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Water & Sanitation

The Quest for the Water for the World Act

All the way back in the middle of 2013, Global Citizen came across a problem we wanted to solve: the Global Sanitation crisis. Sanitation affects many of Global Citizen’s core areas of advocacy. It was clear a solution was needed to improve access to clean water and toilets around the world. Luckily, there was a bill already in process in the US Congress that fit our goals: the Water for the World Act. Now, we needed to get involved and help take this bill from concept to actual passage-something that had failed twice before.

This idea, simple in its formation and concept, would consume 18 months of hard work, amazing events and incredible support from our legion of Global Citizens around the world, our partners and US Congressional leaders.

With the big announcements this week, this story’s end is widely known, but there is so much more than just the ending. Just like we know the end to Titanic, Romeo and Juliet or any action movie with Bruce Willis (spoiler alert: the boat sinks, the lovers die, and Mr. Willis always wins), the story is important because of the lessons we learn and remember as much as it is for how it ends. And considering the role you, the Global Citizen reading this, played in making the story end the way it does, this story is about you.

Before we get into the story, our partners deserve a specific shout out. When Global Citizens came on board with the Water for the World Act, we joined an amazing group of organizations who had been working for as long as six years on this issue. This included: WaterAid America, WASH Advocates, Millennium Water Alliance, InterAction, and World Vision.

So let’s jump into the way-back machine and visit a strange time, known as early 2013.

Pop culture was chugging along listening to emerging musical powerhouses like Macklemore’s Can’t Hold Us.

(A note on this: We were all also listening to One Direction, Justin Bieber, Nelly, and a whole bunch of others, but yeah I wasn’t going to put up Beiber…just not my thing.)

US President Obama was starting his second term and the US House of Representatives was getting more and more Republican.

The sanitary situation in the world was pretty bad. 748 million people lacked access to clean water, and about 2.5 billion lived without proper sanitation. Wait…. Those are still the numbers. So yes, in 2013 and today the sanitation problem is bad.  This is where Michael “Mick” Sheldrick, the Senior Manager for Global Policy and Advocacy at the Global Poverty Project (The parent organization of Global Citizen) stepped in:

Michael Sheldrick:In the lead up to the 2013 Global Citizen Festival one of the issues we were shining the spotlight on was gender inequality and the degree to which women and girls in the world are still prevented from realizing their full potential. As our campaign took off, a collection of individuals approached us including John Kluge Jr., Founder of Toilet Hackers, and the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, Jan Eliasson. They explained to us that if we really wanted to address gender inequality then we had to also shine the spotlight on the global sanitation crisis. Sanitation is the most off-track of all the Millennium Development Goal targets and one of the leading reasons girls drop out of school. Jan also explained his own background growing up in Sweden without proper access to sanitation and how his country’s development showed change was possible. We asked what we could do to support and John Kluge jr immediately said the Water for the World Act.

And our US Campaigns Associate, Judith Rowland, soon came on board the project to take the lead in coordinating with Congress and partners.

Judith Rowland, US Campaigns Associate: I was thrilled to work on Global Poverty Project’s efforts in support of the Water for the World. I started working with great sector partners like WaterAid America, WASH Advocates, Millennium Water Alliance, InterAction, and World Vision.

Unclear indeed. Behind the scenes, sector partners told us they thought the bill was a good vehicle to discuss sanitation but an uphill battle to actually get passed. It had been tried twice before in Congress and failed both times.

Undaunted, our organization, and the partners we had joined, had faith that with the support of Global Citizens, this crucial improvement to US Foreign Aid could become a reality.

Building on our success with polio advocacy at our 2012 Global Citizen Festival, a major focal point for advocacy around the Water for the World Act was going to be the 2013 Global Citizen Festival in New York City’s Central park. The goal was to gather congressional leaders on stage to announce their support of the bill and harness the momentum of the committed crowd to expand the pressure on Congress to fully consider the bill.

Judith Rowland: In the lead up to the 2013 Global Citizen Festival, we circulated a petition calling on US Leaders to support the Water for the World Act. Global Citizens were eager to campaign on sanitation. I remember lots of late nights in the office brainstorming creative ways that we can talk about toilets and poop. It was a lot of fun, with many late night sushi orders to keep us running.

Fancy sushi aside (I for one, would have gone with greasy fries and burgers, but I digress…), the task the campaign team undertook was no small feat. Global Citizens around the US and the world were eager to campaign but it was unclear how eager Congress as a whole was to listen. Despite two previous attempts at passing the bill in congress and years of incredible work by the partners we’d joined. 

