All the participants described closure as a crucial component of humanitarian action, and a challenging aspect of their work as national or international humanitarian workers. Overall, they described some closures that went smoothly and presented examples of good practice to be emulated elsewhere, and they also related closures that gave rise to significant ethical issues. The challenge of closing well is reflected by an international humanitarian worker with over 30 years of experience in humanitarian action who expressed that closing projects—including transitioning and handing over—is “always the hardest part” and something that humanitarian organizations need to do better. Despite acknowledgment of these challenges, participants held that it was a topic that received insufficient discussion in the humanitarian sector. Another participant affirmed this when she suggested that as humanitarians, we “don’t ask ourselves these questions [about ethical project closure] enough.”
In the sections that follow, we present findings related to how participants understand and experienced ethical concerns across the temporal horizon of humanitarian projects, which we have divided here into five project phases (which we acknowledge may not have sharp boundaries in practice): design, implementation, deciding whether to close, implementing closure, and post-closure. Across these phases, we identified six recurrent ethical concerns associated with closing projects well: respectfully engaging with partners and stakeholders, planning responsively, communicating transparently, demonstrating care for local communities and staff during project closure, anticipating and acting to minimize harms, and attending to sustainability and project legacy. Selected verbatim quotations are included to illustrate aspects of our analysis.
Design: “closing a project begins right on day one”
Many participants strongly emphasized that closing should be built-in to the project from the outset, and therefore, that “closing a project begins right on day one.” Thus, project design and funding proposals should already include attention to how the project will be ended and what will be its legacy, with closure and contingency plans “really thought through, really discussed from the beginning.” This proactive and anticipatory approach was suggested by participants as a means to decrease uncertainty by anticipating and designing a preliminary roadmap towards closure while also enabling responsiveness to changing circumstances, since “the earlier you plan for it, the better prepared you can be to take it in your stride” and adapt to alter plans if needed. Pointing to the consequences of insufficient planning, a national staff member described a project focused on populations displaced by armed conflict in East Africa for which closure went unconsidered in the planning phase and was only mentioned in the risk management framework. He reported that, when the project was ended early, the lack of planning for closure during the design phase contributed to confusion and frustration.
Anticipating project closure and ensuring that there are robust plans in place may also require engaging with donors from the outset. A national staff participant who was a senior manager for an international non-governmental organization’s (NGO) country-level operations, reported negotiating with donors after a major disaster in South Asia to ensure that funding would be in place to “ensure that our engagement with communities didn’t end abruptly.” She reported that some donors supported and encouraged such an approach, while others tended to award short contracts because they were looking for “quick wins” which made it harder to plan for an effective handover or transition, and did not allow the possibility of “building in sustainability mechanisms.”
Engagement with key stakeholders during the design phase was also emphasized by participants. In discussing harms associated with closure, a participant described how you can “mitigate them by more comprehensive early engagement with government and local partners. I think you set up, you position the early emergency response for more sustainability by integrating […] the local NGOs and sub-national health infrastructure.” This participant went on to describe ways that such engagement orients humanitarian agencies to invest in local structures and systems, rather than setting up their own parallel systems which could impede sustainability later on. Similarly, another international worker who had worked with international NGOs and within the UN system, described how humanitarian agencies should avoid a “top-down Western approach of sort of parachuting into a situation and then setting up structures that are duplicating” those that already exist in the locale. A national staff member explained that having government agencies participate from the start was valuable since they were ultimately responsible for ensuring service access for communities. She reported that her organization is “designing more and more projects that enable us to, from the day one, to really bring in the duty bearer [the government] into the conversation, so that as the project ends, the duty bearer is then able to pick up and continue some of this.” In these ways, project design can lay the groundwork for a project closure that supports the sustainability of humanitarian intervention.
Project implementation: aiming for an eventual “soft landing for beneficiaries”
With closure already anticipated in the design phase, participants suggested that it should remain a key consideration throughout the project’s implementation phase. A national staff participant described the importance of engaging all members of the team, as well as project partners, in this process so that planning for closure is continuous and understood to be a shared responsibility. Participants proposed several strategies to achieve these goals, including learning from experiences in other projects, being oriented by the design phase planning and updating plans when necessary, and avoiding a “cookie-cutter” approach that fails to account for the local context. This process is also supported by regularly evaluating progress, and asking, “are there issues that we should address, whether we are going to leave or not, before arriving at project closure?”
