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Barbara Frost DBE: oration

Read Professor Veronica Hope Hailey's oration on Barbara Frost DBE for the honorary degree of Doctor of Education in December 2021.


photo of Dame Barbara Frost
Dame Barbara Frost

How many times have you used water today? Water is one of the basic necessities for human life and yet 1 in 10 people in the world, 750 million, lack the basic necessity of safe water. 2.5 billion people (39% of the world’s population) are without adequate sanitation. 1400 children die each day from diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation.

Dame Barbara Mary Frost, DBE, was Chief Executive of WaterAid until 2017. WaterAid’s vision is of a world where everyone has access to safe water and sanitation. WaterAid works in 27 countries to transform lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in some of the world’s poorest communities. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 21 million people with safe water and, since 2004, 18 million people with sanitation. As WaterAid argues: “ Without these basics, overcoming poverty is just a dream.” In addition to her role as CEO, Barbara also led WaterAid International, the federation set up to coordinate the UK charity’s relations with WaterAids that have sprung up in the US, Canada, Australia, Sweden and India.

Barbara grew up near Bath. Her parents ran the post office at Batcombe. In 1972 Barbara Frost left Keele University and went on what was intended to be a gap year, travelling to India and Nepal. She ended up living in Australia and didn’t come back to England for 24 years.

During that time she made rapid progress in public service jobs, developed homecare services in New South Wales and worked for Oxfam, Save the Children and ActionAid in Mozambique and Malawi. She returned to England in the mid-1990s to become CEO of the charity Action on Development and Disability – ADD – whose head office is based near Frome in Somerset. ADD focuses on providing support in Africa and Asia to promote independence and opportunity for disabled people living in poverty. Barbara was appointed CEO of WaterAid in 2005. Several factors account for the charity’s sustained success but many believe that Barbara’s low-profile style of leadership was key. Awarded the Charity Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2015, the Chair of the judges said: “Barbara is a consummate campaigner and a hugely popular figure both among her own colleagues and in the wider sector, not least because she only ever seeks profile for her organisation and the issues it’s trying to progress – never for herself.”

Interviewed by journalists, Barbara confirms: “I’m not into the cult of the chief executive. I’ll go on stage at the UN or whatever when it’s needed, but I share it. There are lots of people with more authority than me in various ways, and I’m proud about others who speak for WaterAid.” She quotes the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know they exist, when their work is done, their aim fulfilled, the people will say: we did it ourselves.”

This enabling approach mirrors how WaterAid operates. About two-thirds of its staff are based outside the UK, with few expatriates. It recruits its country leaders locally and draws up agreements for local partners - which might be NGOs, local government, or the private sector - to implement projects.

In 2017 Barbara was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire “for services to the provision of safe water, sanitation and hygiene in developing countries.” She has retired back to Somerset. She is a Trustee of the Joffe Charitable Trust, a grant making body supporting charities fighting corruption and promoting tax justice across the world.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you, Dame Barbara Frost, who is eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Education Honoris Causa.


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