Betwixt & Between

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The servant leadership approach and humanitarian collaboration

Abstract: It is widely acknowledged that there is a widening humanitarian capacity gap. This is caused by new challenges driven, amongst other things, by climate change and its effects on food production and population growth, and compounded by a humanitarian system that does not adequately invest in, and support, local capacity. This paper argues that collaboration is one of the means by which gains can be taken to scale to address these new challenges and that it is also a means to help re-orient the humanitarian system into a more supportive one for local actors. Increased take up of collaboration as a mainstreamed way of working in the future however, will require humanitarian workers to adopt new skills, behaviours and competencies. The idea of the emergence of a “humanitarian broker” will be well served by humanitarian practitioners, managers and executives, embracing the tenets of ‘servant leadership’.

The servant leadership approach and humanitarian collaboration

In the future of NGOs in the humanitarian sector [1] report the Humanitarian Futures Programme identify that the humanitarian capacity gap can be defined by many things: the growing global population and increasing urbanisation; the threat of climate change and its effects on food production and traditional livelihoods; the increasing politicisation of aid; the increased involvement of new and non-traditional humanitarian actors, some with new skills and competencies, some with new resources and some with different principles and values that challenge the Western humanitarian hegemony and the values system that underpins it; and lastly there is the struggle to keep up with modern technology and the opportunities (and challenges) that it provides us all.

The HERR report [2] acknowledges these challenges and concludes that the current humanitarian system is no longer fit for purpose.

We are caught in a race between the growing size of the humanitarian challenge, and our ability to cope; between humanity and catastrophe. And,at present,this is not a race we are winning”.

The report outlines the need for greater engagement with, support to and investment in local organisations [3], civil society and national governments if we are to close the widening humanitarian capacity gap.

So, the humanitarian system is creaking and appears increasingly unable to deal with these challenges and the challenges of the future which for sure will include more demand, more surprise and the increasing political significance of humanitarian crises set against the back drop of funding limitations in western economies. The system needs more capacity. The system needs better capacity. And the system is going to need different capacities to meet the challenges of the future.

But this raises the questions –Whose capacity do we need to build? And what has this got to do with collaboration, partnership and brokering?

Whose capacity do we need to build?

As far back as 2006 the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition report [4] (2006) called for a fundamental re-orientation of practice, a change in the organisational culture of humanitarian aid providers so that local and affected populations have greater influence over humanitarian aid providers and their agendas. The report calls for agencies to promote distributed ownership with the result being that community and different levels of national government end up owning the response.

Both the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, commissioned by DFiD in 2011 and the 2012 State of the Humanitarian System Report [5] (ALNAP) further highlighted the importance of investment in local capacity building if response and resilience is to improve. Recent research completed in November 2013 by Oxfam, Christian Aid, Tearfund, ActionAid and CAFOD [6] has also demonstrated that working through local structures improves relevance and appropriateness of response, enhances the effectiveness of assistance and can increase connectedness and ensure that responses take place in ways that respect longer term perspectives.

This principle is also espoused in the new DFID Disaster Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP) business case [7] “while the international community will always have an important role in directly responding to disasters, the contribution of international NGOs will increasingly be to complement the capacities of crisis-affected communities. It is consistently local and national organisations that are particularly critical to people’s survival in the aftermath of disasters.

The Oxfam International paper, Crisis in a new world order (February 2012) [8], adds to the argument that although the UN and international NGOs (INGOs) will remain vital, their contribution will increasingly be measured by how well they complement and support the capacities and efforts of crisis-affected countries, and encourage every humanitarian actor, traditional and upcoming, new and old, to uphold humanitarian principles.

In some countries, INGOs’ operations will be needed for years, and the ability of the international community to maintain surge capacity when national capacity is breached by natural disaster, or destroyed by conflict will be imperative. But in others, their impact will rest on becoming ‘humanitarian brokers’: facilitating, supporting, and bringing together local civil society, where the local level leads and the international level acts as a subsidiary.

