Issue 45 - Article 15

Collaboration and partnership in humanitarian action

December 16, 2009
Mark R. Janz with Noelle Soi and Rebecca Russell, World Vision International

Over the past 15 years, NGOs have focused much effort on improving collaboration amongst themselves to reduce duplication of effort and wasted resources, promote skilled institutional responses and simplify emergency response. Increasing complexity surrounding humanitarian policy and action, including challenges associated with climate change and the global economic crisis, further emphasise the urgency of collaboration and partnerships for improving the speed, quality and effectiveness of humanitarian response. By identifying factors affecting collaboration and partnership, this article outlines how effective NGO collaboration can enhance humanitarian response.


Humanitarian collaboration and the Principles of Partnership (PoP)

The Inter-Agency Working Group (IWG) was initiated in April 2003, concluding that the IWG could accomplish certain activities better together as a group. One such collaborative initiative is the Emergency Capacity Building Project (ECB), begun in 2005 and implemented through seven IWG agencies: Oxfam-GB, Save the Children-US, World Vision International, Catholic Relief Services, the International Rescue Committee, CARE International and Mercy Corps. Funded by the Gates Foundation, the Microsoft Corporation and most recently by an ECHO project grant, the ECB’s overall aim is to improve the speed, quality and effectiveness of humanitarian response by addressing four capacity gaps identified by the agencies involved: staff capacity; accountability and impact measurement; risk reduction; and information and technology requirements. The ECB has produced and disseminated a range of tools and training exercises to build capacity. In the process, much has been learned about how to achieve effective collaboration and partnership.

The establishment of the IWG and the ECB reflect a move away from competition – with securing individual agency funding as a primary concern – to a focus on collaboration, with the objective of improving collective humanitarian response. As quality of impact becomes more important, so does inter-agency collaboration.

Recognising a need to establish standards and principles, the Global Humanitarian Platform (GHP)[1] developed ‘Principles of Partnership’ (PoP), addressing equality, transparency, a results-oriented approach, responsibility and complementarity. These principles support building effective partnerships, contributing in turn to enhancing the effectiveness of humanitarian action. In July 2007, IWG members agreed to these principles and committed to mainstream PoP within their organisations.

Building on the Principles of Partnership

While the development of the PoP and agencies’ commitment to them represent important achievements, the principles do not address the ‘how’ of effective collaboration and partnership. To address this gap, the 12 Dynamics of Collaboration and Partnerships described here build on the foundation laid by the PoP. These 12 dynamics reflect lessons learned in five years of experience with the IWG and ECB projects.




1. Prioritising trust

Once trust is built amongst collaborating institutions it is much easier to agree on joint action processes, investments and tools.

In ECB and IWG collaboration, although building trust was not initially a recognised goal, once trust between agencies was established it became the most significant factor in timely and effective collaborative humanitarian responses. Subsequently, the IWG and ECB inter-agency experiences led to the publication of Building Trust in Diverse Teams.[2]

2.  Shared vision

Evidence from coordinated efforts and partnerships shows that groups benefit from developing a shared vision for wider influence.[3]

When the IWG constructed terms of reference (TOR), the scope envisioned common priorities having widespread beneficial consequences for other agencies, ‘increased capacity’ being one key initiative. Fruits of this wider vision included lessened workloads and honed skillsets. 

3.  Accepting time and transaction costs

Building partnerships takes time. Results require commitment, patience and persistence.

ECB Phase I experiences reinforced that collaboration, coordination and trust-building take time. To avoid delays and interruptions, and to retain staff, full-time ‘Focal Points’ were identified to build relationships and lead initiatives for Phase II. Institutions do not make partnerships and collaboration work in the early stages – individuals do.

4.  Shared risks and costs

Partnering agencies need to demonstrate financial, staffing and organisational commitment. 

Significant financial risk has been incumbent on individual IWG agencies, notwithstanding the funding the ECB has received. Applying to the Gates Foundation for Phase II required IWG agencies to commit to providing more than $6 million in matching funds over five years. Another inter-agency joint initiative in Zimbabwe reported streamlined costs ‘as a result of needing only one contracting partner, harmonised financial and procurement rules and unified reporting’.[4] 

5. Deciding when to form partnerships

Not all circumstances call for coordination and partnership initiatives.

It is neither necessary nor desirable to insist on collaboration for its own sake. Engagement requires incentives to collaborate, parties that are equitably committed and motivated and agreement on desired outcomes. In the IWG experience, if some or all of the above factors are not considered, successful collaboration and partnership may be unlikely.

6. Ground rules for engagement

A documented TOR ensures that all parties understand the purpose and structure of engagement.

The IWG and ECB found it vital to express agreements in writing so that participants could inform their respective organisations and to clarify external organisations’ participation. If organisational or inter-personal conflicts arise, these basic agreements can facilitate resolution.

7. Prioritising best leadership

Real partnership requires putting the best leadership forward on the basis of adequate capacity.

