How International RiverFoundation uses awards to foster development partnerships

A screencap of children collecting unsafe water from a dam in western Kenya from the documentary titled, “The Flow-On Effect,” produced by The Tweed Kenya Mentoring Program, which focuses on its Safe Water 6 project in Siaya County. Source: Tweed Shire Council

Awards recognize and honor leaders within their industries. The International RiverFoundation has taken matters a step further: Winners of its annual Riverprize awards are urged to put their expertise to work in a developing community.

The award, which recognizes innovation, leadership and excellence in river and water management for developed countries, pairs winners with communities in developing markets through a Twinning program. The goal is to take the industry’s best practices and standards and use them to improve water quality in areas with the greatest need.

International RiverFoundation’s experience provides a practical model for linking industry and the private sector expertise to development initiatives. The foundation sees growing demand for this type of work — connecting companies to communities on the ground.

Partnerships of excellence

The Twinning program works by linking winners to river managers, restoration groups, or other entities in need of their expertise, said Charlotte Spliethoff, business development and program manager for the International RiverFoundation.

“All nominees, when they submit their applications, are aware that the prize includes a ‘Twinning’ component if they choose to accept it,” Spliethoff told Devex. “While it’s a voluntary undertaking, we strongly encourage it and most applicants realize the benefits of participating the program. So, many start thinking about twinning projects during their application. After a winner is announced, we guide them through finding a partner, writing a proposal and implementing the program.”

While Twinning partnerships are not the basis for awarding a Riverprize, the criteria for the award tend to favor initiatives that are suited to working with less-developed markets. The prize recognizes environmental projects, managed by public or private organizations, that pay particular attention to impact and sustainability, for example — areas of particular concern in emerging economies.

“We look for exceptional efforts in integrated river basin management which have led to the protection, maintenance or improvement in the aquatic ecosystem health of a river, wetland, estuary, lake or basin,” Spliethoff explained.

“Demonstrated achievements in economic, social, cultural, education and health issues and engagement are key to a successful application. Additionally, any innovative or ’cutting edge’ factors applied in the river basin increase the chances of becoming a Riverprize finalist,” she said. “We also look for a long-term vision with demonstrated plans or processes that ensure achieved outcomes are maintained into the future.”

The Twinning program has been successful enough to attract interest from finalist organizations, not just winners for whom the initiative was designed.

“We’ve actively focused on setting up projects only with winners, but some keen organizations with valuable expertise have approached us with an interest in setting up projects,” Spliethoff said. “We’ve been very keen to support these organizations in the past, and have helped find funding where necessary.”

A case study of partnership in Kenya

One of the International RiverFoundation’s largest twinning projects began through the voluntary cooperation of a finalist for the prize.

For their work on the Tweed River waterways program, the Tweed Shire Council became a four-time finalist of the highly regarded Thiess International Riverprize, awarded to the best global waterways project based on winners and nominees of local awards in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America.

The council first approached the International RiverFoundation in 2003 looking to establish a sanitation and community health project in Kenya with local NGO Maji na Ufanisi. Under the guidance of the RiverFoundation, the Kenya Mentoring Program was established and approved by the council in 2004 to support WASH and environmental education projects in the Siaya district of Nyanza province, in western Kenya.

More than a decade later, the project is still going strong. A volunteer group from the council oversee implementation activities, including setting program direction, reviewing progress and volunteering on the ground for knowledge exchange. A paid project manager operates out of Siaya for the day-to-day operation the program.

Today, partners include Kenya Health, Sky Juice Foundation and Triangle Waterquip and ongoing activities focus on maintaining facilities and empowering the host community to manage and fund facilities. So far, more than 10,000 people in three rural Kenyan villages have been given access to an improved water supply.

Tom Alletson, the Waterways program leader for the Tweed Shire Council, told Devex their 12-year program in Kenya has saved lives — but also been of great value to his staff and organization.

“For the council, this is a highly valued program,” he said. “The volunteers we send receive project management experience [that] money can’t buy and achieve a career high through both the challenge and satisfaction they receive. We are making clean, safe water a reality in a tiny spot on the map.”

Providing the stepping stones

The Tweed Kenya Mentoring Program is one of six twinning projects running internationally. An additional two were approved to commence early this year. International RiverFoundation has supported 23 twinning projects in all.

Throughout the process, International RiverFoundation acts as a connector and resource for industry organizations. Newcomers to development often struggle to establish connections with communities, understand community needs and fundraise — all areas where the foundation has expertise.

“The International RiverFoundation has the role of facilitator, and assists with seeking partners, funding options and providing advice on the proposed project and business plan,” Spliethoff explained.

Alletson said that assistance was vital for Tweed Shire Council’s project in Kenya. “Running a humanitarian program is not standard for the Tweed Shire Council,” he said. “Working with the International RiverFoundation provided us with a structure to achieve what we wanted and legitimacy to work in the NGO space.”

Spliethoff says her organization’s work connecting industry expertise to development needs provides valuables lessons for other NGOs. Expertise and knowledge sharing can be powerful tools for change, she said.

“There is no more effective way to build capacity, transfer skills and support restoration efforts than through sharing expertise,” she said. “We believe peer-to-peer relationships and learning are a fantastic way to do this, especially when a group with decades of experience can share this with a group facing similar challenges in different parts of the world.”

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.