Conversations with Collaboration Champions, Episode 3: Sovattha Neou, Executive Director, WaterSHED Cambodia

Conversations with Collaboration Champions, Episode 3: Sovattha Neou, Executive Director, WaterSHED Cambodia

Conversations with Collaboration Champions, Episode 3: Sovattha Neou, Executive Director, WaterSHED Cambodia 658 494 Agenda for Change

Welcome to our podcast focusing on collaborative action in the WASH sector across the globe. This image shows a portrait of our third guest, Sovattha Neou.

Conversations with Collaboration Champions is a new podcast series from Agenda for Change, focused on sharing stories, events, and resources that highlight collaborative approaches to WASH systems strengthening. The podcast is hosted by Alec Shannon, Deputy Coordinator of Agenda for Change. Check back regularly for more episodes! 

About Sovattha

Since 2018, Sovattha Neou has served as the last Executive Director of WaterSHED, where she leads the organization in its final strategic period and exit. Sovattha Neou has more than a decade of international development and program management experience with a focus on livelihood enhancement, good governance, and gender equality. She has held technical and advisory roles at several international organizations including German Technical Cooperation (GIZ), Oxfam, and Transparency International. She is currently an advisor to the Young Women Leadership Network. Sovattha holds a Master’s degree in Production Chain Management from Van Hall Larenstein University in the Netherlands.

You can connect with Sovattha on LinkedIn and Twitter. 

Episode Highlights 

  • WaterSHED will undergo an intentional exit after transferring responsibilities for their WASH systems strengthening  activities to the Cambodian government in June 2021.
  • Featured Quote: “We always come back to this fundamental question: that if you don’t exist anymore, who needs to do what, and what needs to happen to make the change sustainable?”


Episode Transcript

AS: Alec Shannon, Deputy Coordinator – Agenda for Change
SN: Sovattha Neou, Executive Director – WaterSHED

ALEC (00:00):

Welcome to Episode 3 of Conversations with Collaboration Champions, where were highlight stories, events, and resources, focused on collaborative approaches to WASH [water, sanitation, and hygiene] systems strengthening. I’m Alec Shannon, Deputy Coordinator of Agenda for Change, and today, it is my pleasure to welcome Sovattha Neou, Executive Director of WaterSHED based in Cambodia. WaterSHED’s strategy is focused on systems strengthening, stemming from collaboration, replication, and integration, with organizations and government stakeholders who are positioned to leverage their experience. After a successful decade working towards their strategic exit, WaterSHED will end as an organization in June 2021 after handing over key elements of their Civic Champions program to the Cambodian national government for nationwide replication. Let’s hear more from Sovattha about their journey.

ALEC (01:01):

Welcome. Thank you so much for being part of the podcast – we’re really excited to have you here today. Before we jump into any questions, I was hoping you could introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about WaterSHED.

SOVATTHA (01:18):

Thanks, Alec. My name is Sovattha [Neou] and I’m the Executive Director of WaterSHED, a local NGO [non-governmental organization] based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’m actually the last Executive Director of WaterSHED because I’m leading our intentional exit as an organization. Before joining WaterSHED, I was working in large INGOs [international non-governmental organizations] like UN [United Nations], Oxfam, and GIZ [a German development agency]. I actually made a choice to work in this local NGO because I was very inspired by WaterSHED’s approach to sustainability and development. I saw that they were making the impossible possible. I did not realize before that NGOs could do [things like this], such as having government pay for programs and building latrines without subsidies.

About the history of WaterSHED, we began in 2009 as a USAID [US Agency for International Development] project doing market-based sanitation, but funding was cut. So, instead of closing down like other projects with the funding cut, we decided to become an NGO in 2011 to continue our impactful work in MBAs [Market-Based Approaches]. After this first funding cut from USAID, it was clear to WaterSHED as an organization, that in order to leave behind sustained impact, a stronger system would need to be built. In WaterSHED’s case, we understood that we could not use [a] one size fits all approach to system strengthening. To be sustainable, we had to build a program [that fit within] the Cambodian context. So, 10 years later, you know, when people ask us for advice about building a system strengthening approach, we always come back to this fundamental question: [if] you don’t exist anymore, who needs to do what, and what needs to happen to make the change sustainable? Since Cambodia is becoming a middle-income country and there will be less money for NGOs like us, there will be more [of a] role for the government and private businesses, and we believe that this type of thinking is very necessary.

