This past Friday, Matt Damon went on a tour in India, and it wasn’t to promote his latest sci-fi blockbuster, Elysium, but rather to help India’s rural and urban poor gain access to clean water and sanitation. Rather than signing autographs and escaping paparazzi, Damon formed relationships with struggling individuals and families while investing in tube wells, hand pumps, and toilets with proper drainage facilities.
And this was no spontaneous trip on Damon’s part--he and Gary White cofounded Water.org, a nonprofit organization that partners with microfinance institutions to facilitate loans so that people can afford clean water and the dignity of sanitary units like toilets.
By partnering with microfinance institutions, Damon and White are able to eliminate loan sharks and middlemen. In Bangalore, the two men met a woman who explained that she had gone to a moneylender and was paying a 125 percent interest on her loan. “People are willing to do these extraordinary things for the dignity of a toilet,” White said. “We jumpstart the market. Once we provide them with that support, microfinance institutions can borrow from commercial banks and then reach out to those in need.” This operational model, and Water Credit system, set this organization apart from the majority of other NFOs.
In truth, Water.org isn’t really a charity, but an entity that helps people to plan their finances and learn how to then execute their own solutions. Another woman from Bangalore explained to Damon and White that she would pay two rupees every time she wanted to use a public toilet. This was a wasteful and highly ineffective use of her family’s precious income. The woman and her family were able to construct a toilet in their home with proper drainage facilities due to their obtainment of a water and sanitation loan.
It quickly became apparent to Damon and White and their entire aid organization that women are instrumental vehicles for change. “It’s no secret that if you really want to affect the greatest change, you need women,” Damon said. “Maybe I’m biased because I have four daughters. But girls are better.” White added that almost 90 percent of the borrowers are women.
While in India, Damon spent time visiting villages at Kanchipuram, Pondicherry, and Villupuram in Tamil Nadu, as well as Bangalore, where he toured two urban slums and spoke to women and self-help groups. Damon’s favorite part of the whole experience is “going out, doing these side visits and talking to women about how empowering and liberating this is for them.” After obtaining a loan, these women no longer have to spend hours waiting to collect water, rather, they can seek employment and earn an income. “It’s very emotional to talk about these very, very real changes. It is sheer joy,” says Damon.
The most challenging part for Matt Damon is utilizing his celebrity to raise awareness to the seriousness of not having access to water. This problem is just not a typical issue for the average American. The actor explains, “In America, people have never met anybody who could not go to the kitchen sink for a glass of water.” Damon uses a variety of methods to raise awareness of these issues. Stark, and more emotionally universally facts like “a child dies every 21 seconds because of lack of access to clean water,” register more with a broader scope of people.
...And at times humor gets the message across most effectively. Earlier this year, Damon staged a mock press conference where he announced that he was going on a toilet strike until every person in the world had access to clean water and sanitation. The video was part of a well thought-out campaign. Damon’s friends, including Bono and Richard Branson, joined the strike. View below for further insight into Damon & company's strike objectives.