Global Citizen was committed but unsure of the future until we made contact with this guy:

Judith Rowland:Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has been a lifelong advocate for water and sanitation. He was one of the key leaders who wrote the Water for the World Act. You can spot the Congressman from a mile away thanks to his ever present bowtie and bicycle pin on his lapel.

Congressman Blumeauer is one of the true rock stars of improving global sanitation. Hooking into his initiative and his team's expertise was a big step forward for Global Citizen. 

The 2013 plan for supporting the Water for the World Act centered around having congressional leaders speak in support for the bill from the stage of our Festival in New York City. This moment was intended to expand the public awareness our partners had worked so hard to build and help push this issue to the center of attention.  

Justine Lucas, US Country Director for Global Poverty Project: Congressman Blumenauer planned to come to the Global Citizen Festival in 2013 and lead our call for support of the Water for the World Act but, because of the government shutdown, we had to change plans at the last minute. It was really disappointing that we couldn’t profile this issue in a big way at the Festival. The benefit was though that Congressman Earl Blumenauer and his team became close friends and allies who would be instrumental in leading the movement to a win on the Water for the World Act.

With 2013 ending in political gridlock, we were less optimistic about opportunities to pass legislation in 2014. It was unclear how many bills -if any- could be passed in the atmosphere that filled Washington, D.C. With so much political posturing and debating about budgets, we were concerned that bills like the Water for the World Act could be forgotten in the crush of politics.

This is where Global Citizens and our partners really took a stand, as we all doubled down on Congressional engagement.

Judith Rowland: Coming into 2014, I had renewed hope about the Water for the World Act. During the World Water Day Advocacy Day, Mick and I hit the halls of Capitol Hill as we attended advocacy meetings on Water for the World Act for the first time. It was incredible to see the broad range of partners who were involved. Global Citizens signed petitions, emailed their Congresspeople, and contacted key leaders like Speaker John Boehner to ask for their support on the Water for the World Act.

Judith and Justine delivering the petition to Speaker Boehner’s office

All in all, Global Citizens took 53,000 actions supporting access to water and sanitation worldwide. This collective yell for attention, helped empower the organizations working to support the Water for the World Act and ensure Congressional leaders paid attention.

To engage Global Citizens in this fight to improve sanitation around the world we realized we needed to make everyone more aware of the problem. Enter, your friendly neighborhood content team with a veritable waterfall (ha!) of water and sanitation centered pieces.

Christina Nuñez, Global Citizen Editor: I remember the content team talking about how important it was to break the poo taboo by getting people more comfortable with talking about the issue. But the problem for me was, I felt super shy about it myself! I’ve always been in the habit of using expressions like “use the restroom” so breaking away from that was a serious struggle. I had to employ the technique of “fake it til you make it.” Then, the real challenge was figuring out how to talk about the issue in new ways. Which is still an issue, so if anyone has any good ideas….

Christina’s call for ideas notwithstanding (but seriously, if you have good ideas let us know in the comments), the Content Team generated 47 pieces on sanitation.  

Jay Gunning, Marketing Manager: There is an endless array of puns and naughty words that we can use to talk about sanitation. Once, we took a “Field Trip to Our Toilet” and took photos of each other holding up signs with facts about sanitation. (Yes, that is me in the photo below) And, we watched a lot of .gifs of cats playing with toilet paper.

Yes, this really happened, That is Jay Gunning, our Marketing Manager.

Content pieces were not going to be enough to get this bill passed through Congress. Pounding the pavement, engaging each of the Congress’s 535 members (for those playing along at home with calculators that’s 435 Congresspeople and 100 Senators), getting them to understand the importance of this bill.

Judith Rowland: I spent a lot of time on the Amtrak going between New York and Washington D.C. I would wake up at 4am and catch the 6:10am train to Washington D.C. I personally met with over 100 Members of Congress and staffers. In the meetings, I handed over the petition from Global Citizens and showed Members of Congress all the people from their district who supported the Water for the World Act. The Congressional offices were always impressed by the thousands of supporters who are passionate about the issue. These meetings provided opportunities to answer questions that staffers had about the bill and to clarify things that they had heard in the media. For example, some Members of Congress were under the impression that the Water for the World Act would cost billions of dollars; when I explained that the bill would have a negligible cost it was much easier to get their support.