Given these challenges and the fact that the current humanitarian system is not fit for purpose for 21st Century realities, more effective collaboration in the sector is increasingly being seen as the vehicle through which these challenges can be addressed. Responding as a single institution, government or entity is no longer viable and in future the effectiveness of governments, the UN, the INGOs and all the other stakeholders involved in the humanitarian project will depend more on what the international community can do with others, than what it can do alone.

If the focus of capacity building efforts is shifted to the national level, and the change that is needed is one of refocussing the international community to provide support in a subsidiary role, then new skills will be needed in the sector. Partnership, brokering and collaboration will become paramount skills and competencies in humanitarian response as the world becomes more interconnected, as power shifts towards the newly emerging economies, and as greater challenges require more collaborative capacity.

Why isn’t the humanitarian sector already collaborating?

Collaboration is not new to the humanitarian sector.

The Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) Project [9], an ambitious collaboration between six of the world’s largest INGOs, began in 2004 and ran for around ten years. It was founded by the Inter-Agency Working Group (IWG) which convened in April 2003 in acknowledgement of the fact that certain issues could be addressed better through collaboration.

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) [10] is a good example of how humanitarian actors can collaborate with other stakeholders (such as media outlets) to amplify fundraising, profile and coverage of larger disasters (it even has the strapline “together we are stronger”). The Start Network (previously the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies) and the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities Network (CDAC-N) further demonstrate how collaborative networking is increasingly being seen as an important way to take collaborative gains to scale.

The cluster system, instituted in 2005 by the United Nations as part of the humanitarian reform project, is another example of how attempts are being made to ensure collaborative advantage is applied to humanitarian operations.

Many organisations involved in humanitarian work are now families of complex organisations with a global reach and many of them are exploring or embarking on different models of affiliation and federation. This requires huge investment in change processes at senior and CEO levels, and requires high levels of collaboration and brokering skills, over sustained periods of time from those involved.

The examples cited above are all illustrations of niche offerings that conceptually add value to the sector. The ECB Project was the first time that operational consortia had been linked to the sector through organisations and global communities of practice. The DEC provides a coordinated approach to public fundraising during disasters, thus maximising profile, uniting public messages and ultimately greater income potential. The Start Network is working, amongst other things, on a rapid access and deployment emergency response fund for INGOs and their partners. The cluster system is making genuine attempts at humanitarian reform, trying to improve operational coordination in emergencies, an acknowledged weakness in the sector.

Humanitarians understand the importance of collaboration and partnership, particularly in light of the challenges identified above. They understand that collaboration provides the opportunity to provide a greater footprint (more people helped across a bigger area in a disaster), can be the vehicle through which gains can be taken to scale, can provide consistency in a sector that is often bedevilled by nuance and interpretation, can provide economies of scale and can lead to greater voice and influence – essential in a sector where dealing with the systemic causes of poverty is as important as dealing with the direct impact of a disaster.

So, if the drivers for collaboration are understood, and the sector is already collaborating, what is the actual problem?

There is enough evidence to suggest that the shortcomings in collaboration in the sector are not necessarily in the philosophy or theory of practice because these are well understood, but instead in the practice itself. In order to fully embrace the concepts of collaboration, new skillsets, terminology and competencies need to be bought into the humanitarian sector. It is here that the weakness lies.

For example, one of the key findings from the Inter-agency Real-Time Evaluation of the Humanitarian Response to the Darfur Crisis [11] was its recognition that a directive approach to coordination was not feasible: “Agencies cannot be forced to work within the parameters of a common plan—ultimately sector leads must persuade the majority of the value of a cohesive approach” (Broughton & Maguire 2006: 63).

Persuasion, influencing without authority, soft power are not common or, even more importantly, valued skillsets in the aid worker landscape. It is a landscape traditionally characterised by delivery of goods, linear hierarchies of control and line management within a single agency. Even the instruments of project planning, such as logical frameworks, are bedeviled by linear fictions which are simply not powerful enough to understand how humans act and interact and how human behaviours change and can be changed. This is particularly surprising given that the humanitarian sector (and development sector) is focused on transforming lives.

