PARTNERSHIPS: Pre-conditions, principles, practices

I.              Partnership: Higher expectations of the relationship.

Partnerships are collaborative relationships of a higher quality than mere subcontracting or transactional ones. As in certain personal relationships (family, friendships), calling a relationship a ‘partnership’ signals higher expectation, not only about what you hope to achieve by but how you will be and interact with each other.

In every partnership, personal or professional, difficult moments will arise. Their nature and timing cannot be fully anticipated. There can be written partnership agreements just as there can be a marriage contract. But not every difficulty can be anticipated. And higher expectations mean stronger emotions. Mere ‘rules’ may not be enough or are too ‘cold’ to deal with them. Broad experience confirms that “in partnering rules don’t work but principles might».[i]

One of GMI’s mandates was to accompany a global group of organisations through a challenging change process that included changes in the partnering relationship. At a big gathering, the group of mostly directors of some 25 agencies from different countries and continent who had been collaborating for years and even decades, were asked what they had valued in the historical collaboration and wanted to bring to a new configuration? Interestingly, a prominent answer was ‘principles’, to which another participant added that they have to be rendered more explicit into practices.

They had not however, before, articulated any principles. We therefore took a comparative look at ‘partnership principles’ articulated by different organisations which often partner or elaborated by a group of agencies collaborating already. And included also the five of the Partnership Brokering Association. It made us conclude that it is useful to differentiate between preconditions for partnerships, principles and practices.

II.            Preconditions for partnering

Often mentioned as principles are ‘shared vision’ or ‘shared purpose’, and ‘complementarity’ of effort and of value-added. These are more pre-conditions for partnering rather than guiding principles for partnering behaviour. Without these, a partnership would not even be considered. Little recognised pre-conditions are the adoption of a holistic or ‘systems’ and of a longer-term perspective, and the readiness to invest resources in the partnering. A holistic perspective makes you realise that resolving a complex challenge requires a collective impact that is more than the sum of its individual parts. And as with any quality relationship, partnerships require – and merit- dedicated attention and time. Partnering can be frustrating for the impatient, but as an African proverb reminds us “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Another pre-condition should be that the partnership relationship is institutionalised within (the relevant components) of the respective organisations. The health of collaborative relationships ultimately depends on the behaviour of individuals. Four directors of organisations may agree to enter into a partnership – but on a daily level, it will be others in their organisation that make it work, or not. It is imperative then, that the partnership commitment, with its benefits but also its burdens, is shared by these others – and that they have the required collaboration and relational competencies.

An interesting question is whether organisations also need to have ‘shared values’ to be able to partner. At first sight, that seems a requirement. But for several complex challenges in the world today, we need cross-sectoral collaborations and partnerships: of public, private and/or not-for-profit sectors. Do they share the same values? Not necessarily. In critical moments, the public sector actor may prioritise according to government policy and risk of negative media coverage; the private sector may prioritise shareholder interests, and the not-for-profit actor the ‘most vulnerable and marginalised’. As shared values do not necessarily provide common ground, agreements bolstered with principles guiding the interaction between the partners, become more important.

III.          Principles: Behavioural guidance among partners.


Partnerships are entered into in order to create a “1+1=3” outcome: the partnership generates value and beneficial outcomes that is more than the sum of what each does individually. At the same time, partnerships are a constant dance of converging and diverging interests. Inevitably, there will be bumpy moments in the ride. It is then that previously agreed partnership principles become useful. These are guiding principles for the behaviour between the partners – not for their relationship with other stakeholders outside the partnership.   

Some frequently mentioned partnership principles are e.g. ‘clarity of roles and responsibilities’, ‘mutual or reciprocal accountability’, ‘questioning and challenging constructively with the intent to improve and not to undermine the collaborative endeavour’, ‘ensuring that individual interests do not -repeatedly- predominate over the collective interest’.

Successful partnerships generate benefits beyond what each could have achieved: for the intended beneficiaries and the partnering organisations. But there are risks: of failure OF the partnership (i.e. the intended objective or impact is not achieved) and of failure IN the partnership (i.e. the collaboration breaks down). When things go well, we can share the benefits and the credit – when they don’t, we seek to apportion blame: ‘Shared benefit, shared risk’ therefore is sometimes made a partnership principle. Surely if one of the parties habitually transfers risks to other parties, it cannot be called a ‘partnership’.

An interesting one is ‘solidarity’, which rarely seems to figure as a partnership principle – even in the not-for-profit sector. It seems an appropriate principle for organisations that collaborate on issues that involve the protection of rights of certain social groups. At the same time, it seems to go against the understanding that partnerships are not an end in themselves, but a means to a shared purpose. When the purpose no longer holds, or the partnership is no longer felt to bring added value for its pursuit, ‘solidarity’ cannot be an obstacle to altering or ending the partnership? Still, a too functionalistic perspective may limit the appreciation for how ‘solidarity’ can be a guiding principle for how to alter or end a partnership.

Two common principles are ‘equity’ (the contribution of each partner, non-monetary as much as monetary, is valued) and ‘relishing diversity’. ‘Equity’ relates directly to the issue of power dynamics and different sources of power asymmetry (differences in control over financial resources, but also technical/thematic expertise, contextual knowledge, access to influencers, degree of organisation, self-confidence etc.).Diversity can provide fertile soil for fresh thinking and new perspectives, for creativity and innovation – but also complicate mutual understanding and agreement around key decisions.

