‘A goodbye from the heart’

Photo: Annemiek Kool

What inspired me the most
What inspired me the most during my 16 years at Aqua for All, was the fact that we reached out to millions of people deprived from water or sanitation services. This has been a clear driver, a constant factor within an almost permanently changing strategy, taking our unique role as bridge builder, broker, facilitator, enabler or any other synonym we use to mark our agnostic position.

When I think of the people I met, often poor and deprived of basic needs and rights, I realize I enjoyed their warmth, the passion they put into their efforts, the response to our contribution. The combination of having a mission, using your professional skills, and sharing your passion with colleagues and partners, was energizing and inspiring.

I never thought I would stay for more than 10 years, but Aqua for all never stopped pioneering, as a result of being a frontrunner adapting itself to a changing private sector environment.  We started from charity and Corporate Social Responsibility (as a matching grantor; 2003-2010) and became a programme funder (using grants for proof of concepts, pilots, concept development, being a provider of gate funding; 2010-2014).

But in 2015 working with private capital-funders gave us a new impulse, acknowledging the need to bridge the ‘finance gap’.  It was a challenge I could not resist. The VIA Water program proves to work as seed capital for real social innovation in the water sector, with bold ideas, passionate entrepreneurs and space for non-conventional solutions.

The Public Private Partnership (PPP) desk for SCALE provided seed capital to scale WASH-businesses, which taught us to speak the language of the finance sector. And in 2018 we even launched the idea to subsidize the finance sector itself, providing first loss capital, technical assistance and risk guarantees to get a higher leverage from commercial impact investors with the little donor money available.

In the Top Sector Water-committee the civil society was acknowledged as the fifth cornerstone of the diamond. I was proud to be the representative of that civil society, as ‘ funder of the future’ while securing the social needs and rights of people that compose the markets.

What I have learned
What I have learned is not easy to say. Valuing water is only part of valuing social return on investments. The pricing of both negative externalities (we call it non-action costs, often paid by the poor) and positive externalities (monetizing the social value of natural, social and environmental capital) is perhaps the ultimate success factor to achieve SDG6 before 2030. Its impact on poverty reduction, food security, health and climate adaptation needs to be included in the finance structuring of SDG6 solutions, to avoid costs and gain long term benefits.

I also learned that realizing change by those who created the existing system, is extremely difficult. Einstein was right!!! First and for all a listening ear for drivers for change in the target countries themselves is needed. Being supportive and facilitating is an essential characteristic of working in the ‘Aid to Trade’ working field.

A third lesson? ‘Alone you go faster together you go further’. This is in the DNA of Aqua for All. But to put this into practice, means partnering rather than contracting, trust rather than checks and balances, stop looking and start finding. No more beauty contests but form a team and work hard to become a champion over time.

Aqua for All will start a new era, being contracted by DGIS for another 5 years. Their trust in our unique approach is key. The targets are heavier than ever, the ambition is great, the opportunities are identified. With Josien Sluijs as my successor, I leave behind a team that can do it, of which I am proud. Leading it was a pure joy.  My message: stay bold, as frontrunner. Be a team, they always perform better than specialists. And trust on serendipity (my favorite guide in my career).

I would like to take the opportunity to thank all our partners for working with Aqua for All, it was a pleasure serving you and enable you to do your excellent jobs. Please continue the good work, SDG6 is far from completed! I will continue supporting the water & sanitation sector with my network and skills, under the name ‘Wicked Water’. To work on our wicked water problems under the conviction that we can solve them.

All the best and let’s keep in touch!

Sjef Ernes