The ECB project is managed by CARE, the agency with most familiarity with the funder, the Gates Foundation. Likewise, World Vision was selected, based on organisational history and staff capacity, to lead and manage linkages with IWG agencies for the expanded Ambiguity and Change MK II[5] research to which IWG members are contributing.

8. Fertile ground for growth

Partnership done well promotes innovation and growth.

IWG collaboration became fully productive only after trust and consensus had been built and leadership was engaged at points of strength. Having a number of well-known and widely respected agencies collaborate enhances product credibility, and widens dissemination throughout the humanitarian community. One example is The Good Enough Guide, which in June 2008 became one of Oxfam Publishing’s best-sellers.[6]

9. Equality of members and balance of power

The size or influence of agencies ought not to affect equity in shared leadership and decision-making; equality is key if members are to remain willing to invest their best.

Both the IWG and ECB adopted a team perspective that the size or influence of a particular IWG agency would not weigh its input into decision-making. All IWG decisions are consensus-driven, and initiatives are forwarded to the agency best equipped to manage them.

10.  Benefits for all

Investments will grow if partners can see clear incentives and outcomes valuable to their agency.

Continuing engagement by IWG and ECB agencies is evidence that members see benefits accruing to their respective institutions. These benefits include sharing staff, funding for emergencies, operational information and access and jointly addressing areas of common concern, such as standards, accountability and good humanitarian donorship. Products are attributed to the ECB, not to individual agencies, and a spirit of ‘ours not mine’ has prevailed.

11. Results-oriented action approach

Success is built when skilled implementers link conceptual tools with global field realities in pursuit of measurable goals.

The ECB has developed more than 20 products[7] in the past three years. A prime example is The Good Enough Guide, which is being used extensively in Indonesia, East Africa, Zimbabwe and West Africa by IWG members as well as other NGOs. The Guide was used to develop a beneficiary complaint system in Indonesia during the Yogyakarta.

12.  Perpetuating a Learning Culture

Successful partnerships and collaboration encourage a learning culture.

The IWG has agreed to carry out inter-agency emergency learning events. The ECB has produced 12 research products in the past three years to promote good and promising practice. Collaborating agencies enhance one another’s evidence-based learning by sharing tools and resources. The ECB project went even further, establishing standing teams for joint evaluations and learning around emergency responses.[8]


In reflecting on the PoP and the 12 Dynamics of Collaboration and Partnership, it is clear that building successful collaborative partnerships between multiple humanitarian agencies takes time, hard work and a shared commitment of resources.

Although collaborative efforts are time-intensive and have higher up-front costs, greater return-on-investment results as collaboration unleashes catalytic processes within and between agencies. Increasing creativity, innovation and mobilisation of an important multiplier effect lead towards positive humanitarian outcomes, as in The Good Enough Guide, ECB’s Trust Tool or World Vision Ethiopia’s utilisation of ECB links in disaster risk reduction. Given an increasingly complex and challenging global environment, the humanitarian community must find ways of working that enhance the quality, speed and effectiveness of response.

When collaboration and partnership thrive, humanitarian action and response everywhere benefits, as new learning accumulates, new tools are developed and mainstreamed, operations link more donors, governments and factions with their varied experiences and perspectives, accountability increases and better practices are disseminated, to more effectively meet human needs with dignity.


Mark R. Janz is Director of Humanitarian Planning, World Vision International. Noelle Soi is contributing editor and Rebecca Russell is senior editor at World Vision International.

[1] The GHP was established in 2006 by 40 leaders of the UN, humanitarian organisations, NGOs, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the World Bank.

[2] Building Trust in Diverse Teams: The Toolkit for Emergency Response (Oxford: Oxfam International, 2007).

[3] Accenture Development Partnerships, The Partnering Initiative and World Vision, Emerging Opportunities for NGO–Business Partnerships (Monrovia, CA: World Vision, 2008), p. 30.

[4] Lovemore M. Zinyama, Final Evaluation of the NGO Joint Initiative for Urban Zimbabwe Community Based Support for Vulnerable Populations, Frontiers Consultancy Services Ltd, 2008, p. 24.

[5] Ambiguity & Change MK II 2008–2010, now Humanitarian Horizons, is a study to better understand future projections for humanitarian hazardscapes and how humanitarian agencies can be better equipped to anticipate, adapt and respond to potential outcomes amongst marginalised populations.

[6] The Good Enough Guide: Impact Measurement and Accountability in Emergencies (Oxford: BEBC Distribution, 2007).

[7] In addition to the Good Enough Guide, other products include Building Trust in Diverse Teams: The Toolkit for Emergency Response (Oxford: Oxfam International, 2007); and Leaving Disasters Behind: A Practical Guide on Disaster Risk Reduction (available in downloadable chapters at, October 2007). Other resources can be found at

[8] In Yogyakarta, outputs of joint evaluations included sharing of joint databases and an inventory of prepositioned non-food items for emergencies, along with the development and maintenance of disaster preparedness plans and engagement with local government and emergency responders. Other joint evaluations have looked at the response to Tropical Storm Stan and the Indian Ocean tsunami.


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