Judith Rowland, Senator Durbin, and a grassroots supporter

Explaining the issue and how the bill works are crucial steps in getting a law passed in the United States. It seems strange to think of, but simply cutting through the white noise and getting individual members of Congress to fully understand the benefits of a bill can be enough to get their support. Particularly on an issue as fundamental as improving US foreign aid for sanitation.

But explaining the benefits is not enough. True “ground support” from Global Citizens who live in the districts of Congressman is a major tool. As, my colleague Christina likes to say, “Congresspeople are scurred of their constituents.” Basically this means elected officials like to do things their voters support (and now this mini-course in democracy is over).

To get local voters engaged, Global Citizen went on the road to places like Austin, Texas and Chicago, Illinois.

Stefan Portay, Senior Manager Digital and Product: Global Citizens took actions in support of the Water for the World Act to earn tickets to Global Citizen Nights events in their regions. Congressman Aaron Schock recorded a video announcing his support for Water for the World Act. Republican Congressman Aaron Schock has long been a supporter of CARE and is deeply engaged in issues of extreme poverty. Having Congressman Aaron Schock on board brought a new level of excitement and energy to the campaign.

But regional events were not enough. Global Citizens went big with the Thank You Festival in June, 2014. At this great event held just outside Washington, D.C. Global Citizen joined with UNICEF, and WaterAid America to rally support for the passage of the Water for the World Act.

Justine Lucas:There is a taboo around the issue of sanitation - people are uncomfortable talking about it, and we take for granted our easy access to a toilet.  And what better way to try and change this and to put the toilet squarely in the center of everyone’s attention than with a giant inflatable toilet at a 15,000 person concert? People took thousands of photos in front of the toilet after tweeting towards key Congresspeople asking for support on the Water for the World Act. This wasn’t the last sighting of the giant inflatable toilet: it made an appearance on the UN lawn on World Toilet Day.

Has there ever been a cooler campaign image than a giant toilet? It almost makes you...well excuse me, I need to take a break from writing…..Ah, that’s better.  Good thing I have access to sanitation here in the office. But, back to the story.

The success of the events led to national momentum for the bill. To make sure Congressional leaders were aware of the public’s desire for this bill to become law, Global Citizens sent over 14,000 emails to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to ask him to bring the Water for the World Act to a vote on the House floor.

Tom Blake, Lead Editor of Global Citizen: It was a blast sending emails to our database about the Water for the World Act. It was a great opportunity for us to broach the “poo taboo.” We got some pretty amazing feedback from all our poop talk!

Yes, this email is from later in the year but we liked the shout out!

Judith Rowland: We needed to rally support for the bill within House leadership. Global Citizens sent thousands of emails to Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Majority Whip Steve Scalise to ask them to add the bill to the suspension calendar for a vote after the bill was marked up (Translation: gets through committee). Our outstanding interns compiled all 14,000 emails into a binder and I took handed the binders over to each office. The meetings went really well and each leader explained that, as long as the bill was marked up, they would do what they could to bring the bill to a vote. They seemed interested, but I know that they have thousands of bills vying for their attention. From this we knew that Chairman Ed Royce was truly the man we needed to get to.

Events, and key congressional leaders coming on board and this campaign became something more: a true movement for change on the issue of sanitation. But the success of a sanitation movement cannot happen simply in the halls of Government.

To make sure this movement had a connection and grounding with the people it was designed to help, Global Citizen and supporters of Water for the World had to go international. It was time to go to India.

Linda Tam, Operations Assistant (who helped setup this trip): I was thrilled to be able to join the trip to India. We have all seen the numbers - 2.5 billion people without a latrine, and 748 million people without clean water. This trip put faces and names to those 2.5 billion people. Faces and names like Surjit Kaur, the leader of the ‘mahila mandal’ (or ‘women’s group’) in her village of Khanpur. She was a key player in Kanpur achieving open defecation free status; by first, in getting latrines built, and second, in changing the behaviour of her local community to use and maintain the latrines. Kanpur has seen improved health, especially in their children, and neighbouring villages want the same benefits. She’s a true sanitation hero, and her story hit home for me and made me truly understand what all our campaigning is about.

Justine Lucas:Learning Trips, like our trip to India, are wonderful opportunities for Members of Congress to see issues of extreme poverty firsthand. The trip to India demonstrated a lot of the challenges that are faced by people who don’t have access to basic sanitation. This experience made Congressman Aaron Schock an unrelenting advocate for Water for the World Act. So much so that later in this story, he even stuck around in Washington D.C. after the House of Representatives closed for the year so that he could ensure that the bill passed in the Senate!

