Image by Jodi Hilton/IRIN | Haj Bassam, the owner of a small restaurant, and his employee, Mulera Colak, making Syrian flatbread
  • Report
  • 22 November 2022

Funding to local actors: evidence from the Syrian refugee response in Türkiye: Chapter 5

Quality of partnerships


While the quality and volume of funding reaching LNAs is a central dimension of localisation, the quality of partnerships between international and national organisations is also critical to facilitating a locally led response. Respectful and equitable partnerships with reciprocal transparency and accountability is a fundamental foundation of localisation.[1]

Previous research has highlighted the prevalent ‘subcontracting’ nature of partnerships between international and national actors in Türkiye.[2] For some L/NNGOs interviewed, their position as second or third recipients in a funding chain reinforces this experience of an ‘employer–employee relationship’. However, experiences differed and most L/NNGOs interviewed could give examples of partnerships where they felt they were subcontractors, and partnerships they considered to be more strategic. Generally, larger, more well-established L/NNGOs had better partnership experiences than smaller, local organisations. Ultimately though, most L/NNGOs interviewed did not feel they were completely equal partners with their international counterparts. While some international organisations interviewed have moved toward more of a strategic partnership approach, for example by working with the same partners over the long term and co-designing projects together, others did still view local organisations as implementing organisations. In other words, though the ‘how’ was increasingly being handed over to L/NNGOs, the ‘what’ remained in the control of the international organisation.

The compliance requirements and constant monitoring of L/NNGO cash management and activity was flagged as a key issue. This not only puts a large administrative burden on organisations but also strains the sense of trust between international and national partners. The intense scrutiny is at odds with the level of input L/NNGOs feel they have in budgetary decisions and the level of risk they are expected to take on in implementation. This limits a sense of empowerment, as one organisation said, “we don’t feel very autonomous because we need to justify our activities all the time”.

Despite this, partnerships between international and national actors have clearly evolved over time, and many L/NNGOs have worked with the same international partners for many years. Some L/NNGOs gave positive feedback of more strategic partnerships that have developed with international funders, though it was common for L/NNGOs to have different experiences of the same funder. Characteristics of these more strategic partnerships described by L/NNGOs include being involved in programme strategy planning and priority setting, joint problem-solving, transparency around the overall funding grant received from the donor by the intermediary and being able to participate in knowledge exchange activities, rather than just receiving capacity building, for example partnership evaluation workshops. Having greater autonomy and joint decision-making within programmes was considered an important element of strategic partnerships. One example of this was an L/NNGO that, rather than having to return underspend on a project because of exchange rate fluctuations, was able to use it for new activities. A national NGO interviewed also gave the example of two grants that came from the same back donor: while one international intermediary kept them informed of the overall grant and looped into updates with the donor and wider partners, the other only communicated to them about their sub-grant, which reduced their sense of being an equal partner.

International organisations also reflected on the changes in their partnership approaches over the years. One INGO reported that, in the past, it would not have included its local partners in project design and would have only identified partners after securing a grant. Now they seek to co-design projects with local partners, recognising the added value of their contextual knowledge and experience. Most international organisations interviewed expressed a commitment to enabling more productive, strategic partnerships and to supporting the development and sustainability of L/NNGOs. Some demonstrated this with country-level partnership strategies and targets as well as global organisational strategies committed to localisation. International organisations see the benefits in working with local partners, especially organisations with niche specialisms, refugee-led organisations and civil society organisations in peripheral areas which allow them to access and support hard-to-reach beneficiaries. International organisations also rely on the good relationships their partners have with the Turkish authorities to facilitate operations.

Most L/NNGOs interviewed received some form of ‘capacity building’ activities from international organisations as part of typical project grants. Intermediary organisations emphasised that capacity building is an important part of their active partnerships with local organisations, and that they undertake activities such as monitoring and training to build the long-term capacity of organisations to administer funds, which donors would not be able to directly provide. While some international organisations provided resourced capacity building, others provided it on a more ad hoc basis, often specifically linked to the project, such as support with financial reporting. In some cases, international organisations have facilitated peer-to-peer capacity building and mentoring schemes. Most L/NNGOs interviewed reported that they were able to identify their own needs and decide on the type of capacity building they would receive from international partners. Other L/NNGOs had fewer positive experiences and were provided with capacity building activities that they felt was irrelevant to their real organisational needs. L/NNGOs interviewed reported that partnerships with international organisations also provided less tangible support to organisational capacity, such as expanding networks, contacts and funding opportunities. In some cases, these partnerships and capacity building helped local actors access funding directly from UN agencies or even donors and bypass at least one intermediary.

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Case study

National intermediaries: the Support to Life umbrella model

A criticism of some capacity-building programmes is that they are designed to meet the needs of donors, for example focusing on financial reporting and compliance, rather than the organisational priorities of LNAs. To combat this, STL, a well-established Turkish NGO with international experience, has developed an ‘umbrella model’ for capacity sharing between itself and local NGOs. The idea behind the model was for community-based and refugee-led organisations in various parts of the country to upgrade their capacities to the point that they are able to access funding from humanitarian donors and create greater impact with better quality outcomes.

