One of the world’s largest children’s rights charities has admitted it “made a number of mistakes” when it left Sri Lanka abruptly last year, amid accusations it had misled the public and donors and failed 20,000 vulnerable children in the country.
Former employees and provincial governors who spoke to the Guardian described Plan International’s exit as “irresponsible”, “cynical and indefensible”.
Child sponsors, who provided most of Plan International’s funding in Sri Lanka, said they were “shocked and disappointed” by the charity’s handling of its departure and the lack of transparency over the impact of the move on the children.
In December 2019, after four decades in the country, Plan International announced it was leaving Sri Lanka owing to the “significant growth” of the country’s economy and a “marked improvement” in its UN Human Development Index ranking.
In January 2020, child sponsors received letters telling them that projects they had funded through the children’s families would be handed over to local partners. They were given two weeks to send a goodbye letter to children many had supported for years, and were offered new children in other countries to sponsor.
Former employees say the real reason for the charity’s hasty departure was rising costs and internal conflicts.
Plan admitted that costs had been one of the “multiple factors” it considered when leaving. It said it had conducted a thorough assessment of “the continued viability of operating successfully in the country” and that costs were “escalating due to security and other factors”.
Internal reports from 2018 seen by the Guardian have revealed “unsustainably high levels of operating costs” and “exceptionally low levels of staff morale” at Plan International in Sri Lanka. A draft internal report in 2019 said the organisation began a “complex and challenging transformation process”, which resulted in staff unrest, strikes and protest”.
An investigation into Plan’s exit, published by the Norwegian global development website Bistandsaktuelt, which shared source material with the Guardian, revealed that families of sponsored children from Uva, one of the poorest areas of Sri Lanka, did not know why Plan had left and that no one had taken over the projects as promised.
“No one has helped us as Plan did,” Lalini, a mother of two from Monaragala district in Uva told Bistandsaktuelt. “They contributed to better schools and to people without work being able to start their own business. They really did a great job.
“We had been told by Plan staff they would continue to help us for five more years, but suddenly they were just gone. And no one has told us what happened, why they just left.”
Subashini, 12, from a remote village in Uva, spoke of her “good memories” of receiving annual gifts from a Japanese couple who sponsored her. She was able to receive extra tuition in maths and the local language Sinhala. Plan also helped to build a latrine for the family.
“After they left, we’ve lost all support,” said Subashini. Her mother said the family was struggling to make ends meet, which threatened her daughter’s schooling.
Dr Manoj Fernando, former head of the Foundation for Health Promotion, a Sri Lankan NGO that worked on nutrition projects in Monaragala and Anuradhapura districts, said no alternative arrangements to support the children were put in place by Plan when it left.
“We heard Plan had suddenly shut down from other sources,” Fernando told the Guardian. “We were upset about it.”
Maithri Gunaratne, former governor of Uva, said: “Plan has failed these children. Hopes were raised with communities and thereafter dashed to the ground.”
Gunaratne, who had signed a memorandum of understanding with Plan to improve education in the province in 2019, three months before it announced it was leaving, said it had acted “irresponsibly”, leaving “the poorest of the poor in the lurch”.
“We gave them priority as a reputable NGO. We stopped public finance in those areas and we gave the opportunity to Plan to finance things.
“Those children were promised water and sanitation and livelihoods for women. They misled the donors.”
Plan, which has supported children from poor and vulnerable families in Monaragala, Uva, Ampara, and Anuradhapura districts for many years, enrolled a further 1,000 children into the sponsorship scheme in 2019, with the backing of local authorities.
Sundari Jayasuriya, deputy country director of Plan Sri Lanka from 2017 to 1 December 2019, has accused the NGO of “dishonesty and duplicity” by saying the closure of its operations in the country was because of economic development.
“In my opinion, the sudden closure was primarily due to the leadership’s inability to strategically and effectively deal with internal struggles and high costs.”
Jayasuriya said international organisations had a right to end operations, but that they should do so “ethically, responsibly and transparently, making sure those who rely on them are not let down”.