Another frequent one is ‘transparency’. Partnerships, as higher quality relationships, require trust. When organisations partner for a common purpose, without monetary transfers from one to the other, trust becomes clearly the central nerve of the relationship. Without trust, the partnership will fall apart, even if there is still recognition of a common purpose. On the other hand, organisations engaging in partnerships, maintain their independence. So the transparency required is about the issues that matter: to the pursuit of the common purpose, and to the health of the relationship.

Equity, diversity, transparency, mutual accountability are important principles, but the challenge lies in their practical application in concrete situations, when sensitivities may be high. It can be useful to do some further proactive work to anticipate some of those likely to arise and spell out more detailed guidance.

IV.           Principles into practice

Partnering principles, jointly developed and agreed, provide a structural foundation for difficult times. This can be further reinforced by anticipating concrete situations and clarifying how they will be dealt with when they arise. ‘Diversity’, for example, can stimulate creativity but also situations of strong disagreement over which course of action to take. Determining in advance how you will take decisions in such case makes you better prepared. Gradients of decision-making can be one approach to assess the degree of convergence for one option or another. Abiding by collective decisions can be a pre-agreed practice.

Other sensitive situations can be anticipated: who represents the partnership and what does it require to speak on its behalf? Make the implicit understanding explicit. What happens when financial irregularities seem to have taken place in one party: Does another one come in heavy-handed and take over, or do you first allow the party concerned to deal with it itself? Effective communications are critical to partnering success: In practice, you may want to agree that all communications about matters important to the collaborative endeavour reach all parties at the same time (including translated versions) – this helps to avoid suspicion that some parties have privileged access to information, while others are kept out of the loop – or only get informed with delay.

Mutual accountability’ is a critical principle. But how does it play out in practice. A good practice is to schedule periodic reviews of the health of the partnership, not just of the progress in the collective work. But there will be unscheduled moments when one or more parties feel that another has not lived up to its promises or expectations. We know how difficult it is to find the right tone and choice of words when we are speaking with an underlying feeling of disappointment or anger. Proactive practical arrangements may consist of the agreement that challenging questions will be framed in an open manner, or that an impartial and not emotionally involved third party is called upon if emotions are quite high.

How will a large partnership act, when there is a call for proposals: will only one sub-set of them be allowed to bid for it or can several do so. Are they de facto then competing with each other, or maximising the chances of getting extra funding for the collective purpose?

Sharing credit’ can be a partnership principle. But what happens, practically, if one of the parties has contributed e.g. an innovative approach that has value way beyond the partnership? And that may even have commercial value should intellectual property rights be established? You can follow Harry Truman’s dictum that “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit!” On the other hand, the partnership is likely to get undermined if other parties manage to scale up and disseminate the innovation, so that it ultimately gets associated with them rather than with the real inventor. Share credit, but also give it where it is due?

These are only some examples of plausible situations that may arise – when principles have to be translated into practice. You get the idea.

V.             When to discuss principles and practices?

Principles and practices can best be discussed when new partnerships are being considered: it draws attention not only to the ‘what’ we want to do together but also to the ‘how’ and opens up space for conversation about the relationship expectations.

But partnerships may have been active for quite some time without ever having articulated such principles. When designing that big partners’ gathering mentioned before, a question had been when to plan a session on partnership principles? As organisations partner-for-a-purpose, one option was to first focus on detailing more the new global plan, then talk about the nature of the collaborations. The other option was to first clarify what the proposed nature of collaboration would be.

Given the long history of partnership, we chose the latter option. Within minutes, it became clear that there was limited appetite at that time. Several participants brought fall-out from a similar global gathering six months before (before GMI’s involvement) where a new ‘partnership model’ had been presented, in a very top-down manner and seemingly introducing a status hierarchy among ‘partners’. What participants explicitly wanted from this gathering now, was clarity about what the collective action would be – while adopting a cautious ‘wait-and-see’ attitude given their uncertainty about the nature of future collaboration – if any. “What are we invited to here?” was a stark way to express this.

Had there been partnership principles and practices in the past, ‘how’ the need for change was introduced in the previous gathering very likely would have been different and avoided the strong emotional reactions. In the face of initial resistance, the wise move was to touch the issue of partnership principles only with a light touch, and devote the next two days to the ‘what’, the detailing of the global plan of action and the identification of progress markers that could be part of a common measurement system. This was framed as an open space: the organisations present were invited to share what they felt they could and wanted to contribute to this, and to consider whether they were willing and able to step in and step up and take responsibility for organising and serving smaller-scale collaborations within the global one. Any such ‘leadership’ was framed as ‘servant leadership’, with emphasis put on the ‘responsibility’ and not the ‘authority’ of such enabling style of leadership. That change in framing restored a sense of ‘equity’, after which it became possible to have a productive session on preconditions, principles and practices. The relevance of which was now obvious to everyone.


Global Mentoring Initiative (GMI) is a value-based and purpose-driven consultancy. One of its key strands of work is fostering positive collaborations, within and between organisations and/or social groups.

[i] Lynn Morris 2016: In partnering rules don’t work but principles might.

CHALLENGES IN PARTNERSHIP GOVERNANCE: Some attention points and tips

The bigger challenges in today’s world are often too complex to be handled by one agency alone, however capable and well resourced. More often than not, we have to collaborate with others to have effective influence and create more significant impacts. Each brings distinctive competencies, legitimacies, connections and understanding, and can take up distinctive roles. Unfortunately, the prevailing mindset and practices are towards organisational competition, with our attention very inward looking to the organisation we belong to. There is an assumption that collaboration, if needed, is no different from ordinary autonomous practice. It is not: collaboration, certainly in a more equitable ‘partnership’ spirit, requires distinctive competencies. Facilitators, partnership brokers and organisational relationship and systems coaches, can help.

