Matt Damon: action hero

When Hollywood icon Matt Damon realised his philanthropic efforts weren’t delivering the returns he wanted, he ripped up his own script and started again. In an exclusive interview, he explains how is helping boost access to clean water and sanitation in some of the world's poorest countries

At the heart of an industry where success and failure is defined numerically – opening weekend, box office gross, fee-per-picture – Matt Damon has other, far more pressing statistics on his mind.

He’s thinking about the 3.4 million people who die every year from a water-related illness, a population almost equivalent to that of the entire city of Los Angeles, his home. He’s thinking about the fact that every 51 seconds, a child dies as a consequence of their inability to access clean water. He’s thinking about the one in nine people on Earth who lack access to an improved water source – one likely to be protected from contamination, in particular from contamination with faecal matter.

“People talk about the global water crisis and what’s coming down the road,” Damon says. “We just want to keep reminding them that for 748 million people, the crisis is already here.”

"I chose water for its enormity and its complexity. It looked like something that was going to be interesting to engage with over my entire life"

Damon’s personal wake-up call came in 2006, when he joined a fact-finding mission to Africa organised by DATA, the multinational NGO co-founded by U2 frontman and veteran campaigner Bono. DATA, which stands for Debt, AIDS, Trade, and Africa, would arrange tours for individuals so that they might engage first-hand with the difficulties surrounding apparently intractable problems, and also meet face-to-face those whose lives could be improved by intelligent intervention. While much of the focus fell on HIV/AIDS initiatives and microfinance schemes, Damon spent one day learning about the role that water – or the lack thereof – plays in the perpetuation of misery.

“I knew I wanted to engage with issues of extreme poverty, and I knew there were all these pressing problems that I needed to know more about,” he recalls.

“I was shocked and amazed that I hadn’t heard more about the impact that water has on poverty, and that more people back home in the US weren’t talking about it. At that time [the US] had a big engagement on AIDS, and yet water was killing far more children [worldwide].”

At that time, a child was dying every 15 seconds as a consequence of a lack of access to clean water and sanitation. “Where I grew up you just had to walk over to the tap and turn it on,” says Damon. “We were never thirsty, and I didn’t know anyone who had ever been thirsty in their life.

“So it was very hard to relate to the fact that all of these kids were dying of diseases where the cure was essentially clean water,” he continues. “Children in America might get diarrhoea and they might miss a day of school with the stomach bug, but that’s the extent of it and it’s certainly not something that’s life-threatening.”

Damon returned from Africa with a nascent understanding that a lack of access to water can underpin a whole host of issues that contribute to extreme poverty: the ability to earn an income, attend school, or even survive childbirth, among them. The scale of the problem was at once intimidating and invigorating. Here was a challenge that would not be solved in a year or a decade, but one that would require lifelong commitment.

“I chose water for its enormity and its complexity,” says Damon. “It looked like something that was going to be interesting to engage with over my entire life, and I’ve certainly found that to be true.”

When Damon narrated a documentary film about three men attempting to become the first humans to run coast-to-coast across the Sahara Desert, he and his producing partners recognised an opportunity. They launched a small foundation named H2O Africa, with the goal of raising money and awareness for charities doing good work in improving access to water in remote and impoverished communities. They identified projects while planning and filming the expedition, which took place across Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, and Egypt, and Damon was able to use his profile to raise money for specific NGOs operating within those countries.

“It was a great way to look at some of these affected areas, and also to push some funding to some people who were doing really good work,” he says. “There was so much low-hanging fruit, so many people who were affected by this, that my thinking was that if I could raise the money to sink a few bore wells, then I could reach a certain amount of people.

“Even at the time I knew it wasn’t the most sophisticated way of attacking the problem, but I wanted to do something,” he continues. “We didn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, and so we just jumped in and found people who were doing work we believed in, and raised money so they could continue doing that work.”

Damon’s initial enthusiasm doubtless transformed thousands of lives and enabled whole communities to begin the arduous climb out of poverty. Yet the limitations of H20 Africa’s approach were a source of frustration to its founder, who understood that in order to achieve lasting change, a more strategic methodology was required.

“We certainly helped people but I realised a couple of things really quickly,” he recalls. “The first was that we were attacking the problem in the wrong way, and the second was that we could do much better on an organisational level, too.”