An important addition to our sanitation advocacy group at this point was Caterpillar. Representatives of their great foundation came on the India trip and saw first hand how the issue of sanitation related to a core issue for them of supporting women and girls. In part because of the trip they came on board as a huge supporter of the upcoming Global Citizen Festival in New York City.

Coming out of the India trip, there was just a month until the Global Citizen Festival. In 2013, the plan had been to use the festival to announce congressional support and build momentum for the bill. Then political events outside of the bill derailed that plan.

In 2014, Global Citizen and our partners would not let that happen again. And have no fear, Judith was hard at work:

Judith Rowland: After our meetings on The Hill, I would follow up with the people I met and encourage them to be cosponsors of the Water for the World Act. Our team did a little happy dance everytime a new cosponsor was confirmed. We worked hard, and yes there was a LOT of dancing in the office.

So much dancing because the bill now had 108 cosponsors. But there were still mountains to climb and miles to go. When working with the US Congress its important to understand who the gatekeepers are at each step. The gatekeeper we now needed to approach was Chairman Ed Royce.

Judith Rowland:Things were going well. We had a huge number of cosponsors on board and then we hit a snag. Chairman Ed Royce needed to markup the bill in his committee. If we wanted to pass the bill this year, it was essential for us to get Chairman Ed Royce’s support. Over the summer, Global Citizens tweeted at Chairman Ed Royce, who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to ask him to “markup” the bill (Translation: this means have the committee vote and approve it so the wider House of Representatives can consider the bill).

To get Chairman Royce on board in time for the September 2014 Global Citizen Festival, the wider GPP team gathered for an emergency meeting on a Sunday. With just a week left till the festival, gaining Chairman Royce’s support was critical to the final push on Water for the World. Over the next few days, Global Citizens sent tweets and facebook posts to the Chairman. And this was the outcome:

Judith Rowland: Chairman Ed Royce recorded a video for Global Citizen that announced his support for the Water for the World Act. This was the first public statement he had made about the bill!

This was a huge win in a very short period of time. With Chairmen Royce on board the whole movement was energized. Yet, we still faced doubts. Congressional Supporters and sector advocates believed in the bill, but they were skeptical it could make it to the floor of the House and the Senate by the end of the 2014 congressional session. Mid-term elections and budget discussions would be a major feature of rest of 2014, leaving little room for other issues.

But we were not afraid. We had the power of over 50,000 Global Citizens gathering on the Great Lawn of New York City’s Central Park. And Congressional leaders were lining up to channel those voices into change for sanitation.

Judith Rowland: Our production team and I went up to White Plains, NY to film Congresswoman Nita Lowey speaking about the bill. Her energy and passion for the issue was contagious. The next day, I went down to Washington, D.C. to film Senator Richard Durbin and Congressman Earl Blumenauer in the Capitol. We did the filming in the Majority Whip hideaway, which was a really interesting experience. We handed the Senator a few hundred postcards that Global Citizens at Adelphi University wrote supporting the Water for the World Act. When I saw the final video I got a bit emotional; it represented over a year’s worth of work!

And it was not just Judith who would see this final video. On stage at the Global Citizen Festival none other than The Roots introduced the video and its on stage advocates to the screaming crowd. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In the week leading up to the Festival it wasn’t just recorded videos being produced, the wider team was hard at work securing over 100 media pieces and segments on Sanitation and the Water for the World Act.

Judith Rowland: I spent the week leading up to the Global Citizen Festival running back and forth from Rockefeller Center. I worked with NBC to schedule 6 segments about Water for the World Act with Members of Congress like Congressmen Charles Rangel and Charles Dent. I sat with the Congressmen in the makeup room and briefed them on the details of the bill while the markup artists applied their foundation. Just an FYI, the donuts at Rockefeller Center are really good...

Good donuts, but nothing beat the backstage atmosphere at the Festival. Remember, when I told you the Roots introduced the video and advocates for Water for the World? Well, Judith was backstage during this amazing moment and it sounds awesome.

Judith Rowland: During the Festival, I was backstage with the Global Citizen Festival Honorary Congressional Host Committee members. The Members of Congress seemed really excited to be at the Festival and Congressman Earl Blumenauer even got a photo with Alicia Keys. I led Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Charles Dent to the stage and then they were introduced by The Roots.

The momentum of the Festival pushed the movement for Water for the World into warpspeed (yes, I use that term because I am a trek nerd). The bill was in the home stretch, but still competing with the midterm elections and other priorities for Congress.

