Acumen Blog

Partnership in the face of a global challenge

India - water spout2.jpgThis past Thursday and Friday I joined the Global Water Challenge for a learning forum on Innovative Financing for Water and Sanitation. The Global Water Challenge (GWC) is a committed group of leading organizations that have joined forces to catalyze change in the water and sanitation sector with members from non-profit organizations, foundations, academia and major corporations, including Coca-Cola, Dow and Cargill.  (The local NBC station did a short piece on the meeting – you can see it here.)

Partnership sounds great, I think we can all agree, but what does it really mean? With water being one of the most complex and politicized development issues, how feasible is it that distinct groups across sectors could sit in a room together and find meaningful ways to collaborate? My first question would be, can we even agree on anything? Despite these questions, Acumen Fund recently joined the GWC to do our own part in this effort to “join forces.” This was made easier by the fact that we had already been working closely with the GWC and several members. What I discovered through the course of this two-day meeting was that partnership, for this group, was not just a pretty word.  

The GWC is already involved in a large scale collaboration involving the Gates Foundation, CARE, WaterPartners International and Emory University to bring safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene to schools in Kenya. The GWC has also worked with Acumen Fund to help us launch our collaboration on water storage and transportation with IDEO. With their new focus on innovative financing mechanisms in water, I found myself sitting across from current and prospective investments from our portfolio, as well as financing partners like ICICI Bank in India, and truly feeling that the right people were in the room to get some work done.

I’m not sure there is a magic ingredient to make partnerships work, and certainly more fail than succeed, but I do think this group has a lot of the right stuff to make an impact in the water sector. By drawing in different groups with complimentary strengths, the GWC holds the promise of bringing needed skills and capital to complex problems in the water sector. By focusing on groups where there is a real potential to do work together, the GWC builds on a sense of trust that comes from a shared history. The need for trust can’t be underestimated in a sector where competition, inefficiency, politics and academic debate can sometimes get in the way of concrete action.

I was pleased to see the openness of this group to long-standing leaders and respected experts in the sector, as well as relative newcomers like Acumen Fund and Blue Planet Run. I was also appreciative that as its capstone, E. Neville Isdell, the CEO of Coca-Cola, Co. and a board member of the GWC, spoke to us about the continued commitment to making water a major priority for the company. Trust and Partnership – both great concepts. But this meeting, and the statements by members about not only what they would do, but what they had already done, left me optimistic that this group could successfully overcome the many barriers to working together in the name of a larger goal that we all share – to bring safe water and sanitation to the billions that lack it.

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