The lack of safe drinking water is one of the most pressing challenges we face in the road towards creating inclusive social development. Although there are governments, NGOs, companies, universities, and citizens, carrying out water supply and water management projects, in a world where 750 million people still lack access to it, we can’t expect the solution to come just from one sector.

To promote multilateral partnerships and debate a little about it, The Coca-Cola Company and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), two partners that have been dancing together for a long time, organized the session ‘’Field-to-Boardroom: Uniting Boots and Suits Towards Meaningful Collective Action’’ in the Citizens Forum of the World Water Forum in Gyeongbuk, South Korea. The distinguished boots and suits invited to share their views were Karin Krchnak and Mark Briggs (WWF-US), Greg Koch (The Coca-Cola Company), Aaron Salzberg (U.S. Department of State), Tien Shiao (H&M), Kusum Athukorala (NetWwater), Eugenio Barrios (WWF-Mexico) and Sergio Marines (Profauna). A rich dialogue about challenges, expectations and stories about partnerships compelled me to have the following thoughts after the session:

High levels of maturity in partnerships have to do with evolving the leitmotiv, or theme, the reason why we do it in the first place. We may start a partnership on the premise that to achieve our goals we need what the other organizations bring to the table, but it should then transition into having faith that working together is the only way to solve the water access and management problems. In other words, turning the “I can’t do it just myself” into an “I don’t want to do it just myself.” 

Another challenge is wearing ‘suits with suits’ and ‘boots with boots’. The joined work between organizations from different sectors is becoming more common, as we recognize our partner as a valuable (and different) stakeholder in the project we want to carry out. But what about partnering with those usually considered our “competitors”? Rival companies working together, strong NGOs related to water or governments from different ideologies in the same project… that’s a powerful message that indicates solutions to water issues being beyond any difference we may have.

As said many times in the session, a multilateral partnership doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of time, patience, commitment and hard work. But more importantly, the belief that it’s the way to ensure long term sustainability, accuracy and legitimacy in the results. The combination of the on-the-ground knowledge provided from an NGO along with the resources, networks, strategies that a corporation can offer from the office level, increases the impact of any water project. However, the languages spoken in the field and in the office are different, and sometimes the only way of learning esperanto – a common language – is by experiencing the other side: take the CEO to the rural community, and the community leader to the boardroom.

I face that challenge every day. I’m a boot that sometimes has to wear a suit, as the program I coordinate, SedCero: Water for the Gran Chaco, seeks to scale up the safe water access projects in the Gran Chaco region through collaborative work. The project work is located in parts of Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and a small portion of Brazil, and is one of the largest biomes of South America where 2 million people lack access to water. At SedCero, we believe that organizations developing water projects should act jointly, and so we connect them. We believe that every institution and citizen, no matter what they do, can contribute to the cause, and so we help them find the way to get involved. We believe the influence in water public policy to promote socio-productive development models and social inclusion related to water is fundamental, and so we partner with governments and analyze legislation. It’s not the easy way, but in a year-and-a-half we’ve started 18 projects that will benefit around 2,500 families. Apparently, it works.

A partnership in a water project is much more than just accomplishing results. It’s a transforming experience that broadens the boundaries of what we think is possible. It allows us to understand the complexity of one of the most pressing problems in today’s world: the lack of water supply and sanitation, and the mismanagement of water resources.

After all, fashion is about expressing our true self, so then why not set a new trend: wearing suits with boots?

Antonella Vagliente is a Global Shaper in the Córdoba Hub. She is also vice president of the World Youth Parliament for Water.