Issue 50 - Article 17

Humanitarian partnerships: what do they really mean?

May 9, 2011
Anne Street, CAFOD

What do we mean by partnership in humanitarian action, and what does partnership look like in practice? Effective humanitarian partnerships are about more than mechanistic relationships where actors come together to achieve a set of common objectives, dividing up responsibilities and planning joint work. They also involve underlying issues of power, attitudes and styles of working. Many of the largest international NGO providers of humanitarian relief work primarily as direct implementers, or adopt a mixed approach, employing their own staff to set up and run projects as well as supporting local partners. By contrast CAFOD, as part of Caritas International, works almost entirely through local actors, with more than 500 partner organisations across the world. We recognise the power dynamics that often reinforce the position of Northern agencies, and seek to acknowledge these influences and to reduce their effects. This involves considering how partnerships can be empowering, and what things Southern partners can contribute.

Humanitarian reform

Between the end of 2008 and 2010 CAFOD was part of the NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project, along with six other INGOs (ActionAid, CARE, International Rescue Committee, Oxfam and Save the Children) and the NGO coalition ICVA.[1] The project aimed to strengthen the engagement of local, national and international humanitarian NGOs in the humanitarian reform process at global and country levels, as well as increasing NGO influence in policy debates and field processes.

The project published a Synthesis Report in late 2009, based on five country studies of NGO engagement in reformed humanitarian mechanisms. The report noted that the initial focus of the reform process on the international community had been to the detriment of national and local actors. A stark example of this came in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in September 2009, when 49 representatives of Congolese NGOs, civil society organisations and the Red Cross/Red Crescent wrote an open letter to UN agencies and INGOs criticizing them for failing to coordinate with or support civil society organisations in Dungu. The letter noted that, with few exceptions, internationals were brought in to staff virtually all posts with the exception of menial jobs, and that promised capacity-building for Congolese organisations had not taken place.

Similar tensions exist in relation to access to humanitarian funding where INGOs are themselves implementing partners for UN agencies. For example, Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) money can only be disbursed via UN agencies and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), although NGOs implement a significant percentage of CERF-funded projects. Funding constraints often mean that national NGOs lack the financial means to deliver humanitarian assistance, despite the fact that they are well positioned to do so in terms of their geographical location and knowledge of local community structures.

Two examples: Haiti and Afghanistan

After the earthquake in Haiti national actors found themselves sidelined by international actors. Whilst some international NGOs sought to build on experience of working with national actors during the 2004 and 2008 floods in Gonaives, the international response frequently relegated national NGOs to the role of implementing partners, effectively excluding them from the clusters and other coordination mechanisms. This was summed up in both the Haiti Real Time Evaluation and the IASC’s six-month report, which noted that ‘the international community needs to strengthen its engagement at the local level, particularly supporting local level initiatives and responders wherever possible with the broader objective of contributing to building national capacity and more sustainable approaches to humanitarian assistance’.[2]

The NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project found surprisingly high levels of participation in clusters and other field coordination mechanisms among national NGOs in Afghanistan, although it would often be more accurate to describe this as attendance rather than participation. Despite the humanitarian community’s best efforts to encourage the involvement of national NGOs, project staff found that in reality there was only limited interest in coordination, strategy formulation and policy elaboration. Most national NGOs prioritised access to funding.

Funding issues

The sidelining of national actors in humanitarian coordination mechanisms is reflected in access to funding: national NGOs, or their coordination representatives, rarely participate in the Humanitarian Country Teams, provincial committees, inter-cluster meetings or other fora where funding allocations and priorities are discussed. 

National NGO access to pooled funds varies considerably from country to country. In DRC national NGOs received 23% of the first allocation of the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) in 2010, up from 3.95% in 2006 and 15% in 2009. By contrast the OCHA-administered Emergency Relief and Recovery Fund (ERRF) in Haiti, which distributes unearmarked funds to NGOs and UN agencies, distributed just under $63 million between February and July. Twentysix international NGO proposals were funded during that period, but only two national NGO projects were approved.[3]  On the other hand, although in some countries more national NGO projects are now successfully applying for pooled funds the size of grants they receive is much smaller than those awarded to international NGOs.

National NGOs providing humanitarian relief often do not have the reach or capacity of their international counterparts, with the result that there is sometimes a perception amongst pooled fund managers or their advisory boards that they are not capable of successfully implementing projects with pooled funds. Yet there is no provision within the pooled funds for capacity-building for national actors, despite international NGO advocacy. In the case of DRC, the Pooled Fund Unit and most pooled fund donors have not been receptive to calls to make capacity-building part of the fund’s remit. This task is typically left to international actors, for example the work CAFOD has undertaken to support its national partner Caritas Goma to gain accreditation, to enable it to apply for HRF funding in DRC.

Country-level emergency response funds typically have limited numbers of staff, so processing a small number of large project applications is much more realistic than dealing with numerous smaller applications, particularly in relation to monitoring and evaluation. One way to address this would be to ease the burden on pooled fund managers by involving UN agencies and INGO partners in monitoring and evaluation.

street fig 1The role of the UN

UN agencies often find it easier to partner with international NGOs than national ones. Nevertheless, UNHCR works with a large number of national NGOs. Globally UNHCR worked with around 3,000 implementing partners in the period 2005–2007, the majority of which are national organisations (almost 700 globally in 2009, with $288 million passed through national organisations that year). UNHCR intends to introduce simpler financial and administrative procedures in order to place less of a burden on national and local actors.

