After five incredible years, the time has come for me to leave Akvo. It has been a privilege to work with all the people that I have interacted with through this journey, all of whom are passionate about being a positive force for change in the world.
It is nearly fall in Ann Arbor, Michigan (the town I call home), and that means one thing, and one thing only – it is football season. One speech, above all others, is synonymous with the University of Michigan football team, Bo Schembechler’s 1983 “The Team, The Team, The Team” address. An excerpt of this speech that I find very emotive is:
“The Team, The Team, The Team, and if we think that way, all of us, everything that you do, you take into consideration what effect does it have on my Team?”How do we define the team we work on? Is it our immediate colleagues that sit next to us? Our colleagues from different locations? Our partners? Or even the community in which we operate? No single organization can solve the large social challenges that the international development sector is facing; collectively we can achieve a lot more. Within the sector we are good at talking about collaboration but in practice this normally occurs at a superficial level, which does not allow for a fundamental change in the way we work together.
For me, I define the team as all our partners, including members from the community that the specific program is focused upon: we are all needed to achieve the stated objectives. We need to ensure that we work as a collective to achieve positive impact, where everything we do, we need to take into consideration what effect it has on the team. These relationships need to take place on a level playing field where every voice is equal and where there is accountability and transparency around actions and decisions. If the trust between the team is broken, then the best-case scenario is that we achieve nothing and the worse case is that we achieve negative outcomes.
Five years ago, Akvo Foundation USA, was born in a small co-working space in DC, with a simple goal of helping to expand the Akvo team to improve effectiveness, transparency and accountability in international development. Over that time we have:
- Raised millions of dollars to support the core development of our tools (Akvo Flow and Akvo Lumen). Our relationships with donors are built on trust, a common purpose and making sure we are working as a team.
- Developed a strategy that promoted Akvo to engage in working with partners to build capacity around Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) activities. This has lead to the process of redefining Akvo’s organizational Theory of Change (ToC), the development of a service model to work with partners and an internal monitoring framework to improve the way we, ourselves, measure the way we achieve impact.
- Built many strong partnerships with NGO’s and governments to help them achieve impact through their work. A good example of how these partnerships operate can be seen in our work with Helvetas Guatemala. More examples of our partnerships can be seen within the Akvo Hero stories, (from Water for People in Peru to Millennium Water Alliance in Colombia) which are designed to showcase the incredible work that our partners are doing.
- Working to promote the value of common standards, innovative ICT interventions, open data and how to use this data effectively. We have been a core member of the working group for the Water Data Point Exchange (WPDx), worked with partners to integrate with SIASAR, the national standard for water point mapping in Latin America and are helping create a working group around technologies for monitoring and evaluation within the Network of Latin American evaluators, known as ReLAC.
- Expanded Akvo’s work to include working with partners in Latin America, including local and national governments. We were selected as a winner of the Water and Sanitation Award in the Innovation Category, sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and FEMSA Foundation. The award is in recognition of our work in bringing informational and technological innovation to the water and sanitation sector in Latin America through the development of innovative tools such as Akvo FLOW and Akvo Caddisfly.
Looking forward, we are very well placed to create lasting impact. Over the past five years, the Akvo Americas team and board (Caetie Ofiesh, Ethel Mendez, Emily Armanetti, Edgar Aguilar, Kendra Terry, Winona Azure, Mark Nitzberg, Paul Ciandrini and Becky Straw) has worked on building a strong mission-driven platform from where we can grow and amplify our impact. We are just over half way through an ambitious three year strategy and moving forward have a clear operational plan for the final 18 months of this strategy, which we are well on track to achieving. We could not have done this without our partners (there are too many to name individually but you all know who you are). We are very lucky to be a part of incredible team of organizations and individuals who are motivated to work together so we can all achieve more.
So how do we create positive lasting impact? This blog is not designed to be prescriptive (getting into specifics of what we need to do in a given situation to achieve the greatest impact), instead I am writing this to encourage us all to sit down and build true partnerships around defining the problem and planning and implementing a solution that works for all. As I move on to my next adventure at the University of Michigan, I look forward to working with a great new team and I hope to stay in touch with my great old team. True partnerships form relationships that go beyond the scope of any given program. We can learn from Bo Schembechler’s speech, not to defeat another team, but instead to defeat poverty and inequality.
It has been around four years since I posted this reflection on my first year working at Akvo. Much has changed in that time – I am now comfortable with chocolate sprinkles on toast. But certain things remain the same, my love for stroopwafels for example. In all seriousness though there are a couple of things that stick out when I reflect on the last five years:
- Being kind: When I ask my three year old daughter, how we can make the world a better place, she responds with a very simple statement – by being kind. In this world, we all have hopes and dreams that we aspire towards. Hopes and dreams are a long-term vision, which do not normally happen overnight, it takes many days of hard work to get there. During this journey it is important to treat others with respect and kindness – we are all trying to get somewhere so let’s do it with a smile on our face and, where possible, help others to get to where they are going. Some of my best memories from my time at Akvo have been the kindness that others have shown to me. There are too many to list here but one that sticks in my mind was on my first trip to La Paz (in 2013), one of our partners took the time, on their day off, to show me around the city. This not only gave me some great memories but I also learned so much more about the country to help inform our future work.
- Being curious: This is an internal drive to learn and discover what you do not already know. It is something that all kids have, but as adults it is easy to lose as we get into a daily routine, especially if this routine revolves around scorecards and short-term results. It is important to keep asking questions and think about the big picture: why are we doing this? And what would happen if we try this? Ideas do matter; we need fresh ideas and thinking to tackle the status quo.