Issue 50 - Article 8

Making local partnerships work for disaster risk reduction

May 9, 2011
John Twigg and Helen Bottomley

Partnerships are said to be essential for successful disaster risk reduction (DRR), but basic questions about what makes them work are rarely asked. The rationale for multi-stakeholder partnerships in DRR is clear and compelling: DRR is a systematic approach to identifying, assessing and reducing the risks of disaster. It aims to reduce socio-economic vulnerabilities to disasters as well as dealing with the environmental and other hazards that trigger them. DRR thinking sees disasters as complex problems demanding a collective response from different disciplinary and institutional groups – in other words, partnerships. 

No single group or organisation can address every aspect of such a wide-ranging and complex way of dealing with disasters. The level of a community’s resilience to disasters is influenced by external capacities, in particular by emergency management services but also by other social and administrative services, public infrastructure and a host of socio-economic and political linkages with the wider world. Partnership approaches are also important in integrating DRR with other issues and sectors, particularly with national and local government, sustainable development, climate change adaptation and humanitarian response.

Whilst the need for multi-stakeholder cooperation in DRR is generally acknowledged, it is not discussed much in the literature on DRR practice, which rarely undertakes a critical examination of the nature and effectiveness of partnerships or the issues involved in partnership building. There is little guidance available on how to create effective DRR partnerships, or the challenges involved in attempting to do so. Much of the guidance assumes that partnership-building is a straightforward technical business, or even overlooks it altogether. Writing on local- and community-level initiatives tends to focus on internal community factors or external social, economic and institutional threats, suggesting that the relationship between the community and outside actors is at worst adversarial, at best focused on advocacy for assistance or policy reform.[1]

Inter-Agency Group learning review

This article presents lessons about partnerships from a recently completed project for the DRR NGO Inter-Agency Group (comprising ActionAid, Christian Aid, Plan, Practical Action and Tearfund), based on DRR work funded by DFID. This was a ‘learning review’: a peer review exercise to identify common lessons in practice and policy, particularly to do with the implementation of DRR initiatives or moving towards resilience at local and community levels.[2]

One of the main underlying themes of the programmes undertaken by the Inter-Agency Group – arguably the main underlying theme – is that appropriate processes and relationships are fundamental to DRR. Essentially, this involves a shift in the location of capacities and influence, in which vulnerable communities assess and understand their circumstances more completely, engage in project design and implementation with other local stakeholders on a more equal footing, and gain a much stronger voice in dialogues with higher levels of authority and power.

Inclusive partnerships

In DRR the emphasis is on working with those who are most vulnerable to shocks and stresses. Identifying and including the most vulnerable might seem relatively straightforward, but even vulnerable communities may contain their own marginalised groups. Identifying such groups and ensuring their engagement in local partnerships are not simple one-off actions: they have to be applied systematically throughout a project. This also requires operational agencies to investigate community structures and local power relationships so that they can build in safeguards against marginalisation.

Entry points and mobilising communities

Finding an appropriate programmatic entry point is crucial in creating viable partnerships. Sustainable livelihoods approaches, for instance, are valuable in creating or strengthening the social organisations and capital on which partnerships can be built, because they are based on everyday needs and activities. Focusing on a specific group or institution in society can also have a multiplier, partnership-building effect. For example, working with young people opens up the possibility of broader community outreach in communicating DRR information, through a range of pathways, both formal (e.g. local leaders and committees) and informal (e.g. family, friends, neighbours). Similarly, schools are important hubs of contacts and linkages with other official institutions, as well as delivering education. They are public institutions found nearly everywhere, located at the core of the community, respected and valued.

All the agencies involved in the learning review found that benefits of a less tangible nature (e.g. rights awareness, active citizenship) are valuable building-blocks for partnerships because they help to make communities more resilient and powerful. Benefits acknowledged by communities or the organisations working with them included new ways of thinking (better ways to assess their situation and future options); more community cohesion, new linkages and alliances (capacity to link within and between communities for common action); fuller citizenship (awareness of rights, laws and local governance mechanisms); and greater voice and access (capacity to express and advance issues and to lobby institutions).

Working together to understand vulnerability and risk

One of the main conclusions of the 2009 Views from the Frontline study, which was based on research in 48 countries, was that participatory risk/vulnerability assessments at the local level constituted ‘a strategic entry point to building resilience’.[3]  This is because such assessments not only improve knowledge and hence inform disaster preparedness, but also increase collective awareness, raise social demand and open up space for dialogue and relationship-building between different actors in DRR.

Vulnerability and capacity assessment (VCA) has become standard practice in many DRR programmes, particularly those run by NGOs. Participatory VCA is commonly seen as an entry point for DRR interventions, usually at an early stage in the project cycle. However, it now appears that participatory VCA may be the key entry point, perhaps even the catalyst for successful community-based DRR. It delivers an understanding of the situation that is shared by the participants – one project review referred to ‘the positive energy unleashed from participants’ – and provides a setting in which to build a culture of prevention owned by everyone. 

