Sustainable Exit Strategies: USAID vs. EU
Once malnutrition has decreased, students’ attendance has risen, or the number of small businesses has doubled, program implementers may be quick to pack their bags and leave. But the impact of their work may be undermined if not undone if they leave before implementing context-specific, comprehensive plans for post-project sustainability. It is for this reason that exit strategies – and particularly institution-wide mandates by donors – are crucial components of effective development programming. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID and the European Union (EU) Commission both have close-out protocols in place, but much to learn from one another in ensuring long-term progress in the wake of their close-outs.
Recommendations for Project Close-Out
Although every program should develop and follow context-specific exit measures, non-profits and ex-post evaluators have found that some exit strategies consistently lead to long-term, sustainable impact. The International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC), for example, states that donors and implementers should actively plan for close-out throughout the project – from program design to the post-exit stage . It recommends the following:
- Implementers should “build exit thinking into the design of the project,” and during the program, representatives should be monitoring pre-determined exit indicators 
- “Senior staff and management need to prioritize resources for exits in order to do them well, embed learning within organizations and across teams, and ensure mistakes are not repeated” 
- “Practitioners should also consider going the extra mile to look after staff at headquarters and within partner organizations” 
- “Document experiences and share them externally” 
- “Consider whether a timeline approach would work for you” 
The USAID Approach to Project Close-Out
According to USAID’s 2020 Program Cycle Operational Policy, the formal close-out process for specific projects are carried out by the USAID Mission team in the recipient country and Operating Units based in Washington, DC . However, the Program Cycle does not reference the close-out process, let alone offer guidance . Unlike country exits, which require thorough evaluation and international cooperation ,ᴬ the sustainability measures of close-out procedures for activities – components of country-wide programs – seem to be delegated to implementing agencies.
Tellingly, the USAID formally defines “sustainability” as “the ability of a local system to produce desired outcomes” after its projects end, which the Agency may “contribute to” by strengthening capacity in their respective realms . After close-out, USAID currently considers the sustainability of its projects to be a matter of “the country and/or targeted community’s commitment and capacity to achieve development solutions” . Commitment and capacity, in turn, are gauged by 17 country-level “self-reliance metrics” ranging from “liberal democracy” to “export sophistication” [6,7].ᴮ Even post-project monitoring and evaluation are explicitly meant to “reveal whether implementation is on track and results are being achieved” with no mention of sustainability or long-term follow-up .
In effect, this framework not only puts the onus of project sustainability on recipients, but evaluates it based on large-scale and potentially tangential metrics. The stakes of this practice are raised by the fact that the resultant “Country Roadmaps” inform when USAID ends its programming in a given country, endangering a range of populations that these metrics do not account for, like seniors and prisoners .
During close-out, USAID representatives seem to focus on administrative tasks. When a Mission is preparing for activity close-out, for example, Mission Directors are responsible for developing plans that include the following:
- “The retention of sufficient and suitable staff members and the delegation of authority and assignment of specific responsibility to each to carry to completion the required close-out action” 
- “Estimates of the personnel, space, and funds required to complete the close-out” 
- “The timetable for phasing out, transferring, or terminating U.S. direct-hire, participating agency, and contract personnel and the replacement of assistance from other resources” 
- “Actions for terminating the services of cooperating country and third country national staff” 
- In its 2003 version, but since removed:
- “Missions must think in terms of leaving sustainable and useful units of assistance” 
- “A monthly timeframe/activity projection for the entire close-out period [approximately six months] of major activities that must occur” 
Similarly, in the case of Interagency Agreements, USAID Agreement Officers’ (AO) personal and delegated close-out responsibilities are limited to the collection of financial reports and compliance-related documents . AOs are expected to work in this same, limited capacity as they terminate Assistance and Acquisition Awards .
By contrast, when USAID gives grants to NGOs and has “little direct involvement,” recipients are strongly encouraged to adhere to six substantial, well-rounded “tips,” which include [12,13]:
Among all of the terms and conditions reviewed, USAID’s exit strategies for foreign Missions, Agreements, and Awards have been almost exclusively administrative in nature. Although the Agency should not be solely responsible for ensuring the sustainability of its programming, its lack of regulation in this realm risks both undue pressure on implementing partners to do so and short-lived progress in the wake of its exit .
Fortunately, USAID has demonstrated its interest in sustainable close-out by commissioning studies and reports. In March 2020, USAID’s three-year “collaborative learning project” called Stopping as Success published a checklist for sustainable project transition [15,16]. The publication offers 16 concrete suggestions ranging from “build[ing] trust” with local communities to requiring implementers to report their progress in carrying out a pre-determined sustainability plan . Similarly, the Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance III Project – a partnership between USAID and FHI 360 – studied the consequences of four food assistance programs and made thorough recommendations for ensuring the long-term impact of future projects . These recommendations include accounting for “predictable external shocks and stressors” like natural disasters, and building “vertical linkages […] between community-based organizations or individuals and existing public or private sector institutions” . Armed with this impressive base, USAID is well-equipped to account for new, evidence-based close-out practices.
UPDATE: A NEW DISCUSSION NOTE BY USAID ON EX-POST EVALUATION WHERE EXIT IS MENTIONED.
