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Published on: 27/11/2019

There's an old saying about charity that goes something like this: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a woman to fish and you provide her (and her children) with food and a living forever.

Watershed Bangladesh

I like this saying, because of what it tells us about the limits of individual acts of charity and the deeper worth of empowering people to take control of their own lives. But I still think it's incomplete. In our modern, connected world, a more complete version would look something like this:

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a woman to fish and you provide her (and her children) with food and a living. Link a fishing village to markets and they can afford a school. Create a well-resourced Ministry of Fisheries – and you make fishing into a sustainable industry.

IRC works on water and sanitation, not fisheries! Because, having safe drinking water and a safe place to defecate are fundamental human rights that, shamefully in 2019, are less common than ownership of mobile phones.

Yet despite believing in this fundamental right, we hardly ever directly give wells or toilets to anyone. Instead, we create change - contributing to building the national and local systems that provide clean water and safe sanitation services to everyone in a district. That's because we believe that the sort of charity that is about giving fish, or handpumps, or toilets is not only unsustainable, but is in the end fundamentally disempowering. Put simply, IRC doesn't believe that vital public services should be provided through one-off charitable donations.

So why are we joining #GivingTuesday? Because we believe that while charity can never be the basis for providing services, it can be the basis for catalysing change, and change is what IRC is all about. We work to change the national and local systems that deliver water and sanitation services. That is why we don't commit to a single household, or village – but to districts of tens or hundreds of thousands of people. Districts like Asutifi North in Ghana (population 63,000) or Banfora in Burkina Faso (population 153,000). It is why we don't ever work on our own, but always hand-in-hand with the local governments who are responsible for providing services to citizens. It is also why our offices are staffed and led entirely by locals who are deeply embedded in local networks and committed to driving lasting change.

It's not easy work, it would be much easier to drill a well in a village, take a photo of smiling children and then move on. It would probably be easier to fund as well. But we can't and won't - because our research tells us that there's a good chance that a few short years later, the well will have broken down (at any one time, at least 30% of the water systems in rural Africa aren't working).

IRC doesn't believe in magic. Giving a man a fish won't feed him forever. But neither will teaching a woman to fish. Not if the fishery isn't managed sustainably - if a foreign owned factory ship can come and take all the fish. We live in a modern, connected, world. One that demands modern connected solutions. At IRC, we know that we can only ever provide a small part of those solutions, and that to be effective our contribution must be focussed on not just finding a local solution – but doing so in a way that can be replicated across the entire country.

We will never have the resources to bring water and sanitation to all the people in the villages and towns that make up the districts where we work. But, we can and will work with the local governments, local businesses, local communities and others so that they can. We do this by working together to figure out how to create sustainable water and sanitation businesses, how to finance them, and by persuading national governments to give more priority to water and sanitation. In short, by helping build the systems that can and will deliver these crucial services over time.

This sort of deeply embedded and long-term work can be slow and frustrating – for our supporters as well as for us! It can be difficult to see if an individual donation is making a direct difference. That's a challenge for us, because in the end, people want to know that their money is being well spent.

While we can't tell an individual donor what their individual contribution has done, we can show what it has contributed to. That's why we invest in cutting edge monitoring that shows not just whether people are getting water and sanitation, but whether the systems that deliver it are strong and sustainable. It's also why, if you visit our website, you're as likely to see a picture of a smiling district chairperson or handpump mechanic, as you are a smiling child splashing water from a new tap.

IRC understands that bringing real and meaningful change is hard. That it's two steps forward, one step back work (on the good days!). We know that it's hard to communicate this work. But we won't back away from trying to do so, we won't patronise the people and organisations who support us. We're convinced that it can be done, and that modern, sophisticated audiences can understand that just as giving someone a fish won't feed them forever, giving them a toilet won't ensure they're safe from cholera.

So that's why we're joining #GivingTuesday. Because we want to bring our message of the value of contributing to long, slow systemic change to a broader audience. Because we are convinced that people who are weary of endless requests for charity that never seem to lead to any lasting change in the underlying conditions of poverty and misery – are ready for something different. In asking you for your money we'll never pretend that your one donation will change things permanently – for anyone. We'll never show you a well with your name etched on a plaque. What we will do is promise you that it will be well spent, that we will tell you what district in what country it went to, and that we will report openly, transparently – warts and all – on the change that it helped to deliver.

Follow IRC's social media posts on Facebook and Twitter for more details on the campaign: @IRCWASH - #GivingTuesday #GivingTuesdayNL


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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