“What happened in Sri Lanka is an example of costly fly-by-night top-down organisational restructure processes where decisions are made in haste with little local ownership.”
In a statement, Plan International said the reason for its departure was complex, but that it was largely due to the economic improvement in Sri Lanka and the improvement in its human development ranking. The charity said it had undertaken a “rigorous internal review” and that early lessons from that process included the need to “define the essential criteria” for leaving a country as well as how sponsored children and families were supported.
It said: “We recognise that we made number of mistakes during the exiting process and we are determined to learn from them to prevent them happening anywhere else in our organisation.”
“We also acknowledge that more effective communications are required, with sponsored children and their communities, with sponsors and donors, and within our organisation.”
“We are truly sorry that some of the children, communities, donors and partners involved in our work in Sri Lanka feel that we left abruptly and that our communication was not sufficient or effective.”
Plan said it had communicated the decision to “sponsored children’s families, and local and national government representatives immediately after the information was announced to our staff in [the] country”, and that all sponsored children’s families were sent a letter.
With all the fanfare Covid would allow, the global education summit opened in London this week. Ahead of the meeting, the minister for European neighbourhood and the Americas was on rousing form. “Educating girls is a gamechanger,” Wendy Morton said, going on to describe what a plan would look like to do just that.
The UK, co-hosting the summit with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, plans to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education, from governments and donors. The UK government has promised £430m over the next five years.
There followed a number of reasons why the issue is so important, all of them absolutely sound: on any given indicator, from GDP to infant health and beyond, a nation stands or falls by how well, for how long, and how inclusively it educates its girls.
These are all the right words, even in the right order, yet they land completely at odds with the government’s behaviour.
Lis Wallace, head of advocacy at the One campaign, is most immediately concerned with these pledges being fully funded. There are two core targets: one is to increase girls’ access to education, the other is to boost the key milestone for all children – that they’re able to read and understand a simple story by the age of 10.
The past 18 months have been devastating for education, particularly in countries where it’s harder to access to online learning. About 1.6 billion children are out of school across the world. There’s a target to raise $5bn (£3.6bn), “which is a drop in the ocean of what is required to meet the global learning crisis”, Wallace says. It looks as though this summit will raise no more than $4bn, which is nothing less than a “failure of statecraft”, as Wallace explains: “It’s challenging when the host government is stepping back and making aid cuts for it then to ask other countries to step up.”
This is a depressing echo of the G7’s failure earlier this year; commitments to share vaccine doses with low-income countries came too little, too late, with devastating results, and it’s hard to avoid the question of whether that outcome would have been different if the host nation had role modelled some generosity.
Furthermore, there’s some confused causality in the minister’s assertion that staying in school protects girls from “forced child marriage, gender-based violence and early pregnancy”. The exact inverse is true: it is largely teenage pregnancy that forces girls out of school in the first place, and to try to use education in lieu of sexual health and reproductive provision is illogical.
Esi Asare Prah, who is a youth and advocacy officer in Ghana for MSI Reproductive Choices, describes a situation in which 5,000 to 7,000 girls drop out of school each year after becoming pregnant – last year, 2,000 of them were between 10 and 14. Across sub-Saharan Africa, MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls drop out or are excluded from school every year due to pregnancy.
“These girls are most likely to be on the street, doing menial jobs; their children will not make it into higher education. It creates a cycle of poverty and a cycle of slums. For me, the foundation of it is that you can’t seek to invest in education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and cut down funding for sexual and reproductive health. If you treat development issues as isolated, you will have the same issues of 50 years ago chasing you into the future.”
Here, the recent cuts to the aid budget make a mockery of these pledges on education: UK funding to the UN Population Fund recently went down by 85%.
There is inspiration to take from this summit, nevertheless; President Kenyatta has been leading the charge not only on education but also on the climate crisis, and there is a solidarity and sense of purpose between poorer nations that may yet inspire greater generosity from donors. Whatever it achieves, though, it will be despite its UK host not because of them.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.
The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.
US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.
“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”
Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.
Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components.
Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.