Let me share here a few attention points, and tips. When reflecting on them, I have some concrete examples in mind where I played or continue to play a brokering and coaching role. But I am quite confident they have much wider applicability. Judge for yourself.


Partnering is a constantly emerging flow: All partnership dynamics are shaped by movements of convergence and of divergence of interests. Even if there is a  firm agreement defining the terms of collaboration. At times the convergence will be strongly felt, and the collaborative atmosphere will feel smooth. Other moments, the divergence of interest rears its head and the atmosphere will become tenser. Brokering or guiding such dance effectively requires knowing when to allow the river to meander and even split up into different branches, when to bring it together in one strong channel, and when to point at the solid rock formations that are the red lines. If these are not respected, if the river breaks apart against them, the partnership will crumble. The river metaphor holds, except that we are not talking about an established river, the banks and course of which are fixed and immutable. No partnership will or can go on automatic pilot. Changes, in context, in partnering organisations, in key individuals, will affect its particular chemistry and flow.

My tip: As a broker, you need fine situational judgment to know when to step back and let the waters flow freely, and when to step in and remind the waters that the destination is the sea, and that not passing through certain solid rock formations together means the river will split up and go into different directions, losing its force. You also need the confidence to act on your, at times instinctive, judgment.

Confusion when different conversations get mixed up: Partners need to have different types of conversation, each necessary and legitimate. One relates to the common purpose and objective, and how to further progress towards it. Another one relates to the quality of the collaborative relationship. A third one to the validity of continuing the partnership, if a feeling arises, among one or more of the partners, that the respective interests are diverging and even conflicting. In many instances, the first conversation is scheduled to be regularly held. The second one tends to be neglected, unless some friction is felt. Thereby we miss the opportunity to celebrate a good collaboration, and to draw on the positive energy that comes with it. The third one, more often than not, comes unexpectedly, and is disturbing, possibly disruptive. Yet there are times when the very existence of the partnership will be questioned. The problem arises when the first and the third conversation start mingling in the same meeting. Very likely, all partners will leave the meeting with a sense of frustration and irritation.

My tip: Tell partners about the different types of conversations, that all are valid, but can best be dealt with when given their own time and focus. A conversation about the continued value of the partnership is not easy. But partners will be better prepared to handle it constructively when it is scheduled as such, rather than intrude in the midst of a conversation about further progressing towards the common objective.

Conflicts of interest in partnerships: Some partnerships are set up with conflicts-of-interest embedded in their governance structure. Two instances from my personal experience immediately come to mind: One is a set up with a standard promoting agency, which has member agencies that want to achieve the standard. The standard promoting agency also audits and certifies whether the member agencies do so. The problem arises when the member agencies also sit on the Board of the standard-setting agency. There is an inevitable risk that some membership agencies will seek to water down the standard or the certification requirements and use their influence in the partnership governance structure to that purpose. Another is of a charity that collects public donations and then funds operational partner agencies if their proposals are accepted. Here some of the partner agencies may feel that the grant-making charity is a direct competitor for public fundraising. Some may also feel that the grant making charity should trust their professionalism, and fund proposals as presented, rather than critically assess them, possibly demand changes or even reject them. Put the operational partner agencies in the governance structure of the grant-making charity, and again there is a risk, perhaps even a high likelihood, that some of them will use that position to promote their own organisational self-interest, rather than the strategic development and effectiveness of the charity.

This situation is particularly complex, because the partnership set-up is longer-term and more institutionalised, as is its governance structure. Having ‘independents’ in the governance structure is one way of dealing with it. In practice, that only works when they are engaged, truly ‘independent’ without any consideration for past or future beneficial relationship with any organisational partner, and remain very focused on the mission and the integrity and quality required to achieve it.

My first tip: Listen for, observe, the difference between a conversation about readjusting the respective roles in the collaboration where the common purpose remains central, and one where the common purpose has been replaced by organisational self-interest. An indicator of the latter is listening for what is not talked about: the ultimate purpose, key stakeholders that are not in the room. Reintroduce both in the conversation.

My second tip: Ask partners in the conversation to be transparent about what voice they are speaking with: are they speaking in their individual name,  for their own organisation and its interests, on behalf of a certain group of stakeholders and do they indeed have the mandate from that wider group to do so, or are they speaking as member of the governance structure that provides guidance how the common endeavour can best achieve its mission and purpose? If they rarely or never speak with that latter voice, although that is their responsibility as members of the collaborative governance structure, ask them to speak with that voice. Ask: How is this serving the mission, the objective?

My third tip: if a partner is persistently pursuing its own institutional interest, with no convincing argument how this contributes to the shared mission and common purpose, its continued participation in the collaboration may have to be questioned. However, if that agency is felt to be ‘incontournable’, i.e. too influential to leave out, a difficult situation will persist. Patience and tact will be required. The ‘difficult’ partner is not necessarily internally monolithic: there may be more accommodating voices, and a new leadership may take a more constructive stance. Meanwhile, other players in the partnership may have to consciously align to contain the disruptor. But anticipate the need to make some compromises to accommodate the challenger. Choose to compromise on issues that do not fundamentally jeopardise the common mission and purpose.

Bring in ghost stakeholders and -partner[i]: Whenever partners are meeting, observe carefully whom they talk about or have in the back of their mind, but is not in the room. Which important stakeholders are central to the purpose but are absent here, so that their voices are never heard? In one case I have been involved in, there were no less than five such: the domestic public that donates to a charity (there is speculation about what they want and appreciate or not, and competition among the partners for their donation); the domestic media that all those in the partnership try to work with, but also appreciate as a possible threat if they publish negative stories; a series of smaller partner NGOs that are not present in the collective governance structure and who do not feel represented by those from the bigger NGOs who are; the assistance-receiving people that the domestic public has donated for; and local organisations who do much of the actual work on behalf of the international ones.  All five are key stakeholders and directly relevant for the purpose of the charity. But their experiences and views are never heard in governance meetings of the partnership.  