Exciting though all of this is, an important caveat is needed: the process, outcomes and impact of VCA are easily affected by existing power relationships in a community. NGOs often assume a degree of independence from local power structures, whereas local elites are well aware of how they can gain from association with NGOs. To regulate participation and ensure complete and accurate information during a VCA, NGOs have to make selective decisions about which local stakeholders to work with and engage. However, conventional VCA methodology may not equip them to analyse the implications of their decisions on local power relations.

Leadership and facilitation

In his influential work on community-based DRR, published over 20 years ago, Andrew Maskrey argued that ‘the central resource available for mitigation on any scale is people themselves and only through community based mitigation can that resource be fully utilised’.[4] This is echoed by the experiences of the Inter-Agency Group.

NGOs that work with communities have to tread a delicate path, providing financial, material, technical and organisational support where required, while also ensuring that they act as guides, facilitators and partnership brokers, supporting community empowerment and mobilisation but not directing these processes. Yet partnership creation requires leadership too. At local level this often has to be provided by the NGO, a position many find uncomfortable because it appears incompatible with the role of facilitator and guide. 

The role of key individuals as leaders within organisations, communities, projects and partnerships remains unclear in the context of DRR. Informally, they are acknowledged as playing a significant part, but this issue is not normally explored in project evaluations. The influence of well-placed individuals has been identified in earlier work on NGOs and natural disaster mitigation and preparedness.[5] There may also be value in applying the concept of ‘policy entrepreneurs’ (key individuals who drive change in their organisations and the public arena) to DRR. However, in general the interplay between personal and institutional influences in this sector is not well understood and deserves further research. Linked to this is the widely recognised but unresolved problem of relatively high levels of staff turnover in the NGO sector, partly due to the dependence on fixed-term project or programme funding, which results in weaknesses in institutional memory and learning. 

Entering the advocacy arena

The governance context, sometimes referred to as the enabling environment, exerts great influence on the ability of communities, their organisations and supporting NGOs to deliver effective risk reduction programmes. Understanding this context – and the opportunities and constraints it creates – is critical for creating and sustaining effective partnerships.

In addressing governance issues, NGO DRR programmes typically involve advocating for decentralised and participatory decision-making; strengthening links between local, district and national levels; promoting integrated approaches to livelihoods, disasters and climate change; and lobbying for underlying systemic issues to be addressed. All of this is fundamental to scaling up the impact of local interventions and reducing risk long term, but it requires NGOs to enter a more political environment. The impact of advocacy efforts on decision-making and resource allocation is highly dependent on political context, and the strengths of advocacy partners. 

Opportunities for opening up the ‘political’ space for negotiation, accountability and empowerment vary widely according to particular institutional systems, structures and attitudes. Nevertheless, local agencies and their supporters often have potential power and can have a strong positive influence on government and national institutions.  Building on existing advocacy capacities is vital, but it is important that international agencies with lobbying experience do not overestimate the capacities of their national and local partners, who may not have dedicated policy staff and may find it difficult to gain senior management support.

However, it was clear from the learning review that, even where such expertise is lacking, there may be considerable latent capacities that can be developed. The very fact of organising in groups and mobilising communities for action – the  ‘software’ dimension of DRR projects – gives people voice and strength, which makes enhancing community organisation an essential element of DRR. Civil society organisations can support this and help to form collaborative platforms or networks of stakeholders, facilitating the flow of ideas, information, skills and technologies.


Partnerships, which can take a very wide variety of forms, organisational and individual, are fundamental to DRR and were central to the successes of the Inter-Agency Group’s DRR programmes, although they can be difficult to develop and manage in practice. There is the potential to create extensive and complex webs of relationships between all kinds of local stakeholders, and the influence that results can be very powerful as an agent of change. It is essential that operational agencies, as well as those who fund them, support the creation and maintenance of effective partnerships of this kind to ensure that DRR can be genuinely ‘mainstreamed’ into development and humanitarian work.


John Twigg is a Senior Research Associate at University College London. Helen Bottomley is an  independent researcher.

[1] J. Twigg, Identifying Partnership Needs and Opportunities, Disaster Studies Working Paper 18 (London: Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, 2009),

[2] J. Twigg and H. Bottomley, Disaster Risk Reduction NGO Inter-Agency Group Learning Review (London: Inter-Agency Group, 2010), available on the Eldis ‘Disaster Risk Reduction and Building Resilience’ community pages ( or from

[3] For more on the Views from the Frontline study see following article.

[4] A. Maskrey, Disaster Mitigation: A Community Based Approach (Oxford: Oxfam, 1989), p. 90.

[5] J. Twigg and D. Steiner, ‘Mainstreaming Disaster Mitigation: Challenges to Organisational learning in NGOs’. Development in Practice, 12(3&4), 2002.


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