After a decade of building a market for rural sanitation, the time has come for a local NGO to close operations, with more than a million people having been successfully helped.
For WaterSHED, success means reaching goals that make their presence no longer necessary. Founded in 2009 on the belief that sustainable development is possible, their 10 years' work in Cambodia has proven just that.
Having spent the past decade working closely with more than 300 business partners and over 2,000 elected local leaders across the communities they worked in and striving towards an end date when they can pass on the torch, that time has come.
They are now stepping aside as a rural toilet market thrives – one that puts rural small businesses and active local government leaders at the centre.
“As a foreign-funded NGO, our plan is to work ourselves out of a job. Since the beginning, this has been the last step of WaterSHED’s three-phase plan. Firstly to operate in tandem with community suppliers and producers in rural Cambodia to create a consumer market. Secondly to build a market that serves rural Cambodians at scale – WaterSHED reached 40 per cent of Cambodia by population with its 'Hands-Off' market building programme. And thirdly to develop local leadership training that is now being taken forward by the Cambodian national government.
“My time at WaterSHED has really shown me that a local NGO can have the capacity to change a system long term and that the government does see real value in leadership development,” said WaterSHED executive director Sovattha Neou.
The sustainable impact of WaterSHED’s work can be seen across their many different ventures:
• In 2009, only 20 per cent of rural Cambodians had access to a toilet – today this number is more than 74 per cent
• WaterSHED has developed a unique leadership development programme that is now being led by the government
• With the incubation of and investment in in-home water filter manufacturers Hydrologic and TerraClear, WaterSHED has enabled both manufacturers to become the leading ceramic water filter products in their respective markets
• WaterSHED has incubated HappyTap Co, a hand washing-focused social business that is delivering crucial hand washing facilities to schools and health clinics around the world during the ongoingCovid-19 pandemic
But the long-term impact of these efforts is dependent on those who carry it forward. Throughout WaterSHED’s 10 years in Cambodia, a light touch in their work has been in place to avoid any activities that could generate dependencies, with strategies informed at every step by research and the aim to exit.
Beginning with design and piloting from 2009-11, WaterSHED worked to identify opportunities for market development in WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene).
Then, from 2012-17 the focus was on expansion and consolidation, by implementing the "Hands-Off" market-building model and the "Civic Champions" leadership training programme for government officials.
Finally, from 2018-21 the focus was on sustainability, by mobilising long-term action at the provincial, national and collective levels.
WaterSHED’s team has trained more than 2,000 local leaders through the Civic Champions programme, a peer-to-peer capacity-building programme, which encourages elected officials to plan and action the goals they set for their communities.
This engagement at the provincial level is unique, having driven government support through budgets allocated specifically for these elected officials to receive training through WaterSHED.
This year, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Rural Development took over WaterSHED’s role in the first government-led iteration of the "Civic Champions" programme.
Even more, over the past decade, WaterSHED has also been fortunate to partner with diverse and influential international partners. Beginning as a project with USAID, they gradually grew their network to include all globally leading development partners with expertise in water and sanitation.
“None of these programmes would have been possible without WaterSHED’s partners and dedicated staff in Cambodia whose ingenuity and innovative minds were constantly working to ensure that efforts were effective and accessible. The heart of any organisation is those who lead it, and the team has been the greatest champions of collaborative and integrity-driven change.
"But for us, the real success is evident in the words of the communities and business partners we’ve worked with, but none so much as hearing from government leaders themselves that they feel ready to take on the project where we’re leaving off with a resounding and confident ‘yes!’” said Sovattha.