Issue 50 - Article 15

Partnerships in rapid-onset emergencies: insights from Pakistan and Haiti

May 9, 2011
Ruth Allen, Mercy Corps

Is it possible to take a partnership approach in rapid-onset emergencies? Coordination is often chaotic, communication is challenging and resources are limited – all factors that can work against effective collaboration among partners, whether local or international. At the same time, partnerships create the opportunity to combine resources and skills to achieve more than a single organisation can achieve alone. They also strengthen local organisations’ leadership capacity.

This article discusses partnership considerations in rapid-onset emergencies and highlights some of the principles of partnership that merit attention in these environments. It then looks at two types of context: those where an international organisation was operational before an emergency event, and those where such groups are responding for the first time. The article draws on Mercy Corps’ experience, with specific insights from Pakistan and Haiti.  

Partnering in rapid-onset emergencies

Rapid-onset emergencies affect existing relationships between international NGOs and local partners, and new relationships are created. Managing partnerships well during these crises is, first and foremost, important for meeting the needs of affected populations. It is also critical in order to support local partners’ capacity and long-term interests, meet INGOs’ relief goals and lay a foundation for a responsible transition to recovery and development.     

In contexts where INGOs are present in the area before the emergency hits, it is easier to make the transition to working with partners. The examples from Pakistan discuss some of the approaches taken and lessons learned. Too often, though, INGOs put existing partnerships on hold as they organise new, separate relief efforts and shift to coordination with other international actors. Local partners say that this is confusing and feels dismissive because it is regularly done without consultation or sufficient explanation. It also puts them in a precarious position, not knowing the future of their relationship with their international partner at a particularly uncertain time in their country. Thus INGOs compromise the partnership principles of equality and transparency, and the mutual respect and commitment to sharing information between partners irrespective of their size and power.

In such situations, INGOs should reflect carefully on their motivations for making partnership changes, asking themselves whether it is for practical reasons such as insufficient joint planning about how the relationship will change in the event of an unexpected crisis, lack of capacity or mandate of the local partner, or whether it is for self-promotion. The need for visibility, a real tension given the nature of private and government funding sources in emergencies, is no less important for local partners than INGOs. Here there is a need to respect complementarity as a principle of partnership; building on comparative advantage has value beyond what organisations might be able to take credit for separately. Given many local partners’ long-term interests in taking full leadership for local development, visibility needs and planning should be part of capacity-building approaches well before emergencies.

A commitment to learning from and with partners is extremely important during emergency response. Because learning is often thought of as something done at the end of a programme or when there is time to reflect, it is rarely at the forefront of planning during rapid-onset programming. However, learning is one of the most consistent expectations of local partners, in emergencies and otherwise. Particularly with new partners and those that require significant capacity support, or when working among sensitive groups, such as in conflict situations, creating a culture of continuous, intentional learning is a basic part of a ‘do no harm’ approach. Establishing an expectation among partners that coordination will be results-oriented instead of purely operational is a first step. It is equally important for INGOs to get feedback from partners about their own performance. Regular and frequent feedback can help keep programmes on track or enable quick realignment, identify new opportunities and keep INGOs accountable to partners and beneficiaries. Mechanisms for beneficiary feedback to INGOs can either be direct or through local partners depending on time and capacity constraints, as well as the goals for which the feedback is being solicited. While there is no one formula for learning with partners in rapid-onset emergencies, many proven approaches are described in Confronting War: Critical Lessons for Peace Practitioners[1] and The Good Enough Guide: Impact Measurement and Accountability in Emergencies.[2]

Pakistan: leveraging existing partnerships

Mercy Corps began work in Pakistan in 1986, responding to the Afghan refugee crisis in Balochistan province. Since then, long-term development activities with diverse government and civil society partners have often been interrupted by emergencies. In late July 2010, the worst monsoon-related floods in living memory hit the country, creating urgent needs for health care, clean water and sanitation. Existing partners were well placed to take on new roles. In the Swat Valley Mercy Corps’ established partnership agreements, including joint management structures, facilitated the quick creation of new MOUs responsive to the changed environment. With coordination support from Mercy Corps, the Department of Health was able to bring in trained staff and medication for health facilities in flood-affected areas.

In Sindh and Balochistan provinces, civil society partners switched from organising health fairs that provide communities with access to nutrition information and products to conducting water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives in displacement camps and establishing mobile health units. National and international staff agreed that this speedy transition would not have been possible without a large core group of programme staff with expertise in community mobilisation and experience working effectively with local partners. For example, staff were able to identify the new skills that partners would need for WASH projects, such as procurement and teaching about hand washing, as well as the mobilisation skills partners were familiar with in order to design training that built on partners’ existing knowledge base. This accelerated learning and increased their confidence in taking on new activities.

Another important lesson for partnering relates to securing resources in rapid-onset emergencies. Designing programmes and negotiating funding is one of the most time-consuming aspects of humanitarian response and something that local partners are often less well-equipped to manage because they have less experience with funding mechanisms and often do not have prior relationships with donors. By enabling local partners to fully lead programme implementation, INGOs can create opportunities for local partners to gain first-hand experience of financial management in emergency programmes, including accountability, operational planning and budgeting.

