12 years ago, my wife, kids, and I started selling Ugandan jewelry and crafts so that we could use the retail profit to raise funds for the Ugandan Water Project (UWP) and use the wholesale profit to fund our friend Elijah’s participation in a post-graduate program in Taxation and Finance through Oxford University’s extension program in Kampala. Fast forward to 2021, Elijah is now the Ugandan Water Project’s Operations Manager in Uganda.

At a recent meeting among non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Uganda, there was a discussion of our shared goal to lobby for the waiving of import duties and VAT (sales tax) on all materials needed by the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) sector. In that discussion Elijah demonstrated his comprehensive understanding of the issue and was even selected to speak at an influential government and NGO gathering called the National WASH CSO Forum– an unlikely opportunity given UWP’s relatively small size and brief history of currying political influence. Elijah went on to present a strong four-point case at the gathering as to why waiving the import duty (10%) and VAT (18%) would have a profound impact on the expansion of WASH implementation in Uganda: First, NGOs are doing the work that the government is mandated to do but lacks resources to follow through on. Second, the government would experience significant savings due to reduced healthcare costs at government facilities as citizens become healthier from improved water sources. Third, the country would reap economic benefits from having a healthy workforce and stronger communities. Fourth, professionalizing the WASH sector will improve the quality of services performed in Uganda and bring cost savings as operations scale.

I’m struck that so often when we think about social change and poverty alleviation, we engage the problem at the point that it is causing suffering. This makes sense because as human beings, we are wired to have a strong emotional response to the point of pain in the life of another person or community. But what if we discover a game-changing variable that is upstream from the point of suffering? If we trace back from the problem, we find that along the supply-chain for solutions, governmental systems have burdened social change agents with a combined 28% expense. That’s akin to breaking the news to Lynn Hill, the first female climber to make a free ascent of the legendary Nose route of Yosemite’s El Capitain, that she would need to make the climb with one hand tied behind her back.⁣⁣

⁣When taking on the most persistent problems on the planet, we need to stack the deck in our favor. Removing barriers that impact the larger context where solutions are built will add cascading efficiency to the solutions and ultimately to our shared goal expressed in United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #6: safe and sustainably managed water for all.