The inside story of Matt Damon’s bold yet sane plan to use his celebrity and smarts to help attack one of the globe’s great crises.
Once upon a time, Matt Damon went for a long walk in rural Zambia. The devoted family man and method philanthropist was accompanying a 14-year-old Zambian girl who had no idea that her hiking companion was an Academy Award-winning international heartthrob.
The walk came toward the end of a 10-day African journey, a systematic primer on the complexities of the continent’s extreme poverty that had been organized for Damon by staffers from his friend Bono’s ONE campaign. Damon was on a quest to understand what it meant to be really, really poor. “It was like a mini course in college,” he says. Every day brought a different subject: urban AIDS, microfinance, education, and, finally, water. While walking with the young teen on her hour-long trudge to collect water for her family, something clicked. “We talked the whole time [through a translator]. When I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up — ‘Do you want to stay here?’ ” he says, pointing to the memory of the dusty village — “she got shy all of a sudden.” As they returned, both toting 5-gallon jugs of water filled at the well, she finally confessed her dream: to go to the big city, Lusaka, and become a nurse. Damon recalled his dreams at the same age, when he and best friend Ben Affleck were plotting their way from Boston to casting agents in New York. That connection opened the door for Damon. “I remembered so well the feeling of being young, when that whole world of possibility was open to you.”
But while Damon’s dream was made possible by Amtrak, the girl’s was possible only because somebody drilled a borewell near her home — and, yes, an hour’s walk for water is good news in lots of places in the world. Nearly 1 billion souls lack access to clean water; three times that number lack access to proper sanitation. “This is not something that most 14-year-olds have to go through,” says Damon, 40. Without access to the water, his companion would have been unable to go to school and would likely have been forced into a precarious fight for life, spending her days scavenging for often-filthy water in unhealthy and unsafe environments. “Now she can hope to be a nurse and contribute to the economic engine of Zambia,” he says. “Of all the different things that keep people in this kind of death spiral of extreme poverty, water just seemed so huge.” He pauses. “And it doesn’t have to be.”
Damon tells me this story on a rainy spring day in Manhattan, after a full schedule of board meetings for Water.org, the charity he cofounded in 2009, three years after his Zambia trip, with longtime water expert, and now dear friend, Gary White. It has been a long day but a good one, and Damon has more news to share. He checks his watch. “I have to pick up my daughter from school. Come along and we’ll keep talking,” he tells me. As we make our way from a conference room at McKinsey in Midtown (a board member works there) to a car waiting on the street, I watch passersby light up in recognition and try to catch his eye. In spite of his attempt to blend in — Damon is wearing glasses, a splash of whiskers, and a Panavision baseball cap — he is unmistakable. And he never fails to return a smile. “Clearly my strong suit is and will be trying to get people to care about this issue,” he says of his primary role. “Our vision is clean water and sanitation for everyone, in our lifetime …” he trails off. “So we better get to work.”
For all his star power, though, Damon is more than just the pretty face of Water.org. He has turned himself into a development expert. This would seem like an obvious and necessary first step for someone embracing the global water crisis as a personal mission. But, in fact, it’s highly unusual for a celebrity to dive this deep into a problem this daunting. Whether talking microfinance strategy with rural bankers, giving detailed reports from the field at the annual Clinton Global Initiative, or personally thanking donors like PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, Damon has quietly developed the cred of a program geek. “If you want to understand how this works,” he says, sounding more like an anthropologist than a celebrity spokesperson, “there is no substitute for going there and talking to people in their homes.” It’s an approach he comes by honestly. His mother, a professor of early childhood education, spent part of her summers living with local families in Guatemala and Mexico, attending language school in preparation for her field research. She brought her impressionable teenage son along. “She specialized in nonviolent conflict resolution,” Damon explains. In war-torn areas like El Salvador, she interviewed children, studied their artwork, and documented their trauma. “So I’d seen extreme poverty at an early age,” he says. “I knew what it was, and I always cared about it.” He has replicated her research process, immersing himself in the business of social enterprise until he found the cause that he felt passion for — water.
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