To make sure we didn’t lose the attention of the public and Congress, a slate of events continued to advocate for the bill.

The first was in Philadelphia, just a few weeks after the Festival in New York City.

Fiona Korwin-Pawlowski, US Campaigns Manager: Leading up to Global Citizen Nights in Philadelphia, supporters across Pennsylvania took action in support of the Water for the World Act. Congressman Chaka Fattah recorded a video announcing his support of the Water for the World Act and, as a result of advocacy from Global Citizens, became a cosponsor of the Water for the World Act!

But it’s not all celebrities, Congressional leaders and music events. Sometimes, it just comes down to hard work and some really awesome toilet paper. Yup, toilet paper. Actually, two different types of toilet paper.  Some functional, yet informative, toilet paper:

As well as a tool, and an educational newspaper called (hilariously, I think) The Toilet Paper. Global Citizen worked with many partners to produce the 8-page newspaper full of facts and even some humor (Take a read yourself).

Yes, that’s me, reading the Toilet Paper.

But we didn’t just stop at Toilet Papers. We used World Toilet Day (if you didn’t know already, yes that’s a real thing and it’s awesome) to keep people focused on Sanitation.

Hilary Gleason, US Campaigns Fellow:When planning events around World Toilet Day, we had all these great ideas: a cocktail party, a newspaper, comedy shows…. then it hit us: who was going to attend a cocktail party about toilets? What would we call it? Would you attend a toilet party? How do you approach celebrity comedians and ask them to make shit jokes?

But to our surprise, a lot of people attended the World Toilet Day Cocktail Party. And when we walked around the room, people were actually talking about toilets. When we handed out the newspaper around New York City, people actually read it, laughed, and hopefully learned something. Nationally known comedians, like Judah Friedlander from 30 Rock, told poop jokes in front of a sign about how 2.5 billion people don’t have access to sanitation. I think maybe the key to getting people to engage with the issue was that it seemed like such a ridiculous ask. “Do you want to go to a comedy show about shit?” and “Do you want to go to a toilet party?” actually turned out to be pretty successful ways to create sanitation champions.

With all the fun and games of this campaign, the final push came in December. The bill had been “marked up” by committees and now the House and the Senate had matching versions ready for a vote. And then we waited…

We waited as both Chambers took on other issues (you know, little things like the US national budget) and our congressional champions continued to pushed for the bill to come to a vote. If the Bill didn’t pass before the Congressional session then we would be forced to start from almost the beginning with the new Congress in 2015.

Then, a watershed moment: The US House of Representatives passed the Water for the World Act UNANIMOUSLY. Yes, you heard me right. Your voices got unanimous support from the US House of Representatives.

Judith Rowland:Our team, and all of our partners, worked so hard to get the Water for the World Act to pass. The bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives on December 8. Then, we had to immediately pivot to the Senate so that we could get the bill passed before the end of the session. On September 10, Senator Tom Coburn placed a hold on the bill. The bill couldn’t pass until the hold was removed, and we didn’t have much time.

Senator Coburn has a long history of actively involving himself with how Government funds are spent. Historically he has put holds on a wide variety of bills and only removed his hold in a few instances. Senator Coburn's hold was a serious hurdle at the finish line for the Water for the World Act. But as we’ve seen before, Judith was running the show with full Global Citizen support.

Judith Rowland: Global Citizen Ambassadors like Bonnie Wright and Bridget Moynahan tweeted in support of the bill and urged their followers to do the same.

Judith Rowland:We rallied over 800 tweets from Global Citizens asking for Senator Tom Coburn to support the Water for the World Act. I told Congressman Charles Dent about the issue at his Christmas Party and he immediately picked up his phone and started calling Republicans in the Senate to ask for their support. The stakes were high; if the Senator’s hold wasn’t removed millions would be left without access to water. It literally came down to just one man. In the eleventh hour, Senator Tom Coburn stepped aside and allowed the Water for the World Act to pass unanimously. I got the amazing news from Congressman Aaron Schock’s team and got to let the entire sector know that the bill had passed! The tremendous work of Global Citizens had finally payed off. It sure wasn’t easy but thanks to you, millions more people will now have access to water and sanitation. I couldn’t be happier!

The Water for the World Act has now passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. An amazing outcome to over 18 months of campaigning and action by Global Citizens across the United States and the world.

Global Citizens can change the world. Sometimes the road is long, sometimes it has setbacks, but the important part is end result: Changing the world for a better place.

Millions of lives will be improved because of the actions taken over the last 18 months. It truly is time to celebrate.