Throughout the implementation of the project, the team can take steps to promote what a national staff member described as a “soft landing for beneficiaries” when the project eventually closes. For example, a participant described how even in an acute response initiated during an armed conflict, the team can gradually increase recovery-oriented activities from the early stages of the implementation process so that when the project does close, it will not be “like running at a hundred miles an hour delivering this gigantic or very broad variety of health services or water sanitation services” and then an abrupt stop.
Transparency of process and management of expectations are also important during the implementation phase. Several participants emphasized that humanitarian organizations need to clearly and repeatedly communicate the temporary nature of their project and its mandate. Such transparency was described as particularly critical when hiring local staff members so that expectations are clear. While the timeline of the project may not be known, or may shift due to unfolding circumstances, the fact that employment will end when the project is over is a crucial message. It was linked to avoiding harms for staff since they could better plan for the future, but also as a means of avoiding frustration and conflict when closure takes place. Throughout the implementation phase, opportunities to build the capacity of local staff can also contribute to benefits for the local community after project closure. One participant suggested that NGOs focus too much on training for international staff who already have many opportunities to advance their knowledge and careers, and that they should redirect these resources toward national staff whose increased expertise will continue to benefit the community even after the organization has left.
Difficult closures may also result from decisions made during the implementation phase. For example, a participant who had worked in over a dozen countries related several scenarios where rules related to contracts, employment benefits or taxation had not been correctly handled during the implementation of the project. She described these issues as avoidable and leading to important challenges during the closure phase. She also described them as reflecting a pattern of international humanitarian workers sometimes disregarding or being ignorant of local laws and procedures.
Making the decision whether to close the project: “the tension is real”
As a project progresses, a point will be reached when questions about project closure are raised and planning for closure accelerates. This point may be triggered by pre-determined indicators or external timelines (e.g., due to funding), or may be a more spontaneous development based on how the project has progressed. The participants described a range of scenarios when this stage was characterized by divergent perspectives about when (and if) closure should be initiated, and uncertainty about the best way to proceed. For example, several participants described situations when there was internal debate within the organization about whether to continue assisting the communities with whom they were already working or to shift their efforts to other communities with higher levels of need. Discussing the closure of a project that was initiated during armed conflict in West Africa, a participant described that, in such a situation, she was not sure “that a very good job can be done” of resolving the competing ethical concerns around project closure decision-making “because the tension is real.”
Unless there are external pressures such as acute insecurity or a sudden cut in funding, many projects involve a period of deliberation before the decision to close the project is made. During this phase, participants identified engagement with local communities and stakeholders as a key means of demonstrating respect and minimizing risks of harm. A participant described cautioning his organization’s headquarters team: “there’s going to be a lot of collateral damage if this decision is taken too quickly, too autocratically.” One participant described the importance of clarifying who should be responsible for the decision, who should be consulted during the process, who should be informed of the outcome, and to whom should decision-makers be held accountable. However, engaging stakeholders is often “easy to say, but far more difficult to achieve.” The international humanitarian worker who made this assertion went on to describe the importance of consulting with local actors, and working toward a closure plan that is “negotiated” rather than imposed.
Several participants suggested that the decision-making process should, at minimum, include the opportunity for national staff to raise questions and concerns. This process should include consulting with “and informing the staff, the teams, so that they feel that their voice is heard” and they are “able to express their disappointment, their anger, their frustration … and to ensure that those are communicated back up to headquarters or upstream.” A national staff member reported not being included in a project closure decision, and that in such circumstances “you don’t feel as part of the team per se.” In contrast, a participant who closed a project as head of mission described a long period of discussion to which national and international staff all contributed, and that national staff “were part of the discussion from the start, which I think is important in a lot of situations.” In retrospect, she felt that the national staff members were much more realistic about the situation than she and her international colleagues had been.
Several participants raised additional questions related to representation and decision-making. A national staff member who was a project coordinator in a post-conflict setting that had also experienced natural disasters explained that decisions were often taken at an international level and so did not sufficiently account for local or even national-level points of view. Describing the importance of identifying concerns at these levels, he reported that “sometimes those arguments don’t even come up because there is lack of representation” from people working directly with the affected population. A participant with a human resources and finance background reported that people with these sets of expertise are rarely included in the operational decision-making around project closure. She believed that they should be included more given the important ramifications pertaining to human resources and finance when projects are closing.
