HOW STORYTELLING WILL REFRESH THE GLOBAL WATER DIALOGUE:
Compelling stories have heroes and villains, victims, and conflicts. Maybe the villain is a microscopic disease that makes children sick. Maybe it is a flood or a drought. What if the hero is you? What happens when you put yourself in the picture? How can stories lead to relevancy and involvement?
–Scott Harrison, CEO, Charity:Water
Dr. Gowing: We heard from Gunter about the importance of fables, particularly for the next generation. We’ve heard the emphasis on education of the next generation and the way that they are going to be afflicted by stress. One of the important things which you’ll have seen from the hashtag is #MyWaterStory. How much of what we’re discussing today can actually be retold and sharpened and given new value and values simply by the way it’s told, not people go to conferences but actually projecting it some way? I’m going to talk to Gunter later, I hope, about the kind of things that you’re doing with fables, because I still remember Hans Christian Andersen and the kinds of impact that that had on me as a young boy. What is the theme of storytelling here? Requiring drama, water playing, having a big drama around the world already both negative and sometimes positive.
We have heroes. We have victims. We have villains. Maybe the villain can be a microscopic disease that makes children sick or drought into a flood. How do you tell that in a way which goes beyond the kind of business I’ve been in for many years, which is the pictures and humanitarian telling on television which can now be done into an iPhone? In many ways where much of the catastrophes one can see, drought or flood resulting from water don’t need a crew to be sent from London or from New York. The people on the ground can now tell their own story, as long as it’s not fake news. Let’s move forward with Scott Harrison, CEO of Water Charity, pioneering the storytelling landscape and really bringing millions together in the way that we have never seen before. This surely is an important development from this conference. Scott, floor is yours.
Scott Harrison: Thanks.
Dr. Gowing: Please keep the messages coming. I’ve got some more here. I’m going to come back to them shortly after Scott has spoken. The floor is yours.
Scott Harrison: All right. I asked them to dim the lights a little bit. Someone said, “What do you think? You’re in a nightclub?” Which was actually a part of my story. I’ll get to that a little later. We have a very difficult task, all of us working on the global water crisis, trying to get people to care about an issue that simply doesn’t affect them. I get to speak to a lot of audiences around the world. I’ll give you an example of this. I was in America speaking to 2,000 people and I had to follow the CEO of a cancer charity. Now, he gets out to begin his talk and stands in front of everyone. Says, “Raise your hand if you’ve had cancer.” A bunch of hands go up. Says, “How about if you had a friend or a loved one with cancer?” Now, we’re about half the audience. “How about someone that you know?” The entire audience has their hand up and then he begins talking about cancer.
If I get up and say, “How many of you have walked eight hours with 40 pounds of disgusting water on your back?” No hands would go up. “How about how many of you have watched your child die in your arms of diarrhea?” No hands go up. This is really difficult. For years, many people in the water sector have been using statistics to try to get people to care. Putting up hundred-page white papers on websites. I came across this statistic once that an organization which I won’t name had put up a bunch of … It was a huge extensive website. They found that over 70% of the PDFs had not one download. 70% of the content on this huge humanitarian organization was not downloaded once. This is the old way. If I would have tell you a story about the water crisis, maybe that would move you to think a little differently, differently than if I just told you 663 million people don’t have water or 900 kids will die today.
Who’s ever seen 900 kids doing anything? We glaze over at these statistics. 52% of all the disease in the developing world is caused by bad water and lack of toilets. These statistics move no one to action. No one. I’ll tell you a story. I was in Ethiopia a couple of years ago. It’s my 23rd or my 24th time in the country after starting Charity Water. I was in a really cheap hotel room, $3 or $4 a night hotel room. I’m sitting in the small restaurant. The owner of the hotel recognized me. Comes out. Pulls up a chair and starts telling me this story.
He says, “I’m from a remote village. Thousands of people living there without clean water where I grew up. Once there was this woman who was walking eight hours with a clay pot on her back with dirty water. One day, she comes back into my village but instead of reaching her house, before she reaches the home, she slips and falls and her pot shatters. All the water spills out into the dust. She doesn’t go back for water but she takes the rope that had the clay pot attached to her back. She ties it around her neck. She climbs a tree and she jumps. We find her body swinging from a tree in our village.”
I’m going to let that sit. He said, “The work you’re doing here is important.” I remember thinking, “No way that’s true.” Tell the international donor a sad story. Make us feel great about all the resources we’re putting into this area but it nagged at me. What if it was true? I wanted to go and see for myself. Flew back to Addis, I flew to the north to a city called Mek’ele. I drove five hours and the road ended.