My first tip:  Listen for, draw attention to, and find ways to ‘bring in’ the perspectives and voices of the ghost partners!

My second tip: If those in the partnership governance structure get too preoccupied with their internal tussles, make them look outward instead of mostly inward. Remind them that, without those not in the room, they cannot fulfil the mission and achieve the purpose at the same level.

Partnership brokering with a wider systems perspective: The above observation also signals that a wider systems-perspective is needed. You may be brokering a particular partnership between some agencies. But they operate in a wider landscape with other key stakeholders and actors. As brokers we need to be attentive that our successful brokering of the collaboration between some, does not unintentionally weaken and subordinate other key stakeholders. For example: You can effectively broker a public-private sector partnership between the government and three water companies. But if you leave out those whose habitat and livelihoods depend on the water that the companies source, and the water-users the companies deliver it to, the latter two interest groups may find themselves in a structurally weakened position. The same holds for, say, local civil society organisations and community-based groups, when you successfully broker a stronger partnership between the most important international NGOs operating in their environment. The unintended outcome may be that those local actors now face a more united and even more powerful front of international actors. Strengthening one partnering relationship in a part of the system may tilt the overall power balance in the wider system, to the detriment of other legitimate stakeholders.

My tip: Always look at a partnership set-up within a wider perspective, ask who is not present in the conversation but should be, and keep promoting a more inclusive approach with broader win-wins.

Gradients of decision-making: All governance structures face the question of how they make decisions. The hope is that there will be overall consensus or a clear majority. In reality, certainly at moments when divergent interests come to the foreground, this will be unlikely. If preserving a smooth atmosphere among the partners becomes the dominant preoccupation, then the possibility arises that one or more partners acquire what becomes de facto veto-power. Nothing is possible that they vehemently oppose. Alternatively, a decision is deliberately left vague so that everyone can ‘agree’ to it, which is a recipe for tensions and conflict at the time of implementation. Or the choice is degraded to the lowest common denominator, in which case it may not adequately address the issue it was supposed to be an answer to, and the issue will re-emerge. 

My tip: Try Sam Kaner’s gradients of agreement, which gives people options beyond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a proposal.[ii] For example someone can express a full endorsement of a proposed course of action, or an overall endorsement with some minor concerns, or has reservations but can live with it, or doesn’t like it but signals s/he does not want to hold up the group and will stand aside; or disagrees but is willing to go with the majority, or is not comfortable with it at all and doesn’t want to be involved in the implementation etc. It is easier to assess whether there is ‘enough’ agreement.

Formal leadership in partnership: Being executive director of an organisation that is part of a statutory/constitutional partnership, reflected in the composition of its governance structure, adds a particular challenge. Rather than having fairly high autonomy to lead the strategic positioning and development of her or his organisation, s/he can find important decisions delayed and possibly watered down, by ongoing discussions in the governance space. That is frustrating, more so if it feels that some members of the collective governance structure are speaking often for their own self-interests rather than for the greater value from collective action.

 My first tip: When recruiting for a senior leadership position, where operating in partnership is intrinsic to the role, ensure you test candidates for the character and competencies to do so.

My second tip: To depersonalise the situation when the dynamics are difficult, bring in a third party, partnership broker or organisational relationships and systems coach. Not just to facilitate one meeting-event. But with sufficient time to observe and more deeply understand what is happening and what is actually driving the partners’ behaviour, and then constructively accompany them, until there the atmosphere is positive enough again, so they can handle their collaboration challenges constructively.

These tips are not magic solutions to every partnering challenge. But they may give you some inspiration. Let me know how you get on.

[i] The term ‘ghost’ comes from Organisational and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC)




“The fact that we are not money-hungry confuses people.

Partnership” is one of the most abused words in the international cooperation jargon. It stands for any and all collaborations, whatever their nature and quality. Donor governments are ‘development partners’, national and local non-governmental actors are invariably ‘partners’ of international aid agencies.

While the quantity (rather than the quality) of funding to national organisations is the attention area in the post-World Humanitarian Summit ‘localisation’ agenda, aid-recipient organisations have long argued that they also want a profound change in the quality of relationship. They want to be treated as ‘partners’ and not as ‘sub-contractors’.


In this blog, I explore some of the practical aspects of collaborative relations between international and national agencies. The orientation is mostly towards civil society organisations, but similar issues exist in inter-governmental relations, as can be seen from the declarations resulting from the successive ‘High Level Panel’ meetings, particularly since Paris 2005.

EPISODE 1: Domestic Workers?

Not so long ago I was listening to the director of an African NGO talking about the attitudes and practices from international agency staff, he and his organisation had repeatedly been confronted with:

§  Occasionally they would find themselves suddenly approached with the request to immediately sign up to a project, that the international agency needed to get going quickly. Pressured to decide very fast and not convinced by the project design, he often had said ‘no’. He typically explaining the negative response as a l’ack of spare capacity’ so as not to offend the international agency. Then silence would ensue. When subsequently encountering those who had so urgently approached him, generally they would not even acknowledge that the exchange had happened. The interaction had been purely instrumental.

§  Similarly, they were occasionally also asked to quickly sign up to a ‘bid’ for a tender. Since the deadline to submit the bid was invariably around the corner, there was no time to discuss details and terms of the collaboration. He was simply told that ‘could be worked out later’, when the funding was secured. It was obvious they were simply approached because the donor agency wanted to see international agencies bidding together with national ‘partners’.

