By Sosena Lemma

I’ve worked in the civil society sector in Ethiopia for almost 20 years. While I have worked in a number of thematic areas, much of my experience has been with international NGOs working in the country. For over ten years, capacity development has been a particular focus of mine. The reason for this is that while I saw in local civil society organisations a real passion for change and a closeness to communities, I also saw gaps in their capacity. I realised how much value there was in helping to close these gaps, and to produce more sustainable organisations.

Because capacity development work can be costly and time-consuming, many CSOs in Ethiopia have historically been unable to build their capacity because resources have been very scarce. However, in recent years more INGOs have chosen to invest in these processes. I have been a part of this through an organisation that I set up, as well as my work with INTRAC. My particular focus has been on developing the capacity of CSOs in the area of financial management and programme cycle management.

Changing funding streams in Ethiopia

Civil society organisations face a number of challenges in Ethiopia, and a trend of dwindling resources is definitely one of them. Both the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the prospect of international funders exiting from programmes, add to these difficulties. It is a very difficult time for CSOs in the country. It has always been difficult for organisations here to obtain funding, particularly from international sources. Local CSOs have sometimes shifted their areas of work in an effort to secure grants, which can mean moving into areas in which they have less experience. The loss of income as a result of exit exposes them even more, as CSOs then have to search for new income sources in a very competitive funding environment.

Funders do not always exit programmes in a planned and sustainable way. Oak Foundation is a positive example, because it genuinely aspires to build the capacity of its partners as a component of an exit process. I have been supporting their exit strategy, working with this in mind. We are providing a package of support for four organisations, which combines strengthening their financial management, resource mobilisation and leadership skills through a combination of technical training, executive coaching and linking the organisations to new funding opportunities over the course of a year and a half.

For the partner organisations involved, the road forwards is a difficult one – some are highly reliant on support from Oak Foundation. However, we were able to find funding opportunities for the CSOs to apply for, and one has secured funding for three years – a major success. Hopefully, this will enable the organisation not only to continue their work, but also enhance their capacity to they can secure additional support in future.

How to improve the exit process?

In general, there are a number of things which increase the chances of a local CSO remaining sustainable and operational following an exit process. Those organisations which have property or land can leverage this as a source of income. Organisations must become extremely proficient at writing proposals, in Ethiopia’s challenging funding environment. Finally, where possible CSOs must try to find ways to mobilise resources domestically, and from their communities – for example through a membership model.

There are major risks facing local CSOs. One of the most notable is staff retention. If funders exit from their relationships with a local CSO and its income falls, it can be very challenging to retain skilled staff, so other ways to motivate staff will become even more important. Another threat is simple exhaustion, from the arduous process of trying to stay afloat. Local organisations need sufficient support and encouragement from their international partners to overcome this.

If INGOs are serious about supporting the sustainability of their national partners, they must commit to exit processes that are:

  • Planned
  • Genuinely cooperative in their approach
  • Which provide ample notice of the intention to exit.

Both INGOs and local CSOs need to be realistic about the prospect of exit, and INGOs should give their local partners a sense of ownership over everything they do – including the exit process. One practical way that INGOs can promote the sustainability of partners is by thinking seriously about contributing to their core costs during the life-time of the partnership. This can greatly help a local organisation’s prospects of surviving and flourishing independently by allowing the organisation to free-up resources to invest, which can help it to become sustainable in time.

Advice for local CSOs

For local CSOs, my main message is that funding is never guaranteed and to “think about exit and the potential end of funding from the beginning of the partnership process”. It is also critical for local CSOs to diversify their income base as much as they can. Losses of income are an inevitability, but the worst consequences of this are not – every bit of preparation a local CSO can do ahead of time will improve their prospects.

Sosena Lemma has nearly 20 years’ experience working in the development sector in Ethiopia. Under the multi-donor Civil Society Support Programme (CSSP 2011-2017) she led the biggest capacity development program that has ever been provided to Ethiopian civil society, working with 500 CSOs over the six years and managing a team of experts, finance mentors, national and international specialist providers. She is also managing a social enterprise working on capacity development, Agar Development Partners Consulting.

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

This blog is the fifth in our 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)
No. 6: A cautious welcome to the localisation agenda (December 2020)
No. 7: Ending well (December 2020)
No. 8: What working with EveryChild taught me about responsible exit (December 2020)