Ruth Beukman: Relationships, Diversity and Flexibility are our Strengths

In our 2016 interview series to celebrate GWP 20 years, we talk to Ruth Beukman, Regional Executive Secretary for GWP Southern Africa. After 13 years, she is preparing to leave her job at the end of this year. But she will never completely leave GWP, she says, and speaks fondly of the network – the “GWP family”, whose strength lies in its strong relationships, diversity and flexibility.

“When I joined GWP in March 2003, it was a very different GWP than today. My job was more about programme management – which suited me, because that was my background – and later the job gradually transformed into a governance and management role as the partnership grew. The Regional Water Partnerships had only started to form a couple of years prior to my arrival, so there was a lot of governance attention needed, in terms of structure, instruments and roles”, says Ms. Beukman.

This was during the first phase of GWP, she says – noting that during her time with the network she has observed three distinct phases.

“When I started it was all about promoting Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and raising awareness of it among different stakeholders.  GWP Southern Africa was called upon at regional and national level to assist with water reforms and catering for IWRM and many Country Water Partnerships (CWPs) were set up. At the time GWP was a loose and flexible network with strong donor support, building upon the decisions of Rio de Janeiro in 1992, when the Dublin Principles were adopted, and the 2nd World Water Forum in The Hague in 2000, after which a draft Vision for the network was shaped,” explains Beukman.

These were exciting and interesting times to join the network, because prior to GWP, nobody knew much about IWRM: “We used GWP Technical Background Paper no. 4 to guide us”.

At the same time, she recalls calling on her first global Executive Secretary, Emilio Gabbrielli, to support GWP Southern Africa in clarifying its role with the host institution and also to strengthen the relations between GWP Southern African and the GWP global network. The connection to GWP global was not very strong and the region was working quite independently. Though established in 1998, GWP Southern Africa secured core funds from GWP global for the first time in 2004.

Phase II

Following this set-up period, a second phase commenced after the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Johannesburg Plan on Implementation, calling on nations to develop IWRM/Water efficiency plans. GWP Southern African embarked on IWRM planning, in depth through the CWPs, who had the intimate understanding of local context and the key relationships and trust at that level.

Beukman mentions this as one of the highlights of her time with GWP, the move from awareness-raising to concrete planning with nation departments of economic planning and finance. She says that the region had to learn by doing as there was no recipe for ‘how to develop IWRM plans’:

“Wider engagement on multi-stakeholder platforms were developed, and the region counted on the CWPs and a strong regional technical team to engage with development planning. Processes were set up to help form stronger institutional foundations for implementation and to develop different skill sets. GWP Southern Africa was very privileged to have worked closely with the global Technical Committee Chair at the time – Torkil Jonch Clausen. Another highlight from the IWRM Planning era!”

These were critical and positive times, because it meant that rather than working in parallel with national and regional mandated institutions – GWP Southern Africa and its CWPs were now placed to serve, and formed real and long lasting partnerships at country and regional level. Beukman says that this was also the time when the wider GWP was more opened up to southern Africa:

“It was also very significant to me to realize that GWP Southern Africa was only one of 13 regions under the global secretariat. This revealed the richness of the network, while at the same time retaining a sense of unity under a global umbrella.”

She says it is important for GWP to appreciate the unique asset of the network - being present at all levels – local, regional, continental and global – now and in the future: “There isn’t any other organisation like GWP. We are quite unique in our structure, governance and function – and ALL roles and levels have equally important roles to play. But, we need to strengthen the connection between these levels to maximize our collective efforts for impact,” says Beukman.

Phase III

This brings her to where GWP is today, with a view to the future:

“We have recently entered what I would call phase three of GWP’s work. We are still fundamentally about IWRM but focused very much on tackling development challenges. We are more and more developing a deeper multi-level and cross-sector approach and we need to focus on responding to the development challenges like climate change impacts, resilience, food and water insecurity, poor land management and urban issues. We need to be part of additional dimensions of ‘integration’ and strengthen our technical and process role in the water-food-energy-land-ecosystems nexus issues.”

GWP’s strength remains in the relationships, diversity and flexibility of the network.

“We are strong at regional level and this will continue to be the case, but we need to firm up our country management and we need stronger coordinated institutions under the CWP umbrella. Otherwise we won’t be able to adequately respond to the development challenges. At the same time, we need to remain flexible and not be overloaded with bureaucracy,” says Beukman, and admits that it is a fine line to walk to get the balance right but flexibility is attractive to many stakeholders.

She says she has a strong appreciation for the technical knowledge in the network and global technical level leadership, and she gets great satisfaction of seeing how it all comes together: “It is great to see global processes being informed by country input and also seeing global processes being translated into regional and national action.”

But this is still something that the network has to work on: “We have great knowledge within the network, but there is still much work to be done to properly translate that knowledge and harness it into action on local and practical level, and to sustain this knowledge generation, experience and institutional capacity.”

The Successor

When Ruth Beukman leaves her office at the end of 2016, her successor will be Alex Simalabwi, who currently serves the global GWP secretariat as Global Coordinator of the Water, Climate and Development Programme (WACDEP).

Simalabwi also has a long history with GWP; he was first active on country level in youth programmes in his home country Zambia, and in 2004 he was appointed by GWP Southern Africa in a project manager role for the IWRM/Water Efficiency planning initiatives, before moving to the global secretariat. He is now returning to GWP Southern Africa, and Beukman says he’s definitely the right man for the job.

“He is bright and strategic, with a tremendous drive that will bring GWP Southern Africa to new heights.”   

When asked about advice for her successor, Beukman says the best way to lead is through the team – to keep the unity of the team and to let them lead with the knowledge that they already possess.

“Also remember to stay focused on serving, rather than leading the stakeholders. There is a trust there that needs to be nurtured. And remember to be humble and stay true to your own personal values and beliefs.”

Beukman doesn’t have long left to lead the GWP Southern Africa office, but she carefully maintains that she will never leave GWP. In 2017 she will likely be working in some form of consultancy capacity for the network, and she will always be available to help out. As for coming jobs for her, she says she knows it will be in some kind of institutional role: “I am an institutional person and this is where I belong.”