Indeed, it is acknowledged that Cluster Coordinators, arguably the single most important post in a humanitarian response, often have poor facilitation or coordination skills, fail to embrace participatory approaches [12] and that the problem of traditional directive leadership in the clusters is currently impeding the benefits of collaborative partnership [13]. It is hardly surprising then that apart from a few exceptional outliers, the cluster system is evaluated to be weak when it comes to fostering strong partnerships between UN, INGOs, NGOs and government departments.

In the ECB Project, cumbersome project structures and heavy processes were probably the biggest challenges and proved to be one of the main motivations behind the eventual decision by the IWG Principals not to continue with a third phase [14].

In this instance, major obstacles included lack of clarity about roles and  responsibilities, the complex and multi-layered structure of the project, the location of decision-making authority, fundraising, inadequate financial tracking systems, staff turnover, communications and knowledge management and the demands of working in different languages.

Transaction costs are high in collaborations, but instead of seeing these as necessary creative tensions and making necessary allowances and resourcing accordingly, participants can lose faith quickly. Skilled brokers and collaborators can help participants work through some of these barriers.

The humanitarian arena is a competitive one after all, and agencies have traditionally competed for increasingly limited resources. There is a long way to go before single agency aims and organisational ego is suppressed on behalf of a greater good. And if the sector is going to rely on collaborative advantage to transcend the current challenges it faces then the sector could benefit from embracing the language of brokerage – particularly that of the servant-leader style which, like humanitarianism, has altruism at its heart.

Servant leadership and the humanitarian sector

The concept of servant leadership has arguably been around for thousands of years, but was codified and articulated for a modern audience by Robert Greenleaf.[15]

Servant leadership is both a leadership philosophy and a set of leadership practices. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible [16]. This is effectively what development and humanitarian practitioners have been attempting to do for decades.

Servant leadership has ten facets – listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community. Again, these are concepts that also underpin the humanitarian endeavour.

There is a competency framework which currently has broad acceptance in the sector, the CBHA Core Humanitarian Competencies Framework [17]. This Framework was a massive collaborative effort between the agencies of the CBHA, finalised in March 2012, which identifies six core competencies essential to all staff in emergency response:

  1. Understanding humanitarian contexts and applying humanitarian principles;
  2. Achieving results;
  3. Developing and maintaining collaborative relationships;
  4. Operating safely and securely at all times;
  5. Managing yourself in a pressured and changing environment and
  6. Demonstrating leadership in humanitarian response.

Supporting these competencies are key behaviours such as “listening and dialogue”, and “working with others”. Of all of these, the third competency explicitly refers to collaborative advantage. But, if we are talking about a change in behaviour and transformation through changing ways of working, does this go far enough?

For example, key learning from the ECB Project [18] highlights that, for future collaborative efforts, agencies should consider hiring a dedicated consortium facilitator, ensuring that trust building is at the centre of activities and that space and time are set aside for reflection, innovation and iterative learning. As Stephen Covey [19] points out, trust is the bedrock of collaboration; and without trust, collaboration is merely cooperation, which fails to achieve the benefits and possibilities available to true collaborators in the knowledge worker age.

The ECB Project paper further concludes that opportunities should be sought for strategic partnerships which can bring technical expertise to activities identified as priorities by consortium members. In a collaboration, this is the kind of service which a broker or a consortium facilitator can provide; brokering in resources and technical specialisms as needed. As the Oxfam paper concludes, this is perhaps the re-orientation that the international community needs to go through in terms of building local capacity.

Here is an example from the ECB Project which illustrates this local capacity building in practice. In Bangladesh, a critical mass of stakeholders had defined the demand for improvement and standardisation of joint needs assessment approaches. The cause was adopted by the ECB consortium, under the stewardship of a dynamic and neutral local field broker, employed by the ECB consortium. This individual saw the opportunity to apply learning from a similar process that the ECB consortium in Indonesia had already been through, and used the collective advantage for the benefit of the Bangladesh stakeholders.