§  With some other international agencies, there was a joint project. The terms of inequality were clear: The international agency determined how many staff the national agency needed for the project as well as their salaries. Money transfers were made only monthly, typically delayed because his NGO had to produce the expenses reports which then had to be first approved by the international agency. Though he is the director of his agency, he would always deal with mid-level programme staff from the international agency – their director always had other priorities. Many of the international agency staff would know all the salaries and benefits of the national agency, whereas they knew nothing about those of the international agency. All contracts invariably had a clause specifying that any litigation would be under the laws and in the courts of the international agency’s headquarters.

§  Though there was a joint project, the national agency was only offered ‘direct project implementation costs’. None of their core support costs were covered, though they knew that the international agency itself took an (undisclosed) ‘management fee’.

§  When he questioned the unfavourable terms of cooperation, he was told that unfortunately the rules were made by the international agencies’ headquarters or came from the governmental back donors. So nothing could be changed, no scope for negotiation.

§  When he asked for some dedicated capacity-development support, he was told that they would ‘learn by doing’ in the cooperation.

Experiences similar to the ones of this African NGO, have also been described repeatedly for the interaction between Syrian and international agencies (both also have better collaboration experiences!).

They are confirmed by the prevailing understanding of ‘partner’ as an ‘implementing partner’ – not a (joint) ‘decision-making partner’ or ‘learning partner’.

They are not radically different from that of many ‘domestic workers’, often people that have come from another country, and women: the rules are set exclusively by the ‘employer’, who has more or less the power to change them unilaterally.

EPISODE 2: A Forgotten ‘Great Charter’?

Such unpleasant relationship should surprise, given that in 2007 the Global Humanitarian Platform agreed on following Principles of Partnership (PoP): Equality, Transparency, Results-Oriented Approach, Responsibility, Complementarity.

 Its explanatory paragraph for ‘complementarity’ is particularly interesting here: “The diversity of the humanitarian community is an asset if we build on our comparative advantages and complement each other’s contributions. Local capacity is one of the main assets to enhance and on which to build. Whenever possible, humanitarian organizations should strive to make it an integral part in emergency response. Language and cultural barriers must be overcome.”

 It also issued a companion document: “Ten Practical Ways to Use the PoP” and how to monitor and report on them. Strangely enough, the guidance does not suggest a periodic, reciprocal, assessment of the quality of the relationship. Surely this is a situation that calls for such, using score cards or another such tool, as basis for a constructive dialogue?

 I am not the betting type, but in this case I am prepared to stake some money that few people know about the PoP, let alone use them.

 EPISODE 3: The ‘Deal Breaker’ Song.

 Also not so long ago, I was listening to the director of a South Asian NGO describing why they had recently said ‘no’ -three times- to offers of project work from international agencies.

‘Coffee first’: Not surprisingly, she was emphasising the necessity to first build relationship, and to explore the challenges in the environment and whether there was a common vision about what to try and address, and how: “We don’t want to start the conversation with ‘the project’, we may end the conversation with that. We first need to build relationship and can talk about what the issues are, only later can the money question come in. Our ultimate goal is positive change, not the delivery of projects, or maintaining an office or keeping our cash flow going…our even own institutional survival.

 ‘Unlearning’: She was also talking about how difficult this seemed to be for many staff of international organisations: “it is hard for an international organisation to land on a local one that doesn’t seek to play the game; people need time to unlearn old habits.

 ‘Relation before negotiation’: As she put it eloquently: “partnership is a conversation about how together we can affect positive change, not a negotiation over resources.

With the rest of her colleagues, they had set minimum requirements with regard to behaviours and terms of collaboration, and decided no longer to waste time or look for collaboration opportunities where it quickly became clear that the international agency was not meeting those: the ‘deal breakers’.

 Her being a musical person, we started playing around with phrases and musical lines to compose what might become a real hit: “The Deal Breaker Song.” (Please compose your own, post on YouTube and circulate the link!).


EPISODE 4: Reverse Risk and Capacity Assessments.

 Hollow Crowns in all Realms? There are widespread problems among national and local agencies, governmental or not. Positions are obtained through political patronage; NGOs and governmental ‘initiatives’ are created to exploit the ‘aid market’; many CSOs suffer from the founder-director syndrome, failing to institutionalise and democratise. Several are ‘family businesses’. The accounting can become indeed ‘too creative’. They need to get their house in order.

 At the same time, we can often see ‘wastage’ of public funds by international aid agencies (multilateral, bilateral and non-governmental). Some of them also have directors who have been in place for longer than the two terms Presidents normally are constitutionally allowed. And there definitely are more cases of fraud or misuse of funds than are allowed to become known publicly.

 Reciprocal Risk Assessments: National agencies considering partnering with international ones, are also running potentially significant risks. Here are some:

 ·       Losing control over its direction, by beginning to implement the strategies, programmes and projects of the international agency;

·       Losing the connection to its own constituency, as the international actor becomes a stronger influence;

·       Investing less in collaborative efforts with other national actors as the collaborative energies are oriented towards the international one;

·       Counterproductive speeding up of ‘project’ design and implementation because the international aid machinery is geared towards ‘fast food’ and has no tolerance for ‘slowly cooked dishes’;

·       Being left alone for ‘post-project care’, when the international partner has disappeared because its funding ended;

·       Dependency on continued foreign funding, also because less effort is invested in developing domestic sources of funding;

·       Vulnerability to volatile funding, with sometimes too fast scaling up, followed by a need to rapidly scale down;

·       Shift in fundamental staff motivation, from service to their own society to predominantly career and salary considerations;

·       Decreased visibility as the international agency takes credit for the work achieved, and innovations made; 

·       Reputational risk of being seen or being portrayed as an agent of foreign interests (also because of the back-donors to the international agency);

·       Security risk when communications of the international actor displease certain domestic actors, who might direct the backlash at the national one.

