When we’re tied up with a successful development project, it is sometimes difficult to let go and allow our partners in the community to take over. Planning a painless exit strategy is a critical task for those of us involved in rural development. I asked my colleagues in the university to think about these questions with a promise to feature their answers on Devcompage:

1) Should we leave a successful project in the hands of our local partners?
2) How long should it take before we leave a development project and let our local partners take over?
2) What would be a fool-proof exit strategy?

My friend, Efren Saz, Director of the Institute of Strategic Research and Development Studies, emailed me his take on these questions. Here it is:

I think these questions ought to provoke many of us who claim to have worked in projects that involve communities.

1. On the first question: Should we leave a successful project in the hands of our partners? My answer to this is, if we could not leave it in their hands, then it is not successful at all. A successful project should be run by our partners be they communities, bureaucracies, universities, organizations, etc. This really brings us to the issue of ownership. Much has been said about this and I subscribe to the truism that for a project to succeed, it should be owned by those who have a stake to its success. If we start a project with this in mind, there is no issue about turning over because the project is theirs from day one.

Our role might be more intense at the beginning but it should not be confused with ownership. The project is owned by “them”–partners and as the days move on we recede from the picture until the project stage finally ends and the project is mainstreamed. This means our roles will have to evolve according to the life of the project until that time when, according to veterans, we become obsolete, meaning they won’t need us anymore. Now for the sake of argument let’s say we did not do the things we ought to do at the outset, there must be a turnover, yes by all means we should turnover the project to our partners. Fears that the project might fail after turning over to the partners is simply anchored on the elitist belief that “we” know better than “them.” Also, this fear is probably a product of a realization that we may have been remiss in “preparing” the “natives” for “self rule.”

A side issue on this is about the partners’ response. The many laments that I heard about this is: Now that there is no more foreign assistance (read: budgets, vehicles, travel, supplies, conferences, honoraria, etc) they’re going to give the project to us. How can we assure the same level of intensity and commitment when we don’t have the same level of resources at our disposal? Well, you just have to leave it to your partners one way or the other. You’re not going to stay in the project forever, they are.

2. How long before we leave? I say there is no fixed time table because the problems and milieu vary. However, projects usually have a life because they are supposed to deal with specific problems. Some take three years, five years or more. I believe the benchmarks that we had set in the beginning ought to tell us if we have achieved our goals and should also tell us whether its time to go.

3. What is a fool-proof exit strategy? I’ll start by asking the question “is there a fool-proof exit strategy? I have read somewhere that one failure of management of any project is failure to end the project whether it is successful or a failure. If it failed, we want to continue until we succeed. If it succeeded, we must continue because “sayang.” I must confess that in my previous and current involvements, we never have yet exited a project in an organized, systematic way.

In one, I remember, the exit was kind of unceremonious because the project was left hanging in the air with the loss of support (financial), the many threats by some quarters (rebels) and the general failure of the many initiatives under the project. I believe we committed the usual mistake of hatching ideas by ourselves
and bringing these to the “people” because it is “good for them.” We thought we knew what was good for them (and they didn’t). It was “our” project which we designed for “them.” From hindsight, we could have prepared ourselves before even thinking of preparing them (social prep). WE could have disabused ourselves first of the idea that we knew better. We could have asked them what they needed and how best could these be met. We could have employed our skills in SWOT, problem tree analysis, the whole RRA/PRA tool box but we thought we knew better.

Going back to the original question, what is a fool-proof exit strategy? I think, the first steps become part of the exit strategy already. When you let them become owners from day one, when methodologies are systematic and clear, when goals are clear and achievable, when lines of authority are clear, when commitments are firm, you will have formulated already your exit strategy. Fool-proof? Maybe maybe not.

Thanks to Efren Saz for this post.