This included making formal links with the Indonesia ECB Project consortium, facilitating learning exchanges between staff and government officials, and brokering in technical capacity from the international community in the form of ACAPS [20] who were able to provide pragmatic, technical and practical support in the endeavour [21].

It was not always straightforward. The broker had to ensure that the objectives and plans of the consortium were aligned with activities around needs assessment, which also required an understanding of the participating organisations strategies and approaches to needs assessment. Without Country Director / senior management buy-in, the initiative could have floundered. The broker also had to be astute about the political environment and to ensure that national government officials were involved in a way that reinforced their overall authority but did not derail the efforts of others.

The broker also had to adopt different approaches to the collaboration at different points: at times facilitating consensus, or pushing participants comfort zones; hosting fierce conversations and providing thought leadership at other times.

This is a good example of how shrewd and strategic local brokers can use collaborative advantage to begin shaping the international humanitarian system to be more reactive to local priorities. It is no coincidence that this consortium also used its collective strength in the passing of the Bangladesh Disaster Management Act, a key piece of legislature for protecting the rights of disaster affected individuals.

Specialist brokers are also needed to keep their eyes on metrics and trends against indicators of collaborative advantage – non-traditional indicators which help us understand how networks and collaborations are functioning, such as measuring attitude changes, whether technical transfer is taking place, whether spin off activities are occurring and whether activities are having a wider influence on policy and practice.

As highlighted by the above example from the Bangladesh ECB Project, brokers are important because they can adopt different roles depending on what the collaboration needs.  Sometimes the collaboration may need listening, empathy and awareness from a perceived neutral and independent broker, and sometimes a collaboration may need more directive action such as propositioning, stewardship and persuasion – all tenets of the servant leadership approach.

A case study from the Start Network [22] provides a fascinating insight into the complexities of brokering a humanitarian collaboration, where staff who are expected to be brokers are under intense pressure all the time; pressure to know when the time is right to support partners, help with consensus building and group thinking and equally knowing when the time is right to push back boundaries, take participants out of their comfort zones and demonstrate foresight and leadership by avoiding decisions which aim for the lowest common denominator (a common feature of collaboration).

These staff are referred to as “worriers” and “warriors” as they are frequently in the line of fire, need to hold their nerve under pressure, need to facilitate fierce conversations (or what is referred to as ‘constructive dissent’ in the Principles of Partnership [23] and yet need to build trust, demonstrate integrity and when the time is right, provide leadership. These staff have specialist skills which transcend traditional organisational and departmental boundaries.

What this case study highlights is that “…the concept of leadership in a collaborative model needs something of a re-think since conventional patterns of leadership (that arise from role or status) are more likely to undermine rather than enhance the sense of shared responsibility so central to any form of collaboration. In a collaborative model it seems that leadership is not related to role / status per se but rather it has to be both earned and shared….”

This goes back to the problem highlighted earlier in the paper regarding Cluster Coordinators. These are key roles, and yet clusters are evaluated to have failed frequently because the people in these key positions do not have the right skills and experience.

While the language of brokerage has not yet made its way into the Behavioural Competency Framework, nor is it the kind of language which is adopted day to day by humanitarian practitioners, there are nevertheless opportunities to do so. For example, People in Aid will be working with the Start Network to review the Behavioural Competency Framework and this might provide an opportunity to re-programme some of the behaviours and language to be more pro-broker.


Although collaborative efforts are time-intensive and have higher up-front costs [24], greater return-on-investment results as collaboration unleashes catalytic processes within and between agencies. Increasing creativity, innovation and mobilisation of an important multiplier effect lead towards positive humanitarian outcomes. Given an increasingly complex and challenging global environment, the humanitarian community must find ways of working that enhance the quality, speed and effectiveness of response.

When collaboration and partnership thrive, humanitarian action and response everywhere benefits, as new learning accumulates, new tools are developed and mainstreamed, operations link more donors, governments and factions with their varied experiences and perspectives, accountability increases and better practices are disseminated, to more effectively meet human needs with dignity.[25]

Given the challenges that bedevil the humanitarian sector, the key role that collaboration will play in addressing these challenges, and the growing acknowledgement that a reorientation of the existing system is needed where the country unit is firmly at the centre, the humanitarian sector would do well to embrace the language of the broker.

