By INTRAC Principal Consultant Rick James.
‘Exit’ is a harsh reality for many aid agencies today. As a result of budget cuts and hard strategic choices, many international agencies are prioritising different countries and programmes. They are withdrawing from regions and ending partnerships. Aid withdrawal is a fact of life. The question is not so much whether it is happening, but how. Some leave quickly, hiding their shame at departing mid-way through a process with the task unfinished. Others are trying to take a more principled approach.
In a previous post, Sarah Lewis and Rachel Hayman asked: ‘NGO exit strategies: Are principles for closing projects or ending partnerships necessary?’ They highlighted the example of EveryChild, who, in order to increase the long-term impact on the lives of children, decided 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 ambitious decision meant that EveryChild had to shut down its operations and end its partnerships in 15 countries.
EveryChild wanted to do this in a responsible way. But what does that really mean? For EveryChild it meant developing three principles to guide all decision-making about exit:
- As far as possible, ensure that the work we have done is sustainable – this could be continuation of services or lasting changes in children’s lives.
- Ensure the exit does not have a detrimental effect on the children and communities where we work.
- As far as possible, ensure that expertise and momentum for change in the country is not lost.
International NGOs at the INTRAC Conference on Sustainability in November 2014 asked a number of questions about this EveryChild experience:
How did they do it?
- When did they involve the partners and how?
- What did they do to strengthen local partners? In what fields?
- How did they make sure it was what was demanded and needed?
- Did they follow a checklist of issues to consider for a ‘responsible exit’?
What have they learnt?
- What was it about the exit process that led to success or failure?
- What would you not have done-in hindsight?
- How long do you need for exit? Does length of relationship matter?
EveryChild is keen to hold itself to account, to know whether or not it has lived up to its principles. It has asked INTRAC to undertake a longitudinal evaluation of this responsible exit focusing on six countries. As well as highlighting learning about what works, we will be asking what is left behind after exit has taken place – not just the aspirations but the actual legacy in 18 months time.
As a first step, we surveyed the 20 partners in 15 countries in Africa, Asia, CEE/CIS countries and Latin America. We found EveryChild has worked with a wide diversity of organisations: some were local partners, others were localised field offices and three were still EveryChild Country Offices. There were two broad groups of partners – ones they had worked with for one to five years and another group they had partnered with for more than 10 years. For the shorter relationship group, exit was more straightforward and took between 3-12 months. The older partnerships were more complex and responsible exit took two to three years. While they are still at different stages, 90 percent of respondents felt that their time scale was about right. Partners were particularly appreciative of the advance warning of closure. Although there were initially some mixed messages, they all found the exit principles helpful and the majority of respondents are either completely or mostly satisfied with the EveryChild exit.
I have not come across any NGO that has approached exit in such a considered and careful way. We can learn a lot from this example. Over the next few months, we will continue to feed back our reflections and insights from the field work – look out for the next blog:
“Celebrating endings: a strategic funeral for EveryChild Malawi”
If you want to know more about Every Child, visit their website.