The humanitarian partnership broker as change agent

October 8, 2014
Catherine Russ
UNMISS and Partners conduct Human Rights Community Awareness programme

As the boundaries of the humanitarian sector expand to respond to evolving and rapidly changing needs, partnership brokers are becoming an increasingly critical part of the humanitarian enterprise. The 2006 Tsunami Evaluation Coalition concluded that working in partnerships with local players is key to building resilience to disasters and delivering rapid, effective emergency response. A multi-agency publication on partnerships with national non-governmental organisations in humanitarian response argues that partnerships help to strengthen the relevance and appropriateness of humanitarian responses and improve the overall effectiveness of assistance by enhancing accountability to disaster-affected people[1]. The humanitarian system is under considerable pressure to radically reshape itself to work better with the growing array of actors engaged in humanitarian response, including national governments, the private sector, the military and diaspora and civil society groups. Partnership brokering skills are vital to enable us to develop and maintain the partnerships necessary to achieve this transformation.

Fig 1 Partnering Cycle

What we know about partnerships

The difficulties humanitarian and development organisations face in trying to establish successful partnerships have been documented in a number of evaluations and organisational surveys through the annual Keystone Development Partnership Survey launched in 2010. Although the term ‘partnership’ is used widely in the sector, these are rarely real partnerships. Instead, they tend to be top-down contractual or procurement relationships, where the ‘partner’ is used simply as a mechanism for aid delivery, ‘with little say in their work and little sense of sustainability or shared learning and mutual accountability’[2]. Research by the Listening Program found a resounding consensus that the aid system tends to reward those who spend and disburse funds quickly, and that insufficient time and resources are spent on developing and maintaining strong local partnerships and collaborative relationships[3]. As a result, significant opportunities for improving how aid works are being missed[4].

Given the challenging environments in which humanitarian action takes place it is not surprising that establishing effective, ongoing partnerships can be difficult. But doing so is also not helped by a lack of funding for partnerships, both before and after major crises. Lack of time and resources to set up and manage partnerships is another major impediment. Other issues include organisational incentives, the capacity and willingness of international and national NGOs to work in partnerships; broader system-wide issues around funding, visibility and norms; and the fact that many ‘global’ humanitarian policies make little or no explicit mention of partnerships with ‘Southern’ organisations.

Studies on humanitarian partnerships consistently call for more collaborative approaches and attitudinal changes in the way partnerships are maintained and coordinated. Recommendations include:

  • Asking donors, UN coordination mechanisms and national governments to develop structures that reinforce and fund best practice for working with local capacity in emergency response.
  • Involving Southern partners in setting and influencing policy, frameworks and instruments and practice.
  • Building knowledge and shared understanding through learning platforms and communities of practice.
  • Strengthening partnership practices and moving partnerships from ‘bilateral’ arrangements to networked efforts

A new approach 

The growing and increasingly complex interaction of players in the humanitarian sector suggests an urgent need for new professional expertise to animate and manage the various technical, socio-political and cultural viewpoints at play. A number of partnership-based capacity-building consortia have been formed over the years to specifically address the technical skills and competencies of their and their partners’ staff, but none deals with the skills specific to partnering and partnership working. What is needed is an approach that fosters and embeds a partnering mindset and creates conditions of trust, creativity and innovation – all increasingly essential conditions for finding integrated solutions to complex problems and building legitimacy and buy-in from all partners for sustained systemic change.

Partnership ‘brokering’, developed by the Partnership Brokers Association (PBA), is a partnering approach that has developed from over ten years of applied partnering in cross-sector and multi-stakeholder collaboration. It has recently been used to train humanitarian actors more systematically by enhancing both partnering concepts and by building partnership brokering skills (see Figure 2) to help disperse the locus of power by building equity, transparency and mutual benefit (see Figure 3).

Fig 2 Roles of partnership brokers

The methodology has been applied by both the Start Network and the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network secretariats and there is anecdotal evidence of its success with World Vision in development settings. The Partnership Brokers Association plans to work with Tuft University’s Feinstein International Center in 2014–15 to further test and track the impact of partnership brokering on learning and innovation, particularly in humanitarian settings where remote management is used.

World Vision has invested substantially in partnership brokering in recent years, inculcating PBA’s approach throughout its management structure, from local to senior and director levels, by training over 1,400 of its staff in partnership brokering skills.   In terms of impact at the local level, improvements have been noted in a number of areas: making better use of resources; managing local complexities more holistically instead of by different teams; building capacity at local levels; enhancing relationships beyond partnering; increasing the level of local ownership and longer-term sustainability; and developing new ways to achieve transparency and accountability[5]. Recognising local groups’ contributions in terms of networks, contacts and local knowledge has helped staff to create more equitable relationships, where money is not seen as the only important resource. This strongly suggests that, if humanitarian organisations are to get better at partnering, they will need partnership brokers, whether as internal recruits or external contractors.

Fig 3 three core partnership principles

There are plans to recognise the work local-level partnership brokers are carrying out through certification. World Vision is working with PBA to include a local-level qualification within PBA’s existing professional development options[6]. By professionalising and strengthening partnership approaches in emergencies, the methodology will give this qualification credence for the complex mix of facilitation, communication, analytical and negotiating skills required for successful partnership brokering, and recognise it more widely as a discipline in its own right.


There is no doubt that partnership working requires time and commitment, including real resources – without which partnerships all too often fall short of expectations and potential. Given the anticipated rise in the number and complexity of emergencies, a commitment to strengthening partnerships is necessary if humanitarian organisations are to work effectively with the growing and increasingly diverse array of actors involved in humanitarian response.

Emerging evidence suggests that effective partnership brokering is increasing the ability of partnerships to maximise their potential to collaborate and develop innovative solutions to problems. By helping to insulate partnership management from programme development and delivery and equipping staff with the tools, skills and processes they need, partnership brokering can increase the chances that a partnership will be successful. This is particularly important in countries like Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan, where remote management is the dominant mode of operation and the resultant lack of face-to-face contact between international actors and their local counterparts is a major obstacle to real partnership.

This all requires a change in mindset and a commitment to new ways of funding and supporting partnerships. However, with the appropriate investment in people, time and money, underpinned by a conscious attempt to capture and apply learning, successful partnership brokering can enhance how humanitarian partners relate to and work with each other and other sectors, and contribute to a necessary evolution in the way aid is delivered.

Catherine Russ is an accredited partnership broker with the Partnership Brokers Association. She works as an independent partnership broker, trainer and facilitator.  She has occupied senior roles in the humanitarian sector with Save the Children, ELRHA and RedR.

[1] B. Ramalingam et al, Missed Opportunities: The Case for Strengthening National and Local Partnership-based Humanitarian Responses, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Oxfam, Tearfund and ActionAid, 2013.

[2]K. Nightingale, Building the Future of Humanitarian Aid: Local Capacity and Partnerships in Emergency Assistance, Christian Aid, 2012.

[3]Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean, Time To Listen: Hearing People On the Receiving End of International Aid, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2012.

[4] These findings were confirmed by Tufts University, which conducted research on partnerships with local agencies on the Syria–Turkey border this year which found little improvement in how partners were related to.

[5] PBA and World Vision, Brokering Local Collaboration, 2014.

[6] This is one of the recommendations put forward by Nightingale, Building the Future of Humanitarian Aid.


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