Photo credit: Julien Harneis (via flickr)
Partnership in principle, partnership in practice
by Christine Knudsen, UNICEF May 2011

The Principles of Partnership (PoP), endorsed in 2007 by the Global Humanitarian Platform (GHP), were a collective effort to respond to a changing reality as well as create a shared understanding of how effective partnership could contribute to more effective humanitarian assistance.[1] Over the past few decades, a growing proportion of assistance, as measured by financial volume, has been provided by civil society organisations, with many of the larger NGOs consolidating national chapters into international networks with a geographic and financial reach on a similar scale to that of the UN agencies. Within this evolving context there was a sense that the rules of engagement between UN and non-UN agencies needed to be reviewed to reflect greater equality in determining priorities, strategies and responses. The POP were born from this discussion, and the GHP became a standing forum for dialogue on how these principles could be put into practice.

At the same time, the humanitarian reform process was well underway, with its aim to improve the quality and predictability of response through enhanced leadership, coordination and financing mechanisms. Partnership was added as a fourth pillar in the reform process, not only as a strategy to improve results but also as a commitment to change the way in which international humanitarian actors worked together. Stakeholders agreed that the principles of complementarity and equality, along with transparency and responsibility, would be the basis for results-oriented partnerships at global level and in field operations.

Since their endorsement the POP have become a common point of reference, yet implementing them remains a challenge in practice.

The cluster/partnership confusion

As the timing of the POPs coincided with the establishment of sectoral cluster coordination mechanisms, there has been a tendency to confuse these terms and concepts; clusters must incorporate the principles of partnership, yet partnership exists far beyond the scope of these groups. A further complication is that ‘partnership’ was never defined within the POP. This has resulted in the Principles being applied to any form of collaboration, including contractual relationships (i.e. project funding documents), agreements without any transfer of resources or even a general intent to cooperate based on similar values (such as a memorandum of understanding). While such flexibility in applying the POP can strengthen how parties work together – even in contracting a project for delivery it is important to agree on complementarity – it can also lead us further away from understanding what meaningful partnership relationships entail.

Partnership can and does exist outside of formal structures such as clusters, allowing each partner to maintain autonomy and independence and determine the extent of collaboration. This broader interpretation of partnership seems to have fallen by the wayside, however, with an increasing tendency within the international humanitarian community to equate ‘cluster’ with ‘partner’.

Originally established as a group of organisations that voluntarily chose to work collectively to improve preparedness, response capacity and results, clusters have evolved as the preferred forum for collaboration in humanitarian contexts. Yet policy and practice have focused only on the accountabilities of the agency leading and coordinating the cluster. There are no agreed expectations or partnership models for cluster participants to contribute to results, engage in a predictable way or share responsibility for outcomes. In reality, the cluster model seems to be based on directive leadership rather than meaningful partnership.

In this context, the Principles of Partnership have proven a useful guide to reviewing how well clusters function as partnerships. Are members in the group engaging with each other transparently and as equal partners? Is there a sense of accountability and complementarity within the group? While the POP have been a key reference point for clusters as they were being established, developed their tools and undertook training, they have not always led to shared ownership of and accountability for results.

Principles in practice

Are the POP being used in the field, and if so do they make a difference? Several reviews have been undertaken, along with efforts to document their application; tools to support implementation have also been developed.[2] For example, within the Child Protection Working Group – one of the areas of responsibility of the global Protection Cluster – a small team (including this author) developed a pilot methodology to monitor the application of the POPs in Uganda in 2008. The tool was developed to respond to a need to measure how a partnership functioned, rather than simply measuring process outputs, and has since been systematically included in the training of future coordinators and members.[3]

The first challenge was to decide how to explore the principles themselves. What would indicate ‘equality’ within a diverse group of organisations? How could one elaborate what ‘responsibility’ meant in practice? Several questions were developed to specifically consider the context of cluster coordination under each of the five principles, with a simple scoring for respondents to indicate whether in practice each applied ‘not at all’, ‘somewhat’ or ‘substantially’.[4]


The questionnaire was answered anonymously, with responses being posted to a grid for all to review. This formed the basis for a focus group discussion, further probing specific areas of agreement and good practice in the group, as well as areas of disagreement. The process was facilitated by the mission team, acting as a neutral party external to the operating and coordination context, to avoid unduly influencing the focus group work. First, the exercise took place in a neutral location without the coordinator or associated staff being present, away from the UNICEF office (as the child protection cluster lead agency. Second, the grid was left in place without comment for several minutes, then open-ended questions (‘What do you find interesting in this mapping?’) were used to spur reflection within the group. Quieter participants were able to contribute when comments were sought from all, both at the mid-point and in the wrap-up, by going around the room. Although some comments remained quite superficial, probing questions helped illustrate underlying issues related to what happened when partners did not meet their responsibilities, or when there was competition for funding. The findings and recommendations of the focus group discussions were shared with the coordinators afterwards, and agreement on next steps tailored to each outcome was reached when the national child protection working group reconvened for the mission debriefing.

