So, You Think You Are My Partner? International NGOs and National NGOs, Costs of Asymmetrical Relationships

Photo by DFID – UK Department for International Development | CC BY 2.0

Despite decades of talk in the humanitarian community about empowering national partner organizations to be equals of the international non-government organizations – and in fact having them take over the work – little has changed. Not only do the vast majority of national organizations remain in a relationship that resembles a prolonged adolescence to an international ‘parent’, the failure to truly partner national organizations as fully-fledged and enfranchised entities puts staff and programs at risk in an increasing violent and polarized world. The Syrian humanitarian theatre is an apt example of asymmetry of power between international and national organizations endangering staff and programs.

Syrian partners assumption of risk

Billions of dollars of humanitarian assistance are being delivered across Syria’s borders in a context populated by warring armed groups, including designated terrorist organizations, active front lines that regularly experience indiscriminate aerial attacks, and the occasional use of chemical weapons. The humanitarian vehicles are international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), Syrian national non-governmental organizations (NNGOs), contractors, and the United Nations.[1] Inside Syria, the work is undertaken almost exclusively by Syrians.

Safety is critical in all humanitarian settings and Syria, arguably one of the most dangerous contexts on the planet, is certainly no exception. For decades, safety of humanitarian operations has been predicated upon the concept of community acceptance, a premise that if a humanitarian organization has built a good relationship with a community, that community will at minimum not harm and at maximum assure the safety of the humanitarian organization and its staff. [2]

The viability of the concept of acceptance has been challenged by an increasingly dangerous world.[3] In response, INGOs invest in safety measures that are management-intensive and expensive. These INGOs with their deep pockets, experienced staff, and decades of institutional development can command the support and systems that protect staff. NNGOs lack these assets.

An adjustment has taken place and it is very visible not only in the Syrian theatre, but in all high-risk humanitarian environments. INGOs have pulled back to safe platforms and they ‘partner’ with NNGOs to implement on the front line. This very visible shift in who actually delivers assistance is based on assumptions of better acceptance of national staff and organizations than of international organizations. Along with the transfer of front line work, goes the transfer of risk from the INGO to NNGO. Unfortunately, in most cases the resources to manage and mitigate that risk do not transfer. The Syrian NNGO may plausibly be better positioned in terms of community acceptance on the basis of national, cultural, and religious commonalities, but it is more likely to lack the management depth and expertise to exercise other critical aspects of assuring safety. Furthermore, the assumption of community acceptance of national staff or organizations cannot be taken as the panacea it is often presented to be, particularly in situations of civil war and/or inter-communal competition where presumed identity or affiliation can actually attract risk.

A failure to empower

Notwithstanding decades of solemn rhetoric about empowerment and significant investment in capacity building – wherein the international organization builds the ‘capacity’ of the national partner – it is utterly unclear what has been accomplished, so poorly articulated are the goals and unevenly measured the outcomes. As one seasoned humanitarian professional noted recently in an interview, “Look at the Gaza Strip. We [the international community] have been building capacities of national organizations there for decades. As much capacity as has supposedly been built, the place ought to be Singapore.” Of course this was in ironic jest, not intended as a serious comparison of the two contexts – but the central point is valid. There has been very significant investment and what have been the measurable results in terms of national organizations that can truly compete with their international counterparts? And who are sufficiently in control to assure safety.

The poor return on investment in ‘capacity’ and ‘empowerment’ in terms creating a cohort of national partners who are equal or superior to international organizations is not due to a general absence of good will. However, as a number of long-time humanitarian practitioners observe, there is a lack of commitment to, and often an outright bias against, NNGOs by expatriate INGO staff. There are also, critically, structural impediments, resource allocation inequities, a focus on immediate delivery of goods and services as opposed to long-term investment, dynamics associated with rather short-lived project cycles, and intrusion of politics and foreign policies into assistance funding. In a world where needs are expanding while aid resources become scarcer, there is clearly a disincentive to the INGOs to “grow competitors”. It is worth noting in this regard that the national staff working in INGOs are also often inadequately represented in senior management teams, strategy, and programme design – thereby denying the work the full benefit of local knowledge and understanding.[4] It is also only fair to observe that for a variety of cultural and economic reasons, national staff of international organizations are often powerful maintainers of a status quo that relegates their compatriots in national organizations to the peanut gallery. These gaps have real impact in terms of the safety and well-being of national partner staff.