Staff involved in facilitating or leading collaborations should be selected on their ability to demonstrate a servant leadership approach and the development of skill sets that encourage good brokering should be pursued. This may require advertising in non-traditional domains, recruiting staff from outside of the sector and working with / collaborating with networks of brokers and facilitators to mentor and support existing staff to develop these new skills.

This support can be provided to anyone involved in collaboration and who can understand the difference between trusting a group, and when a group needs trust building; anyone who knows the difference between seeking consensus and being propositional; anyone who can sense the time to provide a safe, consensual space and the time to push people out of their comfort zones and hold fierce conversations.

These people could be cluster leads, collaboration managers, consortium coordinators and arguably CEOs of affiliated NGO families – these people all need the language of the broker to ensure collaborative gains can be taken to the scale necessary to meet the humanitarian challenges of the 21st century.


David HockadayDavid Hockaday has been working as a broker on complex collaborations since 2009. Formerly with CARE USA working in the Emergency Capacity Building Project as a field facing coordinator of the five consortia, David is now working for the Start Network as Transition Manager. The key focus of this role is ultimately the decentralisation of resourcing and initiative for capacity building, and involves extensive collaboration across a complex and ground breaking Network. David has worked since 1996 in various humanitarian management roles at country and HQ level for Save the Children and Oxfam, including Deputy Country Programme Manager for Oxfam in South Sudan and Emergencies Adviser for Save the Children’s response to cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. David is married with two young children and lives in Oxford, UK.


[1] The Future of NGOs in the Humanitarian Sector” – Humanitarian Futures Programme,  December 2013

[2] The Humanitarian Emergency Response Review” – The Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, March 2011

[3] While the HERR does not define “local”, for the purposes of this paper local organisations are defined as community based organisations, local partners of I/NGOs or civil society organisations.

[4] Joint evaluation of the international response to the Indian Ocean tsunami: Synthesis Report” – The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, July 2006.

[5] The State of the humanitarian system report – ALNAP, July 2012.

[6] Missed opportunities; the case for strengthening national and local partnership based humanitarian responses; November 2013.

[7] Disaster Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP) Business case and intervention summary – Department for International Development, March 2014.

[8] Crisis in a New World order; challenging the humanitarian project – Oxfam International, February 2012.

[9] See for more information or go to for a synthesis of the learning from the ECB Project.


[11] Inter-agency Real-Time Evaluation of the Humanitarian Response to the Darfur Crisis Broughton, B., Maguire, S. and K. David-Toweh, March 2006.

[12] Synthesis report, IASC cluster evaluation, phase 2, May 2010.

[13] Improving humanitarian coordination” Humphries, V, The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, April 2013.

[14] A decade of collaborative capacity building in emergencies; what have we learnt” Baker, J, ODI / HPN, June 2014.

[15] Robert K Greenleaf (1970) The Servant as Leader. Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership.

[16] Wikipedia definition.


[18] “A decade of collaborative capacity building in emergencies; what have we learnt” Baker, J, ODI / HPN, June 2014.

[19] Franklin Covey The Speed of Trust.

[20] Assessment Capacities Project

[21] ECB Phase II Final Evaluation, Global Emergency Group, December 2013, see p16 specifically.

[22] “Dealing with Paradox; stories from the first three years of consortium building” Partnership Brokers Association / Start Network, December 2013.

[23] “Principles of Partnership”, Global Humanitarian Platform, July 2007.

[24] For example, it took the ECB Project consortium well over a year to begin to deliver activities as the consortium took time to develop consortium agreements, understand roles and responsibilities, define what membership actually meant, document agreements, governance and accountability mechanisms and develop and agree, in a participatory manner, a consortium engagement plan.

[25] Collaboration and partnership in humanitarian action” HEM issue 45, December 2009.



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