Posts Tagged ‘exit strategy’

My ideal donor

I just received a delightful email from a chap who was setting up a new grants scheme for somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. He had read my rant entitled Preposal Prepostery, and wanted to know what advice I would give to a donor wanting to do the right thing. My dream come true: a chance to design the ideal donor! Smile

Here are ten tips I gave him. Please suggest more in the comments, and I’ll pull the best together into a second piece.

  1. Offer funding that is presumed to continue (unless there is a bad evaluation or something) rather than presumed to stop (but where you can apply for follow-on funds). Obviously your ability to do this will be constrained by your own funder(s) – you don’t want to make promises you cannot keep – but maybe this is the kind of innovation which might make you more attractive if sold to them in the right way. This doesn’t mean promising to fund projects in perpetuity, but there should be a sensible strategy to achieve long term sustainability (handing over to the local government does not count!) either because need for the external assistance will eventually subside (e.g. farmers will have learned the new techniques being promulgated) or because alternative funding can be found. But these should be long term issues to be reviewed and gradually refined over the length of the project, not something to be dreamt up for the initial proposal.
  2. Give 100% funds upfront at the beginning of each year. If you feel the need to incentivise report production, do it through personal perks like invites to lesson-sharing workshops. Never let grantees suffer funding gaps!
  3. Keep budgets short. I reckon 10 different budget lines should generally be enough. Don’t demand ridiculous levels of detail in financial reporting, but do demand proper audits. Even ask to be consulted over the auditing process so you can ask auditors to look for specific issues of concern to you. (You might have to pay extra for that.)
  4. Don’t get too hung up on large proportions of budgets going on certain things. Maybe the grantee needs that. In particular a high % going on salaries might mean they are employing high calibre staff which is about the best indicator of success I can think of.
  5. Consider funding 6 month inception phases as a matter of course. After 3 months the grantee should submit a full project document setting out their plans in a lot more detail. This can be further negotiated, until satisfactory. Funds release beyond the 6 month inception phase is dependent upon a satisfactory agreement over the detailed project document. This can be repeated every year so long as the grantee has at least 3 months funds carry-over so they can keep on working in the meantime. Major asset purchases should be held off until after the inception phase. Inception phases are really useful where you’re not sure about an applicant: maybe they just don’t have the writing skills to prepare a good application, and you can offer support to the applicant to this phase, assessing for yourselves what needs to happen. Conversely don’t demand highly detailed proposals before the inception phase.
  6. Require applicants to complete a risk analysis together with how they intend to address these risks. This should be reviewed annually.
  7. Focus on impact / outcomes over outputs / immediate objectives. Grantees should clearly communicate what’s important; that way when things go wrong (as they always do) you can hope they focus on the impact and not on which outputs they promised to deliver.
  8. Beware of box ticking exercises. A logframe is no substitute for a clear strategy, and if you have a clear strategy the log frame is relatively unimportant. (Tho some people may find it useful in both formulating their strategy and communicating it.) Equally, SMART objectives are all very well but sometimes can get a bit silly, e.g. time-bound should simply be assumed to be by end of project unless otherwise stated. On the other hand they do force the indisciplined to get properly specific.
  9. Allow for free-form proposals with some suggested headings, making it clear applicants should feel free to add their own, and exclude any that are not applicable.
  10. Be very careful about your call for proposals: restrictive calls simply force people into straitjackets, writing proposals for what you want to fund rather than what they want to do. Even quite general restrictions can have this effect. E.g. I recently review applications for a small conservation grant which required applicants to include a local communications / outreach component. There were some good proposals which suffered from having this bolted on where it didn’t make full sense.

And here’s an eleventh I just thought of:

11. If you must demand certain issues be mainstreamed, then allow applicants to mark them as not applicable without that being a black mark against them.


Exit stage left

Apparently Amref are struggling to see through their exit strategy in northern Uganda; ‘volunteer’ health teams are refusing to work without the per diems to which they have become accustomed. Amref have countered with the usual response that the VHTs don’t work for them, but for the government. It would be nice if the Ugandan government could find the funds to continue supporting the VHTs, but we all know that is wishful thinking. Surely Amref cannot pretend they didn’t see this one coming?

Why is this happening? Well I don’t know any more than what the Guardian Katine blog is reporting, but we can make some educated guesses. Firstly Amref sourced a fixed length grant from a donor. The donor – anxious that they weren’t about to embark on an open-ended commitment – would have required Amref to describe their exit strategy, and Amref would have duly obliged with the usual bla bla. Both Amref and the donor are to blame; the donor for enforcing such requirements, Amref for meekly assenting, and the donor again for believing the b******t that Amref wrote.

If Amref were smart and truly dedicated to the project, they would have prepared well in advance for the impending cut in funding, and sourced alternative support from elsewhere. This is easier said than done, but large NGOs like Amref have the resources and plenty of options.

Maybe, in future, and after a gap of some a year or two, if the Katine project is judged a success, Amref will be back with a follow-up. Except that in the meantime they will have lost a lot of credibility as long term supporters of health care provision in northern Uganda. Now the problem of per diems will be twice as bad; the VHTs will know they can only get these payments for a few years, and so now is the time to capitalise. By showing their lack of serious commitment, Amref will have provided the worst kind of example to their ‘volunteers’.