As terms like ‘empowerment,’ and ‘capacity building’ have become hackneyed, so has the term ‘partner’ and ‘partnership’ to describe the relationships between INGOs and NNGOs. While the term ‘partnership’ is now pregnant with positive connotations, in interviews with dozens of INGOs and NNGOS in the Middle East and southern Africa, staff readily acceded that the thing called partnership was most often simply a contractual relationship where a more powerful and richer entity, the INGO, purchased services from a weaker, poorer entity, the NNGO. They also noted that donors were very insistent about the presence of partners – in large numbers – in proposals. One INGO national staff member observed with mild derision “if we put in partners and mention capacity building, we get funded. If we put more, we get more funding.”

Of course, this purely instrumental relationship is problematic if we are serious about a stated goal of ‘putting ourselves out of business,’ in favor of national organizations, enfranchising local actors in the important decisions about strategy, planning, and design, and redressing power imbalances. But purely transactional[5] relationships with local ‘partners’ are particularly important when we look at the question of risk transfer from internationals to nationals – and whether we are doing enough to protect nationals. For example, employing the Syria context, rural Hama has been a very dangerous operational environment of fluid front lines, aerial bombardment, and lightning strikes by ISIS. Almost all the international humanitarian organizations operating out of southern Turkey cross-border have employed the services of Syrian NNGOs to deliver humanitarian assistance there. In so doing, they have relied on NNGO assurances of family connections or ill-defined networks while at the same time, not investing particularly in the ability of these NNGOs to manage their own safety and, very important, not including them meaningfully at stages of project design decision-making where the “how, what, and where” of humanitarian delivery are determined. Very few partners interviewed had ever been invited to strategy planning or project design meetings. On the contrary, their experience had been that they were informed where they would go, what they would do, and for how much money – and then asked to write a ‘proposal’ to those specifications for inclusion in the larger donor submission.

Partner NNGOs regularly report feeling that they are inadequately able to manage or plan and that they lack the expertise or resources to assure safety. [6] INGO and partner staff interviewed often comment that partners’ purpose seems to be to assume the risk of working in areas that the INGO has designated ‘no-go’. In fact, in many cases INGOs who directly implement inside Syria (via Syrian staff) will allow partner staff to work in areas where they will not permit their own national staff to work.[7] As just one example, during the ferocious battle for control of Aleppo City in December 2016, which included indiscriminate bombing and shelling, NNGOs continued to struggle to deliver food channeled from an INGO who had not permitted international staff to enter Syria since 2013 and had not permitted their own national staff to go to Aleppo for more than a year.

The Syrian staff of the NNGO felt a profound commitment to their community and the international partner was adhering to a humanitarian principle of meeting needs no matter what. But those realities do not obviate the basic ethical question of why it would be acceptable for Syrian staff employed by a Syrian organization to be out and about delivering humanitarian aid when Syrian staff working directly for the INGO were forbidden to move. Are the INGOs putting the NNGOs in harm’s way without adequate mitigation? We assert that the answer to this is an emphatic ‘yes’ and that the roots of the practice lie in the fact that what we call a partnership is very often nothing of the kind.

A Duty of Care

Safety is intrinsically linked to the principle of duty of care. Duty of care is a legal obligation requiring a standard of reasonable care while performing acts that could foreseeably harm others. National staff (including partner staff) constitutes 90 percent of all humanitarian workers and bear the brunt of attacks in insecure environments due to their positioning on front lines.[8] It is important for international staff and INGOs to realize that national colleagues and partners may find it very difficult to decline potentially dangerous work for economic and/or national/community commitment reasons. National staff and organizations regularly report feeling unable to decline unsafe assignments and this is quite directly related to asymmetry of power. The INGO controls the resources, treats the partner as hired help while referring to ‘partnership’, and fails to fully incorporate the expertise and knowledge the national organization can bring, particularly at early stages of project design that can lead to better outcomes and safer implementation. One example of this is in protection programming focusing on Syrian women and creating “safe spaces”. On occasion, INGOs working in Syria have implemented their particular safe space model through local partners despite the serious misgivings of the local partners and their staff. Gender issues are sensitive in all environments, but in embattled Syria, they are particularly fraught. The INGO, by insisting on a model that not only could not work in the sense of delivering protection, but which also attracted suspicion, hostility and threats from the community towards the front-line workers, failed two-fold – multiplying the program failure by undermining acceptance, partner credibility, and trust.

