamentally new way.

Who are these new mayors that have burst onto the scene, and why have they been uncommonly effective?

I lived in Africa for twenty years, and most people, when they became mayors, it was really to feed off the state and take money. There have been huge movements around democratization and particularly local government democratization where people really have to deliver, and so you’ve got these young mayors coming in. They’re kind of hip. They’ve got multiple phones. They’re really cool people. They’re sitting back and saying, “I have to deliver something. I can’t just feed off the state, or I’m not going anywhere.” You’re starting to see these new mayors come up who are challenging old stereotypes of what government officials really are, and I think that’s really powerful.

People start to see what full coverage looks like, and mayors start bragging. They say “I’m getting money from the ministry of finance, and I’m delivering on this result, and now I’m going to run for Senate” … What ends up happening is, as more mayors start to jump in they start to push up at the national level and say we want to do this… Water for People right now is doing it, but we need others to help us do this including you at the national level. So national government is starting to ask, how do we coordinate and drive this at a national level. We’re seeing that in five countries now. The national government is pressured by local government that they’re trying to figure out how to roll it out nationally, and that’s what an NGO should do. That’s the sort of catalytic work we should do. We shouldn’t be there all the time.

You’re making the case for bridging gaps between community development and national spending and planning policies. What needs to happen for the local administrative improvements you’ve mentioned to push up and inform global goal-setting processes, like the post-2015 development agenda planning that is happening in New York now?

I think the biggest challenge is we’ve got to get away from inputs. We’ve got to stop counting people served as if it’s McDonald’s. We have to start saying that philanthropic dollars are being put in … and we expect these particular outcomes from those dollars, whether it’s aid, whether it’s business, whether it’s a nonprofit like Water for People … If we start changing our eyesight from simplistic inputs to longer term outcomes, I think you’re going to find that people like to move in that direction.

The example we use often is polio. … [We] actually figured out that if you start to saturate districts, if you get coverage, if you monitor, if you’re constantly improving and pushing for results and these places are polio free, then that inspires other action. People want to build on success. So again you get this big push towards the national and hopefully global.

Your message today was about the language of resistance, and you were speaking to the social entrepreneurs in the room. Do you think that same “punk” mentality that has inspired your work might be energizing people in developing countries to demand more of the civil servants and NGOs that are supposed to be serving their communities?

Yesterday there was a session on “Africa Rising.” It’s this kind of movement, where Africans are sitting back and saying, “you know what, I’m tired of NGOs telling our story. I’m tired of being seen as basket cases. We’re going to take the mic and we’re going to start talking about our lives with our voice.” Technology has enabled that.

What I like about punk is that’s what punk spoke about. Punk was for all of us who were beaten to shit — I was horribly abused as a child … punk was the place we could go and scream and yell and say, “we’re not going to take this.” Punk said there’s a path out of this. You don’t have to be that narrative. You can be a force for change … so I have a great affinity for people around the world who struggle around the world with these issues and who emerge.

Check out our Social Good Summit 2013 wrap-up video with Michael Igoe and Devex Impact Associate Editor Andrea Useem.

You can follow Devex on Twitter and Facebook, and find comprehensive coverage of New York #globaldev Week here.

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About the author

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.