This model started as part of STL’s cooperation with Terre des hommes, in which STL strengthened its internal capacity on child safeguarding and then shared this capacity with other NGOs to support them in developing their own policies and codes of conduct. This model was later adapted for STL’s partnership with UNHCR. With UNHCR funding, STL now engages in capacity-sharing activities with local NGOs in contextualised sectoral expertise, humanitarian principles and the Code of Conduct, Core Humanitarian Standard benchmarks, monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning systems as well as financial management, procurement and human resource management policies and practices. Identified NGOs are often charity based and located in areas where there is little or no NGO activity around refugee support. The umbrella model seeks to embed rights-based approaches within local NGOs as well as improve their practices and processes in access to services, psychosocial support programming, protection, social cohesion and livelihood activities. This model embraces a long-term capacity development partnership of mentoring and feedback between local NGOs, STL and UNHCR, enabling UNHCR to expand its funding to a broader base of local organisations in harder-to-reach areas. In the first years of applying the model, UNHCR mostly shaped the NGO selection and the capacity-building priorities. However, over time, STL was able to exert greater influence. STL’s close communication and interaction with the selected NGOs resulted in participating NGOs becoming more vocal about their capacity needs, turning it into a peer-to-peer exchange and learning model.

Within the umbrella model, STL is actively monitoring the development of NGOs. Some NGOs have been able to access funds from different donors as result of the support, including three local NGOs who established partnerships with an INGO, and one who went on to partner with STL in a joint campaign on social cohesion.

Despite examples of positive partnerships, some L/NNGOs expressed frustration at the impact international organisations and the imported ‘Western’ way of working has had on civil society in Türkiye. For some, the result of increased Western donor funding for the refugee response, and associated compliance requirements, has led to a professionalisation or marketisation of L/NNGOs, which negatively erodes the volunteerism at the heart of traditional Turkish civil society. This means NGOs are more business-minded and have “changed the way people understand civil society”. One example of this professionalisation given was small, local organisations having to open new staff positions to meet audit requirements, or donors imposing unachievably high salary scales on NGOs. This reflects an ongoing discussion around the impacts of international funding on civil society in Türkiye, which has been a concern since before the Syrian humanitarian response.

Barriers to strategic partnerships

The subcontractor experience of L/NNGOs is partly a result of the existing international funding system and type of funding available – i.e. highly projectised, inflexible, short-term funding – rather than a conscious partnership strategy on the part of international organisations. This remains a key barrier to more productive relationships between international and national actors. Intermediaries often have heavily contractual relationships concerning accountability and risk with donors that necessitate a similarly contractual relationship with downstream partners. More flexible, multi-year funding would in part facilitate more strategic long-term partnerships, in which both partners have space to focus more on strategic programme delivery.

Beyond funding modalities, interviewed L/NNGOs – especially local NGOs – noted the importance of international actors investing in getting to know LNAs better. L/NNGOs emphasised the importance of international actors recognising the existing knowledge and experiences of LNAs and to approach working with L/NNGOs in a way that promotes mutual learning and identifies the complementarity of each organisation in a partnership.

While there is an intention among most international organisations interviewed to move toward strategic partnerships, they reported several challenges. Firstly, as is common in other contexts, INGOs reported that some L/NNGOs do not have the capacity or are not ‘ready’ to move into more strategic partnerships. Capacity concerns had slowed down the attempts to develop longer-term strategic partnerships of two INGOs interviewed, despite internal localisation strategies and targets to increase funding to local actors. Issues around governance, management and compliance affected trust building. A few international organisations reported acting with more caution due to the perceived rise in ‘briefcase NGOs’ – reflecting a concern that some national and international organisations have responded to the influx of international funding into Türkiye as a business opportunity.

Some international organisations also highlighted internal barriers, including a disconnect between global organisational commitments to localisation and the reality in country offices. Organisations reported there can be reluctance from in-country staff to hand over programming and resources to local actors for varying reasons, including reservations about the quality of work, and a lack of understanding and buy-in to the localisation agenda.

The 3RP coordination structure at the technical working group level was reported to be accessible by both local and international actors, with clear efforts made to facilitate participation of local organisations, for example continued online meetings and meetings conducted in the Turkish language. These coordination platforms provide a valuable opportunity for strategic discussion and interaction between international and national actors. At a more senior level, the strategic coordination of the refugee response in Türkiye is less inclusive, with the UN Country Team and the Syria Response Group operating as closed groups. Some international organisations reported that a lack of an L/NNGO forum was a barrier to local actors more actively participating in coordination. At the same time, some L/NNGOs reported that international actors should not expect local actors’ coordination structure and systems to mirror their international counterparts and that the willingness of international actors to adapt to the context at hand is a key component of the localisation agenda. There is also no donor forum or coordination group in Türkiye, which limits opportunities for donors to interact with L/NNGO representatives and could also limit the degree of coordination and harmonisation among donors in their approach to L/NNGOs.

The overall decline in humanitarian funding has also led to increased competition for funding. Frustration was levelled at INGOs who act as competitors with L/NNGOs for international funding, rather than stepping back and facilitating local empowerment and sustainability. As one organisation said, INGOs “should not be a competitor, they should either always stay here and compete with us or if they are eventually going to leave, they need to support the local NGOs and let us grow.” A key grievance was around the inflationary impact international organisations have had on the Turkish labour market with local NGOs being unable to retain staff, they often have invested in, due to the much higher salaries of international organisations who also often pay in foreign currencies rather than Turkish Lira. This has been exacerbated more recently by the currency crisis in Türkiye. This undermines the sustainability and institutional memory of organisations, with one women’s organisation reflecting that international organisations “were almost hunting our staff… I had to raise salaries to keep our quality staff but donors then say these salaries are too high… [international organisations] come and become our competitors”.


  • 2
    Support to Life research for the ALNAP SOHS, 2021 (forthcoming); ‘Refugee advocacy in Turkey – from local to global’ (ODI and TMK, 2021); ‘International Refugee Congress 2018 Consultation Report’ (Oxfam, 2018).
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