I had to rent this donkey, put my solar backpack and my sleeping mat on the donkey and then I had to walk nine hours to reach this village. I get to made it at the end of the evening. I pitch my tent next to the chief’s house. I started learning about Ladek Hailu’s story. I meet her mother. Her mom vividly recounts the moment when she looked out from her house and she saw them bringing a stretcher and there was a body covered in a shrub. She knew that was her daughter. She begin to fling herself around her house. She injured her back and she walks with a limp today. She said the crazy thing is, nothing changed with her death. We’re all still drinking dirty water. She said, “You can go meet her friend that walked with her that day.” I go over five houses down. I see Yeshareg. Yeshareg shows me the clay pots and the rope that they used to use. Said, “Good news. Years later, these have actually been replaced by the Jerrycan,” which you’re all familiar with. It’s lighter. It’s more durable. Then she takes me to the edge of the plateau and says, “Well, our water’s all the way at the bottom of this ravine.” Then we walk down this treacherous path. We get down and if it’s not bad enough that you have to walk, then you have to wait because it takes 20 minutes to get 20 liters of water. All the women have lined up these Jerrycans. The source is just a little trickle coming out of the rock where the community was sharing it with the animals.
Over the week, I learned what Ladek was like. She had hopes and dreams for a better future of her village. They took me to the church. I met the priest who gave her a ceremony. Her funeral he said over 2,000 people came out. Then they took me to her grave just this pile of rocks behind the church. Finally, before I left, the community took me and showed me the tree where they found her body. I didn’t know this until I lived in this village. She was 13 years old at the time of her death. This is a 13-year old girl that hung herself because she’d walked through water one too many times. I asked her best friend. I said, “Why do you think she did it?” Her best friend said, “I think she was overcome with shame because she had broken a valuable asset for the family, this clay pot. Her mother would go without the water that she needed to cook dinner because of her carelessness because she had slipped and fallen. That’s too much to face them.”
I’m pretty sure everybody in this room, everybody watching agrees that 13-year old girls should not be tying ropes around their neck and hanging themselves simply because they were born into areas with no clean water. See, we don’t respond to statistics and numbers and data and facts. 663 million faceless people living somewhere else but we do respond to stories if they’re true. Try this at the other end of the spectrum. We try and convince you that we should give everybody clean water and allocate the resources and the energy right now. That it’s the most important thing in the world.
Let’s do that with statistics. We could save 1.5 million kids lives every year, every dollar invested. You all know this one. We’ve been using this for years. Every dollar invested in water and sanitation yields 48 times to the local economy, to good investment. We could save women and girls up to 40 billion hours of walking every year. Again, this doesn’t move people. What if I told you another story? What if I told you the story of a woman named Helen Apio. Helen actually got clean water in her village. Thanks to an intervention, a very simple hand pump. Shallow bore hole. Our team was actually visiting Helen at the end of a long day of site visits. They had not let the community know they were coming. As you know, word travels in Africa fast. Helen has somehow figured out that there is a visit and you’ll see her here blocking the road.
Many of you are familiar with that celebration. It often lasts for hours.
These communities will welcome their visitors and bring out the very best they have. A couple of hours later, I had a water program sits down with Helen and says, “Hey, Helen. How is your life different now?” Helen begins to tell her the story of two Jerrycans. Said, “You know, before the well was put in my village, I had to walk a long distance and all I could get was 40 liters of water. It wasn’t enough because I have a husband and I have two children. I would make choices everyday. What do I do with this water? Do I cook? Do I clean? Do I garden? Do I wash my husband’s clothes? Do I keep the school uniforms of my children clean? Do I keep their bodies clean? There was never enough water. I never use the water for myself. As the head of the household, I always put my family first.”
She said, “Now that I have clean water in my village, now I am beautiful.” Our team’s a little slow. Said, “Of course, Helen. You’re a beautiful Ugandan woman.” She says, “No. You don’t understand. For the first time in my life, I have enough water to wash my face and my body and my clothes. I feel beautiful.” She had her best dress on that day. Most people don’t think that water hast the power to restore dignity to a woman. Most people we’re talking to, they’ve taken this for granted their entire life. It’s these stories that can get people to think differently that can challenge them, that could inspire them to action. We are not creatures of statistic and numbers and data. We are creatures of story. We think in stories. We are moved by stories. We remember stories. I’ll tell you just a little bit about mine.
I was born in Philadelphia to a middle class family. Mom and dad were great. They loved each other. When I was four, there was a carbon monoxide gas leak in my house. My mother almost died. She didn’t die but she became permanently invalid, wearing masks connected to oxygen. Her immune system was irreparably destroyed after this. I grew up in a caregiver role helping to take care of her, helping to take care of my family. I was a good Christian kid. I played piano in the church. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. I didn’t have sex until the age of 18. Then I moved to New York City and now it was my turn to look after the number one. I got into the night club business. If you’re going to rebel, you might as well do it in style. I learned that you could get paid to drink alcohol for free.
If you got the right people inside the right night clubs, they would spend thousands of dollars drinking. Money we could put into our pockets and go on vacation with. For 10 years, I lived a selfish, decadent, hedonistic lifestyle serving only myself. Smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, drinking heavily, doing drugs, gambling, pornography. You name a vice, I’d picked it up after 10 years. I mean, at 28 years old I realized that if I continue down this path, I was going to die young and my life would mean nothing. My legacy, my tombstone would read, “Here lies a man who got a million people drunk.” I needed to make a radical change. I sold everything I had. I quit all my vices. Came back to a very lost faith and morality and I wanted to do one year of humanitarian service to the poor and see where that led me.
