When is it time for an NGO to exit? Trick question: It’s always time. Of course, I don’t mean every NGO should close its doors immediately; I mean that every foreign-funded development NGO should be planning for—and working towards—its eventual exit, every single day.
Ten years ago, I cofounded an NGO in Cambodia, WaterSHED. Back then, less than 20 percent of families in rural Cambodia used toilets, even after countless NGOs, bilateral agencies, UN agencies, and multilateral organizations had spent astronomical sums delivering free toilets and awareness campaigns about using toilets. The health consequences were immense, and there were few signs of improvement. WaterSHED honed in on a set of key market failures that prevented the sustainable delivery of the services that households needed, but from the outset, we tried to solve the underlying problems in such a way as to permit our eventual exit (and if we couldn’t make headway, we figured we should exit anyway and stop wasting time and money).
Today, toilets have become affordable and accessible across the country, the second-fastest improvement in sanitation in the world, owing largely to market-based approaches. Nearly 80 percent of Cambodians in rural areas use toilets and the local government leads the effort to further extend services.
In June 2021, having accomplished what we set out to do, WaterSHED permanently closed.
Imagine you wanted to establish an NGO to tackle a specific problem: a lack of clean water. Knowing that you’re not able to deliver clean water to people indefinitely, you look for a more durable solution: you drill a well and install a hand pump. But after a few years, you see that steel hand pumps don’t last; you need to tackle the more systemic issues preventing sustainable service.
If you continue supplying clean water or new hand pumps without tackling the underlying issues, you would almost certainly be consigned to a forever war on the lack of access to clean water.
For this reason, people in the development sector should think as much about how to close their NGOs as they do about how to start, manage, and grow them. Otherwise, NGOs and their programs will overwhelmingly continue to alleviate symptoms rather than strengthen underlying systems.
Read the full article about exit strategies by Geoff Revell at Stanford Social Innovation Review.
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