About the SAS project

What is the ‘Stopping As Success’ project? 

Stopping As Success (SAS): Transitioning to Locally Led Development is a 3-year USAID funded collaborative learning project which aims to provide positive examples and guidance for how international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and local civil society organizations (CSOs) or NGOs and donors can foster locally led development through successful and responsible transitions out of projects or relationships with partners.

Click here for more information about the methodology

Click here for a synthesis of the lessons

Where did the idea for the SAS learning project come from? 

The concept for this project originated in November 2015 at a co-creation workshop organized by USAID Local Works. The ideas were further refined by the three organizations in the SAS consortium. Our interest in responsible exits and transitions was informed by experience and evidence previously gathered by consortium members on how prolonged presence or dominance of external development actors in local settings can undermine local ownership and harm overall development outcomes. We sought to distill practical lessons from cases of successful and responsible transitions where stopping externally led programming or organizational presence was seen as a success because local actors were now in charge of driving development processes forward.

How is the SAS+ phase different from the first part of the project?

SAS+ builds on learning outcomes collaboratively developed through the original Stopping As Success (SAS) program’s (2017-2020) evidence base of 20 original case studies, and corresponding tools and resources to foster responsible transitions and partnerships that promote local ownership and leadership. SAS+ will apply these tools and learning through an accompaniment approach model to assist existing partnerships in transition and to generate new learning to enable future responsible transitions to local leadership.

Why does this topic matter? 

Despite growing calls and evidence base for localization and shifting the power to local actors, the broader aid system continues to be externally driven. Donors and INGOs are increasingly committed to supporting locally led development and self-reliance and directing funding to local actors. But examples of mutually agreed exit strategies, collaborative decision-making and transfers of power are rare. SAS cases highlight tangible and intangible elements in INGO transitions: legitimacy, power, partnerships, capacities, financial sustainability and operational decisions that support responsible transitions. Our lessons and guidelines aim to inform better policies and practices and to empower internal champions at INGOs and CSOs who advocate for and manage transitions.

What were the key findings of the project? 

SAS has produced a synthesis report that summarizes the key findings across all 20 case studies. Based on this synthesis, we have identified 10 overarching lessons learned, including lessons relevant to the leadership of INGOs and CSOs/NGOs and lessons targeted at the management level of INGOs and CSOs/NGOs (those responsible for implementing the transition process).

Overall, we found that the way an INGO enters into a given context matters just as much as the way it leaves. INGOs that focus on creating partnerships based on trust and solidarity from the outset, rather than assembling partners to deliver projects, are better able to transition out of a country or program in a way that fosters locally led development – the difference between a ‘civil society’ and a ‘project society’.

Transitions also require INGOs to relinquish power and control in favor of local actors, whether this be NGOs that have devolved from an international (con)federation, newly created NGOs or CSOs, or local and national governments. Our cases demonstrate that responsible transitions happen when there is a mutually agreed plan between international and local actors to transfer ownership and resources in a sustainable way. 

Other lessons focus on the importance of creating a joint vision and a concrete plan for transition, the need for continued financial support and other types of resource transfer, and that fact that transition is often as much a beginning as an ending, with post-transition partnerships and collaboration continuing in many different forms. To read all of the project’s overarching findings, please see the SAS synthesis report. 

What should organizations planning for transitions consider? 

SAS has a number of findings which will help INGOs, NGOs/CSOs, and donors in planning for exits or transitions. For example, specific themes which emerged from the project include leadership and champions, financial sustainability, capacity development and two-way learning, and communications. These key findings are highlighted and elaborated on within the SAS Synthesis Report. Additionally, the various tools and resources provide more specific advice on how to address an exit or transition, depending on where an organization might be in the project cycle. You can find these resources here

Our Learning Approach

What was the overall methodology used for the project? 

SAS is a collaborative learning project that utilized qualitative research methods commonly used in the international development and peacebuilding sector. The consortium engaged in extensive qualitative evidence gathering to document INGO transitions and the sustainability of locally led organizations. SAS documented organizational processes and experiences, both historical and contemporary, in case studies then conducted iterative data analysis and solicited feedback to identify patterns and lessons across cases. Finally, SAS drew on these patterns and lessons learned to draft tools and resources for INGOs, NGOs/CSOs, and donors to plan and implement successful transitions. 

Click here for more information about the methodology. 

What do you mean by ‘collaborative learning project’? 

Collaborative learning brings a group of practitioners from diverse backgrounds together to jointly identify an important dilemma of relevance to a broader practice area (e.g. aid and development sector) and suitable for a collaborative learning approach. The process starts with a question and is not driven by theory, hypothesis or model. It uses qualitative case study research design with learning partners supporting the evidence gathering in multiple locations. Collaborative learning encompasses multiple steps: field work, identification of emerging themes, testing findings and validating lessons and conclusions with other practitioners, synthesizing lessons, developing practical guidance and sharing these with key audiences.  

Case Studies

What countries are covered in the case studies and how were they chosen? 

The SAS project conducted 20 case studies in 13 different countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Republic of Georgia, Kenya, Morocco, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Thailand, Bangladesh, Burundi, India, Guatemala, and Timor-Leste. 

