Photo credit: Diego Devesa Laux
Building effective partnerships: local views
by Dayna Brown, The Listening Project May 2011

This article highlights the views of local people on how international aid agencies partner with local organisations, and the impact these relationships often have on the quality and effectiveness of aid efforts. Through Listening Exercises, The Listening Project has gathered the perspectives of local people on what has worked well, what has not and what can be done to make international aid efforts more effective and more accountable.

In many places, local people do not make the distinctions between humanitarian, recovery or development assistance that aid workers do. While the types of assistance and the people who provide it may change over time, local people’s understanding of and relationships with international aid agencies are often influenced by their first experiences with aid workers and their local partners. While humanitarian aid workers are often aware of this, the need to react fast and the pressure to spend quickly in most humanitarian contexts mean that many international aid agencies find it difficult to establish and nurture relationships with local partners, to ensure that they are providing quality assistance and that they are accountable to communities.

In many conversations held by the Listening Project, people in aid-recipient societies have described how the systems and structures of international assistance (the ‘business model’) have become too focused on the quick and efficient delivery of goods and services.[1] Donors and international aid agencies are often concerned with delivering aid and spending money quickly, and in this haste they often do not spend enough time identifying good local partners and maintaining effective relationships with them.

Many people in local communities want international aid agencies to support local organisations as they know the context better and can respond more quickly. While working through local partners is intended to increase the speed of emergency response and support local capacity and ownership, the Listening Project has heard many complaints that the increased number of ‘intermediaries’ involved in the delivery of assistance has resulted in the growth of ‘briefcase’ or even ‘wallet’ NGOs that may not represent the local community or do the work they are intended to do, and waste valuable aid resources. As one researcher in Lebanon put it: ‘Some NGOs are doing humanitarian work as a business, like a “super-profit-one-man-show.”  There is one local person who knows how to deal with donors, and s/he fixes the projects for the international community according to the donor priorities. These NGOs work on demand, depending on what the current donor agenda is. NGOs are like mushrooms, when the climate changes they shoot out from the ground’.


Effective partnerships are built on mutual understanding, trust and respect

Particularly in emergencies, partners may not know each other well and may not spend a lot of time defining their partnership, and this often results in a lack of respect and trust, which is often evident to communities. As the director of a national faith-based aid agency with international partners in Kenya put it: ‘Partnership is important, and “how” is critical. Donors and partners don’t know each other completely. Because of the needs, partners relate to donors emotionally, not rationally. They have inferior feelings, and then the work has problems and is not realistic. They need new knowledge and understanding of each other. In the ways the partners have to work, they may lose trust with communities’.

Local organisations often feel that there is a lack of respect and appreciation for their knowledge and contributions, and that their ‘partnerships’ are limited since they are rarely involved in decision-making processes with their partners. They want their international partners to recognise and acknowledge that there are complementarities between them and that they can be more than just a delivery mechanism for aid. In effective partnerships, local organisations know the context and culture well, and have experience working with local communities, while their international partners are expected to provide consistent financial and technical support and new ideas and approaches. When partnerships are effective, partners trust one another, are transparent and are accountable to each other as well as to those they serve.

At times, local organisations feel ‘used’ by international NGOs when they are included in proposals in order to comply with donor requirements that ‘local partners’ be involved. In some cases, local organisations have seen international NGOs effectively take over local initiatives. As a leader of a community-based organisation (CBO) in a refugee camp on the Thai–Burma border said: ‘We feel like INGOs come and order us to do things this way or that because they have a lot of power … we don’t see a lot of working together in a meaningful way … We want real partnership. For this we must always have open dialogue and mutual respect. The CBOs should not look like service providers or staff for NGOs. CBOs should have more role and voice for social change’.

Effective partnerships are about more than service delivery

Many leaders of local organisations described the relationships with their international partners – whether bilateral, multilateral, INGOs or foundations – as paternalistic. Many say that their current relationships are more focused on service delivery and are often limited to submitting a proposal, receiving funds and sending periodic written reports. The director of one CBO in Sri Lanka echoed the views of many local partners when he said: ‘When we are ready to present a new project, we can write the proposal really well and present our ideas creatively and receive funding. But during implementation we are not always sure what we are doing, and INGO monitoring processes are weak. We need support, advice and collaboration with our donors. We don’t want them to be just donors, we want colleagues and we want to share ideas and exchange best practices’.

Many local organisations also complain that their international partners have their own agendas and priorities, and that these are often not discussed transparently with their local partners. According to the leader of a local organisation in Mindanao in the Philippines, ‘Donors do a lot of assessments and focus groups, but then when what comes out of these focus groups doesn’t fit their agenda, they simply change it to make it fit. There is no real partnership between international donors and local NGOs’. Another local NGO director there suggested that: ‘Appropriate timing, transparent motives, and a joint strategy are all markers of a good partnership’.

