April 15, 2022

Matt Damon and Gary White

Oscar-winner Matt Damon and water expert Gary White discuss their goal to end the global water crisis for 771 million people in their lifetimes. They explain how they use microfinance and impact investing to help millions gain access to clean water.

Read Full Transcript EXPAND

A bromance on a mission… This Week on Firing Line. He’s an Oscar winner and one of the world’s biggest movie stars. Matt Damon is now taking on one of the world’s biggest crises: How to get clean water to 771 million people who don’t have it.  And he hasn’t let celebrity skeptics stop him. Damon teamed up with engineer and water expert Gary White more than a decade ago…

Damon: I eventually came to the realization that I needed to partner with the best expert I could find 

They innovated a new approach – and have already helped 43 million people in need. They say the key to creating change on a massive scale — is combining social responsibility with the power of capitalism. Can they achieve their mission to solve the world’s water crisis in their lifetimes? What do Matt Damon and Gary White say now?

‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation, The David Tepper Charitable Foundation Inc, The Fairweather Foundation, The Asness Family Foundation and by, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, Damon Button and The Simmons Family Foundation. Corporate Funding is provided by Stephens Inc. and Pfizer inc.

HOOVER: Gary White and Matt Damon, welcome to Firing Line. 

DAMON: Thank you. 

WHITE: Thanks. 

HOOVER: You have co-authored a new book entitled The Worth of Water. Our Story of Chasing Solutions to the World’s Greatest Challenge. Before we get to the substance of the crisis and your work. First, we have to address your bromance, Matt, you write in the book, “celebrities go off to Africa and resolve to change the world, that it triggers in you a gag reflex.” Your words, not mine. Of course, reading that I had no idea what you were talking about. 

DAMON: I’m sure you didn’t. Yeah. 

HOOVER: Tell me about that and how that piece of this impacted the way you think about all this. 

DAMON: That’s an interesting question. I think I came to the conclusion that, you know, as gag inducing as it can be, I did find myself with this platform  and because I really felt like I could have a positive effect and I really wanted to do that. I think, you know, it’s not gag-inducing if somebody is serious and effective. You know, on the contrary. So yes, initially I was, you know, a little reluctant about what the perception would be. And I think a lot of people think that way, and it’s something you just have to push through if you’re serious about making positive change. 

HOOVER: Well, you’ve been working on these issues for more than a decade with Gary. Gary, you’re an engineer. You’re a water policy expert. And you recognized on the flip side that it was risky for you to persuade your partners about the seriousness of joining forces with an Academy Award winning celebrity. How did you persuade them?

WHITE: Well, I persuaded them by just getting to know Matt, and it doesn’t take long and getting to know Matt to recognize that he is serious and how much he had already studied about the water issue. And even fast forwarding now, you know, at this point that is literally one of the world’s water experts. 

HOOVER: Can you each explain – Gary, you first – what exactly is the water crisis you aim to solve? 

WHITE: So we talk a lot about, like, a looming water crisis with climate change and, you know, preserving water resources for future generations. And to us that kind of is the crisis in the offing. But really, for 771 million people around the world, the water crisis is happening now. It happens every morning when they wake up, when, you know, when we wake up in the morning, you know, we go to the fast and turn on the water and it’s there. For hundreds of millions of people they wake up not necessarily knowing if the water supply that they were using yesterday is going to be there today if that water hole may have dried up. And it goes beyond water into every aspect of life. Water is the foundation that everything is built on for economies. And when you don’t have access to water, you’re not going to school. If you’re a child, and you know, 200 million hours are going to be spent today by people walking to collect water. You’re not healthy, you’re paying medical bills. All of these things roll into a life crisis that has the water crisis at its foundation. And so the crisis is real. It’s happening today for those 771  million people for whom it’s life or death.

HOOVER: Matt, you’re the father of four daughters. And you write in the book that some of the young women that are spending hours per day collecting water for their families are the same age as your daughters. What have you learned about the disproportionate impact this crisis is having on women and girls? 

