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Meet the woman fighting for a cleaner world for all


30 March 2020 at 8:08 am
Maggie Coggan
With COVID-19 spreading around the world, there’s never been a more important time to keep clean. Rosie Wheen, the CEO of WaterAid Australia, is fighting for a world where everyone has that option. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 


Maggie Coggan | 30 March 2020 at 8:08 am


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Meet the woman fighting for a cleaner world for all
30 March 2020 at 8:08 am

With COVID-19 spreading around the world, there’s never been a more important time to keep clean. Rosie Wheen, the CEO of WaterAid Australia, is fighting for a world where everyone has that option. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Washing your hands with soap and water is one of the best ways of stopping the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. 

But across the globe, there are 800 million people who don’t have access to clean water, and two in five healthcare facilities don’t provide soap and water for doctors and nurses to wash their hands at points where care is provided. 

It’s statistics like these that Wheen is trying to change. 

As WaterAid’s first paid Australian employee, she has grown the organisation to not only raise awareness around the lack of access to sanitation in third world countries, but also around how our own sanitation habits affect others here in Australia.  

In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses how to stay focused in the face of big issues, balancing power, and the perspective her job gives her. 

How did you get involved in WaterAid?

My background is in primary school teaching, and I volunteered with Australian Volunteers International for four years and taught in primary schools in remote parts of Indonesia. Just before I returned to Australia I was unfortunately let go from one of those jobs, and while it was a really difficult period for me, it was also a reminder that there are always silver linings and opportunities that come out of bad things. 

When I came back to Australia I was really determined to stay in the development sector because my heart was very much in social justice and human rights. WaterAid had just started in Australia and needed an admin assistant to get started, and so I stuck my hand up for it, and never looked back.

The conversation around the importance of sanitation has really been pushed into the spotlight. What is WaterAid’s role in this? 

In some ways I want to say that WaterAid’s mission has never been more important, but that’s not actually true.

There are 800 million people that don’t have access to clean water around the world, and 40 per cent of households globally don’t have soap and water hand-washing. 

It’s always been true that hand washing is essential to reduce the spread of diseases. What has shifted so tragically and so terribly is the whole world’s awareness of the importance of good hygiene practices. WaterAid’s work now is about making sure that we’re working alongside governments, alongside our partners and alongside communities to make sure that hand-washing promotion materials are getting out to communities everywhere around the world and to make sure that people have those basic facilities.

The issues that you’re talking about are global, how do you as a CEO of an organisation that’s dealing with such a big issue, stay focused on the task at hand? 

When I was appointed to the role of CEO three years ago, the board asked me to write up a manifesto, which was a bit of a weird thing for me to do at first because I didn’t even know what a manifesto really was. But it really helped me to clarify my purpose. 

It’s all about how I unlock the potential in others with the privilege and the responsibility that comes with the role of CEO. For me, that’s about delivering our mission and getting the most out of our people. One of the quotes that I love is from Margaret Mead, which goes along the lines of “never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, it’s all that ever has”. For me, that rings true as a CEO. How am I making sure that the incredible people of WaterAid and our partners are safe, in terms of our culture and our values, and able to be themselves and be the best they can be, but also be really clear on our priorities and things that we’re doing. 

When I think about the time that we’re in, I think of one of the other quotes that I have in my manifesto which is that, “a ship is safe in harbor, and that’s not where ships are meant to be”. 

While WaterAid is out in these very uncharted territories, it is my job to keep the ship strong in terms of our culture, values and our financial sustainability, and be really clear in where we need to head. 

How important is it that you take care of yourself as well? 

Self-care needs to be central for a leader. I used to be a very nervous flier so it comes as a great surprise to me that I always think about aeroplanes when I think about leadership. But when the flight attendant stands up in the aisle and says you need to put your own oxygen mask on first before you help others, it reminds me that I need to be putting my oxygen mask on and making sure I’m taking care of myself because otherwise I can’t lead.

It is a challenging time financially for the sector, what is your plan to help keep WaterAid afloat?  

It’s been an incredibly challenging time for the NFP and development sector. COVID-19 comes after the floods, droughts and fires in Australia, putting further pressure on communities and organisations. We’re very much looking at our business model and how we can ensure financial sustainability ensuring that we reduce our expenses as much as we can in accordance with our income, but also leaning into the incredible relationships and support we have. We’ll be communicating with our partners about our work and the type of support that we need from our partners. WaterAid was started by the water industry here in Australia and we are incredibly privileged to have their trust and support.

We also have amazing partners like Who Gives a Crap, and we’ll be continuing to support them in their work and ours. But it is going to be really difficult for WaterAid, as it is for many others, so I’m very focused on connecting up with others in the sector to share what we’re doing and hear what they’re doing. 

How has having this job changed the way you see the world?

Having this role and being in such a privileged position to see the incredible generosity of the Australian community and the partners that we have, and then also getting to visit the work that we do and see the incredible impact it has on the world, it gives me a view of the world that is very positive. Especially in times like this, [when] everything just seems a huge mess, it gives me hope and optimism that there is more kindness in the world than we often realise and more generosity than we know. 

So I feel really privileged that I get to hold this view of the world that gives me so much hope of what we can do together.


Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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