 National organisations are well advised to conduct reciprocal ‘risk assessments’!

Capacity-development for international actors: There are also ‘capacities’ that can be found in national/local organisations, that international ones could learn from. For example:

·       ‘People driven’ and ‘community-responsive’ programming

·       Programming with a strong cultural and social fit

·       Political capabilities: navigating the political space(s)

·       Making a dollar go far

·       Finding creative, innovative solutions in complex and resource-scarce situations

·       Managing disruptive change.

 This is not totally extravagant: In the early 90s, 13 Dutch development CSOs invited ‘southern’ consultants to assess their performance. During 2011-2012 two Dutch development CSOs also asked ‘southern’ partners to participate in their own organisational assessment.[i] But it is certainly not the prevailing practice.

Beyond Money: There are some international agencies, both faith-based and secular, whose mission is simply to strengthen and support national/local capacities. Their ties with ‘partners’ can persist even when there is no money. That is admirable.

Yet even then questions can be asked about transparency and equitability: Some years ago, I came across a case of a national organisation running on the volunteerism of its staff for more than 18 months already. Though the long-standing political instability had not been resolved, there hadn’t been a major crisis for two years, and foreign donors had gone elsewhere than this country of low strategic interest. The long-standing international partner maintained an active relationship. But it did not reveal that its director was earning a salary roughly twice that of the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. And that it had moved into more prestigious and far more expensive headquarter premises. The question of whether it could reduce some of its expenditure and share the savings with the national partner was not raised.

Giovanni Bisignani said: “If one of the partners in a partnership is losing his shirt while the other is counting his money, it is no longer a partnership.” What do you think?

 EPISODE 5: Alice in Wonderland?

 So what might a really ‘equitable’ relationship look like? Well, national agencies might

·       Conduct risk- and capacity-assessments of the international agency; 

·       Demand details of its organigram, staffing numbers and salary scales;

·       Check the depth of commitment and possible conflicts of interest in its governance structure;

·       Question how long the director has been in position and whether leadership is sufficiently institutionalised;

·       Request specifics about its current and future business model(s);

·       Commission an audit or an inquiry when there is a founded concern over wastage or financial mismanagement;

·       Vet its potential donors for programing in their country or region, in light of political risk management;

·       Have a full say in every strategic decision related to the work in this country or region;

·       Check every public communication about the joint programme before it goes out;

·       Provide the international agency with capacity-development support;

·       Expect to be present at every donor meeting; and expect their senior staff to give fair priority to its meeting requests.

 What else?

 Nothing of this should sound outrageous as it is what international agencies typically request and expect from national agencies. Yet it is far from common practice. We can go two ways: We significantly limit our use of the word ‘partnership’ and/or we step up to practice more equitable relationships. Both are options, but let’s start by being clearer of what we want and where we are.


[i] It Takes Two to Tango. PSO & INTRAC Praxis Note 62, 2012





PREPARED-FOR-PARTNERSHIP? Trust and distrust in international cooperation

Two parallel universes

Much of my professional work takes place in two sectors of international cooperation: relief work and peacebuilding, mostly in violent crises. Yet when it comes to atmospheres of trust and equitable collaborations between external and internal actors, they feel like very different universes. The prevailing mood in relief work is distrust; the prevailing effort in peacebuilding is trust. This has significant impact on the ability to form genuine partnerships. Why these stark differences?

Humanitarian distrust

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Some years ago, I gave  a key note speech on “Why is there so much distrust in the humanitarian sector?” This may sound an overstatement, and there are plenty of counter-examples. Yet be around in the sector long enough, listen and observe attentively, and you will notice how little trust there is overall.

Relief agencies suspect crisis-affected people of cheating to get more relief items they are entitled to, or others to have moved into the displaced camp or the distribution queue, to also get free hand-outs. Modern identification technologies have made cross-checking easier, so there is a bit less of that in recent years, but still. Crisis-affected populations are grateful for the aid they receive but observe expensive modes of operating of those who came to help them, wonder what they do with all the survey answers they get, have no idea of the budgets available and how they are spent, and who the people are whose faraway decisions affect them. They wonder about the real motives and agendas of relief agencies. Crisis-affected people may also distrust the local authorities, uncertain whether these seek to get personal financial or political benefit out of their misery.

Local organisations in crisis-affected areas are approached by international relief agencies with distrust as starting point. They are the object of a generic stereotype in which they have limited capacities, may be serving the self- interests of the founder, are possibly politically aligned and not impartial[i], and always constitute a significant risk of fraud and corruption. International relief agencies are weary of local and national governmental authorities, for the same reasons as local populations. A general reflex is to keep them informed but work in parallel to them (there can be closer collaboration in e.g. health, education, social welfare and child protection, depending on the country’s public sector capacities).

Local and national agencies distrust each other, as they are made to compete for limited international funding. They become ‘my partners’ of an international agency rather than privileging solidarity and partnership among each other. International agencies also compete against each other for the limited funding and, the larger ones, to maintain and increase market share. Institutional donors generally have a fair degree of confidence in international relief agencies, but had that boat rocked by instances of fraud (typically kept very quiet), sexual abuse and exploitation (nowadays very publicised) or instances of poor performance (discussed a bit more widely in informal professional circles but not given too much airing).

