On Thursday, Deputy Events Editor Kyra Chassaing and Deputy Editor Sahmaya Busby attended “Social Innovation: Sourcing Capital for Global Challenges,” a World Leaders Forum panel discussion featuring President Minouche Shafik, civil and environmental engineer Gary White, and Academy Award-winning actor Matt Damon.

Columbia continued its annual World Leaders Forum panels on Thursday, September 21 from 4 to 5 pm in the Low Library Rotunda with a discussion panel featuring the cofounders of Water.org and Water Equity, Gary White and Matt Damon. The panel, titled “Social Innovation: Sourcing Capital for Global Challenges,” was facilitated by President Minouche Shafik and centered on the organizations’ innovative use of financing to address one of the most pressing issues citizens of lower-income countries—the lack of access to clean water. 

Sarah Holloway, Program Director of MS Nonprofit Management at the School of Professional Studies, SIPA senior lecturer, and the director of the Leadership, Innovation, and Design specialization, introduced the panelists and their backgrounds. These included Columbia President Minouche Shafik, who chaired the Water and Sanitation program at the World Bank, civil and environmental engineer Gary White, and Academy Award-winning actor Matt Damon. 

After years of shared concern over the issues of global access to clean water and sanitation resources, White and Damon teamed up and co-founded Water.org in 2009 and WaterEquity in 2016, with the aim of providing access to water and sanitation by finding new financing options and mobilizing private investment. The panel focused particularly on White and Damon’s foundation and work with these organizations, which leverage market based solutions, including investment capital and venture philanthropy, to supply water to 58 million people and grow these solutions to expand access to 700 million more individuals around the globe.

Water.org has implemented a unique WaterCredit solution, “which created new financing options for poor populations to meet their water supply and sanitation needs.” WaterCredit is unconventional because it divests from the current and popular charity model of most water access solutions. White and Damon instead view individuals without access to water infrastructure as a market with unmet needs. Holloway called Water.org’s efforts a blueprint “for addressing these challenges in a vastly more sustainable, replicable, and equitable way.”

President Shafik began the discussion by inquiring about White and Damon’s original motivations for creating the organization, a question on the mind of every attendee, considering the duo’s seemingly unlikely pairing.

White credited his upbringing with parents who instilled in him a sense of social responsibility. He acted on this sense in college and created an organization that allowed students to travel to various countries to volunteer for various projects. But, White specifically knew that he wanted to address the question of water access after visiting Guatemala City and seeing children carrying water. He obtained degrees in civil and environmental engineering and focused on how he could address social inequalities, stating, “Life should be about the intersection between the world’s greatest need and your great passion. As a civil engineering student, I was able to do something about that.”

Damon shared that he also had parents who shared the values of social justice, but he was inspired to take on this work in his twenties after achieving success in Hollywood and establishing his career as an actor. He described going on a trip with musician Bono’s charity organization DATA (Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa) where he was educated about the lack of water access and its effect on childrens’ mortality and girls’ education. He cited that 400,000 children a year die due to the water crisis and many girls cannot pursue their educational goals because they are faced with arduous journeys to collect clean water for their families. 

Damon then created his own organization to aid with building water structures; however, he later learned that he needed a complex solution for a difficult problem, leading him to seek out the “smartest person” addressing the water crisis issue: Gary White. 

President Shafik then turned to the duo’s pivot from building infrastructure to finance as a solution for providing water access at a large scale. Damon replied—on behalf of the “humble” Gary White—that White began to see individuals without water access as a market.

They could not afford a connection to the water that higher-income individuals had, and they paid for it with their time spent collecting water and away from jobs. According to White, when needs are not met and people must take time off from jobs or school to ensure access to clean water, there are opportunity costs. These costs can be mitigated with money upfront. White considered the microfinance model as a solution—one where institutions front a loan for an income-generating cost, in hopes to receive the payment back. Water access itself was not the income-generating cost in this case, but White posited that the loan borrowers could pay the loans back with income from the jobs they no longer left behind after having connected water access.

His theory was successful: more than 12 million loans have been taken out through Water.org’s financing institutions, reaching 58 million people in total. According to Damon and White, nearly 90% of borrowers are women, and 98% of the loans are paid back to the institutions. Microfinance institutions who offer the money upfront use philanthropic funds to generate the funds, loan them, and receive them back from loaners in a cyclical manner.  White described his process as an innovation from the charity system where donors assist in the constructions of infrastructure such as wells; microloans address the main issue in some areas—access to funds to pay for water. 

Before addressing student questions, President Shafik considered the looming threat of climate change. How will it impact Water.org’s mission? 

White replied with the obvious facts. Water.org must continue to use funds to make their solutions more climate-resilient. He noted that the number of people without access to clean water will increase as the effects of climate change continue, and the impact will be inequitable. “We know that they’re people who are going to see the effects of climate change first—and the worst—are going to be the people who had nothing to do with creating the problem in the first place.” White also expressed the need for carbon footprint reduction, stating that much of the water in the countries Water.org works in is never used, which wastes the carbon energy required to store and transport water. Mitigation and adaptation, White says, can and will address the intersections of climate change and water stress.

Following the panel discussion, President Shafik opened the floor to Columbia students’ questions, which focused primarily on the decision-making process and operations of Water.org and WaterEquity, as well as White and Damon’s start in the field. 

When asked about their role in the sector and the long-term consequences of privatization, Damon noted that “it’s really hard to cut through the noise and get people’s attention.” Particularly when people cannot relate firsthand to the issue of access to water, the issue seems cerebral to them. As a result, the most effective strategies have been doing a deep dive with corporations and organizations like Starbucks, Microsoft, and EcoLab. Damon emphasized that, “Working seriously this way with the right people, who are nimble and flexible, [White] baked this into our DNA from the very beginning.” The evidence of their success was the 58 million people reached through Water.org and WaterEquity’s initiatives.

Several students posed questions about how Damon started working in this philanthropic space, to which he noted that “Instead of being afraid that you’re not the smartest person in a room, get stuff done.” And to one student, about being taken seriously and building credibility in a new field, he responded, “Oh—credibility? I just don’t listen to people…that can’t be a barrier to entry.” He remarked, “You have to check your ego at the door, it’s about the project you’re working on, it’s not about you, [but rather] the thousands of hours you spend quietly learning so you can come up with strategies and tactics to get stuff done.”

In 2022, Damon and White published a book titled The Worth of Water: Our Story of Chasing Solutions to the World’s Greatest Challenge, which they discussed at the conclusion of the panel. Both authors remarked that the idea arose during the Covid-19 lockdowns, as they asked themselves how to cut through the noise and get through to people, at which point White suggested writing a book as a way to get their message through. Damon remarked, “We’ve always believed, if people know about it…if the ideas work, people would wanna invest in them… and these ideas work, so we wanna get the word out about them.”

President and Panelists via Columbia University.