Mapping Partnership Systems

Development projects do not work in a vacuum. All development projects and organizations work within a web of partnerships and relationships. These partnerships and relationships, at the least, influence, and, at the most, determine the success of a development project.

Let’s begin with the project. Ideally, a development project is successful when it:

  • Achieves its goals and objectives
  • Becomes sustainable as partners adopt the essentials of the project, continuing services and impact
  • Scales: spread across a region or country

In order for international aid projects to be sustainable and scalable, there has to be strong cooperation between at least four categories of actors. In a four-way dance, client-nation local institutions, outside-initiated development projects, client-nation national institutions, and national-level outside development institutions need to work together to develop the changes in practices that lead to desired impacts, are adopted locally, and institutionalized regionally or nationally.

This dance can be illustrated as below:


In a development project system, each partner and each relationship influences all the other partners and relationships. The weakest of these partners, or the weakest relationship between these partners, will constrain the possibility of the project achieving its goals, sustaining, and scaling.

Therefore, all the parties in the system not only need a simple way to track the quality of their relationships and their own ability to partner, but also a way to assess the system itself, to identify its strengths and weaknesses. CCP tools provide the capacity to do that. The cooperative capacity frameworks and measures introduced in Assessing Partnerships and Assessing Each Partner allow each party to track and develop their partnerships and ability to partner. The Partnership Map, described below, gives the members of the system the capacity to track the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

Failure to track and nurture all of the relationships that make up the system results in:

  • Lost opportunities for sustainability and scalability
  • Lack of real-time feedback among the parties, particularly between the field program and the other three partners​
  • High risk of sudden changes in mandate, cuts in funding, and other crippling surprises emanating from any of the partners

Mapping Partnerships

CCP’s partnership map lays out both vertical relationships and horizontal partnerships that affect development programs. Specifically, the map shows the vertical relationship of local development actors within the client nation (often referred to here as the host country), the vertical relationships within the international aid system, and the horizontal partnerships between parties in the client nation and international aid system.

Vertical Relationships

Starting with the vertical relationships, most are obvious. From the client-nation side, these relationships might include (but are not limited to):

  • National legislature > national ministry > local agency > local department or project > local communities
  • National NGO office > local NGO office > project team > local communities and beneficiaries
  • National level coalition > national NGO office > local NGO office > project team > local communities

From the international side, these relationships might include:

  • Foreign legislature > foreign aid agency > aid agency country mission > contractor home office > contractor national office > contractor project office > beneficiaries
  • Foreign aid agency country mission > NGO national office > NGO project office > local communities and beneficiaries
  • Foreign citizen supporters (philanthropists) > NGO home office > NGO national office > NGO project office > local communities and beneficiaries

Graphically, these relationship chains can be illustrated like this:


The management systems, styles, and effectiveness of each institution in the chain (denoted by grey oval) affect the relationships between institutions (denoted by dotted lines). Assessing the cooperative state of institutions at each level and each of their relationships with institutions at other levels will tell us the effect a national and international system has on programs in the field.

A common example of how the system influences in-the-field effectiveness is a bureaucratic agency at the national institution level in a Top-down state. As described in Assessing Partnerships, a top-down institution cannot create a relationship that has a cooperative state higher than Top-down. Therefore, in the best case scenario, the relationship between the national institution and the local institution will be top-down. This relationship will limit effective field implementation in a number of ways. It will:

  • Prevent bottom-up communication (data, information, and ideas) from reaching the national institution
  • Prevent local institutions from adapting more effective or locally appropriate approaches because the local institutions are required to follow the national institution’s top-down bureaucratic systems and approaches
  • Push the local institutions toward the Top-down state in order to accommodate the top-down demands of the national institution

The Cooperative Capacity analysis reveals opportunities for the development of strategies and actions to improve field-level performance. In this example, the most effective intervention might be to move the national institutions from Top-down to Inclusive. This would help increase the ability of the system (of all involved stakeholders) to innovate and respond to field conditions. Assuming the local institution is also in Top-down, a second-best intervention could be to assist the local institution in creating a boundary between itself and the national institution, and to treat the national institution as a customer, rather than as an insider. This would provide the local institution the space to move itself up to Inclusive. Although the relationship would remain Top-down, the local institution’s performance and ability to respond to field conditions could shift to an Inclusive state, which would be an improvement over remaining in Top-down. The reason this approach is only second-best is that the sustainability of the project will still be constrained by the Top-down approach of the national institution; the program won’t scale.

