Transition-minded: Joseph “Jimmy” Sankaituah’s journey with and vision for SAS+

SAS+ Advisory Group Member Feature

June 24, 2023
Author: Jennifer Venis

The SAS+ Advisory Group provides advice on and support for influencing efforts for SAS+. They lend their specific expertise and extensive experience to strengthen SAS+ and ensure it incorporates a myriad of perspectives. Since they are so integral to our work, we want to share their valuable knowledge with you. 

Joseph “Jimmy” Sankaituah is a SAS+ Advisory Board member with extensive experience in transitions.

He began his journey in this sector through youth development work as President of Liberia’s Youth Council. But his connection to SAS+ begins with his time as Country Director for Search for Common Ground in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2018 when both countries were preparing to transition from country offices to local ownership. As Country Director, he had to manage the process of the transitions.

“With the support of the regional team, we successfully managed this Liberia country office transition from an international organization to a local entity called Talking Drum Studio.”

He explains, “we set up what we call a parallel transition, a process in which the national organization is present and then the national organization is set up fully as a functioning organization where both organizations are hosted in the same space. And then the parallel transition requires that as the international organization is scaling down, the local organization is scaling up.”

The Liberia transition was complete in 2020, and in Sierra Leone in June 2022. During these processes, Jimmy had an invitation from SAS to Nairobi, Kenya, to a workshop during which he managed to build a network and build collaboration.

His engagement with SAS in Nairobi, he says, “exposed me to new tools, new ways of looking at transitions, but also created a connection between some of the organizations that were going through the same process and to be able to help me understand better what it means when international organizations transition. But importantly was around the power dynamics.”

He explains how, during the process of the transitions, it was important to make sure that national organizations take ownership. “So, what the SAS engagement did for me is that it exposed me to understanding the opportunity to allow national organizations, national staff, who would eventually be managing organizations to take ownership of the transition at the very beginning.”

Working with SAS+ today

Jimmy continued his connection with SAS after the workshop, eventually joining the SAS+ Advisory Board and remaining engaged as he left Search to join the International Republican Institute (IRI).

On why he maintained his engagement, Jimmy says, “Given my passion and interest in national organization development and trying to advocate to overcome some of the challenges that they face, I thought that Stopping As Success was an opportunity, was a platform that I might be able to use to further that kind of collaboration with national organizations, even though I now work for another international organization which is US-based.”

Jimmy says he was able to learn from his Advisory Board colleagues and the team managing the SAS+ Secretariat, and he operationalized these learnings into his work. “All of that accumulated into the success that we see today because it just provided for us, I will say the space, to be able to reflect better in the tools, to be able to review what we’re doing and how we wanted to do it.”

He highlights how, at the IRI’s global meeting, there were strategic conversations about the sector’s greater emphasis on funding to local organizations over international organizations. The IRI, as a result, are shifting to consider how to respond to the needs of not just national organizations, but also donors in being more closely connected with national organizations.

He says, “I was quite excited sitting in that room and saying to myself, these were the things we discussed in Nairobi, Kenya, and these were the things we’ve been following on throughout with SAS. So make sure that national organizations are given leverage, but then when transitions take place where international organizations are falling off, they fall off in the way that allows national organizations to step in the space so that there’s no vacuum in their absence.”

“If we want to continue the efforts in development work, we can no more ignore the role and the relevance of national organizations.”

Building more equitable funding and transition models

Jimmy tells us he has been quite pleasantly surprised that the conversation about better transitions has cut across almost all international organizations and now become a conversation between international organizations and donors.

But he highlights that there’s still a lack of accountability for INGOs and donors in this conversation: “So we’re saying, what percentage of our funding should we allocate to national organizations? What capacities should they have? And my argument [is] it is not about capacity. We should even be holding ourselves responsible if national organizations do not have capacity, because we’ve been in this space for over 20 years, and these are the organizations we’ve been working with.”

For him, a particular issue he sees is the restrictive forms of funding provided by donors. Specifically, he argues that international organizations and donors do not give national organizations sufficient overheads, which prevents them from investing in their capacity for the future. As an example, he suggests enabling national organizations to acquire property in order to remove the burden of renting.

And despite imbalances in the allocation of funding between international and national organizations, national organizations are still facing questions about their capacity. He argues that for development to be driven by locals, for them to own the process in order to promote greater sustainability, the sector must let go of historic measures of national organizations’ capacity and skills.

He emphasizes, “we are also responsible for not giving national organizations the leverage they need to be able to build that capacity.” He argues for a restructuring of funding mechanisms and highlights the role of SAS in driving that process.

The future of SAS+

Jimmy argues that SAS+ has made serious gains globally, because “organizations that had no link, in my view, to SAS are now having conversations about the importance of national organizations in the development space, but also about the importance of transition.”

But there’s still more work to be done.

He suggests SAS+ needs to step up a bit to see how we can advise governments to pay attention to this paradigm. For example, he says, “we need to help governments to make that as part of their routine policy, that before [international organizations] register in the country to run development work, we need to see the blueprints of your transition.”

He adds, “I learned this from Search for Common Ground. When Search for Common Ground came to the region, it started with Liberia, they started Talking Drum Studio. They might not have strategically anticipated that Talking Drum Studio would be a successful organization when they left, but the way they invested in Talking Drum Studio made it natural that when they leave as an international organization, the eventual successor would be Talking Drum Studio.”

He also calls for greater socialization of the SAS+ tools to both international and national organizations. “Let’s find a way to be able to support our organization to also be able to reach out to more organizations on the ground so they know that SAS has tools that they can benefit from.”