Collaboration between the state and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the provision of basic services is increasingly advocated in developing countries, yet there has been relatively little empirical research into the factors affecting the dynamics of these relationships. Much of the literature characterises state–NGO collaboration as fraught with inherent tensions, failing to live up to policy expectations and having negative implications for the non-state sector's autonomy and identity. However, these effects are likely to be contingent on a range of structural ‘conditioning’ factors, including the history and institutional context of the relationship, the nature of the organisations themselves and the way the relationship is formally and informally organised. Recent research also recognises that actors can deploy a range of strategies to determine their room for manoeuvre and influence. The effects of the relationship on the actors' autonomy and identity and the balance of power that emerges between them may not therefore be straightforward, suggesting a need for more systematic research in this regard. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.