Matt Damon came to The Atlantic last week to have dinner with a few of us (this sort of thing happens all the time) and I had the chance to sit down with him beforehand and talk about the cause that consumes much of his life: the hard-to-sell-but-indispensably-important issue of water -- specifically, ways to get clean, affordable water to hundreds of millions of people across the globe who suffer, and sometimes die, because their water is disease-ridden or prohibitively expense, or both.
Damon is a co-founder, with the visionary water engineer Gary White, of Water.org, a leading NGO fighting for radical new ways to think about what is a solvable problem. (You can read about Water.org, and find some very alarming statistics, at its website, here. One such statistic: 3.5 million people die each year from water-related diseases, which of course is especially atrocious because humankind already knows how to make dirty water clean, and how to deliver water to large numbers of people. Water.org is not focused on digging charity wells, but on implementing market-based strategies to help poor people pool their resources in ways that would make utilities interested in serving their neighborhoods and villages.)
Damon, as many people know, supported President Obama the last time around, but has become a critic for a range of reasons. One of those reasons is what some people might call the Obama administration's incomplete devotion to the cause of poverty- and disease-alleviation in Africa and elsewhere. This was a main topic of our conversation, which was joined by Gary White and Chevanee Reavis, of Water.org, as well as The Atlantic's editor, James Bennet. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Jeffrey Goldberg: Why is it so difficult to get more U.S. funding for this issue?
Matt Damon: First of all, the foreign aid budget is what it is. Second, only a small part of that small budget goes to water. And yet water is this enormous problem that literally underpins all of these other issues -- disease, poverty, women's rights. All of them. Six years ago, when I was starting to learn this issue, that was one of my big takeaways, how interconnected it all was, the giant role that water and sanitation played in all of this. Of the $42 billion we give in foreign aid, 315 million bucks is for water. But people aren't up in arms about that. The first hurdle we have to clear in America is to explain to people that this is a problem. It's difficult, because this is a problem none of us can relate to.
JG: The upcoming election is 90 percent about the economy and unemployment. These are very serious issues, but the question to you and Gary is, are we becoming too insular, that we're neglecting our responsibilities not only on water, but on a whole world of issues?
MD: Yes. I think it's everybody's fault. The issue today is what you can message and how fast you can message it. Did you watch all the Republican debates?
JG: Yes, masochistically.
MD: You've got these guys saying the three things they're going to say and they just keep saying them and that's the way it is now. I talked to a political consultant in New York who is getting out of the business, and he said it was so fun when he was a kid, trying to hone messages and find the nuance and what was really going to connect to people. And he said then they just figured out that if they just threw shit at each other it didn't matter if it was true. In terms of substantive issues, you don't get a lot of substance in political campaigns.
JG: Do you think there's tolerance in America for more foreign aid spending?
MD: If you could get people to understand, yes. If you go to a mom in Ohio and say "Every 20 seconds a child dies because of lack of access to clean water and sanitation," they'd say "Get the fuck out of here, that is unconscionable." Any American would react with revulsion to that idea. And Any American would be react with revulsion to that idea if you could get them to see this not in a Sally Struthers way, especially. Bono's group (the One Campaign) has done a lot of work trying to figure out how to message these issues, and what people respond to is things that work. They don't want to hear people are dying. People say, "I know, but I have my own life, I don't have a job, the economy, we're living in a tough world," and I get that. But once they go, "Wait a minute, there are solutions to these problems out there that really work, they're practical and they makes sense to me," people will pony up for that.
Gary White: By definition, people have a higher threshold for foreign aid, because they already believe we give about 10 times more than we actually do.
JG: Bush showed that you could increase aid budgets, I think. He did PEPFAR (a U.S. funded-program -- the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief -- that has brought anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) to more than a million AIDs patients in Africa).
MD: I would kiss George W. Bush on the mouth for what he did on PEPFAR.
JG: How long would you kiss him?
MD: Three seconds. No tongue.
You know, PEPFAR is an incredible thing just in terms of how many lives it saved. These ARVs have a Lazarus effect on people. You see a picture of them before and then you see them vibrant, alive, working. Their whole family has been dragged down by the illness and now this. I went on a trip in 2006 (to Africa) and I just had a sense of national pride going around, talking to these people, and they were so happy, they would say, "America," and I was saying, "Yeah, our president did that, and it's terrific." It's such an obvious connected thing. People aren't going to hate you when you're saving their lives.