4 Ways to Transition Responsibly During a Global Pandemic

What INGOs can do now to stay on track or amplify local leadership.

April 22, 2020
Organizations Involved: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, Peace Direct, & Search for Common Ground
Author: Grace Boone and Megan Renoir

The power of collective care: International development and beyond 

If anything has been made clear the past few months it is that we are not in a time of “business as usual.” Collectively, we are experiencing a global anxiety like never before. However, we are also seeing unprecedented collective care. Whether it’s New York city’s 7pm applause for essential workers, hundreds of funders pledging flexible funding to grantees, or one inspiring World War II Veteran’s campaign that has raised over $25 million for hospital workers, we are seeing the best of people. 

The development sector is no different: We’re seeing organizations struggling, but more often coordinating in order to deliver effective and sustainable aid during this global crisis. As the virus moves to African, South American, and South Asian countries, there’s a growing fear of how the virus will harm stretched resources, especially in communities where social distancing isn’t a legitimate option (1).

The need for responsible transitions to local leadership during a global pandemic 

Although this is a time for creative global cooperation, we cannot forget that our actions during this time must be responsible, conflict sensitive, and accountable to communities that are being affected. As large sums of money continue to be re-distributed to respond to the growing need, there are already calls to ensure post-pandemic transition strategies are in place so governments, companies, organizations, and community structures are not left stranded once the effects of the pandemic are eased. However, if these transitions are not well informed and inclusive of best practice, the impacts on affected communities and locally led development can potentially be damaging. 

The Stopping As Success (SAS) project has learned a great deal about this over the past three years. From the first 2017 consultation with local (2) and international development practitioners, we have seen how ill-informed transitions by INGOs – whether ending a project or departing a context – have the power to distort locally led development by reshaping initiatives, fracturing communities, and undermining local leadership and expertise. As such, it is vital that during this time of uncertainty and rapid response, we focus on what we can do differently to ensure affected communities are put first. 

How to support responsible transitions now and post-pandemic 

The SAS case studies and analysis offers guidance for responsible INGO transition processes, adaptable for organizations seeking to understand how to do so responsibly and sustainably, even during this unique time and post-pandemic. In our research, we saw that the majority of transitions were triggered by financial challenges on the part of the INGOs. We know that Covid-19 is likely to affect INGO finances, at least in the short term, and that this could accelerate decision-making about transitions of power and responsibility to local partners. It is therefore important for INGOs and local partners alike to think about what action related to transition plans is responsible now and in the near future. 4 key lessons include (3):

  • Plan to transition from the beginning. If you know your programming / funding is short-term, develop a transition plan from the onset alongside the communities that are affected. Our research shows that transition processes are more likely to be sustainable and accountable to communities when a transition plan is co-developed at the outset. Plans do not need to be elaborate, but should capture shared intention about the goal of local leadership, and be flexible and adaptable, with ways to jointly assess context changes. 
  • Finance transition processes specifically, even if the transition is rapid (4). INGOs should set aside funding to support a transition process to mitigate against harm if your organization must leave or funding is pulled in an abrupt way. Consider the costs that will be incurred by local entities in, for example, safely accepting humanitarian goods or rapidly expanding their service area. Mirror this with your transition plan that’s co-developed with affected communities. 
  • People most closely affected by the pandemic should drive the transition process (5). In addition to ethical partnering and best practice, our research has shown that transitions are far more sustainable and responsible when communities have ownership and the decision-making power that comes when the principle of mutuality is practiced.
  • Encourage and fund community-based support. Local communities are at the forefront of responding to Covid-19. In that way, the current crisis is not unique. But significantly reduced international support due to travel restrictions and border closures, makes their role front and center of the pandemic response. Therefore, equipping community-based support, which advocates for community participation in decision-making and management, is crucial. Responsible transitions require community ownership, acknowledgement of power dynamics, and the leadership of affected communities. 

Although it is unclear what our world will look like after the pandemic is over, it is encouraging to see global cooperation and community-driven responses that opens the way for a more equitable international development sector. Responsible transitions are key to ensuring that well-intended interventions during the pandemic do no harm and rather support and enable more equitable and healthy societies.


To hear about the pandemic from African voices, this blog is a great start (1); For how SAS defines “local” please refer to our Definitions sections in our FAQ (2); For comprehensive lessons, see the SAS Synthesis (3); For more information on financial sustainability during responsible transitions, read Practical Guidelines for Financial Sustainability (4); See Practical Guidelines: Responsible Transitions and Partnership (5)