This in a sector that calls itself ‘humanitarian’, driven by the impulse to help fellow human beings-in-dire-need and rooted, supposedly, in strong principles such as humanity and compassion. The low level of trust, and the emphasis on competition, control and compliance, are now so normal, that when you are in it, it doesn’t it strike you as odd. Has it ever surprised you?

Peacebuilding: trust building and partnering

Peacebuilding work is relationship work. People in deeply divided societies, where social groups fear and hate each other, need to rebuild relationship with each other and often with their leaders. It may be little more than a functional relationship, like an ability to share a market together and exchange goods and services. That still requires a modicum of trust – particularly in environments with no effective or trusted law and contract enforcers.  Programmatic interventions such as disarmament and mobilisation, police reform, an anti-corruption commission, job creation schemes etc. will not have peacebuilding impact if they are not carried out in ways that restore broken relationships between people (some ‘social cohesion’) and basic trust of populations in institutions.

Interpersonal skills, the ability to have and to facilitate difficult conversations, and to build and maintain trust, are core competencies for local, national and international peacebuilders alike.

Many international peacebuilding civil society organisations create fairly equitable partnerships with local and national civil society actors-for-peace. My experience with ‘development’ work is limited, but what I pick up of it, seems also quite geared towards genuine ‘partnerships’.

A discourse indicator

The difference shows in how each sector refers to local non-governmental organisations: Relief agencies speak about ‘local/national NGO’s’, peacebuilders about ‘local civil society’. Even though there is some ‘uncivil society’, the word ‘civil society’ carries connotations of intrinsic legitimacy and value in the wider body politic. Peacebuilders and human rights advocates are deeply concerned about the shrinking legal and political space for civil society in many countries. They seek to protect and strengthen civil society. International relief agencies often weaken local agencies, by hiring away their best staff and turning them into sub-contractors. Local peace actors object to the ‘NGO-isation of civil society’. Local organisations in Cox’s Bazar district, who experienced a Rohingya refugee influx followed by an aid agency influx, have had to ask, explicitly, to be treated and supported as ‘civil society’ organisations.

Uneasy co-existence

In contexts where internationally-supported relief work and peacebuilding take place, like Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali, the co-existence of these divergent attitudes to local actors takes on a surrealistic character. One starts from belief in the potential of national actors and intentionally seeks to support them. The other starts from deep doubts, even disbelief in the potential of national actors (unless they become staff of international agencies, where they suddenly metamorphose into capable colleagues), throws some training and workshops at them as a form of ‘capacity building’, but keeps them on a very tight leash. Sometimes we have the same local organisation portrayed and treated in opposite ways by different international agencies.

There is no simple ‘humanitarian-peacebuilding nexus’. Conflict reduction or peace work and relief work require different mindsets, different ‘doing’ skills, different appreciations of the importance of ‘being’ and relationship management competencies. In terms of the Competing Values Framework, the relief sector operates with the quadrants of ‘compete’ and ‘control’, the peacebuilding world with those of ‘collaborate’ and ‘create’.[ii]

Even within multi-mandate organisations that do both relief and peace work, the respective dedicated units can appear as different universes.

Structural factors influencing preparedness-for-partnership

Before we pin this erratic situation only on individuals or agency cultures, we can identify some structural reasons for these parallel universes.

Replace or reinforce: Speedy logistics and funding permitting, emergency relief goods and services can be delivered by international providers just as well as national or local ones. For the objective of saving lives, Indian and Indonesian rescue teams, if quickly on the scene, could have pushed aside the Protezione Civile after the deadly 2016 earthquake in Central Italy. Bangladeshi emergency teams, used to having half their country under water, could take over next time the dykes in the Netherlands break. If they want and can, external relief actors can replace local ones – for a while.

Peace however cannot be delivered by outsiders. Sustained peace can only be achieved by the collective effort of many local and national actors, including in the public institutions. That also holds for societies torn apart by a lot of external interference. Ultimately, it is the local actors that invite external interference or not and determine how far its influence can go. In other words, peace can only be built and sustained from within. External actors can support local ones but can’t replace them.

Superiority and complementarity: International relief actors can wear a cloak of superiority. They have the money and the expertise (which they build and retain with that money) that gives them the logistics and the ability to meet the standards they have created themselves. International relief actors have a lot of power – to which they are mostly blind and which they don’t like coming under the spotlight. By nature of the task, international peace actors must, of necessity, be more humble. They have valuable contributions to offer, but critical roles and abilities lie with the local actors. Complementarity is inevitable. 

Balance between relationship- and task-management: In their interaction, peacebuilders must practice trust building across divergences of interest and opinion. If they can’t achieve it among themselves, they can’t help others in divided societies do so. If they don’t model it, they will not be credible as peace facilitators. They must be skilled at working with emotions, as it is mostly emotions that drive behaviours in conflict situations. Failing in relationship management, will lead to failure in task management. Competencies in ‘being’ are as important as competencies in ‘doing’. That doesn’t mean that those partnerships never run into serious trouble. But the mindset and competencies of peacebuilders prepares them better to handle these constructively. By contrast, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are not a core competency – in practice- for relief workers. The ‘doing’ easily trumps the ‘being’. All the more so as poor behaviours can be explained by the ‘cumulative stress’ that many relief workers suffer indeed. Yet peacebuilders, particularly those working in their own war-torn societies, suffer at a deep personal level as well.

Money volumes: Relief operations, certainly in the first period of high-profile disasters, disburse significant amounts of money. By comparison, peacebuilding is cheap (though the cost of war, and the profits from arms sales, are immense). Absence of big money actually helps peace work: it doesn’t muddy the relational waters with the temptation of material gain. But if no public money should be misappropriated, this is only a quantitative and not a qualitative difference. All are equally held to financial accountability.

