In developing countries, how do we make foreign aid truly redundant?

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Pisey Soeun, a Cambodian development professional, working with OIC Cambodia on localisation.

Recently, I was interviewed by Devex, a media platform on global development, about how international NGOs working in developing countries can truly make themselves redundant – by planning and executing their own exit.

Here’s a few excerpts from the full (paywalled) interview by Lisa Cornish.

It has been almost three months since the Humanitarian Institute announced its June course on developing and implementing exit strategies in developing countries. Aimed at nongovernmental organizations, corporations, governments, social enterprises, startups and more, the program offers a rare how-to guide at a moment when the development community is increasingly questioning its long-term sustainability and goals of localization.

But to date, there has been little interest in the course.

“I have not been looking at the numbers of participants coming in — but it has been very quiet,” Weh Yeoh, co-facilitator of the course and co-founder of WhyDev, explained to Devex. “I am disappointed, but I am not surprised — and it proves a point that the impetus to plan an exit isn’t going to come from the people who need to know it.”

Developed through experience

According to Yeoh, who founded an organization focused on speech therapy, 1 in 25 — or 600,000 — Cambodians require speech therapy services. When he began his work in Cambodia, there were zero speech therapists, no university courses, and no awareness. And yet, an exit strategy was baked into the very core of his NGO, OIC Cambodia.

“With OIC Cambodia, we started off with a principle — that we didn’t want to do [all] the work … we wanted to work with the government, so that they could build capability from the beginning. And that’s why we set up our exit strategy.”

With an exit strategy planned for 2030, OIC Cambodia was established in 2014.

By 2030, they plan to have 100 therapists integrated into the public sector and to achieve this, they need to develop university courses that don’t yet exist, and get the government to sign on to integrate speech pathologists into the public sector. In addition, raise awareness so demand is stimulated for both the service as well as students to participate in university courses. All within a 16-year period.

OIC Cambodia has already implemented measures to increase local capability. Yeoh handed over responsibility for the NGO to local Cambodian woman, Chenda Net at the start of this year.

But Yeoh does not see many NGOs actively planning their exit — this inspired the new course.

“I could count on one hand international organizations that have a clear exit strategy. There just isn’t a lot of thinking in the international development space about organizations making themselves redundant.”

What NGOs need to know

An exit strategy is something NGOs need to think about for two reasons, Yeoh explained.

The first, he said, is ethics.

“It’s not up to us to tell people in other countries what to do. They need to own it for themselves.”

And the second is thinking pragmatically about providing services in a changing environment of aid funding.

“We know that aid budgets for countries such as Cambodia are drying up,” Yeoh said.

“We know the aid budget is shrinking anyway. So what we are going to be left doing, is creating something where there is a big, black hole after we do all this work, and there is no money left to keep it going.”

Planning an exit

“What organizations should be saying is ‘you don’t need to fund us forever.’ Even if 16 years is a big commitment, at least we know that post-2030 we are not going to be asking you for more money.

“I would have thought this type of thing would be music to their ears,” Yeoh said.

But exit strategies aren’t just about the exit of the NGO — it should also be about the exit of a program. And focusing on creating an exit strategy for community-based programs can be an important first step for an NGO into this space.


Engaging with donors on the topic

Yeoh believes the incentive to implement exit strategy will need to come not from NGOs, but from donors.

As part of the Australia-ASEAN Emerging Leaders Program, Yeoh has encouraged the Australian government to be a leader in the space.

“I have been able to meet [Foreign Minister] Julie Bishop, the Prime Minister [Malcolm Turnbull] and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific [Concetta Fierravanti-Wells] and discuss how they can help encourage NGOs to plan, and execute, their own exit,” Yeoh said.

“Prime Minister Turnbull threw the issue back at me, as part of a roundtable, and asked what I think. And I explained that the impetus has to come from funders.”

Turnbull continued throwing the idea to the room, asking participants if this was an issue that needed to be addressed, Yeoh said. There was consensus that self-perpetuation of NGOs in developing countries was a problem.

In Yeoh’s vision, a government or donor — such as Australia, should put out a call for program proposals with criteria attached, asking an organization to specify when they will exit, who they will hand off to — if they need to — and then how they will implement this.

“I would like to see Australia [be] the world leader in this space,” Yeoh said. “Australia has a great reputation for being a world leader in disability-inclusive development — wouldn’t it be great to be the world leader in this as well.”

Progressing the agenda

Regardless of the how the course proceeds, encouraging donors and NGOs to focus on sustainability through planned exits is a message Yeoh in particular will be repeating — often.

“If, hypothetically, this course has no sign ups, we will just have to rethink the strategy and who we are putting it out to,” he said. “I do, truly believe something has to be done. It is just how to do it.”

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