My eulogy to the Australian African Community Engagement Scheme and why its spirit should live on

Posted 23 Aug 2016 by Rosie Wheen

The Australian African Community Engagement Scheme (AACES) was a five-year programme that focused on empowering women, young people, children, people with disabilities, and others in 11 countries to access their rights. Rosie Wheen, Head of International Programmes at WaterAid Australia, reflects on five factors that made AACES such a success, and what we can take away to help its spirit live on.

Eulogies contain both celebration and a call to action to learn lessons from what or who has passed, so that the spirit may live on. This is my eulogy to AACES, the sentiments of which are not just mine – I have them heard echoed by AACES partners.1

2,378,468 people benefited from the AACES programmes – including 1,491,231 women and girls.

On Africa Day recently I was privileged to attend the launch of the final review report of AACES in Nairobi. It was a day of celebration and also of mourning. We celebrated stories of change – change in people’s lives, change in traditional donor approaches to funding civil society, and changes in the attitudes of governments. We were mourning because AACES was over; it was the end of an exceptionally effective programme that achieved even more than had been hoped. The AACES programme has worked in three general sectors: food security; maternal and child health; and water, sanitation and hygiene and beyond. Community members and partners shared a handful of powerful stories, representing the stories of the more than two million people whose lives have been changed through AACES.

Men in Luwera village, Malawi dig a trench for the water supply scheme.
Men in Luwera village, Malawi dig a trench for the water supply scheme. 

What was AACES?

So what was AACES? AACES was a five-year programme that brought together ten Australian NGOS2  and their African partners, working in 11 countries.3  The AU$83 million programme focused on empowering women, young people, children, people living with disabilities, and others to access their rights such as freedom from violence, to livelihoods, to a voice and to participation.

In launching the AACES final review report, John Feakes, the Australian High Commissioner to Kenya and Africa, called AACES “Australian Aid’s greatest success story in Africa”.

And what made it a success?

We can take four key lessons from the partnership’s accomplishments:

  1. A key feature that made AACES such a success was the dedication of all partners to true partnership, which meant having a way of working that shared ownership and responsibility. The AACES partnership model evolved and developed over the course of the five years. One of the striking features of partnerships in AACES was that they addressed issues of power, which is so often the elephant in the room when it comes to partnerships. As the final review report states, AACES succeeded in: ‘…changing the normal power relationships between organisations, including those between NGOs and donors, and establishing systems and tools that will specifically serve the objectives of the partnership’. The governance structure ensured the partners all worked towards a shared, common purpose, and allowed for flexibility, with decisions made by the Program Steering Committee (which included representation from African partners) influencing the programme (that is, the reporting requirements were changed).

    This has led to incredible trust being built between the AACES partners. It has led to all partners working together for shared outcomes, and any sense of competition dissipated over the AACES journey, which has enabled much deeper learning and reflection. I noticed this in conversations with ACCES partners, who spoke with equal confidence and passion about their own work as of other organisations’ work! Partnerships with a focus on collaboration and cooperation, rather than competition, are useful precursors to the risk taking and learning required for good innovative practice to succeed.

  2. The success of AACES is also due to the long length of the partnership and the flexible design. Having long-term funding and flexibility offers so many benefits: it enables organisations to focus on delivery; affords time and ability to adapt programmes; enables stronger partnerships to be forged; and helps AACES partners to build the trust that gave them an excellent platform for learning and innovation across the AACES partnership.

  3. AACES has provided a model for shared accountability that has led to the whole becoming so much more than the sum of its parts. As the final review says: ‘AACES has delivered outcomes and results that far exceeded original targets and expectations.’ It has also shown that innovative practice can be driven by flexibility and results, and not necessarily by funding and resources.

  4. Finally I want to highlight that the five-year programme design built on lessons from previous Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) African NGO funding windows – this should be celebrated, so rarely does it happen. In many respects this came down to visionary DFAT staff engaging a great team to design a very effective programme.

As a newcomer to AACES I want to acknowledge the people involved. I was struck by the strong relationships and friendships that had been forged across organisations, countries and sectors. Continuity of people was important to bring this about, which has helped to embed institutional knowledge about what AACES is and how it works.

So, these are some important lessons from AACES for the WASH sector and for WaterAid. We need to ensure we work to share, champion and embed them, to ensure the spirit lives on.

Rosie Wheen is Head of International Programmes at WaterAid Australia. She tweets as @rosiezebra.


1. NGOs, the African Resource Facility, and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
2. Action Aid, Anglican Overseas Aid, AFAP, CARE, Caritas, Marie Stopes International, Oxfam, Plan, WaterAid, World Vision.
3. Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.


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