All donors need exit strategies – that is both clear and understandable – but they need to be a lot more flexible and distant than is presently the case (try 10-20 years rather than 3-5 years). Meanwhile BINGOs should stop launching projects just because they can get the funds, and concentrate on providing lasting, sustainable benefits. Communities never just exit stage left; neither should those seeking to support them.


For my first post I want to talk about one of my pet issues, and something which is likely to become a recurring theme in this blog; sustainability. Sustainability lies at the heart of many of the issues dear to the environmental movement; climate change, biodiversity loss, overexploitation of target species. Forestry and fisheries policies are, in essence, studies in ecological sustainability, which are then subject to varying degrees of political subversion. There’s a lot that I could talk about there, and probably will in some future blog post. But for now I want to discuss the issue of project sustainability.

In other development sectors, e.g. health or infrastructure, it is possible to supply a developing country with a particular good, e.g. AIDS vaccines or building a new road, which, to a degree, can be treated as a one-off donation. Donors may reasonably conclude that providing longer term assistance, e.g. in vaccine management and distribution or road maintenance, may improve the efficacy of the original donation, but even without these the initial donation generally has clear value. (Or at least as long as the donor has done their homework first, and checked the donation is actually needed.)

However, conservation is ultimately a social process aimed at achieving behavioural change. Whilst in well-functioning states a lot of conservation aims can be realised by achieving change in government policy, developing states rarely have the resources to enforce properly new regulations, particularly in low priority areas (which, regrettably, appears to include many environmental rules). Hence the need to support policy aims with substantial field projects, many of which must perforce work with the local people who live around site of interest. Thus it is that in tropical countries, in which the great majority of biodiversity is to be found, much conservation work has a strong social development element. Personally this appeals to me … so long as it is done properly!

A typical social development project in the tropics last for 3-5 years to fit with donor funding cycles. It may be that subsequent phases may also be funded, although often with some kind of a gap between, but eventually, having been established as a ‘going concern’ the project is usually handed over to the host country government to manage thereafter. This is known as the Exit Strategy. Unfortunately, the management capacity of the poorest countries often just isn’t up to the task, and the field of social development is littered with failed projects. Five years after the project ended often there can be very little evidence, except for the odd tatty poster, that there was ever a project there in the first place. Bill Easterly has this to say about the issue in his book White Man’s Burden:

“Besides the visibility bias towards new construction [e.g. roads, schools, clinics], the underfunding of maintenance reflects the elusive goal of ‘sustainability’… Donors envision the local government taking over the project, which they think is necessary to make it last. This intuition was once appealing, but the decades of evidence show that that dog won’t hunt… trying to make the project ‘sustainable’ usually guarantees that it will not be ‘sustained’… But donors keep flailing away at this infeasible but inflexible objective.”

A classic reason for this failure is the withdrawal of project resources such as a project vehicle and funds to pay per diems. I once visited an old trial tree plantation project which had fallen into disrepair since the original funds had run out and no tending or thinning had been carried out. Except that the plantation was right outside the local forestry office, who presumably had all the necessary machetes and spades, but just did not expect to continue to do work for which they had previously been paid extra.

The donor’s rationale in all of this is that if they fund a given project into perpetuity that stimulates aid dependency and is thus, by definition, not sustainable. It is up to host countries to determine their budget priorities; if they do not subsequently allocate resources to a project for which they have been handed responsibility then, the argument goes, they cannot have been that interested in it in the first place, even if it was demonstrated to represent clear value for money etc. This problem is particularly acute in the environmental sector, which generally has much lower priority than health, education and economic development, and this is one reason some conservation theorists have suggested that if the ‘West’ wants to achieve conservation then they should expect to pay for it, pure and simple.

Some payments for environmental services type projects (REDD is the latest example) are an attempt to move in this direction, but still most donors are stuck in their existing model of aid delivery in 3-5 year cycles, and seem unable to contemplate longer time horizons. A friend of mine recently showed me a draft consultancy report which had come into their possession. The consultants had been asked to advise on the suitability for a particular way forward for a community-based conservation project that was coming to the end of its 13 years of donor funding. The consultants were greatly concerned about the future for the project under local government management. This is what they wrote:

“If … sustained support is to be realised it will be necessary to deal with the inevitable donor fatigue that is unfortunately likely to set in. [The donor] have been supporting activities at [the project] since 1997, and all the indications are that they expect to phase out support very shortly; indeed the [last three years] can be seen as the principle manifestation of this thinking. We believe this would be a grave mistake, surrendering all the important gains made [by the project] up to this point, and effectively writing off [the project] as a waste of money. Presumably this is not what the tax payers in [donor country] have in mind when they pay for development support to poor countries such as [host country].”

The consultants were advised by the managing consultants (consultants, consultants everywhere!) that this would not be helpful, and the paragraph was deleted from the final version of the report. The rest of the technical consultants’ report was generally pretty positive; they clearly did not think the project had been a waste of money. In fact the project had won an international award for its achievements.

If long term (ideally 20 years plus) support to social development projects is not politically palatable in donor countries then so be it, but why on earth do they keep throwing money at shorter term projects which are doomed to fail?

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