Rethinking the Relationship of International NGOs and Local Partners

Brief Author: 
Ahmed Abdallah Altahir

Humanitarian coordination seeks to improve the effectiveness of response in conflict and natural disaster by ensuring greater predictability, accountability and partnership. However, as crises become more complex - bringing more people together - coordination becomes more chaotic, communication among all actors is challenging and resources are limited. One key method to address this challenge is to focus on partnerships, not just among international actors, but, more importantly, between international and local partners. Emphasis on such partnerships can create opportunities to combine skills, expertise, and resources that more effectively deliver aid and strengthen local organizations’ leadership capacity.


(Summary Continued)

“One hand cannot clap” is an old Sudanese proverb that expresses the notion that collective efforts are the best means to achieve results. Throughout history, collective and accumulative efforts by communities and individuals have been instrumental in developing and sustaining livelihoods. Academics and development practitioners suggest the process of community participation is necessary to achieve the goal of social change. Hence, development and social activities should not be undertaken by a single individual but rather should involve a range of individuals, positively or negatively affected by the proposed change

Partnership - a relationship of collaboration and coordination between different identities geared toward achieving specific moral or material goals - can assume various forms, including commercial, non-commercial, or personal. This paper focuses on partnerships between International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and Local Non-Governmental Organizations (LNGOs) also referred to as Implementing Partners (IPs). In recent years, “partnership” has become a common term in the literature of INGOs as well as in publications of the United Nations. Moreover, INGOs have been working on involving LNGOs in every step of project design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. In short, local partners have become an important part of the management cycle of development projects.


Rationale of Partnership

Defining Partnership:

The HAP Standard defines humanitarian partnership as “a relationship of mutual respect between autonomous organizations that is founded upon a common purpose with defined expectations and responsibilities.”1 Partners can be small, community-based organizations or large, national institutions. A humanitarian partnership is one in which two or more bodies agree to combine their resources to provide essential goods or services for disaster survivors.2

The various types of assistance rendered, as well as the providers, change over time and depend upon capacity, priorities, and funding. The receptiveness of beneficiaries to these changes and organizations also evolves over time. In this scenario, the relationship between INGOs and local organizations plays a critical role in providing aid for beneficiaries. Given the severity and complexity of a disaster, INGOs, as well as UN agencies, need to react quickly and efficiently, which often leaves little time to understand the complexity and general composition of the affected population. This dynamic creates challenges in establishing relationships with the population. Developing and strengthening relationships with local partners thus leads to opportunities to understand the needs of the affected population as well as provide quality assistance.

From a normative perspective, the right of local people to participate in the development process of their communities should be an essential right of these communities and groups. The international community has long recognized the right to development as mentioned in several international instruments such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and protected by provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.3 Formal steps to enshrine the right to development were adopted in 1986 in United Nations General Assembly resolution 41/128 and states, "development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom."4 It is the right of local people to guide and be the engine of change in their communities. Development agencies must give villages, suburbs, and communities a full opportunity to be a part of the process of developing and managing their communities and livelihoods.

At a strategic level, partnership helps to achieve a common mission, such as reduction of poverty rates or improved quality of life. However, at a practical level, partnerships can be a useful tool to expand the coverage of development interventions, increase the impact of projects, and foster the sustainability of INGOs’ services. Partnership often ensures higher levels of endurance through a sense of ownership on the part of the projects’ beneficiaries. Partnership can also be considered, by INGOs, as a normal and gradual step towards handing over the management and oversight of development programs to Community Based Organizations (CBOs).

Because positive change is a complex and multilayered process, international development organizations require institutional, long-term, local support as well as short-term contributions to meet requirements. Partnerships must maximize the sustainable inputs of local institutions, which will expand the impact of development projects and help avoid future duplication. One practical instance where partnership is of great benefit is contexts where insecurity limits the mobility of international organisations’ staff, - particularly foreigners. For their part, local partners — who are more familiar with the local settings, culture, and environment — are not subject to the same movement restrictions.


1Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, Frequently Asked Questions about HAP,
3United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/41/128, 4 December 1986, 97th Plenary Meeting.

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