The theme of the 2010 Annual UNHCR–NGO Consultations was National Partnerships; of the 209 participating organisations, 98 were national organisations. A paper for the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme in September 2010 noted that ‘UNHCR will need to encourage all forms of partnership, notably with national and local entities’. The paper went on to state that ‘It is often at the local level that problems are most acutely felt and solutions must be found. Local partners are frequently better placed to design, developand implement programmes specifically adapted to theneeds of the populations being cared for’.[5] Although theagency has some way to go before it reaches its statedgoal, these are all important steps.

Donor roles

Donors too have a role to play in strengthening humanitarian partnerships. Thirty-seven donors have now signed up to the Principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship (first adopted in 2003). Principle 8 commits signatories to: 

Strengthen the capacity of affected countries and local communities to prevent, prepare for, mitigate and respond to humanitarian crises, with the goal of ensuring that governments and local communities are better able to meet their responsibilities and coordinate effectively with humanitarian partners.[6]

The 2010–2011 workplan for GHD has a work stream on strengthened partnerships between donors, NGOs, the Red Cross and the UN, including further exchanges on the application of the Principles of Partnership (see pp. 5–8). However, unlike many of the other planned workstreams, this priority area does not identify which GHD members will be involved, nor does it set dates by which this work should be completed. The challenges involved in making progress in this area may well be reflected in this note, which is still on the GHD website six months into the workplan, to the effect that ‘no detailed discussion has yet taken place on future engagement of donors in encouraging the implementation of the Principles of Partnership between UN and non-UN partners’.[7]

Humanitarian donors channel funding through UN agencies, which then work with national government to help strengthen their capacities. This is important, and helps national governments to meet their responsibilities to their people in times of disaster. Nevertheless, donors’ focus on state-level capacity should not be to the detriment of a complementary focus on developing the capacities of national civil society. Some bilateral donors are reluctant to work directly with national NGOs or support national humanitarian coordination networks, preferring to fund their own NGOs. Others, such as DFID, have made an important contribution, funding international NGO humanitarian coordination initiatives as well as nationally based networks. These innovative approaches should be complemented with similar support to national non-governmental actors to staff and run humanitarian coordination networks and develop organisational and staff capacities. The active and committed support of donors is vital if national actors are to receive the recognition they deserve for their de facto role as providers of first resort in sudden-onset emergencies. The independent Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) of DFID’s humanitarian work published at the end of March 2011 noted that, if donors made participation by national actors and local groups a prerequisite for cluster funding in each emergency, the marginalisation of national actors from these humanitarian response mechanisms could be rectified.[8]


If the humanitarian community is to truly put partnership into practice international NGOs will need to focus less on the direct implementation of emergency response projects, and prioritise developing partnerships with local actors who can respond to the needs of crisis-affected people. These local organisations are increasingly being recognised as responders of first resort, although there is a long way to go before effective partnerships are in place on the ground, particularly after the initial response stage. Such partnerships should not be project-based, but rather should encompass aspects such as preparedness and contingency planning and developing knowledge and capacity for humanitarian response, ensuring that local partners are familiar with relevant codes of conduct and humanitarian standards and issues such as accountability and protection, as well as supporting local organisations to access funding.

What are the implications of this for INGOs? Such a scenario would mean a major shift for some big implementing agencies. Are they prepared to take more of a back seat and support national actors, to work in tandem with local actors or even relinquish their role as direct implementers? Currently this would be a long stretch for many INGOs, which have built up considerable experience and expertise in humanitarian response, and whose humanitarian capability enables them to attract increased contributions, enhancing organisational profile and reputation.

 Last year the NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project produced a series of indicators that NGOs could use to monitor their progress in applying the Principles of Partnership. These included staff training, use of the POP as a framework within which to report on programme activities and monitor relationships with other humanitarian actors and the role that leadership within the organisation plays in enhancing a partnership approach.[9] On a practical level, the POP should be integrated into job descriptions (including personal specifications and competencies), recruitment interviews and staff appraisals, and should be written into organisational standards, manuals and procedures. Clearly, for many international NGOs there would also need to be big shifts in organisational culture, as well as changes in procedures and practices, embedding the Principles of Partnership into organisational culture and practice, and ensuring that humanitarian staff are familiar with them and with the values embodied in them, and that new staff receive appropriate orientation: in short, putting partnership at the centre of organisational practice and culture.


Anne Street is Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor at CAFOD. Until August 2010 she was Project Manager for the NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project.



[3]See Filename/ SNAA-85EBAC-full_report.pdf/$File/full_report.pdf

[4] This section is taken from the end of project report on project activities in Ethiopia by Dan Tyler, (unpublished) NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project’s Humanitarian Reform Officer in Ethiopia. October 2010.

[5]See html?docid=4c99bad49&query=humanitarian%20partnerships

[6] See

[7] See Workplans/GHD_Workplan_2010_-_2011.sflb.ashx

[8] See

[9] See


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