Interview: Barbara Frost, chief executive, WaterAid
“We want to think about how to work in different political and social contexts to make the most change happen.”
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In many organisations on the eve of launching a major public campaign, there would be a frenzy of nervous energy and anticipation. But when Utility Week goes to visit WaterAid the day before its major new “Deliver Life” campaign goes live, instead of fingernails being chewed and the carpet being worn through by endless pacing, there is a sense of calm, much of it flowing from chief executive of ten years, Barbara Frost. Under her leadership, WaterAid has expanded almost threefold. In 2005 it had an income of £27 million and worked with 15 countries. Today it has an income of £83 million and works with 37 countries, taking massive strides towards the charity’s goal of bringing safe water and sanitation to everyone on the planet within 15 years.
Frost welcomes Utility Week into her office and starts chatting enthusiastically about the Deliver Life project, which is understandably front of mind. It is being match-funded by the government and Frost hopes it will raise £10 million to deliver safe water and sanitation supplies to those most in need. It will deliver change for the better.
And change is something that, away from WaterAid’s work on the ground, Frost is trying to manage and embrace. From the way WaterAid strives to reduce the number of people suffering in extreme poverty around the world, through to its evolving relationship with UK water companies, openness to change is ingrained in the charity and its chief executive.
The Deliver Life campaign forms part of WaterAid’s new strategy, which aims to go beyond ‘just’ providing toilets and drinking water supplies to those in need.
“The campaign is about the first few days of life and the importance for mothers and babies of having access to clean water to drink and wash in,” says Frost. “On one level it is an obvious link between water and health, but so often health issues get forgotten.”
The Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, which killed almost 4,000 people in the country and more than 6,000 in West Africa, is a stark reminder, says Frost, of the importance of hygiene.
“Ghastly as it has been, it has highlighted the importance of water sanitation. Unless there is decent hygiene in health facilities, then outbreaks of this illness, which are bound to come again, will be difficult to contain.”
This health tie-in has been part of a shift towards bigger-picture thinking that is central to WaterAid’s latest strategy, which was launched in March. It aims to not just provide the services on the ground to give immediate water and sanitation aid to those in the most desperate need, but to garner a deeper, cultural change that will result in more people benefiting.
But as Frost states, this shift is actually going back to what is at WaterAid’s core.
“We were set up 34 years ago and the founding director [David Collett] came up with an ethos paper and what he suggested was that WaterAid would not do things itself but would always look for partners.
“That has shifted over the years. At first it was about the technical approach and getting low-cost, sustainable technology managed by local people. Now it is about how we can use that experience to get bigger shifts through governments.”
Traditionally, WaterAid has helped to provide water and sanitation services – including toilets – to those in areas of extreme poverty. This will not change, Frost is certain of that. “We want to continue doing that as it gives us credibility and changes lives.”
However, what will change is how WaterAid aims to make a lasting difference to the communities it touches and how it seeks to address its big-picture goal of giving access to water and sanitation for the 2.5 billion people in the world who currently live without such a basic necessity as a toilet.
Frost admits that generating wider change “requires political activism”, though she’s cautious to steer clear of being seen as party political. “We need to ensure we are talking to local and national ministers, not just on development but also foreign affairs, on why this is important.”
A crucial step in achieving this wider political engagement was securing that number six spot on the UN’s new 17-strong sustainable development goal list, announced this September. The goal commits the UK and other participating countries to ensuring that by 2030, there is “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all” and likewise that sanitation is made available universally, with special attention to the needs of girls and women.
“Many of the goals – gender, health and prosperity – are linked to water,” explains Frost. “People can suffer diarrhoea because of poor water, which undermines health; if there are no toilets in schools, gender equality is undermined.”
To help achieve this, WaterAid is looking to build closer ties with governments and organisations in countries where extreme poverty still exists, but where growing economies and wealth means there is an increasing ability for the nation itself, with guidance, to make the difference.
“We want to think about how to work in different political and social contexts to make the most change happen. We’re trying to get more nuanced thinking about utilising power to ensure everyone has access to the services they need.
“For example in India, there is a lot of money and services, but there are a lot of people without sanitation and half the population still defecate in the open. There is a lot more work needed on changing those practices and beliefs and getting money to the right people, rather than us just delivering services through local partners.”
It’s a change in approach that Frost is keen to reiterate to a key audience – the UK water companies who have long been generous benefactors and active partners in delivering aid to drought and poverty stricken communities, for all they may seem worlds away from the day-to-day grind of operations in the UK.
In 1981 it was the UK water industry that came together in the wake of the Thirsty Third World conference to help set up WaterAid, and post-privatisation the companies remain vital companions to the charity.
“The support they have given over the years continues to be really important. Each water company has a WaterAid committee, raises funds and does a lot with us on the campaigning too,” says Frost.
“Plus they do a lot of fun things with us too – like Glastonbury. They do a huge amount for us still and that relationship is still fundamentally important to us,” Frost emphasises. She is keen for that bond to remain strong moving forward, despite the major changes facing the sector.
Change “is bound to happen” because of the wholesale/retail split, and the imminent opening of the non-domestic water market. Frost says this may change the relationship WaterAid has with the existing companies, but that it also opens the door to new partnerships and relationships with new entrants as well.
“I would have hoped we can maintain the right sorts and new sorts of relationships going forward.”
Referring back to those new sustainable development goals, Frost comments that these will be a force for strengthening bonds between the charity and the UK water companies. The set of objectives “ties together” issues that are important in Britain and other countries. “It’s the whole ‘glocal’ thing,” she adds.
Obviously enthused by how the sector is still engaging with WaterAid, Frost adds that rather than just being a moral duty, the partnership with the water companies is beneficial for them, too.
“Being part of WaterAid often drives up staff engagement, and staff engagement is a way of driving up the bottom line,” adds Frost. “We hope that from the industry’s perspective it’s a win-win for them – not just helping WaterAid but ensuring colleagues and staff are motivated to do their best.”
It is not just a one-way street, either. The WaterAid boss readily admits that the companies keep the charity on its toes to ensure it is doing the best it can via the “vibrant relationship” that exists between them.
“They come to us and say ‘come on, you’ve let that go a bit’ and are trying to engage younger people in the industry as well. They are thinking of different things really.”
Part of this different thinking involves targeting initiatives – linking back to that new WaterAid ambition to keep delivering tangible help on the ground, but also to ensure that money and support gets into the right hands and that the impact is lasting. Frost highlights the Wessex for West Africa initiative, as well as Yorkshire Water’s link with Ethiopia on technology and systems as examples of where water companies are not just delivering traditional aid, but also setting up communities with new skills and resources. “It is something the water industry knows a lot about – pricing, regulation, IT systems and people,” says Frost. “There is a lot of potential for twinning and knowledge exchange.”
Frost hopes this knowledge sharing could help developing nations “leapfrog” forward with their development. She highlights how Africa has largely missed out the development of fixed landline telecoms and moved straight to mobile technology. “There is a lot of potential there,” she adds.
It is that stubbornly remaining potential for transformation that drives Frost and WaterAid forward. The chief exec admits that while there is, and will always be, the need to “deliver services that change lives” by working directly to dig wells and construct toilets, the charity and its partners need to raise their eyes to a bigger prize and start addressing the cultural and political contexts that allow water poverty and lack of sanitation to continue.
“We need to turn that corner, otherwise we’re not going to be as effective as we could be,” Frost sums up, clearly unwilling to accept any performance but perfect on an agenda of such fundamental importance.