Fifteen years ago, when I joined the humanitarian sector, I believed that article 6 of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief regulated field practice. It stated "we shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities... Where possible, we will work through local NGHAs (1) as partners in planning and implementation...". Complementarity with local actors was subsequently emphasized in the 1996 Sphere Project, the 2003 Good Humanitarian Donorship principles, and the 2007 Principles of Partnership.
In Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali, the Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone, I saw good examples of local and international partners working together. I also met many staff members of local and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who were dissatisfied with the quality of the partnerships they had with international agencies. Resource distribution was a major area of concern.
In 2013, while taking part in the Practitioner Expert Programme at Tufts University, I interviewed the heads of three West African NGOs that had partnered with international organizations for over a decade. All were adamant that there was little willingness from their international counterparts to allow or help them grow meaningfully for fear of being outperformed. While they acknowledged their own shortcomings, they also gave specific examples of power imbalance.
The head of an Ivorian NGO described a difficult partnership. "We partnered on a food distribution project with an international non-governmental organization (INGO), on a United Nations agency project", he said. "The following year we applied directly to the United Nations agency. The INGO said they ought to get the project and deal directly with the United Nations agency in Geneva. They got the project but were not able to implement it in the field, so they got back to us and subcontracted us for the very same project. This is no partnership. It is abuse and exploitation. We do the work, they get the funds".
Insufficient resources, limited access to information, complex procedures, and significantly lower salaries and overhead costs allowed in local and national NGO budgets, as well as local and national NGOs not being permitted to retain staff, were mentioned as negative factors emphasizing the perception of local organizations that they were being discriminated against. One...