Kevin Lee

This description of Kevin Lee's work was prepared when Kevin Lee was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Kevin Lee is enabling vulnerable communities in the Philippines to demand, create and sustain water and sanitation systems through a new governance approach that simultaneously channels consumer needs and increases local government capacity to deliver.

The New Idea

Realizing how vital clean water and sanitation is to the health and wellbeing of communities, Kevin recognized that the greatest barrier was not funds but a mechanism for the community and the local government to understand and own the issue. Most water and sanitation systems rely on technological solutions that require upkeep and maintenance. Too often, these systems break down due to lack of ownership either by the community or the local government. Through his work leading A Single Drop for Safe Water (ASDSW), Kevin is making governance systems work for the effective and sustainable delivery of public services. By helping create demand for quality water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) systems in communities and building local government capacity to address the needs of their constituents, Kevin is creating sustainable systems across a growing number of communities in the Philippines.

Setting it apart from other efforts in the field, ASDSW’s governance approach works both sides of a functioning water and sanitation system: the informed demand from the community and the capacity to supply from the local government. ASDSW's model creates a leadership team of community members as well as a committed government task force. Together they plan, design, and implement their own water and sanitation systems. In doing so, this approach helps dislodge bottlenecks in government funding allocations for improved water and sanitation systems while establishing an accountability and management structure to ensure the systems continue.

The Problem

In the Philippines, water, sanitation, and hygiene are still pressing problems both in the rural and urban areas. In 2012, only 61% of the population in urban areas had drinking water piped into their households. That number drops significantly to 26% in rural areas. Access to improved sources of water (e.g. public taps, protected dug wells, protected springs, rainwater collection, borehole or tubewells), the indicator used for measuring targets for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), is at 31% for the urban population and 65% for people living in rural areas. That leaves 8% of the urban population and 9% of the rural population in the Philippines without access to safe drinking water. This translates to almost 8 million Filipinos without access to clean, safe water for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene.

The scenario is more critical for sanitation and hygiene. Twenty-six percent of the total population, or just over 25 million Filipinos, do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. Such improved facilities separate human waste from human contact and are able to flush human waste to piped sewer systems, septic tanks, or pit latrines. Almost 8 million Filipinos still practice open defecation in fields, forests, open bodies of water, and other open spaces.

The lack of access to proper water, sanitation and hygiene systems leads to sickness and the spread of disease which increases the vulnerability of poor communities who lack adequate access to health care services as well. Instances of conflict within and between communities in the Philippines have also come about due to competition over scarce water and sanitation services.

Despite the Philippines’ rapidly growing economy and status as a middle income country, the country ranks relatively low in indicators for good governance. The World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators rate the Philippines in the 40-50 percentile for the indicators of voice and accountability, rule of law, and government effectiveness and only in the 30th percentile for control of corruption. An indication of this poor governance is that, although the national government has allocated billions of pesos in improving the water and sanitation systems of communities in the Philippines, the resources seldom reach the communities that most need them. While there are several international organizations that try to address this water, sanitation, and hygiene problem, most efforts are not sustainable because they fail to address the governance structure for the management and maintenance of the services. Too often, water systems and technologies break down and the communities do not have the resources to fix them.

The Strategy

Kevin has developed a model for working with communities and their local governments to build buy-in and consensus around new, improved water and sanitation systems. A Single Drop for Safe Water (ASDSW), approaches poor and low-income communities through their local government unit (LGU) or barangay (neighborhood) government (smallest government unit in the Philippines). Through workshops and orientations, ASDSW’s team helps the local government understand the critical nature of improved water and sanitation systems for their community and a viable pathway to get there. The team then gains the commitment of the local government unit to identify a team of leaders within the LGU to form a water and sanitation task force (WaSH task force) committed to seeing the process through. Once they have reached an agreement with the LGU, ASDSW then holds a general assembly to establish a Water and Sanitation Association (WSA) made up of community members. The general assembly is attended by heads of households, both men and women, and minority and special interest groups. Through outreach and mobilization in the community, the team makes sure that groups typically underrepresented by the traditional leadership of the neighborhood structure have representation and can participate fully. This includes a nomination and confirmation process to the WSA that includes a broader set of stakeholders from traditional decision making. This ensures that most, if not all, of the needs of people in the community are brought to the table and addressed in the planning and implementation stages.

Once the WSA has been formed, the community participates in creating an inventory of the community water and sanitation situation. The inventory mapping includes household interviews, focal group discussions, and field measurements of existing water sources, and water quality testing. A series of workshops conducted by ASDSW translates this scenario to community stakeholders highlighting the impact of poor water and sanitation on tangible things like household wealth and health. Through these workshops, the vision and goals of the WSA are established with the input of the broader community to also be aligned with the other development plans of LGU. An action plan and next steps are also established and agreed upon.

