This story appears in the August 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
He’s a famous, award-winning actor, producer, and screenwriter. But Matt Damon, 46, also is co-founder of Water.org, a nonprofit that promotes access to safe water and sanitation. I interviewed him in Washington, D.C., as he prepared to address leaders at the World Bank.
Susan Goldberg: So let’s have a conversation about poop.
Matt Damon: Great. With the group’s name being Water.org, if we ever solve the access-to-clean-water side of water and sanitation, I wonder if the name would become [deleted].org …
SG: I can’t print that! That’s pretty funny though.
Seriously: In trying to report and photograph the story on sanitation that is in this issue, it became clear that this is a hard thing to talk about for a lot of people.
MD: Yes. If you talk about something like cancer or AIDS, even if you’re talking about the developing world, people in the developed world totally relate. We all have people who’ve battled one of those diseases, and it’s instantly relatable. But something like this just isn’t.
Maybe we’ll have stories of grandparents or great-grandparents who were going to the outhouse, but this is a problem that largely has been solved in the developed world. We can’t really relate to something like open defecation, which is a huge issue in the developing world.
SG: That’s even hard for some people to say aloud. One of the things we really try to do in our story is to show the impact of the lack of sanitation; maybe then you can get people to rally around.
MD: It’s hard to get people to comprehend the enormity of the problem—that 2.4 billion people lack adequate access to sanitation. More people have a cell phone than a toilet. You lose a kid under the age of five every 90 seconds because of lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Those two really go hand in hand.
SG: So what do you do?
MD: The first hurdle to clear is to get people to understand that it’s an issue, and then the second is to try to make it easier to talk about. We can use humor. We had an idea of shooting a PSA [public service announcement] at some fabulous Hollywood celebrity’s house and I’d ask to use the bathroom and they’d go, Oh, no, we don’t have bathrooms—we practice open defecation.
SG: Were there any celebrities you had in mind?
MD: I thought it would be funny if it were at Jimmy Kimmel’s house. [Editor’s note: That line got a laugh because for nearly a decade Damon and talk show host Kimmel have pulled pranks on each other and pretended to be feuding.]
SG: So the world is full of important causes, lots of things that you can spend your time and energy and money on. Why this mission?
MD: I started to look at issues of extreme poverty and wanted to get involved; water and sanitation just undergirded everything. It was just so massive, and I didn’t hear anybody talking about it. It’s just endlessly fascinating and vastly complex, and there’s no kind of one silver bullet that’s going to fix it.
2.4 billion people lack adequate access to sanitation. More people have a cell phone than a toilet.
SG: So where are you starting?
MD: I partnered with [engineer and social entrepreneur] Gary White, and we co-founded Water.org. It’s basically using the concepts of microfinance and tilting it towards water and sanitation: We’re providing loans for people to connect to a water utility or build a latrine for their house. We’ve now reached 5.5 million people, and we’re going to hit 2.5 million [more] just this year.
SG: One of the things that our writer ran into in reporting the story was that there were so many cultural inhibitions—for example, that in parts of the world people liked going outside. They thought it was cleaner to go away from your house, to go off into a field.
MD: Yeah, if you don’t have pipes to carry the waste away, then that’s true. And so if you go to India, for instance, you’ll find these giant fields where the entire community is practicing open defecation. But that is changing, and it’s changing really rapidly, I think, in large part because of the young people.
SG: It’s interesting you should mention young people. One of the places we went to report our story was Vietnam, and the problem is turning around because the kids are going to school and there are toilets in the school. And they’re going home to their parents and saying, “This is what we should do.”
MD: Yes, right, that’s exactly right.
SG: One of the things I wonder about is this: The United Nations has said that by 2030 it is a goal that there not be open defecation. Do you think there’s any way we could come close to that?
MD: Definitely by 2030.
SG: That’s only 13 years.
MD: I know. But it’s happening rapidly.
SG: You mentioned that in doing this work, you hear moving stories. What kind of stories are people telling you?
MD: Well, there was a 13-year-old girl, and my oldest was 13 at the time, so I really related to this kid. It was in Haiti, and we’d helped bring water to this village that hadn’t had it. And this 13-year-old was no longer going to have to scavenge for water three to four hours every day.
I said, “What are you going to do with all this extra time? Are you going to have more time for homework?” And she looked at me and she goes, “I don’t need more time for homework. I’m the smartest kid in my class.” I knew she was telling the truth, so I was just like, “All right, hot shot, well what’re you going to do with this extra time?” And she looked at me and she said, “I’m gonna play.”
It just buckled me because kids shouldn’t be burdened with these things. Those kids should be playing. That’s what our kids think about, and it’s what these kids should be thinking about.
Thank you for reading National Geographic.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Writer Elizabeth Royte and photographer Andrea Bruce document sanitation problems in the developing world in the story “A Place to Go.”
Visit Water.org to learn more about the organization’s efforts to increase access to safe water and sanitation in the developing world.