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Designing An Exit Strategy

July 13, 2016

By Cinnamon Janzer

To ensure access to clean, safe water, the greatest challenge isn’t digging the well but making sure it keeps flowing. According to a 1981 USAID report, “it has become overwhelmingly clear from both research and field observations… that the main obstacle in the use and maintenance of improved water and sanitation systems is not the quality of technology, but the failure ‘in qualified human resources and in management and organization techniques…’ [and] an appalling 35 to 50 percent of systems in developing countries become inoperable after five years.”

This is the unfortunate reality of work in international development when it comes to water. There is often a focus on bringing technology and infrastructure to an area without water access, but as the USAID report points out, the real test is what happens after an organization leaves. Water For People, an NGO that works extensively in Latin America, has recently begun grappling with this challenge first hand.

Water For People’s mission is “everyone forever,” which means that they consider their work fulfilled when everyone in a district they work in has permanent access to safe water. The group anticipates reaching this status within the next fiscal year in two districts within two of the Latin American countries they are working in — Honduras and Bolivia. As a result, they have begun to tackle the question of how to begin to exit the districts they are working in — one that touches much if not all of social design work that relies on some level of outside expertise. Any project that begins working somewhere it won’t stay forever will, sooner or later, be faced with this dilemma.

Ownership: The Problem with Exiting as an Afterthought

If expectations have been established with users, whether explicitly or implicitly, that a team or organization will be around for the long haul, perhaps even forever, the sustainability of the work can be severely undermined. Not only does leaving unexpectedly rupture trust and relationships built with a community, a real or perceived unplanned exit can undo the progress that an organization has made, often in the form of the local community not taking ownership over the resources constructed together.

As Kim Lemme, Senior Global Program Advisor in Sustainability at Water For People, puts it, “Without local ownership, when an organization leaves you’ll see people just resorting to ‘Oh well, we’ll just wait for the next NGO to come around and in the meantime we’ll go back to getting water from the sinkhole or walking for miles and miles to get it’ because nothing has really changed — their mindset is still the same.” This is why Water For People works to change perceptions around safe water on the part of both the communities they serve and the governments they work with. They help communities get used to the idea of paying for water services and help governments to realize that safe water is something they have to provide as required by their local laws. “Sometimes there are difficult conversations that have to be had — sometimes we have to essentially say, ‘Hey government, this is your responsibility — it’s written right here in the law.’”

The group has realized that these changes in attitude are cornerstones in any sustainable water system. “Take a look, for example, at the water system here in Denver or anywhere in the United States,” says Lemme. “There is an expectation that you’ll have clean and safe drinking water every day and, because we expect that, paying our water bill is normal. The government is expected to deliver clean water and the citizens are expected to pay for it. Without these two mindsets in place, the system is broken.”

Building Sustainable Relationships

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In Latin America, where change (including the roles of various government officials) is constant and demands for bribes can be a reality, Water For People has found that creating strong relationships with the right people is essential for carrying out their work over the long-term and to ensuring that water access endures — that it transcends frequent government shifts. “On both the government and community side, you have to figure out, for example, who is actually in charge on a water committee, and work with that person, with someone who is going to be at the local level permanently,” says Lemme.

Once these key players are identified, the organization’s representatives build and maintain relationships based on trust between their organization and local officials. Lemme says she is often struck when she goes to visit the mayors or other officials in a district, how close of a relationship the local Water For People Country Directors have with them. The bonds are built on trust. “We’re patient and consistent and put in a lot of face time,” she says.

Defining a Tipping Point

Water for People - Guatemala

Defining a tipping point—a point at which Water For People is able to leave a district with a self-sufficient system behind—is key to their exit strategy because without a clearly defined line in the sand to indicate that it’s time to leave, Water For People (and any other organizations looking to create empowerment rather than reliance) risks creating a perpetual system of reliance. Water For People has made the process hyper-local and contextualized yet measurable in order to keep it both relevant and objective, so that facts can be pointed to, such as analyzing the financial status of a service authority (the body that regulates water distribution, often district-level governments) to determine if they have adequate financial ability to cover the costs of major repairs and replacements.

Through a series of reflection sessions and collecting and analyzing data sets, Water For People has defined nine key indicators, broken down into further sub-indicators, that they use across the board as an exit checklist to determine when the time to exit a country has arrived. The list includes how adequately financed a local water committee is, whether or not a WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) office has been established within the government, and whether or not the service authority has a municipal plan that was created or updated in the last three years.

The key, according to Water For People, is to sharply delineate between what is nice to have, important, and necessary — their checklist is made up only of items that that are necessary for a country’s continued success. Despite the fact that they use global indicators, Lemme notes that “everything within them is very contextualized,” therefore it’s the regional management of a given district that does the exit checklist analysis because they’re closer to the work and best able to define the specific context.

As an organization, Water For People guides the regional management through setting up their checklist by encouraging them to be challenging yet realistic, pushing them to consider whether or not 100% in a given area is necessary or if 80% will actually suffice.While some things on their exit checklist are black and white, answered with a clear yes or no, most of them are on a sliding scale so progress can be measured over time.  For example, whether or not the service authority in a district has calculated the amount of funding required to cover direct support costs is a yes or no question; the sufficiency of the investment they have to cover those costs is on a sliding scale. While, of course, it would be ideal to have 100% of the necessary investment in place before Water For People leaves, they have determined that 80% is enough for them to leave, and that striving for perfection can be as destructive as apathy.

Crucially, the tipping point is simply a snapshot in time, a point past which it’s safe to exit. Reaching it doesn’t mean that there won’t be difficulties or problems in the future, but it does mean that a system will be in place in a district to handle and recover from a dip in water coverage on their own without direct intervention — the system implemented will be self-sustaining enough to get through those challenges once the tipping point has been reached.

The Future of Exit Strategies in Social Innovation

Of course every social design project is different and will function differently. Some will include a brick and mortar, permanent presence as part of their design solution because it’s the best way to solve a given problem. But for the vast majority of projects or initiatives that have dreams of helping to build a self-empowered, locally owned system, the challenges that Water For People has begun to work through are going to be similar to those that other projects will soon face. Over time, as more and more social innovation projects reach their goals, designing a sustainable exit strategy is going to be an increasingly relevant and pressing concern for what is now still a burgeoning discipline. Most practitioners within the broad umbrella of design-based social change are eager to start something that makes a real impact; many will discover that one of the most powerful ways to make that impact is to ensure they’re not needed when their time on a project comes to an end.


Cinnamon Janzer is a writer and editor whose work has been featured in FastCo.Exist, GOOD.is, and more and has been cited in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Cinnamon holds a MA in Social Design, specializing in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She splits her time between Minneapolis and Latin America with her pup, Gus, by her side. You can learn more about Cinnamon at www.cinnamon-janzer.com.

All images courtesy of Water For People.

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