More than 800 million people in the world have no easy access to fresh water and walk hours each day to collect it. It’s a massive health crisis, but it also sustains a cycle of poverty that shuts down opportunity for advancement.
Matt Damon co-founded Water.org with Gary White in 2009. He came to Davos to make his case to the business elite that solving the world’s water crisis is an economic opportunity, not charity.
One of the major barriers to safe water is affordable financing. Water.org arranges micro-loans that help people get hooked up to a utility or other water source. With a water supply secured, they can break the “death spiral of poverty” and start to improve their situation, he said.
“It’s worked better than we ever could have hoped,” Damon said, in a panel at the Tradeshift Sanctuary in Davos. “We’ve reached 16 million people this way. We’ve done more than $3 million in loans and they pay back at 99 percent,”
Water.org partnered with beer-making giant AB InBev to help it raise money, in part by selling limited-edition beer glasses.
“About 25 percent of the beer we brew comes from water-restricted areas, and we anticipate that will be 50 percent by 2030, so we have a responsibility to help these communities,” said Tony Milikin, chief sustainability and procurement officer for InBev
Water.org’s pitch to Davos is essentially this: Helping people is the right thing to do, but it also builds economic prosperity, which benefits everyone.
It’s also expected these days that businesses will step up for important issues, Damon said. Young people in particular will support brands that make a positive impact.
“The brands need to have a heartbeat,” he said.
More than just water, the issue is about connectivity, said Christian Lanng, CEO and Co-founder of Tradeshift. Communities also need access to healthcare, education and trade, and that last aspect is where Tradeshift hopes to make a difference with its digital trading platform.
“Most small business owners don’t have access to the global economy. If you want to do business globally, you need to connect to these massive supply chains and that can cost thousands or millions of dollars. We’ve made it free for the sellers to reach the largest buyers,” Lanng said.
“A lot of the problems we have in the world today are from how we’ve designed our supply chains over the last 30 to 50 years. We’ve created economic inequality,” he said.
The microfinance model can be effective in other areas, like supporting more efficient irrigation technologies for farmers, said White, who is Water.org’s CEO.
“It opens up a world where we see the poor as not a problem to be solved but a market to be served,” he said.
Find out how to get involved with Water.org here.