The hardest part of running an NGO: knowing when to leave

With more and more donors pulling out of Southeast Asia, international NGOs must have a clear strategy to hand over what they've built to local people

Weh Yeoh
July 7, 2016
The hardest part of running an NGO: knowing when to leave

With more and more donors pulling out of Southeast Asia, international NGOs must have a clear strategy to hand over what they’ve built to local people

The end goal of international NGOs working in developing nations should always be to hand over their operations to government and local NGOs. Yet few in Southeast Asian countries have clear exit strategies.

Seven-year-old Mai sits in his father’s lap as he blows bubbles with his disability worker Somalai. Blowing bubbles helps children with a communication and swallowing disability improve their muscle control, which helps them speak more clearly. Photo: Hugo Sharp/OIC: The Cambodia Project.

This is a problem from both a moral and pragmatic point of view. Morally, handing over work means local ownership of the solution, which is less likely to be a foreign transplant, and therefore more likely to succeed. It also means that local people have the ability to control their own destiny.
Pragmatically, as countries such as Cambodia approach middle-income status, more and more donors are pulling out of Southeast Asian countries. Now, more than ever, international NGOs likewise need to plan their withdrawal.
Globally, there are many lessons that can be learnt from other organisations that execute exit strategies. Broadly speaking, they fall into three categories – cause-based initiatives, foundations and NGOs.
In the US, the cause-based NGO Freedom to Marry closed down in early 2016, after it had achieved its stated aim of securing the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. With the US Supreme Court victory on 26 June 2015, there was no longer a need for this NGO to continue, and hence it closed its doors. From as early as 2000, this was its stated goal and helped to unify action around its cause.
Similarly, there are examples of foundations across the globe that have planned for their own closure. The Weatherwax Foundation, which supports community projects in the US state of Michigan, always planned to close in 2017. One clear benefit of this approach is that it ensured recipients of funding became self-sufficient.
For international NGOs working across Southeast Asia, it is harder to find those who have planned exits successfully.
Why might this be the case?
The cynical viewpoint would be that in order to justify their ongoing existence, international NGOs need to keep on presenting the case that their work is necessary. This argument is too simplistic.
Localisation is extremely difficult, especially when governments are used to international organisations doing the work for them. It’s far easier to keep the status quo running – the foreign organisation doing the work, rather than promoting local ownership.
Amongst those working for international NGOs, there seems to be an air of fatalism when it comes to government taking over a solution: “Oh, the government will never start providing adequate [insert applicable infrastructure] for its citizens.”
Whether or not governments will provide for their own people in the future is debatable. One thing, however, is clear. As long as the international community keeps on doing it, there is no incentive for governments to step in and take responsibility.
Yet there are some international NGOs that are currently implementing exit strategies. Splash is a Seattle-based NGO that works in Cambodia, amongst other places. They have successfully exited from both Thailand and Vietnam. Their aim is for children in these countries to have access to clean drinking water.
The organisation clearly states a date when it will exit each country. Their approach to handing over work differs from country to country. In Thailand, they handed over their work to the for-profit sector and exited in 2015. In Nepal, they established a local NGO, which will then be converted to a social enterprise, allowing them to exit by 2020. In Cambodia, nearly half of Splash’s clean water projects have been converted to commercial, self-sufficient operations that no longer rely on Splash funding. A full transition to local ownership in Cambodia is anticipated by 2019.
Splash’s approach is unique, and clearly striking a chord with donors. They predict to double their donations in 2016 to over $4m from 2013 figures.
But what if we didn’t create anything to hand over to government in the first place?
In Cambodia, the lack of speech therapy has had devastating effects on young and old alike. There are hundreds of thousands of people, especially children, who cannot communicate to their full potential. Either they cannot talk clearly, or at all, or cannot process incoming communication.
An equally large number of people have difficulties swallowing, where food and liquid would enter their lungs, instead of the stomach. They could contract pneumonia and then die. Without speech therapy, these people are dying young.
Speech therapists across the globe address these issues. And yet, in Cambodia, there is not one single Cambodian speech therapist who has graduated from university. There simply is no university course from which they can graduate.
The severity of this problem required immediate action. And yet, by setting up a hospital or clinic to deliver free speech-therapy services, we would be absolving the government of their own responsibility.
Instead of setting up another NGO, OIC: The Cambodia Project established a project, which sits underneath an existing local NGO, with the goal of getting 100 Cambodian speech therapists employed by the government. This means that by the time the work is done, by 2030, the project will cease to exist.
In this case, rather than handing over work to the government, we don’t create anything to hand over. We work with them to build the profession from scratch.
As more people become savvy about the complexities of NGO work, the old concepts of charity and giving handouts are dying. More and more, international NGOs need to be attuned to this, to not only lead the way in making themselves redundant, but also to educate the public on why this is a better approach.
Let’s hope we see an increasing number of international NGOs taking this approach in the future.
Weh Yeoh is the founder and managing director of OIC: The Cambodia Project, which aims to establish speech therapy as a profession in Cambodia. He has a BA in physiotherapy from the University of Sydney and an MA in development studies from the University of NSW.

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