Inclusion and asymmetry

Asymmetry of power is a deeply entrenched reality of humanitarian operations. Structural barriers are significant. The majority of government institutional donors – the developed nations – have legislated regulatory systems that (a) favor their own compatriot INGOs and (b) effectively exclude direct access to funding by NNGOs. The national organization is either not qualified to apply at all or the compliance barriers of financial, procurement, recruitment, and reporting systems are so significant it is the rare national organization that can get over the bar. This asymmetry is exacerbated by an institutional culture that prizes insider (e.g. Western) bureaucratic knowledge.

A manager with global responsibilities in a large INGO noted that in a recent organization-wide strategy exercise not one single NNGO was included. It appears that no ‘partner’ was actually worth hearing from, including, or consulting. This is reflective of a world-view and practice that is as western-centric and imperialistic as ever, with a gloss of political correctness over-laid – and it reflects almost everything seen in daily practice across the community. One of the hallmarks of the unwillingness of the international community to listen is exemplified in the prolonged provision of humanitarian food in north Syria. Of course, in emergency situations provision of food is critical. However, while Syrian communities have, since very early in the conflict, pleaded for more funding that would create jobs and revitalize local economies, many donors have insisted that ‘the time isn’t right’ and continued with assistance that many see as debilitating hand-outs. The key point here is that communities and NNGOs have largely been ignored by an international community talking loudly about consultation, local voices, and empowerment.

Everyone acknowledges duty of care/safety for international staff and national staff should not differentiate as if one set of lives were of more value. The question becomes somewhat more complicated in the context of a partner relationship where the INGO does not directly employ partner staff.[9] The humanitarian sector, based on project-limited funding is not strongly positioned to provide workingman’s compensation, disability payments, or survivor benefits to national staff. Usually payments for staff injured or killed in the line of duty are ad hoc, discretionary, and inadequate.

As inadequate as benefits may be for the national staff of an INGO, they are usually non-existent for NNGO staff. Donor and INGO budgeting practice allow no ‘fat’ in the NNGO project implementation budget and there is no ‘privity of contract’ with the NNGO staff. This results in a morally troubling reality – that INGOs allow and/or dispatch NNGOs to work in areas they deem too dangerous for their own staff, and when NNGO staff get hurt or killed there is little or no safety net. When a guard at an INGO supported facility in a Syrian village was killed at his post, his NNGO employer had no resources or relevant policy to provide benefits that would cushion his widow and three young children. In this case, the INGO, which enjoyed some discretionary resources, stepped in providing a paltry two months of salary – USD 800 – to the bereaved family. It is very hard to ignore the bitter disconnects – an INGO whose proposal and report language is replete about protecting and cushioning women-children-communities-the disabled from shocks, was actually wholly unprepared in terms of policy and planning to address adequately an almost predictable harm.

The INGO community is largely made of up of people focused on social justice and very often INGO managers will make individual decisions to, for example, provide a widow with the equivalent of one or two months’ salary. But individual kindness is no amelioration of systemic callousness and irresponsibility. As a community – governments, donors, and practitioners – we need to better address what we can do for staff when things go wrong and invest more in assuring things do not go wrong.

Syrian NGOs face inherent structural challenges

There are aspects of management structures within Syrian NNGOs and between Syrian NNGOs and their international counterparts that are pertinent to understanding why duty of care is a challenge.