Transparency is also needed within organizations, especially toward national staff. A participant described how there are usually rumors that circulate within the project team if there is a lack of clear communication, since “at the time that the decisions are being made of closing, everybody knows, and nobody knows officially.” This situation “creates so many problems in any mission” and is a “really unstable situation for everybody.” A former national staff member reported that while many international staff thought they were able to keep closure discussions a secret from national staff, this was rarely successful, and can further undermine trust.
Implementing project closure: “show them that you care for what is going to happen next after you leave”
Once the decision to close the project has been made, a particularly challenging phase begins. There may be additional opportunities to engage with local stakeholders in order to have “a better conversation with the country level emergency partners” explaining that “this is the amount of time we have and then give them options.” The participant, a national staff member, suggested that engaging with local stakeholders would lead to a more robust partnership and greater likelihood of sustainable benefits once the project closes or transitions. In a similar vein, another participant expressed that humanitarian organization representatives need to sit down with the authorities and discuss how the final phases of the project should unfold: “not to say, ok, we’re informing you of our decision, but it’s really to [say] that they are invested, that they participate in the definition of this retreat.”
If plans have been created and are well adapted to the situation, closing “shouldn’t be haphazard. It should be a very structured approach.” However, responsiveness to the ways that the situation has changed is needed. A participant ruefully noted that “there are ideals and then there is reality” and went on to explain that in closing projects, “realities are not linear. Not everything can be fitted into a logframe. Or these series of changes, if this happens and this happens, we will achieve that. I mean, life doesn’t work like that.” Another participant described how the project often evolves from its initial design due to changing needs of the affected populations, for institutional reasons or because of the funding that is available. He argued that understanding these elements and adjusting the approach to closure is necessary to “close down coherently and ethically.”
Implementing an effective closure requires particular expertise, as well as a clear understanding of the overall arc of the project. Reflecting on her first experience closing a project which took place in a country that experienced a protracted armed conflict, a participant emphatically stated that it should not be an inexperienced head of mission who is responsible for the project closure. Some organizations identify experts in project closure to consult with those who are responsible for it in a particular project, though a participant also expressed concern that sometimes, “organizations … hire someone just to do the dirty job” of project closure. Another participant expressed that humanitarian organizations should have the humility to recognize their own needs for capacity building in this area—and to improve organizational approaches to the closing out of projects.
Two participants who both had extensive experience in humanitarian work discussed how those closing a project—often not the same people who initiated it—needed to know details about how the project was opened and unfurled. Underscoring the importance of leaving an account, one describing it as “humanitarian malpractice” not to leave careful documentation of what was done, who was involved, and what was promised, as well as what was not done and why. This “map of the minefield” was crucial for working with local partners in carrying forward with a handover. The other participant suggested that it would be ideal if the people who opened the project returned for its closure, or were at least available to consult remotely with the team if they had questions about the design and early implementation phases. The importance of expertise and knowledge of how the project was opened were described in terms of avoiding or minimizing harms such as insecurity and managing reputational risks associated with poor project closure.
Beyond expertise and different forms of knowledge, financial and other material resources were also identified as crucial for closing well. Several participants reported that having dedicated funding for the transition phase would, as expressed by a national staff member, “really help to have a methodical approach, take more time, and have a sustainable program going into the future.”
The potential for harms during the closing phase was underlined by a participant who expressed that, along with the opening of a project, closure is the most dangerous in terms of potential for violence and insecurity. A participant described a method that she used as head of mission to avoid such an outcome when multiple health clinics were to be closed. She described, “in a very context-specific type of way, to prepare a sort of plan about what was the worst-case scenario of announcing the closure. And then to somewhat back-engineer a lot of actions on actions, timing, planning etc., on how to prevent the worst-case scenario.”
Another concern was about data protection during the closure phase. Participants described the need to carefully plan how confidential project data, such as health and financial records, will be managed leading up to the closure. Similarly, several participants described how any distribution of project assets, such as vehicles and computers, needed to be thought through very carefully. In some instances, competing claims on such assets led to disagreement and conflict between local actors, and strained relationships. These participants expressed that it was therefore necessary to have a robust and clearly articulated plan for managing the disbursement of any project assets. A final concern about material remnants from the project was the possibility of environmental harm. A national staff member from East Africa argued forcefully that humanitarian projects should consider their environmental impact post-closure, including how potentially dangerous health waste will be safely disposed.