"Half of the water projects in the world fail, and we were very aware of that"

As he delved deeper into the issues surrounding access to water, Damon reached a personal tipping point: he could continue to fund existing projects on a piecemeal basis, or he could rip up his own script, and start again. “You get to that moment where you look at the scale of the problem and you look at your efforts, and I think that’s the moment where a lot of people give up,” he suggests. “That’s really the important moment, because that’s when you have to go for it. You tell yourself that you have something to offer, and that if you re-examine what you’re doing and try and go about it in a different way, then maybe you can really move the needle someday.”

Damon’s solution was to reach out to somebody he knew was already an expert in the field, somebody who had a sophisticated understanding of the issues and somebody from whom he could absorb the lessons of decades spent in the dust and the mud. The man who played Jason Bourne needed a hero, and he chose Gary White.

The co-founder of WaterPartners International, a non-profit organisation that received H2O Africa funding and provided safe drinking water and sanitation to hundreds of communities in eight countries across Africa, South Asia and South America, White was an experienced water project actor with a commitment to monitoring, evaluation, and results-oriented research. As he and Damon discussed their common goals, it became apparent that the two men shared a strong connection.

“Half of the water projects in the world fail, and we were very aware of that, but Gary’s group had a great record,” says Damon. “They were very smart about how they operated and I realised pretty quickly that if we joined forces we could do so much more together than separately. That was the key decision for me.

“I would definitely advise anybody getting into this space, to find something that they’re really interested in working on. Then I would recommend finding the best person to partner with, because there are so many programmes out there that would be better served by joining forces.”

In 2009 Damon approached White for help, he says, “with my hat in my hand. I said I wanted to help and that I felt I could do more, and I think he saw an opportunity whereby we could reach a lot more people, and get a lot closer to our mutual goals, if we did it together”.

The result was, an international nonprofit that prioritises partnerships with indigenous organisations, and solutions tailored to the needs of each community, as opposed to hi-tech fixes that remote communities have no way of maintaining. Today has an annual operating budget of $14m, and staff in the US, India, Kenya and Peru. Nearly 2 million people have benefitted from WaterCredit, a microfinance scheme that provides families with micro-loans for toilets and household water connections. According to the organisation, an investment in WaterCredit can reach five to 10 times as many beneficiaries as a traditional grant over a 10-year period; validation, it would appear, of the strategic, as opposed to wallet-to-well, approach.

"The problem’s not going to go away if we all don’t get in there and mix it up a little bit" 

For a bona fide Hollywood giant, Damon is refreshingly self-deprecating when it comes to describing his need to start over and develop a deeper understanding of the issues at play. He also defers to White’s vast experience at the sharp end of the battle to deliver clean water and sanitation to disadvantaged communities.

“I’ll never be the man with three engineering degrees and 20-odd years experience in the field, but in terms of the issue I can go to school on it and that’s what I did,” he says. “I’m constantly learning and I think an important thing for people who want to get involved in philanthropy is to give yourself permission to be a student.

“That never stops: even Gary, who is an absolute expert in this field, is always asking questions on our trips because conditions are changing constantly,” he continues. “People who go into philanthropy are often very successful in other areas of life, and I think it can be embarrassing to be the student again. I would just encourage anybody who is thinking about this, that that’s really the fun of it: once you give yourself permission to not know [everything], that’s when life gets exciting again.”

Damon is determined to pass this passion to his four daughters. “It’s an ongoing education just like it is for me, but I’m bringing them along as best I can,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be around this issue, but I expect a lot from them.

“They’ve been born into a lot more privilege than I was and a lot of emotional capital as well,” he continues. “They’ve got a great mum and I like to think a pretty good dad too, and I expect them to do a lot. I expect that kids like that should do a lot, and they will have to if there’s any hope for our world.”

Today Damon spends his time making movies, with his family, or working with to develop water and sanitation access solutions to otherwise underserved communities.

“If I’m on a movie I’m working 15 hours a day, but if I’m not I’m with my family or I’m doing this, and it makes for a really full and fun life,” he says. “The problem’s not going to go away if we all don’t get in there and mix it up a little bit. More kids are dying from this than from AIDS, measles and malaria combined. It’s the most serious problem out there, and we need to approach it just as seriously.”