DAMON: Well, yeah, for your viewers, this is a crisis that disproportionately affects women and girls. They’re the ones left to do the water collection. So girls are not in school all over the world because they are out looking for water. And so, you know, the very first time I encountered this, in 2006, I was in rural Zambia, and I talk about this in the book. But for your viewers, I went on a water collection for the very first time with a girl. She was 14 years old and I was waiting for her when she came home from school. I was just kind of questioning her, you know, what’s it like living here? Is this where you want to live, when you grow up? And she said, No, no, I’m getting out of here. I’m going to move to Lusaka. I’m going to be a nurse. You know, she was going to move to the big city. And I just really hit it off with this kid. And, you know, she reminded me of being 14 years old and saying, you know, Ben Affleck and I are going to move to the big city of New York and we’re going to be actors. And I just that’s what 14 year olds should be thinking about. And it wasn’t until I was driving away that I realized that had it not been for the foresight of someone to sink a bore well a mile from this girl’s house, she wouldn’t be in school. She would be spending her entire day and her entire life really, like, looking for water. 

HOOVER: You launched water.org together over a decade ago, and you have taken a different approach from the philanthropic model that most Americans are familiar with. You don’t undertake water infrastructure projects yourselves or award grants. You work directly with micro-lending institutions who make small loans to families in developing countries so they can fund their own access to water. Gary, explain, when somebody makes a donation to water.org, where does that money go? 

WHITE: What we discovered by talking to women living in poverty around the world was that they already are paying for water. They’re paying in terms of their time that they spent, hours every day searching for water. They pay water vendors, oftentimes in urban slums, who sell questionable quality water off the back of a truck for 10 to 15 times more than if they had a connection to the water utilities. And so what our insight said, well, what if we could get them access to loans, because I met one woman who had gone to a loan shark and was paying 150 percent interest to be able to get a loan to build a toilet. And so it’s like, let’s go figure out how to get people access to the financing that they need. So of course, we talked to microfinance institutions because that’s what they do. But they would shut the door in our face. They’re like, No, we’re not going to make a loan for a water connection or a toilet because it’s not an income generating loan. Right? So they would say we’ll make a loan for a sewing machine because you’re sewing clothes by the end of the week and then you’ve got cash flow, but water and toilets, no way. So what we then do is use our philanthropic capital that we raise to help them get over this risk hurdle. So we do use that philanthropic dollar to then set in motion a capital flow from the market. It’s this unlocking ability and the catalytic effect of that philanthropy, so it’s not a top down gift or handout. Oftentimes, those types of projects fail. This is investing in them so that they can solve their own problems, to see them not as a charity problem to be fixed, but as a market to be served. 

DAMON: And I’d also just add on to that that he’s being modest. This insight that he had was really a big deal. And it came from spending his life in these communities, listening to people, learning about how they lived. And the key insight was that people were already paying, in the poorest places on Earth, already paying for water, right? And they were paying much more than people in the middle class or the people staying at the nice hotels were paying, in fact. He said to me once it’s very expensive to be poor, you know. And so that was the insight that Gary had where he said, I know these loans can be paid back and will be paid back because they’re a good deal. And and it’s really, you know, these loans pay off, I think as you know, at over 99 percent. I mean, it’s just an incredible story. And for us, the real reason to write the book, it’s about these women who take these loans and like to me like every single time that one of these loans is paid back. It’s like this individual story of heroism. It’s just amazing that these women are doing this. And it just shows, right philosophically because we, you know, the traditional charity model is not something that we spend time with. It’s more about nudging a market towards people and letting them solve their own problem. 

