Helpdesk Report K4D: Responsible exit from humanitarian interventions

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Kerina Tull, University of Leeds Nuffield Centre for International Health and Development

1. Summary

Since humanitarian projects are intended to be temporary interventions responding to the needs of populations affected by crises, project closure is an inescapable component of humanitarian aid (Pal et al., 2019). The literature highlights various terminologies for responsible exits by humanitarian actors. Approaches vary across organisations with multiple ways to describe the process – including ‘graduation’, ‘handing over’, ‘phasing down’/‘out’/‘over’, ‘ramping down’, ‘transition’, and ‘withdrawal’/‘closure’ (INTRAC, n.d.; Gross, 2014; WFP, 2015; Devereux et al., 2016; Lewis, 2016; Ahmed et al., 2018: 10). Further, these terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Many organisations and the individuals involved in responses are looking for ideas on best exit practice, as it is not easy to do well (Hayman et al., 2016; INTRAC, n.d.). However, in the aid effectiveness agenda, very little is mentioned on how aid exits and phaseouts should take place (Ahmed et al., 2018: 5).

There are guides on humanitarian exits from USAID (Ahmed et al., 2018), WHO (2003) as well as non-government organisations (NGOs) such as C-SAFE (Gardner et al., 2005). Expects consulted for this rapid review confirmed that existing literature and guidance1 materials on exit strategies in international cooperation frequently recommend principles for good practice:

  • Plan for exit from the outset;

  • Think about sustainability early-on;

  • Consult with partners and stakeholders regularly (using assessments to monitor challenges), and - Communicate constantly.

This rapid review has found examples of exits from non-profit organisations, NGOs, as well as government agencies. Key points to highlight are:

  • Three exit processes have been identified by a multi-donor evaluation (Slob & Jerve, 2008) for different contexts, and reflecting different management challenges: exit from force majeure situations (i.e. crisis management); exit from aid-dependent countries (i.e. exiting in a way that takes care to allow externally funded activities to continue sustainably), and aid transformation in graduating countries (i.e. exit in the context of transforming bilateral relations).

  • Three broad approaches of exit processes undertaken by international non-government organisations (INGOs) are the Full Closure Model (used by EveryChild); the Localisation Model (used by CARE International), and the Devolved Programme Model (used by American Friends Service Committee [AFSC] to support continuity via local leadership) (Ahmed et al., 2018).

  • Possible transition processes are related to measurable indicators, such as phasing out food aid to a limited number of schools (BMZ, 2005; Gardner et al., 2005). However, phasing out is problematic when targeting poor and food-insecure people, who may not be food secure after the intervention (BMZ, 2005).

  • Developing and using short responsible exit criteria helped in a successful exit in Moldova (Morris, 2015).

  • Senior staff are critical points in an exit process (Hayman et al., 2016). This is due to the strong leadership needed (Slob & Jerve, 2008).

  • Operational shifts have been used successfully by the World Food Programme (WFP, 2016) in Lao PDR (in a governmental coalition approach) and in conflict situations such as Côte d’Ivoire (with a single government partner).

  • Both donor and recipient capacities are important factors (Slob & Jerve, 2008).
    Institutional capacity on the recipient side is a key factor determining the success of exit processes, however, donor capacity is a weak point in many exit processes.

  • Ensuring the financial sustainability of local entities is a critical part of making transitions – and ultimately locally-led development - a success (Yamron, 2020).
    Investment of both staff time and financial resources are important in the exit process (Hayman et al., 2016).

  • Attempting a hasty exit can result in financial damage on both sides (i.e. donor and recipient) (Morris, 2015). In Peru, as the process was rushed (3-month period) and underfinanced, the exit by NGO EveryChild ended up dragging on, and required additional money for legal fees and staff time.

In terms of evidence, the Stopping As Success (SAS) resources provide robust reviews, and ODI has resources that are more specific to donors. An evaluation should be conducted after a period of time has elapsed following the programme exit, to determine success. However, as funding is not usually programmed in this manner, exit strategies are rarely evaluated (Gardner et al., 2005:12). Also, there is little evidence, and very few systematic cross-country comparative reviews, on the transition from low-income status for specific economies (Engen & Prizzon, 2019). Any evidence that has been found is gender blind and does not focus on disability.