Mercy Corps took this approach with the well-established Pakistani NGO Balochistan Rural Support Program, as well as with smaller NGOs such as the Association for Community Development. These groups worked with Mercy Corps, but also collaborated directly with each other on health initiatives, were responsible for significant parts of grant management and were primary decision-makers on nearly all activities. This afforded them the chance to learn by doing, with an INGO to advise or support them when requested. It also put them in direct contact with government bodies and communities – experience useful for their longer-term local leadership of relief and development efforts.

Team members closely involved in planning Mercy Corps’ response to the Pakistan floods also underscored the importance of establishing national, provincial and district-level partners. The DoH example above had the added value of modelling successful partnerships with INGOs and local civil society organisations (CSOs) to other government bodies, including local health departments. One result has been that government partners at local level have worked with provincial officials, local CSOs and Mercy Corps to develop a joint disaster risk reduction programme, drawing on the different strengths of the various actors involved.

Finally, INGOs are often part of the cluster system and can influence whether and how national partners are involved. In Pakistan, the direct participation of national and regional NGOs in the WASH cluster was a significant success. It provided local information to support rapid decision-making, and helped INGOs and local groups find potential partners. Being involved in the cluster process also gave CSOs their first significant experience of working with multilateral decision-making processes.

Haiti: forging new partnerships

Half a world away, the Haiti earthquake of January 2010 offers a different set of lessons about partnership. With so many INGO actors on the ground, it was much harder to establish partnerships while also trying to gain registration, set up an office and hire staff, not to mention respond to the urgent needs of vulnerable groups and build relationships with so many INGO actors on the ground. 

In the weeks immediately following the earthquake, Mercy Corps and many INGOs collaborated with informal community-based groups that emerged out of the crisis, such as IDP camp committees. Since these groups were newly formed themselves, they found it easier to work with INGOs that were also newly operational in Haiti than did other local groups active before the earthquake. For Mercy Corps, the goal with IDP committees and other temporary groups has been to help them act as a point of contact for coordination with the UN, INGOs and the government on relief programming such as cash-for-work, but not to incentivise further formalisation, which might work against the reintegration goals of communities themselves. 

Local government partners have also been essential for INGOs, in part because of the damage the earthquake inflicted on the central government. Because of massive displacement from Port-au-Prince, mayors of surrounding communities and mairies (neighbourhood mayors) became key relief/recovery decision-makers. In towns like Tabarre, mayors partnered with INGOs to identify the most vulnerable families and jointly operate and monitor aid distributions from public facilities. Unlike in Pakistan, formal MOUs were not established, but communities still commented that seeing government leadership working with INGOs on public services helped restore their confidence in local officials.  A further step INGOs are starting to take is facilitating direct collaboration between local government partners and informal groups like the camp committees discussed above, to accelerate returns and prioritise services.

Another lesson for INGOs responding in a new country is the importance of rapid actor mapping to inform partnerships. For example, a small number of prominent Haitian NGOs quickly became overwhelmed by the number of partnership requests from INGOs and were given funds far beyond their capacity to manage. Yet there were hundreds of other NGOs and CBOs capable of playing important roles. Actor mapping can help less-established INGOs find a programming niche that fits with their expertise. Mercy Corps, for instance, tapped into this potential to help address the psychosocial needs of Haitian children. Over 120 organisations, including churches, schools and youth groups, have been trained in the Comfort for Kids curriculum.[3]

New contexts also offer opportunities to test new types of partnerships. Aware of the massive development challenges facing Haiti before the earthquake, Mercy Corps’ early goal was to shift from relief and recovery programming to initiatives specifically aimed at addressing poverty. Not having an existing portfolio of programmes gave the organisation the flexibility to design programmes and create partnerships that took both the pre- and post-earthquake context into account. One example is the partnership between Haiti’s second-largest mobile phone operator, Voilà, and Unibank, a leading Haitian bank. The concept is a mobile phone account – or ‘mobile wallet’ – that can store savings and work like a debit card. In a country where few people have bank accounts but 85% have access to a mobile phone, the potential for mobile banking is huge. Mercy Corps added value to this and other innovation partnerships by sharing with local partners its experiences from other emergency contexts, as well as from its long-term development work.


The decision to take a partnership approach and if so what roles partners will play is a complex one. However, INGOs should not assume that partnerships are impossible or undesirable in emergencies. Instead, there is a need to push the boundaries of what INGOs can expect to gain from partnerships in these contexts, and what working in partnership can bring to local organisations’ ownership of decisions during emergencies. There are real challenges, from the frequent lack of advance planning where partners are already collaborating before a crisis, to the often unclear process of mapping potential partners in new contexts. However, especially when a solid commitment to capacity-building exists, as in the Pakistan examples, adjusting ways of collaborating can be efficient and beneficial for all parties. The reflections from Haiti show that collaboration with local partners can be a highly effective way of ensuring that humanitarian action opens doors to innovative programming. Across these diverse contexts, the relationships established, capacities built and impacts achieved by local partners are key to the sustainability of relief efforts and constitute a foundation for longer-term development collaboration.


Ruth Allen is Mercy Corps’ Director for Community Mobilization, Governance and Partnerships.


[1] Mary Anderson, Lara Olson and Kristin Doughty, Confronting War: Critical Lessons for Peace Practitioners, 2003,

[2] Emergency Capacity Building Project, The Good Enough Guide: Impact Measurement and Accountability in Emergencies, 2007,

[3] See  


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