The EU Approach to Project Close-Out
Given the sheer scale of EU development programming – 28 countries providing 47% of the world’s development aid – no specific, all-encompassing mandates for the close-out process was found .ᶜ Perhaps as a result, there is notoriously little development policy coordination among Member States:
- Due to inconsistencies among the eight documents outlining the EU’s development objectives and indicators, an internal audit characterized its collective approach as “mixed – at best” 
- High-level meetings have explicitly prioritized “consensus on development” and “working better together,” producing appropriately vague guidelines that do not specifically address closure [19,20]
- e.g. EU staff should “help to promote more inclusive, sustainable growth that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs” 
- Its main development finance body, the Development Cooperation Instrument, has been critiqued for its “ambitio[us] desig[n] to address a very broad range of issues, from policy priorities in the agenda for change to EU policy concerns” 
For insight into the EU’s exit strategies, one must look to guidelines for specific types of development programming.
In the case of joint programming, when Member States work together to design and implement a country-wide, multi-sectorial project, donors must “reach agreement on a responsible exit strategy” for “phasing out sectors outside focal/centration areas, without creating a financing gap and with minimum disruption to the partner country” . The policy offers two examples of such a strategy: “including scenarios in which other participating partners ‘plug the gap’ and/or other forms of cooperation beyond ODA [official development assistance] (e.g. the private sector)” . The strategy must be drafted with input from the recipient country “as much as possible,” and may include either the intervention of other stakeholders or the private sector . These discussions make take place at any of the following four “entry points” :
- “At the start of a new national development plan cycle, or a major change in the country” 
- “At the start of a new strategic programming period or a review process for several important development partners” 
- “During high-level country meetings […] where partner governments present their plans and solicit development partners support” 
- “In situations of fragility or transition from humanitarian aid to more structured programmatic aid and more development partners” 
The development of context-specific exit strategies by Member States and recipients allows for practicable, fairly delegated, and concrete steps to exiting. However, this provision omits mention of enforcement or evaluation, may take place at the end of the implementation period, and does not encompass best practices as defined by INTRAC .
Outside of joint programming, the EU oversees projects funded by its executive implementing agencies, such as the Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency and the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME). In those cases, agency-wide final report guidelines could shed light on collective guidance but these are publicly inaccessible .ᴰ However, an early iteration of the Horizon 2020 Programme’s final report guide is still available online. The EU had required that implementers submit 20-30 lines of text addressing the following:
“Inform about activities undertaken during the project to ensure that your action
continues and reaches out further. Inform also about plans and intentions to continue
and sustain the project activities after the end of the project. Indicate the state
of advancement (e.g. agreed action, concrete proposal, idea)” .
Although field staff may not have been required to tangibly ensure the sustainability of their projects – and may not even make these assessments anymore – it is clear that at one time, the EU mandated assessments of expected sustainability at the end of program-specific project implementation.
With no overarching guidance for EU project exits, countries and individual NGOs have resorted to choosing or developing their own. The think tank E3G – funded in part by EASME  – has issued both internal and guidance for sustainable programming [25,26]. Its key points include “consultative engagement[s with] a broad range of stakeholders,” “integrat[ing programs] with long term national development plans,” and “strengthening city and local-level planning and institutions” . These recommendations, however, are scattered among legal studies, commissioned reports, and briefing papers. By contrast, another EASME-funded program called Carbon Market Watch adheres to the project cycle guidelines of UN committees [27,28,29].ᴱ Although their Project Design Document and methodology forms request specific information about monitoring and evaluation, they do not ask for implementers’ plans for program close-out or long-term impact .
Other EU member-country NGOs end up developing sustainable exit measures mid-project. One example is a 2011-2013 agricultural project in Ethiopia implemented by People in Need, an international NGO based in the Czech Republic and funded in part by the EU’s Commission for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid . Two months before its end, an evaluation of the program’s sustainability was conducted, receiving such recommendations as: 1) “increasing [recipients’] financial sustainability;” 2) “ensuring that FTCs’ [Farmer Training Centers] services benefit all, not only model farmers;” and 3) “providing books in Amharic language, not English” . In the remaining time, 75% of these recommendations were met, leading to the internal assessment that the “sustainability of the project’s outcomes is likely to be largely positive” .
Learning from One Another
USAID and the EU operate at starkly different scales – one a country-specific bilateral donor, and the other an economic union of dozens of donor countries – but each of their exit strategies could be strengthened by incorporating elements from the other’s.
The EU could learn from the USAID’s multifaceted guidance for NGOs; the considerations listed in its final report guide are limited to the post-project involvement of EU field staff. It should explicitly promote local participation for sustainability during project close-out and beyond, such as transferring operations to local organizations or businesses.
In turn, USAID’s administration-centric strategy could benefit from the large-scale considerations of EU policies. Discussions with recipient governments, particularly in turbulent circumstances, could strengthen diplomatic relations with the US in addition to supporting reasonable transition plans. Formally soliciting exit plans from project implementers could also produce more sustainable project results.
NOTE: Valuing Voices thanks our excellent Harvard intern Rachel Sadoff for this research! We have a question: we found no EU/EC sites discussing exit strategies recommendations or guidance for global development projects. Do you have some? Please share in the comments below. Thank you.
A) Projects and activities need to explain and demonstrate how their programming advances the objectives of USAID’s Country Development Cooperation Strategies for the given state (see ADS Chapter 201).
B) Current totals are publicly available on the Agency’s Country Roadmap website.
C) VV’s search spanned over five hours.
D) As of writing, final report guidelines are only available through an exclusive portal.
E) These are the Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation Committee of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
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