HOOVER: Matt, when I hear you talk about it, it sounds like that was a shift for you. Something kind of new, a new approach to philanthropy or charity that maybe you had to wrap your head around. I ask only because in the book, you write about how you were first uneasy with the concept of loaning money to people living in poverty. You write, quote, “Imagine coming across someone in a desert who is dying of thirst and instead of giving them your water bottle, asking them if they want to buy it from you. It felt when I first heard it described like the parts of capitalism that make a lot of us uneasy. It just felt wrong.” It sounds like you had a real journey in terms of how you think about philanthropy and charity.

DAMON: Yeah, I mean, it was about really understanding that these are these are costs that are being paid already, right? These are and actually, you know, you know, you know, we talk about a woman in the Philippines who, you know, who was spending $60 a month, right, buying water off the back of a truck that wasn’t even particularly clean. But she got a loan and her loan payment was $5 a month and her water bill was $5 a month. So that’s $50 in this woman’s pocket a month. And then eventually, in a couple of years, the loan’s paid off and then that’ll be $55 in her pocket every month. And that’s a big deal in these communities. And suddenly, you know, the ripple effects of that are enormous. And you know, it means it means a lot. It means none of the girls in that family are out looking for water. It means, you know, it means they’re all in school. So yes, it was. It was a thought leap to get there, right. And I use that example in the book about charging somebody for water in the desert. Like that that would turn anybody’s stomach. But, you know, on a large scale, these loan programs, you know, are not about trying to take money from people who don’t have it. It’s quite the opposite. It’s about empowering them to take control of their own lives, which is what they want to do. And in fact, the 99 plus percent pay back rate, I think, is illustrative of the fact that that’s really that’s that’s really what’s at play here. 

HOOVER: This program was originally hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. from 1966 to 1999 in 1999 in the final season he hosted former Treasury Secretary, William E. Simon, and they discussed government funding of philanthropic efforts.. 

SIMON: When government funds are used for philanthropic reasons, then they have to scrutinize everything. And to scrutinize they have to write regulations, and they have to decide how you’re going to give it, who you’re going to give it to, and I think a dollar spent by government, maybe 10 cents or 20 cents is effective at the most. And a dollar spent by an individual, he earned the money and the rest of it. He thinks twice about where he gives the money away. 

HOOVER: Gary, that clip reminded me of the conclusion that you came to when you were trying to decide whether to stick with private donors or to go the route of government funding and grant writing with your organization Water Partners. 

WHITE: Yes, certainly what we see is, this is an all hands on deck problem. If you look at government and the role that they can play versus what role the philanthropic community can play, I feel like we’re sitting right at that intersection. We know the water supply infrastructure is a natural monopoly, right? We know that governments have to be responsible for getting the pipes in the ground. And we work with governments around the world to help more people get connected. Then I think that is like both parties kind of doing what they can do best and do most appropriately. And, you know, we went this direction because we knew that traditional charity was never going to be enough. We knew that there was never going to be enough charity in the world to solve this crisis. And what we see is, like, let’s think about it differently. Let’s get out of the traditional roles. I mean, we created an asset manager now. We created water equity. 

HOOVER: Exactly where I was going next.

WHITE: The world’s first asset manager. And it’s like, we got to do this differently and think about this differently and think about philanthropy. I did some numbers the other day and over the last five years, the total foundation giving for water around the world is about $2.7 billion for all of the foundations. Our model alone has unlocked $3.3 billion in capital for microloans around the world. So that’s where you can get that type of leverage when you think differently.

HOOVER: Several years into your journey, you recognized that in order to scale even further, you needed more capital. And so you embrace this concept of impact investing and venture philanthropy with water equity, which is the fund that you just referenced, which you launched in 2017. Matt, your dad was a stockbroker and you went to him to see if he thought the idea would work. Explain how does this idea work and how is it different from both conventional charitable giving and traditional investing?

