By Rizal Malik


Many INGOs will soon face painful decisions about exit. How they will do it is already largely pre-determined by their past behavior – by the hundreds of seemingly small decisions they have made over the last 10 years. Like physical fitness, exit is not something you can instantly do well.

It’s my experience that you cannot leave well without a plan to leave. How INGOs end partnerships will be deeply influenced by whether they planned for this. Entry and how they have related over the years are key for how they’ll exit. INGOs who have focused on the depth of engagement and ensuring the partner has the capacity to respond to the demands of their changing context, will find exit easier – especially those few who aspired for ‘partners to be ready to kick us out’. But for INGOs, who have been comfortable with merely perpetuating and expanding their role, it will be tricky.

What can International NGOs do to exit ‘less badly’? Let’s be honest -for INGOs exiting as an emergency response to falling income post-COVID-19, it can probably only be a bad exit. It will be urgent and brutal. But they can exit ‘less badly’ by doing three things:

1) Stick with authentic partners, who bring genuine change

There will be massive NGO casualties. This is not all bad. Let’s not romanticise NGOs. In Indonesia many NGOs were created as ‘rent-seekers’, simply to access the international aid funding available. These sham NGOs will die. I will not mourn their passing.

The key is for INGOs to differentiate the very best from the rest – it may be just 2 out of 20. You may be hated by those you leave, but as the saying goes ‘If you want to please everybody, then sell ice-cream’. Focus on those that you genuinely believe will make most difference in the country. INGOs tend to like complex matrices with lots of criteria and quantitative scoring systems. But who makes the judgements? To make discerning decisions, INGOs will have to listen to those people who have lived long enough in the country – their long-term local staff, rather than their recently-appointed country directors.

2) Help with contingency planning

Partners do not need five-year strategic plans at the moment. The context is changing too fast for that. However, they do need a contingency plan for the next few months, or for this year. They need to work out how they can continue to make a difference, building on what they already know, while remaining afloat. INGOs may help them access people who can facilitate and accompany short-term contingency plans that enable survival.

3) Leave assets, especially knowledge and relationships

INGOs can leave assets in the hands of their local partners. Assets are much more than cars -t includes knowledge, databases, and MEL systems. Relationships also count as assets, and these may be even more important. It may be hard to pass on trust, but INGOs can at least introduce partners to embassies, and to friends in the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank.

So my INGO friends, if you have to exit post-COVID-19, then the least you can do is make sure you exit ‘less badly’ than most.

If you would like to discuss how INTRAC can support you when it comes to exiting responsibly, please contact us.

This blog is the fourth in an ongoing series on the topic of responsible exit, taking into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic:

No. 1: Living our values in the distress of exit (July 2020)
No. 2: Exit can be a good thing for local civil society (September 2020)
No. 3: There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in exit planning (October 2020)
No. 4: If you can’t exit well, at least exit less badly (October 2020)
No. 5: In Ethiopia, exit presents real challenges for civil society (November 2020)

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