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The world's biggest problem and how to fix it

There are 1.5 million charities and private foundations in the United States alone. The third sector is huge. And it’s growing.

More money is being pumped into charities than ever before. UK charitable giving increased by £1.1bn last year.

But despite these huge figures, from the donor’s perspective it can often seem like the need is growing much faster than the cash is coming in.

Children In Need, Comic Relief, Christian Aid week, Macmillan’s bake sales, the Poppy appeal. It seems like every week of the year is booked up by NGOs who each run a campaign to attract donations.

It was nearly a decade ago that Coldplay and others told us to ‘Make Poverty History’. Other than selling numerous wristbands, what did the campaign achieve?

The good news

Speaking at a TED conference last year, Bono argued that the billions of dollars donated to charitable initiatives has, despite popular opinion, made a huge difference.

Humanity’s long slow journey of equality is actually speeding up - Bono

Child mortality is down by 2.65 million a year. 7,256 fewer children are dying each day, than in the year 2000, he explained.

Apparently the news about poverty is so positive that soon the time will come where we will not have to put up with the “insufferable jacked up Jesus” known as Bono, telling us to put our hands in our pockets.

The U2 front man also explained how extreme poverty had halved in the past 20 years and at the current rate could fall from 21% to 0% by 2030.

Extreme poverty could be made history within the next generation.

“It drives me nuts that most people don’t seem to know this news,” he cried.

But it wasn’t just these astonishingly positive figures that led to Bono receiving a standing ovation. It was the way he told the audience that they had a part to play in changing the world. Few ideas carry as much resonance or power.

Changing the world

Fast-forward 12 months and I’m sitting down with Adam Paul James. He’s not a famous rock star and he’s never given a TED talk. Like many Millennials, he wants to change the world. Importantly, he also believes he can change the world. But with his youthful passion and excitement, comes wisdom and strategy.

Adam and his brother Pete think big. ‘What’s the world’s biggest problem and how do we solve it?’ might be an interesting icebreaker question or thought experiment that lasts twelve seconds, but for Adam and Pete this question has driven them.

Before founding the marketing and digital development brand Storysmiths, Adam worked in the charity sector. “I’ve always asked the question ‘why are charities started?’” Adam says. Thanks to his first-hand experience in both the charitable and business worlds, Adam has taken an “analytical approach”.

So before creating yet another charity or yet another campaign to help do their bit to solve global poverty, Adam and Peter founded and commissioned a research group (James Research Group) to find out what the world’s 10 biggest contributors to global poverty were. Research of this kind isn’t sexy, and neither were the results.

Looking back at the research period, Adam is pleased to have a “surprising result…”

Rather than ‘I went on a trip to Africa, I saw something and decided to do about it’. We wanted to start from a different point of view to see if something was being overlooked and we believe we’ve found something.

After a conversation with Adam in a Central London Nandos turned into a job, 26 year old John Peter Archer spent months reading over 700 reports written by organisations both large and small, before compiling his own report on 10 of the biggest issues relating to global poverty for the newly formed research group.

Now, John and Adam are ready to go public and reveal the single issue that their yet to be appointed team will be tackling in 2015.

“The issue we’re going to be talking about is…toilets. And the broader theme of sanitation”, John says.

‘Not glamorous’

The pair explain that 2.5bn people still lack basic sanitation and diarrhoea is the second largest killer of children. Lack of toilets in India and other parts of the world has also left women vulnerable to attack.

The team’s research shows that building safe toilets is one of the most effective ways to help women and children in areas of health, safety and education.

“Providing safe sanitation will reduce the number of hours some women have to walk to use a toilet. Shorter journeys and a safe place will reduce the chance of attack, rape and injury. Similarly, toilets in schools will allow girls to attend during their period and therefore have a greater chance at attending and completing their education,” John explains. Adam and John’s decision to focus on toilets is backed up by the latest statistics from the United Nations. In September 2000 the UN set 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to be completed before 2015. Many of these are on target to be completed. Green ticks can be placed next to ‘reduce child mortality’ and ‘half the number of people living in extreme poverty’. But the MDG that covers sanitation is significantly off target.

“It’s not glamorous,” John tells me, moments after explaining that, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), close to 1 billion people practice what’s known as “open defecation”.

When we started we wondered how many of the top 10 list would be underfunded because they’re unglamorous and you can’t get much more unglamorous than human waste. - Adam James

Before commissioning the research, Adam had expected war and disaster recovery would be high on the list. But while countless charities are working in disaster relief, “very few organizations are there solely to solve the sanitation problem”.