First is the nature of the Syria conflict, which has moved beyond a civil war to a proxy battle involving a large number of actors and many armed groups, most of whom experience internal violent conflicts. Naturally, the complexity of the internal conflicts is deeply felt by Syrian NNGOs and their staff – and poses particular challenges to the question of acceptance. When, because of immutable identity markers, you are assigned to one side or another in a multi-sided/factional conflict, the possibility of acceptance narrows significantly.

The second challenge, access, has become a more level, if very unfortunate, playing field in the sense that international and national NGOs are in very similar positions trying to cope with a largely closed border, a very limited ability to move staff in an out of Syria, and a growingly distanced (and therefore poorly supported) inside-Syria staff. However, Syrian NNGOs have some significant access advantages in terms of their networks, communication channels, and contacts in a place where interpersonal relationships are at a premium. These interpersonal connections are one basis for trust, and hence acceptance.[10] That said, a large INGO operating in Syria had its operations brought to a halt in late 2015 with the kidnapping of Syrian staff by a particularly radical military group. This was a precise demonstration that being from the same geographic, ethnic, religious, and social group is no guarantee of ‘acceptance’ or protection.

Structural problems represent a third challenge to Syrian NNGOs. Learned norms from the rigidly hierarchical system of pre-conflict Syria are exaggerated by philosophical and religious differences thrown into sharp relief by the nature of the conflict and the lines upon which that conflict are drawn. The more deeply ingrained the sense and practice that ‘the boss is the boss’ and therefore everything he (engenderment deliberate) says is right, the greater or lesser extent to which Syrian NGOs are denied the benefits of innovation and dynamism that come with more inclusive, participatory, horizontally integrated practice. [11] This can have direct impact on staff safety both in terms of communication and community acceptance.

The asymmetry of power is also engendered. Women working in Syrian NNGOs, a small proportion of staff, almost universally reported being disenfranchised within institutions already structurally disenfranchised from critical program decision-making, direction, and budgeting.[12] The exceptions appeared to be women who, in organizations that were heavily family-based, were closely related to organization leaders – classic examples of women who are empowered by their access to men who actually hold the reins.

A related, fourth, challenge for Syrian NNGOs, but one that merits distinction, is that there is often less appreciation for the education and experience of staff in favor of ‘wasta’ i.e. a respective staff member’s ‘influence’ or ‘pull’. Too often, recruitment depends on personal relationships as opposed to neutral processes and merit. These systems create hierarchies not best positioned to care for staff and debilitate organizations’ potential capacities.

Fifth, in Syria’s deeply factionalized landscape where lack of affiliation is rare, NNGO staff are lined up, to greater or lesser degrees, with the various factions and philosophical approaches to the revolution. This is a source of conflict within most organizations and sometimes between the NNGOs and the communities in which they are working. The INGOs have often appeared to be oblivious and NNGO management teams do their best to conceal or suppress the tensions.[13] The need to manage internal conflict, particularly in a humanitarian setting where neutrality is an espoused value, is a distracting energy drain on the Syrian organizations and reticence can impinge safety.

There are obligations upon the INGOs in their relationships with Syrian NNGOs.

Two immediate areas are suggested as practical to positively support Syrian NNGOs in making their operations safer. First in the realm of policy, assuring that staff are fully conversant in humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality, and neutrality will help address some of the challenges outlined above. Assuring that national partners have developed and apply duty of care policies and practices, which are budgeted, is also critical.

Operationally, local NNGOs should be treated as a valuable asset in terms of interpretation of Syria. What would such reliance look like and what benefit would it provide? INGOs should fully include local partners in strategy, planning, project design, and project proposal processes. In so doing, real skills and knowledge are transferred to partner staff and, very important, the local organization, which is actually going to have to implement the activity, has the opportunity to point out what will work and what will not work. For example, an INGO planning an activity to support head-of-household women to establish livelihoods was quite advanced in its planning and preparation to provide women and girls with market-place, salaried opportunities.  However, when they approached one of their partner NNGOs to actually implement, the partner pointed out that the particular work opportunities suggested would put the beneficiaries at considerable protection risk, opening them to severe censure from their community. To its credit, in this instance, the INGO listened to the partner’s counsel and in collaboration, redesigned the intervention. It would have been better if the partner had been at the planning table from the beginning.