DAMON: So we were in India about eight or nine years ago, and we kind of were informally polling a bunch of our partners, our microf–- a bunch of the MFIs, the microfinance institutions that we work with. We got the same answer back from everybody, which was the biggest bottleneck to their work was access to affordable capital. And that’s how we came up with this idea of water equity, which, as Gary said–  an asset manager. I mean, if you told us, you know, a decade and a half ago that we would have created an asset manager or be using finance in this way to help solve this problem, you know, I would have looked at you like you were crazy. So I did,  I went to my father and I kind of pitched it to him. And when he didn’t throw me out of the house, I kind of went, well, maybe we’re on to something. But it actually has a competitive return. So it’s not only a, you know, a kind of, from a moral perspective a good place to put your money. It actually makes sense for your wallet. And so that’s how we’ve built a few of these funds now. And we, I don’t know if we’re allowed to talk about returns, but they’re great and competitive and so that work is scaling as well. 

WHITE: We just closed our third fund at the end of March. Two hundred million dollars in committed capital from multiple investors, and that money is out there now, generating water for millions of people and generating financial returns for investors. 

HOOVER: The average water.org loan is 323 dollars. But a loan is expensive to administer, whether it’s for 300 dollars or $3 million. How do you keep costs down when there are so many loans to manage, Gary? 

WHITE: Well, that’s where we rely on the expertise and the business acumen of our microfinance partners around the world. We partner with more than 150 of them. And you know, Matt was talking about this earlier, this 99 percent repayment rate kind of vouches for the fact that these are serving people well and meeting their needs.

HOOVER: Matt, you wrote in the book that you’re not a Hollywood Liberal, you’re a Cambridge, Massachusetts liberal who grew up in a quote, “super bookish hippie commune.” And I personally loved the story that you even benefited from Howard Zinn babysitting you. 

DAMON: I’m sure you love that. 

HOOVER: I mean, it’s kind of amazing. It’s just so perfect. You know, Howard Zinn, of course, is a famous sort of left-leaning American historian. But you know, now in this work, you’ve really embraced some of the virtues of capitalism and how sort of these principles of creating multimillion dollar investment funds and partnering with businesses like DuPont and Bank of America and Stella Artois and Crypto.com. You know, there’s a view that capitalism in today’s sort of progressive movement, it’s not a redeemable system, as we’ve heard recently on the left. 

DAMON: Well, I don’t, I can’t certainly speak for the left, but I can just say from myself that I think I think, well, they’ve polled Americans about this, what people respond to, mostly is ideas that work. And that’s really what I think any time you’re trying to solve a problem. I think it’s less about– whether I’m making a movie or whether I’m doing this work, it’s never about ideology or you’re clinging to any kind of preset idea. It’s really about what works. And bringing the concept of finance into this has accelerated this work. I mean, we could put a number on how many people we would have reached if we just did direct impact work and drilled wells. That was never going to get us there. And that’s one of the reasons I went looking for Gary 12, 13 years ago. I felt like there had to be a smarter way to do this. And it turned out that that involved finance and micro loans. And so I don’t view it as all bad or all good. I just look at it in terms of what it’s done for this work and it’s really accelerated and it’s been the right thing. Because it’s such a powerful tool when used properly. And that’s what we’re trying to do. 

DAMON:  Hi, I’m Mitch Emhoff, Clark’s stepdad, Clark Morrow.

HOOVER: Matt, you appeared in the 2011 movie Contagion. 

TEACHER: He said he was feeling very warm in class. I took his temperature again since I called. It was just a touch over 100. 

HOOVER: The plot is about a deadly respiratory disease that spreads around the globe. It becomes a pandemic.

TEACHER: Hope you feel better Clark, OK?
CLARK: OK. Thank you

HOOVER: In the book you write, “Water is the most basic, most valuable PPE there is.” How did the pandemic help raise public urgency for your case.

DAMON: I think it accentuated a lot of this for us because the very first thing we heard was wash your hands, right? And the first thing we both thought of was, well, there’s 770  million people who don’t have access to clean water to wash their hands with. 