Time-horizons: International relief actions operate with short-term time horizons, typically six to twelve months. Peacebuilders do not have long funding contracts. But they know that theirs is a long-term endeavour. Overcoming the legacy of major civil war can take a generation, at least. Serious peacebuilding work, of necessity, must be strategic and long term. Another factor that encourages strategic partnerships.


At the heart of all this, is the trust-dilemma. All of us have certain inclinations towards trusting. Some of us go through life with a disposition to others of distrust until proven trustworthy. Some of us start from a trusting position, until someone else proves not worthy of that trust. In the short run, the first attitude may take us further. In the long run, the second one may provide the greater rewards. Where do you see yourself on this?

A degree of caution is not misplaced. Opportunistic local NGOs exist; more mushroom into existence when significant aid money becomes suddenly available. Temptations of personal financial gain for some can be hard to resist. Civil society organisations, also peacebuilding ones, can be used as stepping stones for directors with political ambitions. Trustworthiness cannot be assumed.

But there are also many local people and leaders in service to their fellow human beings, often working on a voluntary basis or with modest salaries, consciously forsaking opportunities in the private sector where they could earn much more. Some have spent years of tenacious commitment to build up increasingly capable organisations. Just as there are many civil servants doing whatever they can with the inadequate means their bureaucracy can’t provide. I’ve often been their guest and must admit that many of them give more than I do. Labelling them generically as a ‘high risk’ is deeply insulting to them. Nor do international agencies acknowledge the risks that local ones run, when entering into substantial collaboration agreements with them.[iii]   Being under constant surveillance about their use of public money, they are surprised by the disregard of wastage of public money by international agencies. “With US $ 2000, I can do five times as much as they do.” (Lebanese NGO director) “For the full cost of one international here for one month, I can run a team of four capable colleagues for five months” (Bangladeshi NGO director) Not to speak about expensive conferences and duplication of research.

We seem blind to how local and national peacebuilders carry on, even without international funding. So do many local relief actors in protracted and forgotten crises, after the boom-and-bust wave of international relief has passed. There is no reporting of what local actors do and achieve when no internationals are present. Our picture of realities on the ground is very incomplete, probably distorted.

Research shows how local/national actors (have to) rely on social (and political) relationships and networks that are held together by trust.[iv] The practical conditions often do not allow reliance primarily on formal systems of control, checks and balances, as international agencies do. The personal trust relationships provide the checks and balances. For them, the work is also personal, and they are surprised at the lack of personal involvement and investment in trust by international actors. Another Lebanese CSO director expressed this as the coffee principle: “Don’t start talking to me immediately about a project and budgets, let’s first have some coffees, get to know each other, and see whether we share the same values and objectives.”

The differences show up in the ‘due diligence’ processes to which international agencies like to submit local/national ones. These pay a lot of attention to the formal set-up (contributing to ‘NGO-isation’) and explicit policies and procedures. They contribute to ‘more paper and less aid’. It sometimes forces a local agency to quickly borrow policies and procedures from another, so they can meet the paper requirements. It doesn’t mean these are internalised – just as the codes of conducts and policies and procedures on sexual harassment and other abuse of international agencies don’t work without the right organisational culture.[v] As another Bangladesh CSO director put it: “Our society is still largely a verbal one. The relevant point is not whether you have the right policy paper, but how often these issues are internally talked about with staff.”

International agencies are justifiably careful. A step-by-step approach might make sense: First work with a local organisation on a transactional basis. Take this as an opportunity to get to know each other. Local CSOs are well advised to do the same and explore how reliable an international agency is. If trust increases, the relationship can develop into a more equitable partnership. Sometimes that happens. But I also see too many cases where it doesn’t, where the talk about ‘partnership’ masks continued subordination, even after years of collaboration. Workable and liveable partnerships cannot exist on the force of paper agreements, policies and procedures only. However detailed, these are brought alive only by the actual behaviours of people collaborating. That doesn’t happen without a grounding in lived and practiced values, a willingness to give some trust, a solid dose of self-awareness, and good interpersonal skills. Only when the being is alive will the doing thrive.[vi]


The two above characterisations of relief work and peacebuilding are generalisations.  I am well aware that each has other practices and experiences. Assess for yourself however, particularly if you have longer experience in one or the other, or both:

·       Is relationship and trust building an explicit attention point and objective in your role, in your practice?

·       Has your agency offered you experiential learning to strengthen your self-awareness, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills? Are people recruited and is performance assessed also on that aspect?

·       Does your organisation explicitly reflect on how to achieve complementary collaboration and equitable partnership?

·       Is relationship continuity a conscious attention point at times of staff turnover?

·       Is your organisation’s culture prepared for partnerships?

[i] This is often alleged, without international actors making the effort to actually verify this. One cannot simply rely on the identity of a CSO director, or her or his political connections to draw conclusions. The question is whether the CSO works inclusively across divides, whether the political connections are used to maintain a dynamic 'impartiality', and for narrow- or common-good interest. See M. Stephen et alii 2017: Partnerships in Conflict p. 26, International Alert & Oxfam

[ii] Competing Values Framework

[iii] See ‘The Partnership Chronicles’

[iv]  E.g. Howe, K et alii 2015: Breaking the Hourglass: Partnerships in Remote Management Settings – The cases of Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, Tufts Univ.

[v] For a sad confirmation of this, see The Konterra Group’s 2019 review of Amnesty International’s Staff Wellbeing

[vi] The phrase comes from Being at Full Potential coaching