The policy and operational suggestions above, go to the heart of effective project implementation and safety of operations. For example, when a benefit package, beneficiary targeting criteria, or provision of a needed service to an entire village are unilaterally and without consultation changed, for whatever reason, it can result in real violence. Few, if any organizations working in Syria have avoided the experience of having beneficiaries or their family members show up at offices or distributions to emphasize their dissatisfaction with the business end of a gun. This is probably not wholly avoidable, but certainly improved inclusion, consultation, and communications with the national partners who have the direct community interface will help.

Building an environment of mutual respect grounded in equity, transparency, and shared agendas or goals will also support the kind of communication channels that enable adequate care for staff. Partners who are alienated or fearful are unlikely to share security challenges. INGOs cannot support responses to problems, nor can they protect themselves from risks, of which they are unaware.

The donors are a key element in the system of structural exclusion/subordination

Many donors have a practice of regular ‘partner’ meetings of some kind. It varies from donor to donor, and often decisions about who is invited are dependent on personalities – personalities of donor hosts but also the perception of what is ‘value add’ from a partner. Unfortunately, ‘value add’ is often perceived to come from nationals more on the basis of English language facility and showmanship and less on a more democratic, and humanitarian, ethos of empowering or listening to local voices. It should be felt as deeply troubling that we discount contributors due to their ability to function only in the language of the place we seek to serve. It is a regular occurrence to sit around a table solemnly discussing wither Syria, with no single Syrian in sight.

As various aspects of humanitarian response have become accepted requirements – the consultative needs assessment for example, so should be inclusion by donors of NNGOs. Arguments that lack of ‘privity of contract’, distance created by sub-grant relationships, or ‘security’ simply do not hold water in meetings where groups are trying to figure out the best ways to deliver humanitarian responses to vulnerable populations.

Be a better partner

There are ways that the INGOs can effectively mitigate some of the inherent concerns of risk transfer to local partners.

First assure the NNGOs are trained and equipped to work safely and that safety planning has been thorough and strategic. One senior manager who has led both INGOs and NNGOs working in Syria noted the gratitude and enthusiasm of NNGO national staff on the ground when communications and crisis protocols were developed and rolled out. The staff wanted to, and did, ‘stand and deliver’ in the worst conditions, but were able to do so more safely with some training. This implies redirection of more resource to the NNGO, an issue that goes to the heart of the asymmetry of INGO/NNGO relations.

Training, planning, and equipping together is an approach enhanced when there is a strategic partnership between INGOs, NNGOs, any Community Based Organizations (CBOs) in hard-to-reach areas, and/or Local Councils where all parties are committed to clear outcomes and goals in sharing power and resources. The nature of humanitarian funding poses a real structural barrier to these kinds of strategic partnerships – projectized, highly focused on outputs, and short-lived. However, as the humanitarian community evolves more towards national organizations implementing on the ground in insecure environments, there can be no moral (or practical) excuse for the lack of effective strategic investment. This is in the realm of the possible.

Syrian NNGOs need systematic, sustained investment and support

If, as an international community, we are to truly address the asymmetry of power we need to meet national organizations part way. We are trapped in an ugly cycle. We demand that NNGOs, in order to independently receive funding at a scale that would allow them to sustain real internal control and management systems, somehow have those systems already. At the same time, we starve them of the kind of funding that would permit their development.

Funding is not the only issue. An organization that lacks the ability to recruit and retain staff with the necessary skills, IT systems, and communications that facilitate and control work, and which is faced with what often seems like a blizzard of demands from its INGO partner, simply often lacks the ‘bandwidth’ to focus on its own development and growth. This allows or forces international organizations to maintain tight control of the resource. INGO poaching of NNGO staff debilitates national organizations. By investing more, sharing more, and taking a principled approach to salary scales, benefits, and attracting the best local talent away from the local organizations, INGOs could avoid the paradoxical and unacceptable position of supposedly building national capacities which are then poached.