Closely engaging with people who have accessed the project’s services, as well as local partners and national staff, remains a key concern for the closure phase. Describing his work in transitioning humanitarian relief projects in refugee camps, a participant reported that when “closing things down… there’s a bit of a negotiation process to listen to partners, listen to what people are saying in the camps. And to then feedback and try and put together a robust transition strategy that… is responsive to people at the grassroots level, clients, also at the sub-national level.” A participant described how community advisory boards can be a useful mechanism for receiving feedback about project closure, and another participant expressed that it helped to identify one or several leaders amongst the national staff who could help to plan and communicate aspects of project closure.
Demonstrating compassion and care for local communities and national staff during the closure phase is needed. For one participant, a national staff member who had gone on to become an international humanitarian worker in several other countries, compassion was the primary issue for a successful closure process: the “ethical thing is to say that we care for everybody, for the drivers, for the sick, for the people in the town… So just show them that you care for what is going to happen next after you leave. There are infinite ways of doing that.” She emphasized that humanitarian workers should seek to understand why people are anxious or angry, remembering that “we are all humans, and we are scared when there is a change.” Therefore, part of demonstrating respect is maintaining open communication, “telling them how it’s gonna be, keep a timeframe for them, and tell them that you care for them.” Several participants also spoke about steps that humanitarian agencies can take to support national staff during the closure process, and described this as being part of the “duty of care” toward those who had worked with and for them. Specific examples included providing training that could help them secure other jobs, offering support for writing CVs and cover letters, and providing fair severance packages even where these are not required by law.
The success of project closure is directly related to whether and how services will continue to be available to the community. Participants expressed this as an ethical concern in relation to concepts of sustainability, continuity, or legacy of the project. A particularly challenging aspect of closure, however, is that when approaching a handover or transition to another organization or entity, humanitarians may need to accept a range of compromises. For example, the organization’s clinical guidelines or standards of care may need to be altered to harmonize with those of the Ministry of Health, and humanitarian workers will need to accept a loss of control over project components that they had developed. In some instances, particularly during situations of armed conflicts, international NGOs have reservations about their handover partners but may have few other options. These realities can be distressing for some humanitarian workers as things “aren’t always pretty” with a handover and humanitarians do not have control over what will unfold later on. For example, a participant explained that if a project was organized in a way that empowered women to play leading roles, this may be lost once a handover takes place. A participant noted that such challenges can be compounded due to the fact that the humanitarian organization’s focus has likely shifted elsewhere, toward other projects or new initiatives and funding appeals, and there may be less attention given to support the project that is closing.
Post-closure: “did it change something?”
Participants consistently described a good closure as one that led to sustainability of services for the community through handover to local NGOs or governments, or transition to a development approach. A participant described this as the “bottom line” of closing well. Humanitarian organizations should work with their partners so that the conditions are in place for continuity of services after closure. A participant described how this goal required transfer of knowledge and skills, as well as resources, including leaving behind sufficient supplies such as medications. A national staff member linked this emphasis to the do-no-harm principle, expressing that “You know, you could start something and you could leave it in a state that could cause more harm in a particular community, because we haven’t really looked at sustainability.” A national staff member also noted that a poorly organized project closure might result in heightening tension and divisions within the local population.
In line with this emphasis on sustainability, several participants reframed metrics for success. One argued that humanitarian NGOs should gauge their success by whether their partnering organizations were, on balance, strengthened through the collaboration. Two participants suggested that a key indicator of success is whether one would be able to return and restart a project in the same locale later, and that the closure had not violated trust in a way that would make it difficult for another NGO to work in that community in the future.
A final ethical concern described by participants is the responsibility to learn from closure experiences and apply those lessons to future projects. Formal evaluations, however, are rarely done. A participant with extensive experience in humanitarian action felt that new models of participatory post-closure evaluation should be developed. Another participant expressed that “the ideal, ideal, ideal for me, would be after the closure of the project, to come back to see… did it change something? … but we sadly don’t have the money to do that, and the funders don’t understand this, regardless of whether it’s development or humanitarian.” Another participant identified post-closure evaluation as being more frequently practiced in the development sector than the humanitarian sector. Practices of documentation and debriefing are also inconsistent, so opportunities for organizational learning are often missed. Several participants described an ethical obligation to apply lessons from challenging closure experiences during future projects.