This blog was co-authored by James Cole (STOPAIDS) and Neil Raw (RESULTS UK) on behalf of the UK Sustainability and Transitions Working Group. 


Last month, the UK Sustainability and Transitions Working Group convened representatives of civil society, UK government and independent organisations to discuss one of the most pertinent, yet under-discussed, issues currently facing the aid sector: transition.  

Transition is defined as the process whereby a country’s external donor funding is reduced, withdrawn or changed to a different programmatic aim. However, if transition occurs before a country is willing, committed and ready to take over development programmes it can lead to the reversal of hard won development gains and come at risk to vulnerable and marginalised populations. 

In order to mitigate the risks transition poses to development gains and marginalised groups, it is important that donors adopt clear policies. In this regard, the working group has paid particular attention to DFID’s work in this space, which was found to be showing ‘significant shortcomings’ following an ICAI review. Whilst the UK government has been making some progress, they need to do more to ensure that they are correctly positioned to support successful and sustainable transitions.  

The aim of our 2019 publication ‘Laying the foundations: Principles of a sustainable, successful transition from external donor funding’ (available online) is manifold. We highlight the dangers of transition, unpack the reality of countries’ inability to sustain themselves, outline the crucial role civil society plays in the transition process and provides clear principles that we believe the UK government needs to implement to ensure that all forms of transition are effectively managed. 

The ‘Laying the foundations’ roundtable was an important stepping stone in broadening the transition conversation. The roundtable not only launched the ‘Laying the Foundations’ briefing but also convened a space for experts to outline what transition means in reality for populations around the world. The discussion ranged from the hugely damaging impact on vulnerable and marginalised populations to the broader concerns regarding the continued coverage of essential health services and the shrinking space for civil society in middle income countries. 

Situating discussions into the context of achieving Universal Health Coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) commitment of leaving no one behind, a series of presentations from expert speakers brought the implications of transition and changes in external financing to life with clear relevance.

Susie Pelly, Senior Policy Advisor for the All Party Parliamentary Group on HIV&AIDS, explored the damaging impact that transitions has had vulnerable and marginalised populations. Drawing on the APPG’s latest report ‘No One Left Behind – Towards a Sustainable HIV response for key populations and women and girls’, she highlighted that development gains in the HIV response have been lost due to a lack of careful planning in eastern Europe and central Asia, and that we risk seeing the same mistakes made in Africa as more countries move from low income to middle income status. Mike Podmore, Director of STOPAIDS, supported Susie’s call for DFID to develop a transitions framework to guide their approach to closing programmes’ sustainably and argued that other donors should use nuanced and broad range of transition criteria that will help better determine when a country is ready to transition from a primarily ODA-based relationship. 

We also heard about the enormous implications transition has on health systems. Kerstin Åkerfeldt from MSF highlighted that as a result of shift to national TB and HIV drug procurement, Armenia put out a national tender for first-line TB drugs, which failed, resulting in a stock-out. Yasmin Mahboubi, from RESULTS UK, also highlighted the enormous implications that a reduction of polio funding may have on national immunisation programmes. Finally, Michael Mapstone from the Charities Aid Foundation Global Alliance articulated the vital role played by civil society in middle income countries and the need to maintain support to civil society through both existing and innovative methods. 

You can read the full notes from the roundtable here

We’ve made progress over the last year, increasing our correspondence with the UK government, reaching out to experts working in this space and broadening the scope of the transition conversation. But we need to continue pushing the UK Government to adopt and implement a clear and effective policy that serves to mitigate the risks of transition, sustain a positive legacy for UK aid and fulfil their commitments to leave no-one behind.

We need to also convince not just the UK government, but also wider civil society of the importance of transition and why this is an issue that must be sufficiently addressed as we attempt to maximize the impact of UK aid and accelerate progress towards the SDGs.   

For too long the discussion around transition has existed on the periphery of debates within the aid sector. Transition matters, and the Laying the Foundations roundtable articulated exactly why.