WaterAid’s CEO Barbara Frost receives Outstanding Achievement Award

Having received the Daniel Phelan Award for Outstanding Achievement at this year’s Charity Awards, Barbara explains her journey to becoming Chief Executive of WaterAid.


19 Jun 2015

It was such an honour to be the first recipient of the Daniel Phelan Award for Outstanding Achievement at this year's Charity Awards.

When I was asked if I would be willing to accept the award I was both surprised and delighted as my achievements are all down to the incredible committed people I have had the pleasure to work with over the years.

My career has taken me from Somerset to Australia, to Mozambique to Malawi and finally back here to London. I've had a lot of good fortune on the way. I often say much of my career has been due to chance encounters and plain luck!

But there are other common threads, ones I urge young colleagues today to embrace as they contemplate their own career prospects. Don't be afraid to take risks for what you believe in. Learn from others. Be visionary and believe change can happen.

Barbara Frost, WaterAid’s CEO, spent a week in Bangladesh where she met communities who explained how improved water and sanitation had changed their lives for the better.
WaterAid's Chief Executive, Barbara Frost, meets a community in Bangladesh.
Photo: WaterAid/Abir Abdullah

26 years ago I had a job I loved in Australia, managing home care services for disabled and older people in New South Wales. I was living in Sydney, one of my favourite cities and enjoying a good life.

It might have been easy to continue along that path. But a kernel of inspiration from a friend's move to Tanzania (coincidentally, to work with WaterAid) fast grew into a leap of faith as I took on the role of country director with Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam Australia) in Mozambique.

Looking back the first few months there were among the hardest of my life. I spoke just a few words of Portuguese on arrival, had never before lived in Africa, and Mozambique was still a desperately poor country in the midst of civil war.

I had some idea of what I was getting into. Shortly before being offered the job, I'd talked with a television crew who had filmed the aftermath of a terrible massacre in the country and watched some of their video. The footage was horrific.

'Why would you even think of leaving Sydney for Mozambique?' they asked me. The reason was simple, I wanted to make a difference.

A new and lasting passion

So I said yes to the job, and persevered. With the support of the programme staff, a dedicated language teacher and the discovery of a talented Mozambican who would succeed me as country representative, by the time my contract finished 18 months later, the programme was developing well. 

And I had found a new and lasting passion.

Mozambique taught me that it's possible to endure even the most difficult circumstances. It made me realise that, as time passes, things inevitably do get better, particularly when the work you are doing is inspiring and changing lives.

The lessons I learned there I have carried with me throughout my life, through more years in Mozambique with Save the Children and ActionAid, through to my work with ActionAid in Malawi during the end of the Banda regime, to Action on Disability and Development as Chief Executive and finally to WaterAid where I have had the privilege of being Chief Executive for the last decade.

Barbara Frost visits a community with WaterAid.
Barbara's journey to becoming WaterAid's Chief Executive has taken her from Somerset and Australia to Mozambique and Malawi.
Photo: WaterAid

The change at WaterAid has been tremendous in that time. When I arrived in 2005, we worked in 15 countries and had an income of £27 million. Today, WaterAid has a presence in 37 countries and has an annual income of £83 million. 

More importantly, our growth has enabled us to transform millions of lives.

I've had the great fortune to see many of our programmes in action. I've visited communities devastated by flooding in Bangladesh, hopeful mothers in Mozambique, and welcomed in our new members of the worldwide WaterAid family in Canada, Sweden and Japan.

A rare combination

I love WaterAid. Even now, a decade on, I am inspired by our work and our focus. We are clear about who we are and what we and our partners do. 

We are driven by our values – respect, collaboration, accountability, integrity, courage and innovation. And we also know how to have fun. Not a week goes by at WaterAid without a celebration of some kind. We don't take ourselves too seriously, but we are also not afraid to take risks and that is a rare combination.

I'm particularly proud this year to have led the creation of WaterAid's new global strategy, which will guide our work for the next five years, with our big vision of everyone, everywhere by 2030.

We have grown and changed as an organisation. We have come a long way from our beginnings – a vision for an organisation that came out of the UK water industry, who still remain fantastic supporters of our work.

Today WaterAid's approach is all about catalysing change. That's change in individual lives – through our partners' work in the world’s poorest communities and work with those hardest to reach – as well as influencing change in policies and approaches.

We work with national governments and international organisations to influence transformational change towards our 2030 vision and currently are examining how we can extend our impact, through programmes and advocacy in new countries, and forging new partnerships with government, civil society and the private sector.

The impact of water and sanitation is immense. Access to these basics of life transforms health, particularly for new mothers, babies and young children. It transforms education by giving girls the opportunity to stay in school as they are not out fetching water and have a safe, private place to care for themselves during their periods.

When made accessible and inclusive, toilets and water points can transform the lives of disabled and elderly people giving them dignity and opportunity.

New drive and momentum

I am proud of the work we do, and humbled to lead this fantastic organisation. 

To my mind, this award is less about my achievements and more about the accomplishments of the organisations I've been fortunate enough to work with. I do still bounce out of bed each morning thinking how fortunate I am to work with such passionate and innovative teams, committed supporters and volunteers.

This year presents an incredible opportunity for us in development. This autumn, WaterAid will be in New York, watching closely as the United Nations finalises the new Sustainable Development Goals which will map out the course of development for the next 15 years with a clear goal to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. Water and sanitation will be among those goals, giving us new drive and momentum for our work.

I hope my legacy will be taking every opportunity to help make change happen towards everyone everywhere accessing water and sanitation by 2030. 

As an organisation, we respect the past without being constrained by it. We are realistic about our present while remaining visionary about the future, always keeping our vision of water and sanitation for all front of mind.

There's a lot to celebrate.

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