4 Responses to How to plan an exit strategy for your development project

  1. Nelfa M. Glova says:

    I haven’t been a part of a research and/or extension project team. My understanding of R&E project implementation is limited. Yet, the way the question “how and when is the right time to end a project?” hover at us especially during R&E In-house Review days has not failed to escape my notice. I recalled most evaluators asking project leaders when will they, as project implementors, start folding their mantles and let people assume the management of the project themselves during Extension Reviews. And I could not help but silently chime in, “O bitaw. When man?”

    We do have long running projects in our midst and we are dying to hear the most significant change stories from the mouth of our beneficiaries, stories which we so wanted to duplicate in other communities. We always find ourselves pushing for one more year and another after that so that we could, say, distribute 300 copies of leaflets on whatever solutions we came up with, and 400 copies in the following year. It is easier to think that the demands for such materials is growing. But the answers offered by Prof. Efren B. Saz on such questions as

    Should we leave a successful project in the hands of our local partners?
    How long should it take before we leave a development project and let our local partners take over?
    What would be a fool-proof exit strategy?

    in Dr. Monina Escalada’s query “How to Plan an Exit Strategy for Your Project” are profound, calling attention to some of the truths behind our “inability to let go,” those that we may have been acknowledging in silence all these years. I really hope that researchers and extensionists in VSU would read and learn from this post.

    Also, we, especially at the Extension Unit in OVPRE, are hoping to see a post from Dr. Escalada on impact evaluation of our IEC materials. It seems to me that we have been producing leaflets as support for our extension project/programs but we do not even know if they are read and utilized. We do not even know if leaflets are effective in the field. If they are not, there is no reason to keep on producing them so that we have to look for other communication strategy. What we tackled in DC 131 on communication campaign planning comes to mind. Ma’am Moni, I hope we can have more on this please. (I am thinking about the trees felled to produce the papers we used in our leaflets and yet, we do not even know if it is a sure-fire medium for our communication interventions.) Maybe we could dwell on media analysis and audience segmentation which we need to do before we formulate and implement our communication intervention. (If we could hold a workshop on this with you as resource person. What do you think, Ma’am?) Thanks.

  2. Monina Escalada says:

    Nelfa, thanks for your insights. I’ve done some work on impact or follow-up evaluation of IEC materials. The most notable was a field evaluation of the IPM radio spots and dramas for the Philippine-German Crop Protection Programme many years ago. I can write a post about the methods we used.

    In an attempt to avoid cutting more trees, I am helping the tree nursery project (no pun intended). Tomorrow, there’s an impact planning workshop at Forestry for the project staff where I will deal with the participatory planning process, impact planning framework and scaling up strategy. All this will be pro bono, in keeping with my vow to work for the benefit of the university. Pro bono, only inside the campus or through Devcompage. Hahaha!

  3. Tinashe Chimbidzikai says:

    A successful exit strategy should be conceived at the inception of a project. i have worked with community based project in a developing country and exit or ending a relationship (whether financial or technical) with partners is painful. one because you realise that your departure as a funding organisation spells doom for the organisation and two because these small organisations dont want to be weaned off.

    therefore a proper exit strategy should be developed in a participatory manner at the start of a partnership. this will involve setting target that ought to be met at the end of a defined period. these targets can be quantitative or qualitative depending on the nature of the partnehsip. assuming that these targets are not met, you evaluate where things have gone wrong and take it from there- whether to continue or to terminate the relationship. if and when you meet the target,then its horay! You move on.

    in essence an exit strategy should involve both the giver and taker.

  4. Monina Escalada says:

    Tinashe, I fully agree with you. As I pointed out in the post, in work that we do in Asia, from Day 1 of the project, we adopt a participatory planning and budgeting framework where partners indicate their matching resources. As we emphasize that it is a partnership initiative, everyone contributes and the seed money from the donor is just seed money. Then, every step of the way, we try our best to cultivate their ownership of the project. In Vietnam, where we have done most of our recent work, this has turned out quite well. Our partner institution, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, contributed exceedingly more than the seed money. MARD expanded the project and built in a line item in their agricultural extension budget. Now it is part of their mainstream activities.

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