ALEC (03:37):

Can you talk about some of the organizations that are helping you to form that specific approach, and also [your work] with the local governments? Because I know that’s a big part of what you all do.

SOVATTHA (03:50):

To be honest, collaboration is part of our first principles as an organization, and it is what we design our programs around. Our work and strategy evolved from hands-on to hands-off, and as our role in the system changed, our collaboration partners changed. WaterSHED’s strategy consists of three main phases, and from the beginning, we worked with local businesses to set them up for success with business fundamentals.

In phase one, in our pilot, we developed a product system, created a delivery model, and initiated consumer marketing. We always made it clear to our SMEs [small and medium enterprises] and local government that they are critical to market success and WaterSHED as an NGO is not. This work was super hands-on and grassroots, so that the businesses and government at the local level knew their value in the market as a direct market actor.

In phase two, we expanded the market-based sanitation program to reach 40% of the country’s population. And after an investigation [into] the factors driving high levels of sustained sanitation, we designed the Civic Champions government leadership program.

For the phase three, our last phase, we ended sales facilitation and firm level support, and our work was less about supply and demand at the ground level. Rather, we work with national and provincial government to transfer ownership of [the] Civic Champions program and support government led collective action. We are working with government for them to invest in this program, and, since our program was specifically designed for the Cambodian context, this program has evolved as Cambodia evolves. In our case, we are able to hand over our programs to the government because of where the market is now, and because the government has the capacity to take on this program.

ALEC (05:52):

You’ve talked a lot about the different phases that you’ve gone through, which is really helpful. And now of course, you’re in the final phase, and you’re getting ready to finish handing over your programs to the government. Can you talk a little bit about how has it been for you all engaging with government and getting their buy-in to actually get to this point where they are ready to take on your project?

SOVATTHA (06:19):

It’s super exciting for the whole team. This last phase of our strategy, it’s a phase where the government is making transformational leadership training part of their institution at many levels. This includes introducing Civic-style training at NASLA, and NASLA is where government officials at all levels are trained. The National Ministry of Interior’s Department of Training will be the one to implement this Civic-style training for all incoming government officials. The national government has also expressed interest in applying Civic-style training to other sectors beyond WASH, and they see the value in using [the] Civic Champions-style approach.

ALEC (07:04):

You’ve been preparing for this exit for a while, and that includes preparing your own staff and yourself to hand this project over to government. Where does that leave other NGOs that are working on WASH in Cambodia? I know you’ve worked with one other Agenda for Change member and that you also work with some local organizations. How does that look now that you guys are getting ready to exit?

SOVATTHA (07:31):

It’s exciting as I said. We are collaborating with WaterAid, and [we] offer the technical support to the Ministry of Interior. And right now, [in addition to] having the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Rural Development exercise or try our Civic Champions program, WaterAid [is also trying] to expand this project to another two provinces, Kratié and Kandal province, here in Cambodia. So, we’re excited to see other provinces also experience this exciting and important program as part of their government-led projects.

ALEC (08:18):

One thing I’ve heard a lot, and I’ve actually started saying it myself, is that collaboration moves at the speed of trust. Have you found that to be true in working with government and building relationships across all these years that you’ve worked on the different phases of the WaterSHED approach?

SOVATTHA (08:43):

This is super true, Alec. Because, not only the government, also with the partner organizations that we [collaborate] with, we are from different institutions. It’s always the case that sometimes one institution would think differently, and you’ll also agree that a system strengthening [approach] is hard to define exactly. One institution would probably define it by using this method, while another institution would define it a different way and implement [using] different methods. It’s really important that all institutions who collaborate have a collective idea towards one same vision.

An example with WaterAid: we sometimes find that we have different ways of working, but we have a common goal. We come into a discussion and find a common way to do this thing together in different way[s], but finally reaching the same goals of system strengthening. I really value this. And the same with the government – they do this work in their own government style and NGOs we do this in our NGO-style, and how can we collaborate and compromise to make this work for our own people, our own local government, and for the sake of our beneficiaries.

