35 years of WaterAid

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/Tom Greenwood

As WaterAid UK celebrates its 35th birthday, and other WaterAid country offices reach huge milestones – India became a fully-fledged member and Nigeria turned 20 last month – Adam Furse, Head of Organisational Development at WaterAid international, discusses our direction of change, how we’ve broadened our reach, most recently into South America, and what the future holds.

Since its formation in 1981 by some visionary members of the UK water industry, WaterAid has been on quite a journey. Initially formed as a response to the UN’s Decade of Drinking Water and Sanitation – a transitory moment in the international development scene – it has since grown into a lasting global organisation working in 38 countries worldwide, and is still expanding its reach. 

WaterAid has influence in yet more countries, and globally, through our partnerships, relationships and networks. It’s a tremendous success story which has meant that since 2009 alone our supporters have helped WaterAid and our partners to reach 10 million people with safe water and 13 million people with sanitation, focussing on the world’s poorest and most marginalised people.

But with 650 million people still living without safe water, and 2.3 billion without access to improved sanitation, the journey is far from over. Looking back over our history provides an opportunity to reflect on our progress and the partnerships we’ve developed around the world, as well as our ambitions for the years to come. 

New opportunities

Partnerships have long been at the core of our work, from that first year when employees of the UK water sector raised £25,000, creating the springboard to our first projects in Zambia and Sri Lanka. During the 1990s and early 2000s, as WaterAid’s name and reputation grew, we expanded our work across Africa and South Asia and turned our attention to how we could raise funds, build support and influence stakeholders in other countries. Through collaboration with partner organisations at all levels in the UK and in countries where we worked, we extended our reach and impact. 

We’ve expanded our presence in new regions and countries, with Cambodia, Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia all joining the WaterAid family in the past few years. Most recently we have started working in Myanmar and Colombia, the latter where we have taken on the work of another NGO, Aguayuda, to reach even more people. 

A global organisation

In recent years member countries have sprung up, enabling us to further expand our fundraising, influencing, and service delivery opportunities. Between 2003 and 2013, WaterAid Australia, America, Sweden, Canada, and Japan were formed.

And, in April 2016, India became the first country office to complete the journey to a nationally governed, local entity. Previously, as the Indian liaison office of a UK charity, we were limited in the scope of the work we could undertake, and in the types of partnerships we could establish. We were also required by law to reapply every three years for permission to operate – a precarious position for a charity engaged in long-term sustainable development. 

India’s transition builds on our long history in the country, to ensure we are well positioned to develop our work and influence in one of the largest and most populous countries in the world – and in one of its fastest growing and most dynamic economies. We will have new opportunities to partner with the Government, civil society organisations, and the corporate sector; to gain public support and constituency; and to implement ambitious fundraising plans.

By 2009 WaterAid had grown into an organisation with a global presence. WaterAid international was created to ensure member organisations around the world are aligned and collaborate effectively as a federation, and that we are able to facilitate the growth of existing and new member organisations, to deliver our mission as effectively as possible.

We are joined together by our global strategy, vision, mission and values, and work to common standards where needed. Although our member organisations in America, Australia, Canada, India, Sweden, the UK, and Japan are responsible for how they work in their context and are accountable to their Boards, all are expected to work in the best interests of pursuing our shared mission. Boards, management teams and staff collaborate to achieve this, and WaterAid international facilitates where we need to come together to make shared decisions.

We have a very strong principle that we will only ever have one WaterAid organisation working in any country, to ensure we do not duplicate our efforts or confuse the people we work with. We learned this lesson early in our development, from experiences of other international organisations. This policy enables us to focus our efforts through the team in a country, wherever the funding is coming from. 

Our mutual interdependence and mutual accountability enable us to leverage strength globally in support of our mission, drawing on the talents of our people, our financial resources and our global reputation to influence change. For example, WaterAid staff from Australia, Cambodia, Senegal, the UK and the USA were at the recent World Health Assembly meeting to influence ministers to prioritise water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in the pursuit of health for all. 

To the future 

Our Global Strategy makes an inspiring call to reach everyone everywhere with WASH by 2030. At WaterAid our focus is always on what will help us to achieve our mission and improve access to WASH for the poorest and most marginalised, and how to ensure our impact is lasting. With sustainability in mind, the new Strategy sees a shift in our approach, to involve greater focus on advocacy and influencing work, rather than direct service delivery. 

We are planning to add new countries to the family where that will help us to increase our influence, our ability to deliver sustainable change, and to engage new supporters – and ultimately to reach more people. 

We have been on an incredible journey as an organisation over the past 35 years, and the next 14 offer an inspiring chance for WaterAid to make a real impact on ending extreme poverty, through expertise built on experience, and a clear focus on achieving our mission.