I wanted to find the exact opposite of my selfish life and see where it took me. It took me to Liberia, West Africa right after the 14-year civil war ended and after Charles Howard fled to Nigeria. I joined a humanitarian mission. It’s there that I saw people drinking dirty water for the first time. I saw kids drinking water so dirty from rivers. They would throw up on their shirts after drinking it. Saw girls drinking water from swamps with insects in it. Saw kids like John Bosco walking into water to drink and bathe with that I wouldn’t give my dog. Saw women digging in the sand trying to get water. Women wading into rivers who were afraid of crocodile attacks as they got water that looked like this. A year turned into two, never went back to night life. I wanted to do something about this issue.
I wanted to help work to create a world where no one had to drink water like this simply because of where they were born. No woman, no man, no child. Started Charity Water 10 years ago to try to do something about that. Well, my friends were compelled with this idea of a world where everybody had clean water. I also realized it was a big problem. People didn’t trust charities. I don’t know too much about the climate here in Italy but in America, Americans don’t trust charities. 42% of Americans do not trust charities. 70% of Americans polled thinks charity is either waste or badly waste money. In order to make a huge impact, mobilizing people and raising money for the water crisis, we would have to come up with a new business model. We did. We started with a clean sheet of paper.
We created an organization where 100% of every donation we would ever take would go directly to fund the water projects. A very small group of donors paid for all the overhead and the staff and the flights so that 100% of donations could go purely to the countries that need it the most. Second, we use technology to prove where those donations went. We put all of our photos and GPS up on Google Maps. We started building sensors so donors could actually see real time data flow of how much water was flowing from a remote Ethiopian village six years later, seven years later. We try to tell stories. We told those stories online. We built a huge online community mobilizing over two million people across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Finding new ways to connect to our supporters and celebrate the incredible things they were doing water walks, walking across countries, sailing, climbing mountains for clean water. We told stories visually. We said to parents, “Imagine if you were to give your child this. Death in a baby bottle.” We shot rich people in New York in the same situations that the people we were seeing around the world. What if that was your mother that had to drink water with bone and hair in it? What if your kids went to their private schools with 40 pounds of dirty water on their back? What if your banker friends went to Central Park pond during their lunch break where your children drank like what looked like chocolate milk but was water. We wouldn’t allow this for our children. Why is it okay for 663 million other people?
As we begin to tell these stories, people began to give money and join the movement. We began to fund thousands and thousands of water projects. We stumbled onto this idea, that would be an idea where every single person could make this a part of their story. We said, “You know what? What if we got everybody to donate their birthday for clean water?” People get stuff on their birthdays that they don’t need. Sometimes, we get stuff we don’t even want. I heard people send a lot of stuff to the Pope. There’s probably rooms full with something he doesn’t want for his birthday. We thought, “What if we could get people to donate their birthday and ask for their age in dollars or Euros or pounds?” This idea began to take off. A 6-year old kid asked everybody for $6 and raised $2,000. A 7-year old kid in Texas raised over $20,000 with his birthday.
16-year-olds in the middle of the country, 89-year-olds donating their birthday. You see, her mission statement, it’s quite profound. She says, “I’m turning 89. I’d like to make that possible for more people.” Nona was born into privilege. She’s lived double the life of so many of the people in the countries that we’re all trying to serve together. If her birthday could allow people to have more birthdays, to live healthy and prosperous lives, then she’d skip the gifts and the party. There was one story that moved a town and then moved a country and then began to spread across the world. 9-year-old Rachel Beckwith had heard me speaking. She was eight at the time. She was about to turn nine. She goes through her mom says, “I’m canceling my birthday party. I don’t want anything. I just want to raise $300. Help a few people get clean water to drink.”
She raises $220, a little shy of her goal. She’s bummed. She says, “Mom, I’m going to try harder next year.” A couple of weeks after her birthday, she’s killed in a car crash. It’s a 20-car pile up. She’s the only fatality. Her local pastor opens up her campaign and says, “I’m going to try and get everybody in my church, parish to donate $9 for her last wish.” Her last vision for kids she’s never met thousands of miles away to drink clean water. The story of Rachel Beckwith and her birthday begins to spread. People in Africa start donating $9 online for Rachel’s wish. People in India, people in Southeast Asia. Her $220 campaign alive accrued over $1.2 million. That’s more than 30,000 strangers who were inspired to action by the heart of this little girl. I’ll play the short video.
We had the opportunity of taking her mother and her grandparents to Ethiopia on the one year anniversary of her death to meet the people that she’d been able to give clean water to.
Okay, guys. That raised $3.2 million and we’ve just launched that campaign online. Everyone can go and meet the 407 people in Adia to take a quiz, get matched up and tens of thousands of people have done it in the last few hours. Thanks so much. As you guys go out, think about telling stories that matter that help people.
Dr. Gowing: I didn’t think I need to reflect at all on what you just said. Everyone will have their own view about the impact and the extraordinary nature of what you’ve achieved.