WHITE: It drove home for me like how interconnected we are. You know, if COVID can hop on a plane and move around the world in a matter of weeks, are we any safer than people who are there, right? And if they can’t wash their hands and disease is spreading there, it’s ultimately going to hit us as well. And so it is the morally right thing to do to try to help people solve this crisis for themselves. But it’s also a bit of enlightened self-interest that we see in terms of preserving global health. 

HOOVER: In October, you announced a partnership between Water.org and Crypto.com, the cryptocurrency platform. Tell me about why these two entities have partnered. 

DAMON: It kind of happened, I guess, somewhat organically. They came to me asking to do an advertisement for them. And I harken back to something that Paul Newman said to me about shameless exploitation for the common good. That was his favorite phrase, and I think he even put that on– I mean, the guy was on salad dressing bottles. And so any time I’ve done any kind of advertisement, I’ve just looked at it as an opportunity as a fundraiser, and I give all the money to water.org. 

AD Damon: …fortune favors the brave

DAMON: And so I did the ad and gave the money to water.org. And then, you know, crypto, the people that Crypto.com heard that I’d done that and just completely unsolicited sent us a check for a million dollars. So that kind of, it was really surprising and wonderful. And then that kind of started this conversation with them, like, wait a minute, you know, can we think of some kind of a bigger partnership here like we have with Stella Artois? So that’s kind of where we are now, and we’re just hopeful that this leads to something bigger. 

HOOVER: Water.org focuses on the end delivery of clean water in the developing world. But I’m curious how you factor in this broader water crisis and water scarcity challenges in many places around the world, including here in the United States. Gary, is there an argument for beginning to think about the macro water supply issues that the globe will need to confront? 

WHITE: There certainly is, and it is a global crisis, but it’s also a series of thousands of local crises, right? Because water is very much a local commodity. It already has a huge carbon footprint, the whole water sector. For instance, in California 25 percent of all the electricity that’s consumed is used to move water from where it is to where it needs to be, to treat it and to distribute it. And so we need to look at this from all different perspectives. The technology, the conservation, and frankly, the carbon footprint. 

DAMON: For us, it’s about– we’re really focused on access for the poorest of the poor, access and that that access is now threatened by climate change. The poorest people are going to feel this the worst and they’re going to feel it first. And really, that’s and we don’t want to lose any of the gains that we’ve made. Right. So I think about it in that context. 

HOOVER: Last one for both of you. You have both vowed to “end the world’s water crisis in our lifetime”. That’s a quote. Given where your partnership is now, do you still today feel as strongly that your goal can be accomplished? Matt. 

DAMON: Yes. That’s our mission statement at Water.org to do this in our lifetime and to put ourselves out of work. But I do feel there are a lot of steps along the way. All right, I realize how– we realize how ambitious that is. But when we first said it, we hadn’t reached a million people and we said we were sitting at a, you know, in a meeting in New York. And Gary just blurted that out and everybody looked at him like he had two heads. And here we are, you know, a decade or a little over a decade later, and we’re 43 million people– by the end of this year we will be at 50 million people. Now obviously, we have a very long way to go, but the work is accelerating and the more the word gets out the more it’s going to accelerate. 


WHITE: I absolutely believe it. I believe it for lots of reasons, not least of which is we’ve already done it right for much of the world. The problem we solved a hundred years ago, it’s not a silver bullet that we need. It’s not a cure. It’s like we know how to do this the way we’ve done it already. So yes, we can do it in other parts of the world. So I think that’s why I have hope. We’ve done it before and the fundamentals are now right to move beyond charity and multiply that with the capital markets to get everybody in the world safe water and sanitation. 

HOOVER: Matt Damon, Gary White, the book is Worth Of Water, our story of chasing solutions to the world’s greatest challenge. Thank you for joining me on Firing Line. Thank you for persuading the audience how sincerely devoted to the issue as a celebrity you are, Matt Damon, and Gary for your expertise in your long devotion with Matt. Thank you for enlightening our audience. 

WHITE: Thank you. 

DAMON: Thank you so much for having us.