We Need to Keep Talking About Responsible INGO Transitions and Locally Led Development

July 1, 2022
Author: Aji Ceesay

This blog was published as part of the Stopping As Success (SAS+) year 1 reflection series. You can find the other blogs on the SAS+ website.

As we continue to discuss the best ways to work towards locally led development, we cannot ignore that partnership transitions are a vital component of this debate. This is especially pertinent since work in the international development sector is based on collaborative structures between international entities (such as INGOs) and local actors. As a result, the lack of thinking around and planning for partnership transitions has negatively impacted local[1] programmatic and organizational sustainability and placed more burden on local actors who are already at the forefront of development and peacebuilding work. Several pitfalls include:

∙   the lack of consensus on defining partnership transitions,
the abrupt withdrawal of INGOs and funding from partnerships,
the exclusion of key stakeholders in transition planning and processes,
wider power imbalances in the international development sector, and
a lack of support for local actors’ capacity and sustainability.

As INGOs continue to question their role in international aid moving forward, this has pointed to a greater need to share good practices and understand what is needed to effectively support locally led development. Now in its second phase, the SAS+ team continues to learn alongside organizations about the best way to support responsible partnership transitions from international organizations to local entities. According to SAS+, a responsible partnership transition refers to a process that is planned, jointly led by both local actors and their international partners, and gradual, in order to best support local leadership. For more information on SAS+’s journey and work, please refer to the first blog of the SAS+’s year 1 reflection series, A Year In: Reflections on the Stopping As Success program. 

Responsible INGO Transitions and Locally Led Development: Findings from A Global Online Consultation

In November 2021, SAS+ held an online consultation on Peace Direct’s Platform4Dialogue with close to 150 participants from 41 countries to discuss the topic of responsible partnership transitions. This led to a rich conversation with insights from global actors who work at different levels of the international aid system, including perspectives from donors, local organizations, international organizations, individual practitioners and academics.

To that end, we produced a report to highlight the major points that came out of this discussion. Below are some of the findings from this conversation:

∙   The use of particular forms of language and terminology when discussing partnership transitions can infer power imbalances that are unfavorable to local actors. Such language might be disempowering, not grounded in local realities, or hold different meanings for different people and in different contexts.

∙   Local resource mobilization leads to more responsible partnership transitions and local ownership and contributes to the local partner’s sustainability, meaning they can continue to contribute to positive impact even after a program ends.

∙   The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that local actors are able and best placed to lead work in their own contexts, which supports the argument for local actors to lead on partnership transition processes.

∙   Partnership transitions can be a form of transformation for local and international organizations if power imbalances are acknowledged and addressed. Efforts such as the #ShiftThePower movement and conversations on decolonizing aid continue to question the power imbalances inherent within the international development system and the structures that help perpetuate harmful practices and continue to occur in partnership transitions.

To help address the issues outlined above, here are key things for international organizations to consider when transitioning out of a partnership:

∙   Enter partnerships with an initial transition plan already in place. Responsible and successful transitions are often planned from the start. This can ensure at the earliest stage that the expectations of all partners involved are managed and that local actors help shape and take ownership following the transition.

∙   Collaborate directly with local partners throughout every stage of the partnership transition process. This includes organizing transparent and open conversations from the initial design phase of a joint program or collaborative effort through to the implementation and evaluation stages, as well as during the transition itself.

∙   Tailor capacity strengthening efforts according to existing local capacities. Partnership transitions are best carried out when local partners can determine and frame the types of capacity strengthening support that they need to ensure the sustainability of their work following the transition.

∙   Recognize and address inherent power imbalances in the international development system and how these undermine the agency of local actors. This includes fully recognizing and taking into account the agency of local actors and acknowledging their insights, perspectives, and experiences. INGOs need to properly value and invest in local knowledge systems and practices, reform their systems so they can be more courageous with their funding, and re-assess their relationships with local actors to create and sustain more equitable partnerships that, in turn, lead to more responsible partnership transitions.

These are just some of the ways to work towards more effective partnership transitions. We will continue to share learnings and conversations on our website, as well as relevant events and spaces in the international development community.

Learn with SAS + 

Please refer to the several tools and resources developed from SAS+ research to continue exploring ways to support responsible transition processes. These resources cover specific topics such as working towards financial sustainability, strengthening local actors’ capacity, and other themes relevant to partnership transitions. They are aimed at supporting NGOs/CSOs, INGOs, and donors going through or planning for a transition process.

Passionate about the role of transitions in locally led development?

We’re always excited to connect with people doing innovative work to help the development sector be truly locally led. This blog follows A Year In: Reflections on the Stopping As Success program and is the second of many under a year 1 reflection series. We’d love to hear from you if you’re interested in co-authoring a blog, sharing your story of transition, or partnering in other ways, including through our Helpdesk mechanism.

For more information, you can visit the SAS+ website.


[1] The use of this term varies amongst actors and contexts, but according to SAS+, local refers to CSOs and NGOs in the global South. This encompasses organizations that work at the local and national level.