By INTRAC Principal Consultant Rick James.

One community leader in Malawi likened EveryChild’s exit to: “the end of the tarmac road… But the dirt road continues. It will be slower and bumpier in future, but we will get there all the same… And we may go even further” Of course, communities may also find a dirt road easier to maintain.

Exit is incredibly hard to do well. EveryChild had learnt this the hard way. Previous efforts in some countries in the Former Soviet Union had left ill-feeling and distrust. An attempt to leave quickly and cleanly from a Country Office in Latin America was rushed and underfinanced – so actual exit dragged on for years with costly legal fees, tax complications and extra staff time required.

In 2012, EveryChild took the momentous decision to close down as a traditional UK NGO and transfer its income and assets to a new global alliance (Family for Every Child) managed and governed by its national NGO members. This meant that EveryChild had to shut down its operations and end its partnerships in 15 countries. In the light of its past experiences, EveryChild decided to take a very considered and careful approach – they called this Responsible Exit.

Marcie O' Connor. Driving around Big Bend Prairie Haven.

Marcie O’ Connor. Driving around Big Bend Prairie Haven.

Responsible exit meant they took sustainability really seriously. Exit can force NGOs beyond the ever-present jargon-filled paragraph about sustainability in proposals into practical and risky actions. In the EveryChild example, one of the most obvious differences was that exit improved engagement with local stakeholders. As one respondent said: “Different community structures will be there for ever and so we have to be responsive and reactive to them, focusing on how to strengthen them.”  In the exit phase, programmes continued to focus on investing in building good relations with local communities and government.

In India, EveryChild decided not to just pass on their NGO partners to other international donors, but to actively encourage them to link up more with local government and local fundraising. Consequently, many programmes and activities (such as Child Activity Centres) are at least part funded by local communities. As one respondent said: “community fundraising was particularly successful and partners came to feel very proud of this”. Furthermore, this has resulted in increased community ownership. As another respondent said: “It would have been good to involve the community and ask for contributions from the beginning of the project. If this had been done, activities would be sustainable by now”.

Responsible exit is risky. It requires ‘responsible entry’ of others. Local stakeholders will need to step up into new levels of responsibility. As one Malawian Government official said: “We have a workable exit strategy, but the challenge is on the government, chiefs, MPs and communities to ensure activities continue”.  Exit focuses the mind on what really matters: on what will be left behind as a legacy after you are gone. Exit forces a focus on genuinely sustainable development.

Sustainable development enables exit – not the other way round.

We may do partners a disservice when international agencies focus too much on exit. As one EveryChild partner bluntly put it: “one side’s ‘responsible exit’ is the other side’s ongoing struggle for survival, sustainability and impact… Exit is their process, not ours”. International NGOs should not see themselves at the centre of the picture. It is not all about ‘our’ exit.

Unless ‘exit’ is done in an inclusive and contextually specific way, it will never be locally owned. The real challenge for international NGOs is to get others to own their departure – something that EveryChild seems to have done remarkably well. How have they done this?

See next blog on – six steps towards exit.