“We thought we might end up on transport or building roads,” Adam says referencing The West Wing, “but actually that’s not the most significant contributing factor to global poverty. There are bigger pieces to the puzzle. The scale and the value we would add to trying to solve that, is minimal. Clean, safe toilets is where we landed.”

Delivering dignity

On top of preventing poverty and ending violence to women, Adam believes clean, safe toilets can also provide jobs and even education.

“If we deliver dignity, which is part of what a toilet does to that community, can we also deliver the dignity of business to women? Is there a way of building that into what we’re doing?”

Adam says there’s a “crazy irony” in place today where some clean water charities ignore the issue of sanitation – meaning any water they provide soon gets infected.

“We see working with those water charities as a potential for partnering. They go in and build wells, we go in and deliver a toilet. Then that community has both halves and keeps the water clean.” John adds that there are similar problems within government budgets where 75% of funding going toward water, leaving only 25% for sanitation.

On top of wondering how to solve the world’s biggest problem, Adam has also fundamentally revisited the model of what a charity is. While he chooses his words carefully, its clear that Adam has some major issues with the way some charities are currently run. While he stops short of claiming charities are founded on a whim, Adam’s thorough and patient methodology of identifying problems and assessing where his and other’s skills are best used is commendable.

The number one goal for their project is that it closes. Adam says it would be “a wonderful place to be”, to get to a position where the charity has helped start local enterprises that can continue the work, thereby making it sustainable in the long term.

In the meantime, he’s tackling the sensitive issue of salaries and fundraising. Most charities spend a significant percentage of donor’s gifts on staff salaries. But their organisation will be different.

‘We’re not afraid to dream big’

“We want to make sure every pound given is given to the ground. None of the governance of running a charity is funded by giving money to the charity.”

The plan is to ask big companies who understand governance to fund the day to day running costs of the charity.

They understand governance and understand the importance of it. We’re gunna step up and say ‘you get it, why don’t you fund it?’- Adam James

The idea came from Charity Water who fund all of their running costs by asking big business to cough up. Adam admits that asking the corporate world to fund the salaries of a new charity is an ‘ambitious goal’. But as John comments, “We’re not afraid to dream big”.

Adam is confident that by putting his money where his mouth is, he can help bring in more cash to kick start the charity. He’s already used profits from his company StorySmith to fund the creation of James Research Group.

“…So I’m modelling it personally by putting my hand in my pocket,” he says.

“I 100% believe this is a good model and a new model which is far closer to business and social entrepreneurship. I think business and charity should be closer aligned. If they can take care of the ratio costs of running the charity and the projects, we can get on with delivering clean safe toilets to the world. That’s the challenge for the next 6 months.”

125% of donations go to projects

The pair plan to “run small”, at least in the beginning. “One of the easiest mistakes of the past is you chase the money because you’ve got to do things,” John explains.

“From working in the sector it’s incredibly stressful if you’re dealing with an issue but you’re also distanced from it. Work hours are much longer than you’d expect. Even within it the burn out rate is high. So let’s walk while we can walk and maybe one day we can run.”

“We’re trying to think ‘can we set a really good track record with year one, just one project?’ It doesn’t sound very grand but it’s trying to set that trend of everything we do, we do as carefully and as expertly as possible. That will then demonstrate this is a working model and has its benefits of being able to say to taxpayers that 125% of [taxpayer’s] donations goes overseas.

“One thing that is recognised within the charity sector as a whole they’re very good at leading you to where you give but the ongoing follow up, reporting is less advanced…We would love to put as much if not more effort into keeping people engaged in where their money is going on the ground.

“It would be great on a practical level to say you gave £100 it didn’t just go into the machine, it went to fund this toilet in this village in India and in 6 months time you can see how many lives that £100 changed on the ground. That’s our dream.”

In terms of installing toilets, the duo have another unusual idea.

“There’s a scene in Apollo 13 where they have to build a filter from what they have on the ship. We have a similar idea. Can we create a toilet from every day objects they have available wherever that is in the world as a really neat engineering solution – rather than shipping expensive over the top and over engineered solutions.”

In the early days of thinking about starting a charity, Adam asked his friends what they thought the world’s biggest problem was.

“We realised we had to reframe the question slightly to be what are the world’s biggest contributors to global poverty,” he smiles.

“I asked my friends what do you think is the world’s biggest problem?”

“The answers you get…” he looks away and laughs to himself. I press him. What were the answers?

“UK immigration. I mean, really?”

“Really?” he asks again incredulously.

“If you rephrase it within the word poverty, it grounds it. People think about their own perceived world and part of our challenge is to get people out of that world and realise they’re in the top 5% richest people in the world and they can put their hand in their pocket and change peoples lives.”

Picture copyright Jim Fischer

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