In our selection of cases, we looked for geographic diversity, sectoral diversity (health, micro-finance, gender equality, governance, peacebuilding, etc) and types of transitions. We intentionally excluded humanitarian international transitions and humanitarian localization efforts from this inquiry due to very different political, operational and institutional contexts in which such exits take place. For more details, please refer to our methodology document

What does SAS mean by ‘successful transition’? 

SAS believes that local actors are best placed to define what success looks like in their contexts. International actors often lack the relevant contextual knowledge to understand what makes for a responsible transition in a particular place. The presumption that they do can lead to a misallocation of resources, a failure to sustain outcomes, and ultimately even harm. Accordingly, in our case studies we avoid a specific definition of success, and broadly interpret successful transitions as being transitions that result in a positive outcome as defined by local communities.

Why are there no examples of unsuccessful transitions?

SAS assumes development practitioners are aware of unsuccessful examples of transitions or exits. The recent emphasis on sustainable practices in development in large part stems from the failure of aid writ large to sustain outcomes over the long and even medium term after projects end or country offices close. By focusing on successful transitions, SAS uses a positive deviance framework to explore case examples where transitions were done well in order to learn what went right and why. Within each case study, we also examine challenges faced and what went less well during the transition process, even when the overall outcome was positive.

How did you work with people affected by aid transitions in the collaborative learning process? 

Listening to people affected by international aid transitions is at the heart of SAS. At the start of the project in 2017, the SAS team held an online consultation that gathered 95 people across 40 countries to discuss power dynamics in the aid sector, the role of local actors, and more. These conversations have been foundational to SAS. 

During case study research, we collaborated with local researchers and informed observers to conduct interviews and co-write the case studies. In the interview process, the research team spoke with a range of stakeholders to gather diverse perspectives and ground our analysis in local realities and experiences. 

Throughout the project, SAS held 3 regional evidence review meetings in different countries to solicit feedback at various stages in the project from people who engaged in SAS case study research or had experience and expertise with other transition processes. Additionally, the SAS team has engaged USAID country missions, INGO networks such as InterAction, CSO networks such as CIVICUS and other colleagues at different policy and research groups to share SAS lessons and gather feedback on our research design, emerging lessons and analysis of findings. 

Tools and Resources

What tools and resources have been produced through the project? Why were these resources chosen? 

SAS has developed 20+ resources such as issue papers (summarizing key themes emerging from the cases), thought pieces, and practical guidelines to support responsible transitions. These resources distill lessons and offer practical considerations and guidelines on the critical elements for responsible transitions including partnership, financial sustainability, mutual capacity strengthening, power and legitimacy, and more. 

The SAS team developed these resources after listening to partners, feedback from workshop participants and others on what would be most useful when planning for or managing a transition. 

You can explore our resources here

Who are the practical resources intended for?

The resources are intended to support INGOs, NGOs/CSOs, and donors who are planning for or going through a transition. Each resource specifies which audience it is intended for.   


How do you define ‘local’?

The term ‘local’ has different connotations in different contexts. It is also a contested term and SAS acknowledges that it can be used disparagingly. In the context of SAS’s research, ‘local organization’ is used to refer to CSOs or NGOs in the Global South that are undergoing a process of transition in their partnership with an INGO. This encompasses organizations that work at the local and national level. The broader term ‘local actors’ recognizes the diversity of this group, which can include communities, newly created NGOs or CSOs, NGOs that have devolved from an international federation, or local and national governments. 

How do you define ‘exit’ or ‘transition’?

At the beginning of SAS, we conducted a literature review and consultation on both aid exits and transitions. By choosing to ultimately sample successful cases of locally led development, we naturally focused on cases of transition whereby international and local actors maintain some form of relationship once an INGO has ceased to operate physically in a given country or has completed the delivery of a donor-funded program. We therefore examined 13 cases of organizational transition and six cases of programmatic transition (one case study examines an ongoing transition and will not be published). 

There are two broad types of exit or transition: organizational and programmatic

Transition   An organizational transition is defined as a transfer of responsibility and ownership from an international to a local organization while maintaining ongoing collaboration and partnership. This can take many forms, including Memorandums of Understanding or fielding representatives for each other’s Boards. In most cases, the international organization withdraws its physical presence in the country post-transition, but it can continue to operate alongside the local organization with a different focus.A programmatic transition is defined as the withdrawal of international actors following the close-down of a program, with a transfer of responsibility and ownership to local entities (NGOs/CSOs, communities, governments). In some cases, the international organization continues to operate in that country or area, but is no longer directly involved in implementing the program, and in other cases it withdraws its physical presence in the country.
ExitAn organizational exit is defined as the withdrawal of an international organization from a country without a transfer of responsibility and ownership to a local entity, and with no continued relationship with former local partners.A programmatic exit is defined as the withdrawal of international actors following the close-down of a program, with no transfer of responsibility or ownership to informal local entities.  



How else can I get involved/ find out more about this project?

There are a number of ways you can find out more about our work, and join the conversation on the issues we have explored in our learning project.

– Visit our website for resources and reflections from the team on aid transitions, including blogs and publications

– See our latest updates and connect with us on social media using #StoppingAsSuccess, and by following @peacedirect, @cdalearning and @sfcg_.

– Enjoyed reading a blog post, case study or Tweet from us? Help us share the findings and resources from our project by sending to your own networks and contacts, and sharing on your own social media channels.