Is it important to note that these relationships are institutional. Within all institutions, there are many people of good will, both national and international, who are stymied by the systems and culture of their institution. Without institutional changes, they will remain stymied.

Having briefly seen how vertical relationships can affect development efforts, we can now add the partnership component, which is mapped out horizontally.

Horizontal Relationships

Partnerships in international development are not one-dimensional. Although much of the development literature focuses on field-level partnerships, the partnerships at the international-diplomatic, and national-institutional levels are also important to consider. Below is a basic map of these partnerships.


The national partnership, level Z, is the partnership between nations; this is the diplomatic level, and is the partnership often defined by treaties and high level diplomatic agreements.

The institutional partnerships, level Y, are partnerships between national-level implementation agencies, such as national ministries or national NGO offices and aid agencies or national offices of international NGOs. These partnerships are often formed around Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) or other similar agreements.

The program partnerships, level X, are the local partnerships of the program under consideration. These are partnerships between local implementers and outside program teams. Local implementers can range from national or local agencies, to civil society organizations and NGOs, to local communities. Outside program teams can range from international consulting firms to local NGO field offices and teams. These partnerships are often based on MOUs or formal or informal contracts with the target groups.

The final partnership, level W, is between the program partnership and its local clients (often referred to as the target group, or beneficiaries). Local clients are the groups who receive the services of the program. The entire point of a program is to benefit these people. Any dysfunction in the system of home country and foreign actors and their relationships will degrade the effectiveness of the program and hurt these people.

The cooperative capacity (quality) of these partnerships and the relationships between partnerships strongly influences the results, sustainability, and scalability of development projects.

Horizontally, the cooperative capacity of a partnership is a key determinant in the sustainability of a project. To scale the benefits of a program, partners in the client nation must adopt the changes promoted by a project; the higher the cooperative capacity of a partnership, the greater the probability that client-nation partners will institutionally adopt the changes promoted by the project.

Vertically, the quality of the partnership at each level (W, X, Y, and Z) can influence the quality of partnership at the other levels. Starting from the top, national partnerships (diplomatic relationships) can clearly influence institutional partnerships, and thus local partnerships. For example, when Indonesia and the U.S. experienced a diplomatic dispute over the sharing of bird flu samples (level Z) , the dispute created tensions in the institutional relationships between the Indonesian Ministry of Health and the CDC program in Indonesia (level Y), reducing, for a time, cooperation between Ministry of Health and CDC scientists (level X).

A strong partnership between national ministries and an aid agency (level Y) can support partnerships between local agencies and development programs by providing policy and administrative support, and helping the program partners align vision, mission, and goals, overcome bureaucratic blocks, and negotiate conflicts. Conversely, weak institutional partnerships will provide none of this support, and if the partnership at level Y is in conflict, that conflict can damage partnerships not only down to the program level (X and W), but also up to the diplomatic level (if the conflict is great enough).

Finally, the programmatic partnership (level X) can have a positive or negative impact with local clients, national-level institutions, and even diplomatic relations. Strong programmatic partnerships can inspire and encourage stronger institutional partnerships (level Y), as national level institutions from both sides reap benefits from the program’s strengths. Conversely, weak, troublesome partnerships at the program level can hurt institutional partnerships, and even national partnerships, if issues cannot be resolved and one or both of the parties experience high enough levels of frustration.

The Combined Model

Combining the vertical relationships and horizontal partnerships creates the full Partnership Map. The map allows program designers and managers to identify the relationships and partnerships that make up a project’s partnership system. The generic map is presented below:


The generic map above provides a starting point and guidance for creating an actual map of a program’s partnership system, which can be quite complex. Once the partnership system is defined, ongoing or periodic assessment of the cooperative capacity and partnership capacity of key actors and relationships will identify key institutional bottlenecks that are limiting the effectiveness, sustainability, or scalability of the project, and provide strategies for improving the effectiveness of the system.

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