In the arena of safety and security, Syrian NNGOs need significant support. These needs include basic understanding of safety and security, help with policies and contingency planning, basic training, and equipment. There may be a view that NNGOs, because their staff are nationals, ‘know what they are doing’ in the local, very violent, context. In a sense this is, of course, correct – but as noted above being from a place may be a necessary but insufficient criteria.

So what should a real INGO/NNGO partnership look like? However strategic or transactional the relationship, it must be characterized in practice and budget by the kind of professional communication, inclusion, and support that will serve to reduce risks for both parties. While, from a distance, we see what appear to be real partnership arrangements, for example the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and relationships within some research organizations, we are unable to point to a direct experience where relationships were not framed by power asymmetry, the limitations of project-based funding, and the shifting priorities of the international donor community. And therein lies the point – as a community we are not functioning as partners, and that puts organizations and people at risk as we transfer that risk from the higher capacity more powerful entity to the lower capacity entity who may have a harder time saying ‘no’.

We have directly witnessed and experienced the profound dangers to humanitarians working in Syria and been concerned by the sustained failure of the international community in general to truly invest time, trust, and resources in assuring that Syrians are in the lead in more than a tokenistic sense and that the Syrian civil society organizations, born in the caldron of the civil war, emerge as the powerful actors on behalf of their country and communities that they can and should be. Few would describe the agony of Syria as an ‘opportunity’ – nor would we. However, the emergence of the NNGOs is important to the future of Syria in many ways, and the failure to use this theatre to really meet the challenge of the stated aspirations of the larger community for the past several decades is simply stated, inexcusable.


[1] It must be acknowledged that aid is also delivered by various arms of neighboring state governments such as the IHH and the Turkish Red Crescent.

[2] For example see the Remarks of Mr. Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross on to the United Nations Security Council on World Humanitarian Day, 2014. Also see the The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Stay Safe: The Federation’s Guide to a Safer Mission. Geneva, Switzerland, 2009 in which acceptance is named as the first pillar of staff safety.

[3] Kristian Hoelscher, Jason Miklian Håvard, and Mokleiv Nygård. Understanding attacks on Humanitarian Aid Workers. The Conflict Trends Project: Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), June 2015.

[4] Based on the authors’ experience of close to fifty combined years in international development and humanitarian work.

[5] It is important to note there is nothing wrong with a purely transaction relationship for the purpose of project implementation between and INGO and an NNGO. It is not, however, a partnership by any definition of that word and doesn’t approach any of the aspirations the humanitarian community has loaded onto that word. However transactional the relationship, however, assuring an ethical basis is important – NNGOs and their staff are not the Hessians of the humanitarian world.

[6] Formal and informal interviews conducted by the authors with more than 20 national NGOs working in Syria in 2016 and 2017 consistently confirmed the NNGO view that they lacked the resources and capacity to effectively assess, plan, and manage security issues.

[7] The authors’ direct experience implementing humanitarian response in Syria confirmed this. In fact there were a set of virtual circles with national staff employed by the INGO only allowed to deploy to a certain parameter, which could change on a daily or hourly basis, and NNGO staff empowered to deploy well beyond those boundaries with infrequent risk assessment-driven adjustments.

[8] OCHA. “Safety and Security for National Humanitarian Workers.” To Stay and Deliver – Good practice for humanitarians in complex security environments, 2011.

[9] Interviews with staff of large American and European INGOs conducted throughout 2016 and 2017 included questions about risk transfer to national organizations. Staff at all levels acknowledged that this took place as a matter of routine and expressed concern about it, voicing a sense of helplessness.

[10] Recent survey work undertaken in northern Syria indicated that there are a cohort of Syrian NGOs who are recognized and generally appreciated in their communities for their service.

[11] Complaints about management practices in NNGOs were raised repeatedly by their staff in a series of all day, in-house interviews at their offices in Gaziantep, Reyhanli, and Antakya, Turkey.

[12] Interviews conducted by the authors with NNGO staff in Turkey and Syria in 2016 and 2017.

[13] This reality was observed directly by their authors in their respective work in NNGOs, INGOs, and reported and confirmed repeatedly by colleagues who worked in both kinds of organization.