Partnerships in Crisis: Collaboration Between International and Local Organisations in Disrupted Societies
by Graduate research team, Princeton University, USA December 2012

Most international NGOs (INGOs) delivering humanitarian assistance in disrupted societies have yet to design and implement concrete programmes that encourage substantive partnerships with local organisations, despite a broad and sincere effort to make such cooperation a centrepiece of relief and development. Enduring collaboration and capacity building depend on INGOs taking initiative and spending money on partnerships in politically charged environments, advocacy with donors and host governments, and serious institutional investment in local organisations.

A Princeton University graduate research team visited five countries (Bosnia, Mozambique, Pakistan, Palestine, and Sudan) and interviewed more than 100 local and INGOs in November 1999 to assess the cooperative ventures between the two in politically disrupted environments. The study focused on four central themes – political pressures, capacity building, funding, and coordination – and studied the partnership models that have emerged to translate rhetoric into reality.

The study was interpretive rather than quantitative, and centred around an interview guide. Several findings emerged that might help guide INGOs and donors searching for sustainable and efficient approaches to partnership. Below are some of the more interesting conclusions that have not been widely covered in the existing empirical and theoretical literature on partnerships.


  • INGOs should consider advocacy with donors, home governments, and host authorities an integral part of their mission. They should lobby for more realistic funding practices; often political and donor restrictions limit the timeframe of partnerships or the amount of power allowed local groups. INGOs should push donors to lift or mitigate such limiting regulations.
  • Institutional memory and training among international NGO representatives responsible for partnerships and capacity building are inadequate. INGOs should increase the funding allotment for pre-disaster training, devote fieldstaff time to the crucial task of keeping complete records on local NGOs, and maintain consistent relationships over time with the local NGO community that remains in a disaster zone long after international funding and presence dries up.
  • Vital contributions of local organisations are not always recognised so that the party contributing the most funds – usually the international partner – holds the balance of power. Institutional assessment should assign value to and attempt to measure the intangibles brought to programming by local organisations including political savvy, local knowledge, and constituent credibility. Such a matrix will shift the balance of power in local international partnerships and make explicit the resources brought to bear by local NGOs.
  • International organisations should experiment with a broader range of partnership models. Some worthwhile approaches include spinning off country offices into national affiliates; building a national network and turning it over to national staff; funding a small number of local NGOs over a long period of time until they become capable of taking over the INGO’s programming; and fostering networks among local NGOs independent of international presence.
  • Funding restrictions often prevent local NGOs from developing the exact kinds of capacity donors claim to desire. For example, local partners usually cannot spend international funds on salaries, capital investment, or training, preventing local groups from developing their staff, acquiring physical capital, and paying competitive salaries so their local staff does not flee to work for high-paying INGOs. Brain drain and faltering capacity were cited by local groups as the biggest problems they faced. Training programmes funded by INGOs mostly prioritised reporting and accounting, to the exclusion of other crucial management and programming skills.
  • Political tensions in disrupted states usually dominate the local landscape. Given the special nature of political pressure on local NGOs, INGOs should permit local partners to consider approaches to neutrality and solidarity that differ from those of the international partner.
  • Finally, until international groups put substantial funding and long term institutional investment into local partners, cooperative programming will tend to follow a contractor pattern.

Funding practices and the local political climate determine the effectiveness of partnerships more than any other factor. Most INGOs that count partnership as a central element of their operational strategy do not dedicate fulltime staff to assessing the quality of local NGOs and setting guidelines for partner selection. Furthermore, most have not institutionalised any methodology for choosing and evaluating partners, and do not share such knowledge across country offices.

The report’s full text can be found on the internet at <>