Local organisations feel that their experience and ideas are not always sought by their ‘partners’, who have predetermined the assistance they will provide and often just want to deliver the aid quickly. As a Tamil civil society leader in Sri Lanka said: ‘NGOs are inherently bureaucratic. Top leaders make decisions at the higher level without asking locals. Pre-tsunami local NGOs were very active in the communities. Some INGOs helped mobilise local people. But some consultants and expatriate staff didn’t understand local capacity and treated locals like their servants. The language and cultural gap was wide. NGOs talk with one another in fancy hotels away from the affected people – “white skin mentality”’.

Effective partnering should encourage collaboration

The way funds flow through the aid system can stimulate competition and stifle coordination and innovation. As a Lebanese NGO director said, ‘There is not enough funding for local NGOs, so the international NGOs play the local NGOs against each other – to outbid each other’. A Palestinian NGO director in a refugee camp in Lebanon further explained, ‘I have no freedom to present my own ideas. This is because of the donors who put the local NGOs in competition. Everyone has to get money for the same projects. Some present the same projects to many donors. But the ideas are always the same. It’s what they want and have money for’.

Some local organisations acknowledge their roles in fuelling this competition and suggest that more partnerships among local NGOs are needed. As a leader of a local NGO in Ecuador said, ‘I offer self-criticism of us as NGOs: we must be more creative. We are too isolated – sometimes being only two blocks away from an NGO, we don’t know each other nor cooperate with each other, due to jealousy, fear of competition and our proprietorship style regarding ideas, work areas, etc. The networks of aid providers are an antidote’.                                                                 

Effective international partners monitor and support local partners

Local partners want regular discussions, visits and ongoing support from their international counterparts. As a local NGO staff member in Cambodia put it: ‘We get monitoring visits every six months. We would like to see our donor here more often. But unfortunately when they believe that programs are going well, they just don’t visit as often … We want the donors to come and see the real situation, not just read about it in our reports or other sources. For example, in a report they mention that a field visit/training will take one day, but in reality it takes two days because of bad road conditions. Donors don’t understand, they have never seen the local roads. They demand to know why more time is spent on activities. They would be less demanding if they came and spent more time here’.

Even in emergencies, people expect those who are funding aid efforts to know who they are partnering with and to trust (and verify) that they are providing assistance effectively, as well as efficiently. The balance between trust and control is important when trying to maintain effective partnerships. When international partners arrive for unannounced visits, their local partners may think that they do not trust them. Conversely, local people point out that things can easily be ‘arranged’ when an international agency notifies a local partner or community of its visit beforehand. As several people suggested, ‘trust does not exclude control’, and having effective monitoring systems in place does not have to reflect a lack of confidence or diminish the spirit of partnership.

Regular visits help international aid agencies to better understand the local circumstances and their local partners, and to be more accountable for how their assistance is utilised. Local people say that they usually have no voice in determining which partners international aid agencies work with at the local level, and that they are often confused about which partners are accountable for what. People often asked Listening Teams who controls international and local aid organisations, who supervises them and to whom they are accountable. Partners and partnerships need to be evaluated regularly, and this should be valued as an important element when doing project and performance evaluations.

Effective partners think beyond short-term projects

Even if their partnerships begin during emergencies, partners need to approach their relationships with a longer horizon and more consistency. For many international aid agencies that provide humanitarian as well as development assistance, the partnerships they establish (or build on) during emergencies will affect their relationships with communities for much longer. Even in the midst of an emergency, it is possible to build the capacity of local partners, but often there is little time – and sometimes little funding – to focus on it effectively. As the coordinator of a Lebanese NGO told us: ‘We need strategic, long-term partnerships with donors. The impact doesn’t come overnight … If they want to make a change that lasts, they need to start taking longer breaths’.

Too often in emergencies local partners may be seen as short-term service delivery mechanisms, rather than civil society organisations. A researcher at a think tank in Kosovo pointed out that the emphasis among donors and aid agencies on supporting local partners to implement aid projects there had led to the creation of a ‘project society’, not a civil society. Local people have been critical of international aid agencies for putting too much focus on completing projects without enough attention on building and supporting the capacity of the local partners implementing them.

The president of a prominent national NGO in Thailand summed up the challenges involved in creating and nurturing effective partnerships in emergencies when he said: ‘The role of the “donor” does not have to be a detached funding role. It can be a partnership … Unfortunately, international NGOs don’t build capacity of national NGOs. Even when they work through local partners, the local NGOs simply become a delivery mechanism, not a full partner. Partnership requires building relationships. That takes time. But most international NGOs have donors who demand fast and visible results. There is a disconnect in the way most agencies envision their missions and goals, and the way they implement their projects seeking rapid outcomes.’


Dayna Brown is the Director of The Listening Project at CDA Collaborative Learning Projects in Cambridge, MA, United States.


[1] The Listening Project Issue Paper on International Assistance as a Delivery System discusses this in more detail. See