ALEC (10:10):

That’s such a wonderful example of all these different actors coming together across different styles of communication, different ways of defining system strengthening, but you all had a common agenda, which made your work so much more beneficial in the end. Speaking of outcomes, what are you doing to prepare right now, what are the final things that you’re checking off your list as you get ready to exit?

SOVATTHA (10:41):

To be honest, this COVID thing has prolonged our exit, but with this great collaboration with both our [NGO] partners and government partners, we can leave the remaining [Civic Champions] activity for our government partners to implement. They just implement it to complete everything that they have been starting on. They will complete [Civic Champions] within this year by themselves with [a lot] less support from WaterSHED, because we are leaving in June.

ALEC (11:15):

How are you preparing all the different institutions and actors across all of the provinces that you’ve worked on? Has that been ongoing or is it still happening?

SOVATTHA (11:27):

We actually planned a very exciting exit ceremony, with all the key stakeholders invited. However, with this COVID thing, I don’t think we can say a hundred percent that [it] will happen. However, we already organized such information spreading about WaterSHED’s exit through [our] website, social media, with formal and informal platforms, to keep them informed. Wherever, whenever we [can] possibly offer more information about this exit, we keep doing so.

ALEC (12:10):

I’m curious to know if in any of the conversations you’ve had with different collaboration partners, or maybe even with provincial officials or government officials, do they have a plan to ask more NGOs to exit the sector as they continue to meet goals towards SDG 6? Do you know what the plans are in the future for when the goals are met, will more NGOs exit the sector?

SOVATTHA (12:38):

Well, you know, this is a very interesting question, and I couldn’t speak on their behalf, but let’s bring the example of our exit video which has just been released yesterday to Cambodian folks and [people who are] also working for an organization similar to us (INGOs and local NGOs), they [applaud] our exit. From the government partner, I cannot speak on their behalf; however, they understood our intention that the role of providing a better service is mainly on the government side right now, rather than the NGO. However, some individuals still feel that NGO is the partner to the government [and NGOs] offer a better service [for] something that government lacks [the capacity to do]. So, to them, an NGO can still offer some technical support, but not [offer] what government [does]. They still want these two [actors] going along together, but in different roles.

ALEC (13:44):

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like there could be a role for the NGOs in Cambodia as more of consultants, the implementers would be the government themselves. Does that sound like something that could happen?

SOVATTHA (13:59):

Yeah. After this exit, we [have] a small technical support contract with the Ministry of Interior to support them technically on [the current, government-led] Civic Champions [program]. And after that they will be able to do this all by themselves.

ALEC (14:16):

And then as for the final question, I wanted to ask you if there was any person, or people, or maybe even an inspirational quote that you wanted to share, or maybe a champion that you wanted to name?

SOVATTHA (14:34):

Actually, there are two. First, what drives me, but not only me, what drives our team to work on system strengthening is a belief that a stronger system is a system that will work without any dependency on NGO intervention. With this belief, [me and my] colleagues are doing our best to collaborate with other stakeholders to make this possible. What our team is doing right now and while we are working with government, we work with a mindset that we are not here forever and anything we can do today, just do it today.

Last but not least, a person who inspired me the most [is] actually my whole team. WaterSHED is built with a very strong, young, dynamic team, and our team [is] so proud to work for WaterSHED because they know that they are very well known in the sector for making the impossible possible. We are very proud of each other and we continue to inspire each other until the end.

ALEC (15:44):

That is very inspiring. A big thank you to all, to WaterSHED, and for all of your efforts. We’ve loved having you, and still having you, as part of Agenda for Change and we’re so thankful, Sovattha, that you could be here today to share more with us about your journey.

SOVATTHA (16:03):

Thank you, too, Alec, for your support. And we love being part of [Agenda for Change] and please stay in touch. I really enjoyed talking to you today. Thank you.

ALEC (16:15):

Thanks again to Sovattha for sharing more about WaterSHED’s collaborative work and preparations for their strategic exit in June 2021. We celebrate your success with Civic Champions, and [we] are so grateful that you could share your experience with us. Thank you for tuning in to our third episode of Conversations with Collaboration Champions, we hope you found it insightful. We’ll be back again soon with our next episode. Stay tuned!

Interested in learning more? Stay tuned for our next episode!

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