After the workshops and planning, the team works with the WSA to design several projects for implementation and resource mobilization. This stage includes involving the community in the technical design, but, more importantly, it helps community members understand the issues of funding, budgeting, and other resource mobilization strategies like user fees that may be necessary for the sustainability of the system. ASDSW creates a bridge with the LGU-level WaSH task force to ensure that the water and sanitation projects of the WSA get secured funding allocations from the LGU, a key factor to the sustainability of the project even after ASDSW leaves the community.

Kevin’s model has gained recognition and demand across a growing number of communities in the Philippines. ASDSW has developed water and sanitation systems with communities all over the Philippines, including Benguet, Camarines Sur, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Eastern Samar/Leyte, Palawan, and Panay. They are now expanding to work in more areas of conflict in Mindanao and are exploring opportunities with communities in calamity-stricken areas of the country having participated in much needed humanitarian response after hurricanes Sendong, Pablo and most recently Yolanda. Kevin’s team chooses the communities to work with, based on demand from LGUs as well as areas of critical need. In addition to the governance model, ASDSW uses the same principles in its Humanitarian Response work as well as in the development of its WaSH in Educational Institutions program.

ASDSW is also strengthening their work with provincial and regional governments, demonstrating effective ways of supporting local government plans by removing bottlenecks from national and regional funding sources. ASDSW recently held a workshop, in partnership with UNICEF, convening regional and provincial health representatives to discuss how sustainable WaSH development requires work on governance, supply and demand and the development of a training package. The outcome was the implementation of the package in 43 Municipal Local Governments and 10 Non Government Organizations that will be doing significant WaSH rehabilitation work dealing with the effects of Typhoon Yolanda. This is a first step in a broader effort that Kevin is undertaking to develop a framework and action plan for engaging thought leaders and influencers in the governance space by creating enough evidence of success across a significant number of communities and actors.

Central to ASDSW’s growth plan is creating a sustainable base from which to invest in his rapidly growing team and ensure flexible resources for spreading their work. He structured ASDSW as a non-profit CSO with a for-profit arm, Single Drop Consultancy, controlled by ASDSW, that has shared social impact targets embedded into its governance structure. Doing so has helped him retain a strong team across lulls in project funding cycles typical in the CSO space as well as support employee savings schemes and professional development.

The Person

Kevin Lee was born in Johannesburg to American parents and then moved to New Zealand at 3 years old. On his parent’s farm, he was fascinated by taking things apart and building things, even building a truck in his pre-teen years, which though small, carried him for most of his teenage years. He gravitated towards engineering in college and through an early mentor in an Engineering Consultancy, and working at a paper mill, learned key lessons on how to test new ideas and methods, learn from his mistakes and first and foremost, keep people safe. At 26, Kevin sought new opportunities beyond New Zealand and migrated to the United States and took on a manager role at a steel mill in Atlanta, Georgia. As a manager at the mill during a tough time for the company, he had to figure out ways on how to increase productivity in the midst of significant lay-offs. To do this, he reorganized the crews based on skill level, countering deep-seated cultural and racial divides. At the heart of his methods was Kevin’s belief in each person’s ability to problem solve and troubleshoot and his role in unleashing that. While his bosses did not think that his reorganization would work, productivity increased significantly and employee satisfaction grew. Despite the regulations and barriers for innovation in the unionized shop, Kevin used the night shift as the breeding ground for testing new machine configurations and innovative working systems that increased productivity and the wellbeing of the workers.

In 2004, Kevin was ready for a new experience and opportunity, again in another country. He saw an opportunity with the Peace Corps and felt ready to apply his skills to a completely new setting, this time the Philippines. He was assigned to the Cordilleras region where he stayed for two years applying his mechanical engineering background to help the communities with water and sanitation issues. During this time, his supervisor, a health officer, helped Kevin appreciate the serious health repercussions of poor water and sanitation as well as begin to appreciate the root causes embedded in community governance structures.

As his time with the Peace Corps was ending, Kevin was already thinking through ways to address water and sanitation deficiencies and together with a colleague, Gemma Bulos, founded A Single Drop for Safe Water. Kevin directed the focus of A Single Drop to target what he had come to see as the critical barrier for poor communities to access clean water and sanitation: local governance to design, build and manage water and sanitation systems.

Kevin lives with his wife Luzviminda Delumen Lee, a Filipina whom he met while volunteering at the Peace Corps. They are based in Palawan, where Luzviminda also runs small social projects of her own for their community. Kevin is committed to seeing communities across the Philippines take ownership of their water and sanitation systems and sees further dedicating himself to the engage thought leaders in the field of water and sanitation governance and beyond.