Dakar — UN agencies and international NGOs (INGOs) are increasingly stressing the need to reach out to new partners, including local NGOs, to build their capacity to respond to humanitarian crises.
Yet agencies are still said to "arrive, set the agenda, do their activities and leave," said Sayadi Sani, head of the local Nigerien nutrition NGO Befen. How can aid agencies better empower local NGOs?
A recent study by the accountability and learning non-profit ALNAP concluded that partnerships between INGOs and local NGOs were too often reactive and shaped by "ad hoc interactions that take place at the point of crisis." Humanitarian actors were not yet systematic about partnerships, it said.
Some of the weaknesses of partnership models included: limited time and funding for capacity building or emergency preparedness; inadequate monitoring and evaluation frameworks for assessing partners' work; and deprioritizing developing strategies with partners.
Building up partners
All of the NGOs IRIN spoke to said they built partners' capacity in some form or other, and most had training schemes.
ActionAid puts many of its partners through a human rights-based approach training programme, it said. And because many of its partners are chosen for their expertise in, say, women's rights or labour rights, ActionAid is learning from them as well, said the group's humanitarian and resilience head, Bijay Kumar.
Save the Children extends some of its trainings, including child-rights approaches and household economy analysis, to partners. Christian Aid organizes trainings for partners in all sorts of areas, from accountability standards to cash programming and monitoring and evaluation.
Most agreed that funding is a problem. "Funds for the replication of trainings for local staff from partners [are] difficult to find," said Serge Beremwoudgougou, emergency project officer with Christian Aid, which taps into its own privately collected funds to train partners. ActionAid often taps into its child sponsorship funds to finance training.
"Often the capacity [to develop partnerships] is not there [in donor financing]," said ActionAid's Kumar.
Letting partners set the agenda
The French nutrition NGO Alima goes a step further. It runs a standard four-week training programme for partners, but also assigns mentors to partner staff, insists on regular staff exchanges and matches funds committed by partner staff to undertake a Master's degree.
The organization also has a longer-term goal of developing a medical certification scheme for partners, which would show they have met response standards.
Alima does not define the extent or focus of a project; its partners do. This model is relatively rare, say its partners. More often, a local partner and a funding agency will jointly develop a strategy - at least to some degree - but the funding agency is ultimately in charge of the final parameters.
Alima tries to cede control where possible: "They [partners] oversee the work, and we support them. We want the responsibility of projects to be in the partners' hands," said Augustin Augier, Alima's West Africa coordinator. "This is at the heart of the humanitarian project ... Eighty percent of work is done by implementing partners, so why don't they govern it?"
Alima works with five partners in four countries in the region: one each in Chad, Niger and Mali, and two in Burkina Faso.
Befen is Alima's Nigerien partner.
Befen's Sani says he appreciates the approach. "Malnutrition is a recurrent and permanent problem in Niger. You need national competencies to emerge to address it," he said, noting the government's capacity to prevent and treat malnutrition is "very weak".
The NGO appreciates its other partnerships - it has partnered with Médecins sans Frontières in the past and is currently partnered with the World Food Programme - but Alima offers it the greatest freedom to guide its own work, said Sani.
Befen defines the project scope and priorities, he said. As a result, local expertise to address malnutrition is building. "Malnutrition is a multi-sectoral problem so we need to build up our local competence to address it across the board," Sani told IRIN.
By letting others prioritize, the project focus inevitably shifts, said Augier. "You don't work the same way in a foreign place as you would at home ... We, for instance, don't usually have the objective of covering a whole area's needs, but for a local NGO it's very important to focus on full coverage, so we had to find other ways of operating."
Setting the agenda is less complicated; enabling others to is more complex "but also much more interesting," he said.
Befen forged a partnership with Alima in 2009; it now treats 20 percent of Niger's malnutrition cases, focusing on Zinder and Maradi.
The next step in building up local capacity to respond to crises is to forge regional networks of local NGOs, say staff.
This is just beginning in the Sahel. Alima's partners - the Malian NGO AMCP, Chadian NGO Alert-Santé, SOS Santé in Burkina Faso and Befen in Niger - have created a platform to share information and help each other respond where necessary.
In February 2012, during the recent Mali crisis, AMCP needed to go through Niger to access parts of northern Mali, so Befen helped. Likewise, SOS Santé helped get medical supplies to AMCP in the north. The network they are building "is starting to look like that of an INGO's" said Augier.
ActionAid also encourages local and regional platforms, said Kumar. After working for five years in Sri Lanka, ActionAid's local partners - mainly civil society groups - were connected to national NGO alliances and to government networks.
"They started raising funds by themselves. We tried to link them to donors ... It's about establishing an alliance and solidarity where both southern and northern NGOs have a role," he said.
Still, local NGOs cannot, for the most part, access large-scale institutional funding such as the European Union humanitarian donor ECHO. AMCP's director, Diakité Aminata Kaio, said that accessing large-scale institutional funding would be the real test of empowerment.
ECHO makes funding available to European aid agencies, and it is not about to shift its policy, having just finalized a five-year partner agreement that kicks off in 2014, said its West Africa head, Cyprien Fabre.
"On an operational level, we fully acknowledge the quality of national NGOs' work and commitment, but there are complicated legal issues involved," he said.
AMCP is discussing funding opportunities with the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development, among others. "If there's one thing I'd prioritize in terms of building our sustainability, access to international funding would be it," said Kaio.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]