By Charles Buxton.

I was recently asked to comment on ideas my colleagues in INTRAC are developing around experiences of exit from the perspective of partner organisations (i.e. local or national level CSOs that are registered and based in a particular country).

As INTRAC’s programme manager for the Central Asia region, I have mixed feelings about exit strategies and post-exit evaluations. On the one hand, it is undoubtedly more progressive to have a well thought out strategy and evaluation process than not to have one. On the other hand, for the partner organisation the curtailment of funding is a very often painful process and my observation is that there can be quite a bit of bitterness left behind. And the post-exit evaluation may have to work in a difficult emotional climate.

After all, we usually talk about an exit strategy when there was something substantial before the exit (not just one year’s funding or project-level collaboration). And this kind of contribution, at least in Central Asia, is almost impossible to replace fully from local sources. The best chance to fill the gap is by means of a grant from another foreign organisation. Local philanthropy is very rarely on the scale of international development funding, ditto social contracting (service contract) arrangements with government.

The evaluation of post-exit situations after significant external inputs (and it they are not significant, why do an evaluation?) will quite often reveal a much reduced partner organisation, both in staff and services/activities. Would such an evaluation be satisfying for the donor or those on the receiving end? This is not to say that we would not find impact – but much of it might be in people, ideas or approaches that have since migrated to other organisations and places. The partners would have to be very clear about why the evaluation is being carried out and who is benefiting from it. Indeed, who will benefit from the post-closure evaluation? Can it be of value for the receiving organisation? We would want to avoid a situation where the local NGO feels that the donor organisation is trying to receive a gain while they have suffered.

Of course there will be some NGOs that have grown or stayed at the same level, but they will mostly be organisations that are still in receipt of substantial foreign money. Indeed, making this kind of transition (to new sources of external aid) is itself a big achievement in many cases, especially if the local NGO has “gone up a step” in some way. Perhaps this is the most appropriate area for post-closure evaluation – a clear “success story” of transition to new sources of income. However, the arguments about sustainable impact will be slightly prejudiced because of the continued reliance of the NGO on external sources.

What is the essence of a “post-closure” evaluation? The term itself seems to mean that the aim is to plan future closures better. Clearly this is a donor-driven rather than a partner-driven agenda.

INTRAC’s recent work on long-term sustainability with education sector NGOs in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union puts a premium on new efforts to raise money from local sources. However, even with these very well-supported organisations, with five or more years of generously-funded exit strategy in place, the process is difficult. Most partner organisations still rely on external funding for 75% of their income (albeit from a longer list of donors). Even when opportunities to raise money from local sources are available and more rewarding in terms of income gained, NGOs are reluctant to invest the time and energy in more difficult resource mobilization. Change of this kind is as often as not forced on them – for example when the foreign grants suddenly dry up or key funding proposals are rejected.

Writing from the point of view of INTRAC’s Central Asia programme, I can compare our situation with not just local NGOs faced with cuts or changes in donor policy, but also as an INGO field office fearing closure in its head office’s next strategic review. In over 12 years in Bishkek, we have survived the closure of three main 3-4 year programmes without any core funding to support the transition to the period of activity. As a result we are undoubtedly more knowledgeable and mature (or simply older). If we were to draw the ‘timeline’ of our organisation development, it might be seen to take the form of a series of waves, with each succeeding wave at a slightly lower volume of funds or staff. In a situation where external funds are reducing and/or civil society is becoming more able to gain funds locally, this can be seen as a natural process.

Reduced funding on local NGOs tends to leave the leader and a handful of trusty staff in command of a reduced NGO. For example, an NGO may be funded by donors to deliver humanitarian aid or to organise education and health services where government provision is inadequate. This kind of activity requires a large budget – for goods, workshops, travel, staff costs etc. But when the country situation improves, the focus may shift to improving government services and the NGO will move into policy advice or government service monitoring – and consequently their budget and volume of field activity will decline significantly.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, funding was easier to get in Central Asia and the opportunities for staff development quite significant. Thus ambitious young staff would often leave to set up their own NGO or take up a job in an INGO. These processes tend to increase the capacity and experience gap between the NGO leader and other staff. In organisations experiencing downsizing, good capacity building habits may go into decline as there isn’t the deputy director or key specialist to keep this activity moving forward. And the organisation may eventually turn into an ‘expert NGO’. Indeed, the director may start to do more and more consultancy work, sometimes for the benefit of his/her NGO but often as an individual.

In our region, we see just a few NGOs able to maintain work at the same level as 10 years ago, particularly if they previously had significant outreach or services delivery work as described above. Many international donors are cultivating these NGOs are re-granters. As for ‘expert’ or policy-oriented NGOs, we can argue that they have moved to a new level. However, in many cases they have to throw off the donor-funded image and start to work in national policy terms. This may require a change in name or formal documents and a new set of key relationships including with governments (some of which are quite ‘anti-donor’).

Perhaps the most realistic perspective for many NGOs is the transition to a different type of organisation at some point, when it might begin to advance again – with a new identity. In this way, what is an “exit strategy” for the donor is a necessity for some kind of “transformation” for the partner NGO.