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WaterSHED closes after successfully helping over a million people

After a decade of building a market for rural sanitation, the time has come for a local NGO to close operations.

May 21, 2021
WaterSHED closes after successfully helping over a million people

For WaterSHED, success means reaching goals that make their presence no longer necessary. Founded in 2009 on the belief that sustainable development is possible, and after ten years in Cambodia, their work has proven just that. Having spent the last decade working closely with over 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. Now, stepping aside, as a rural toilet market thrives – one that puts rural small businesses and active local government leaders at the center.

“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: to operate in tandem with community suppliers and producers in rural Cambodia to create a consumer market, build a market that serves rural Cambodians at scale (WaterSHED reached 40% of Cambodia by population with its “Hands-Off” market building program), and develop local leadership training that is now 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% of rural Cambodians had access to a toilet – today this number is over 74%
  • WaterSHED developed a unique leadership development program that is now being led by the government
  • With the incubation of and investment in in-home water filter manufacturers Hydrologic and TerraClear, WaterSHED enabled both manufacturers to become the leading ceramic water filter products in their respective markets
  • WaterSHED incubated HappyTap Co., a hand washing-focused social business that is delivering critical hand washing facilities to schools and health clinics around the world during the ongoing pandemic.

But the long-term impact of these efforts is dependent on those who carry it forward. Throughout WaterSHED’s ten years in Cambodia, a light touch in their work has been in place to avoid any activities that could generate dependencies, with strategy informed at every step by research and the aim to exit.

We are not children,” said the deputy provincial governor in response to a provincial director’s concern that it was too soon for WaterSHED to exit. “We can lead this now.”

Beginning with design and piloting from 2009-2011, WaterSHED worked to identify opportunities for market development in WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene). Then, from 2012-2017 focus was on expansion and consolidation, by implementing the Hands-Off market-building model and the Civic Champions leadership training program for government officials. Finally, from 2018-2021 focus was on sustainability by mobilizing long-term action at the provincial, national, and collective levels.

WaterSHED’s team has trained over 2,000 local leaders through the Civic Champions program, a peer-to-peer capacity-building program, 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 Ministry of Rural Development took over WaterSHED’s role in the first government-led iteration of the Civic Champions program.

Even more, over the last 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.

The “Hands-Off” approach and Civic Champions program inspired replication around the world and in sectors other than sanitation, and their work has been featured in international media from Channel News Asia to CNN, Aljazeera, and Forbes, sparking greater conversations about equal access, especially for women, clean water initiatives, and civic engagement.

“None of these programs 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 organization 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 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 WaterSHED executive director Sovattha Neou.

“We are not children,” said the deputy provincial governor in response to a provincial director’s concern that it was too soon for WaterSHED to exit. “We can lead this now.”

To celebrate the hand-off, WaterSHED is inviting media to join the Exit Ceremony on Monday, 24 May 2021 from 9:00 am – 10:30 am ICT on Zoom, held in Khmer with simultaneous English translation. But more than to celebrate, they’re keen to help other NGOs do the same: Aim for the exit and focus on sustainability, with our Khmer language event held May 20th. Recordings of the event will be up on their website, Facebook and Twitter @WaterSHEDAsia, with related research and updates about the exit.

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