Uganda was one of the first pilot cluster countries identified in 2005. Coordination bodies were well developed and had been built upon pre-existing mechanisms established over the course of the long-standing crisis in northern Uganda. Group coherence was strong, partners knew each other well and there was a shared understanding of the operational context. In three of the four locations we found strong adherence to the POP in relation to programming strategy, coverage, scope, complementarity and shared commitment. Interestingly – but perhaps not surprisingly – most disagreements arose on issues related to funding transparency, both of the cluster itself and between and among partners. In the fourth location, where funding and international presence were being dramatically reduced, the group was notably weaker and there were strong concerns across all areas. In a context of competition, partnership approaches are often constrained; complementarity and shared prioritisation become even more essential in order to achieve results.

Funding relationships within a partnership structure remain challenging, especially since the coordinating agency is also providing programme funding. International NGOs may be able to leverage additional funding from other sources, but national or local NGOs are likely to be fully dependent on the partner agency’s funding for their work. While this can undermine equality among partners, if the POP are fully integrated into the group’s work it may not. As one of the respondents from a local organisation put it:

Before, only the internationals decided what would be done. Now there is more respect for what we bring to the table. The weight at the table isn’t only about money. We earn the weight by bringing our knowledge of communities and approaches and years of experience.

This example clearly shows the potential when partnership is developed in a principled way. In Uganda, this took time as well as targeted effort. In such a chronic humanitarian situation, where response is reviewed and developed over years rather than months, there was an opportunity to develop joint strategies and outcomes, agree on complementary approaches, identify reliable and predictable partners and build trust and transparency to encourage shared ownership of results.

Principles versus practice

As in Uganda, most current partnership models focus on long-term approaches, building more strategic and effective partnership, exploring the interests and priorities of each party and identifying shared strategic approaches and shared risks. Yet how does this model apply to large-scale rapid-onset crises, such as the massive Haiti earthquake and Pakistan flood responses? If partnership takes time, do our principles still apply when time is of the essence?

In a context where hundreds of new organisations arrive in a country, where hundreds of national organisations are already on the front line and where each is under pressure to respond immediately, is ‘real’ partnership possible? How do organisations engage with each other in a principled way when there is very real pressure to raise individual agency profiles in order to generate resources from the public or from donors? Are the POP still relevant, or are they simply a rhetorical luxury to be implemented only in stable situations or chronic crises?

While traditional models of partnership, building trust over time and identifying common interests and values, can certainly be established in preparedness, contingency planning and agreements at headquarters level, these do not cover the full requirements of large-scale rapid-onset emergencies. Establishing new strategic institutional partnerships in such a situation can be extremely difficult, but it is also impossible to imagine a context in which broader principles such as complementarity and results-oriented collaboration would not be in the interest of any organisation’s humanitarian work.

Both Haiti and Pakistan demonstrated that cluster accountabilities need to be revised to take into consideration the POP, so that all actors understand what they will and will not be willing to contribute to a response, how results will be jointly defined and measured, and how equality and transparency can be promoted. This has relevance for all partners, both at a global level and at a country level, during preparedness and contingency planning. Ignoring the POP in the early days of an emergency can result in significant gaps in meeting basic humanitarian needs. When agencies and organisations decide to disengage from existing partnerships, opt out of coordination mechanisms or pursue programming agendas without collaboration, the overall response is weakened since knowledge, resources and assets cannot be leveraged to expand coverage. Regardless of context, these principles should still guide each organisation’s engagement if the goal is to increase the effectiveness of humanitarian response.


The range of emergencies in 2010 pushed the international humanitarian community to the brink, forcing us to question how we organise ourselves, and whether our model of injecting international support (and leadership) into local crises still has currency. What is clear is that new models of partnership and preparedness will be required to respond to the crises of the next decade, with a focus on the front-line capacities of communities, authorities and civil society. International organisations (UN, NGO and others) will need to recommit to predictable collaboration with an emphasis on equal and complementary contributions to results-based outcomes. It is time to reflect again on whether partnership approaches are fundamental to our work, or just a more efficient way to leverage resources.


Christine Knudsen is Chief of the Inter-Agency and Humanitarian Partnership, Office of Emergency Programmes (EMOPS), UNICEF. She writes here in a personal capacity.

[1] The five principles are equality, complementarity, transparency, accountability, results-oriented and responsibility.

[2] See, for instance, ICVA tools and reviews:

[3] See Child Protection in Emergencies Coordinators’ Handbook, 2010,

[4] Refer to POP survey, p. 29 of Inter-Agency Review and Documentation (May-June 2008)