Partnerships between universities have the tantalizing possibility of providing fresh pathways to more sustainable societies. Institutions in sub-Saharan Africa are new players in this emerging development paradigm, but arguably are most in need of building capacity to address fragile and dynamic environmental and social conditions after decades of underinvestment in higher education. This paper documents the early stages of an Ethiopia-United States partnership to build capacity in institutions of higher education in Ethiopia in the critical area of sustainable water resource management that was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Higher Education for Development (HED). We explain how the concept of sustainability was interwoven with theories about learning organizations, supplemented by in-depth dialogue with stakeholders to assess existing capacity and future needs, and used to inform a strategic plan. The literature highlighted the need for a learning organization: a place where people continuously expand their ability to generate the results they truly desire, where innovative and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together. In 2011, the partnership established the Ethiopian Institute for Water Resources (EIWR) with the vision that it will become a key innovator in sustainable water resources management in Ethiopia by integrating education, research, outreach and training. One important observation so far is that in order to create a more substantive engagement than was realized in the “technology transfer” policies that shaped past North-South relationships, partnerships need to be authentic and characterized by open dialogue, mutual respect, and shared learning. Another is that the opportunities for fieldwork in Ethiopia’s complex social and physical landscapes also have enormous potential to create deep and learning experiences for other students of sustainability, thereby building capacity not just in Ethiopia but across multiple geographies.