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Plan International accused of abandoning children in Sri Lanka exit | Global development

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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.

Child sponsorship accounted for more than a third – €360m (£310m) – of Plan International’s €910m (£780m) income in 2020.

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.

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The Ukraine war in maps: Ukrainian forces battle to recover Snake Island | International

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May 13 | The battle for Snake Island

The all-out attack that Russian troops deployed at the beginning of the offensive in Ukraine did not leave out maritime control of the Black Sea: the Kremlin’s naval force soon took up positions the island of Zmiinyi, also known as Snake Island and located around 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of Odessa and 40km (25 miles) from the Romanian coast. The first map of the conflict published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on February 25 showed it under Russian control even then. In a statement in February, the Ukrainian Navy said that the invaders had destroyed infrastructure on this island of one square kilometer. A comparison of satellite images captured before the invasion and in recent days shows that the destruction of the main building occurred between May 6 and 7.

August 23, 2016


May 6, 2022


Areas burnt by earlier attacks

Visible structural

damage

May 7, 2022


May 8, 2022


Area of attack

on helicopter

(shown in video)

British intelligence warned last Tuesday that if Russian troops consolidate their position on the island, deploying air defense cruise missiles, they could control the northwest portion of the Black Sea. The permanent Russian settlement on Snake Islands entails sea, land and air control of that entire area, military strategy expert Oleh Zhdanov told the BBC.

The strategic importance of the islet, which grants control over maritime traffic in the port of Odes, is enough to justify the ongoing struggle for it. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that it destroyed several planes, helicopters, drones and a landing craft in the early hours of Sunday morning during a Ukrainian attempt to recapture the island. Ukraine claimed that it only attacked Russian troops deployed there. British intelligence stated that Ukraine has used drones to destroy Russian anti-aircraft defenses and supply ships, stranded after the invaders retreated to the Crimean coast following the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

Helicopter destroyed on Snake Island, in a video shared by the Ukrainian army on Sunday.Reuters

The sensors of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites have made it possible to observe hot spots on the island which, in the context of war, can be associated with attacks. These indications of attacks have been recurrent since last February, and particularly intense during the last weekend, coinciding with a video of an attack on the island.

The proximity of Zmiinyi to NATO coasts has not prevented it from becoming a battlefield in the conflict. Armand Gosu, a professor of Russian Political History at the University of Bucharest, explained to Efe news agency that Moscow categorically dominates the Black Sea: “There is a huge military imbalance. Its ships patrol international waters without restriction, which has allowed the Russians to block a maritime outlet from Odessa,” he said. This blockade stifles Ukrainian sea exports that are essential to defend the coastal town from a hypothetical Russian siege like the one suffered by Mariupol.

March 8 A heat source can be seen in the northeast of the island, probably as a result of an attack, as well as a plume of smoke. The area inside the box contains most of the facilities.

March 23 Two weeks later, the Sentinel 2 satellite captured a new hot spot in a nearby area.

May 7 Once again a heat source can be seen, coinciding with a great column of smoke detected by satellites and shown earlier.

May 9 The last available image shows no hot spots, but the island’s vegetation has been largely burnt down as a result of the confrontation.

May 10 | Russian progress

In the two and a half months since the start of the Ukraine invasion, the Russian offensive has changed strategies: at first it sought to take control of the major cities, then focused its efforts on the separatist region of Donbas and on securing the borders. Since then, the frontline has moved in line with modest but systematic Russian advances that have only met with resistance at a spot that’s been highly militarized since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula. The change in the frontline can be seen in the following maps, which show the situation on the ground every two weeks since Russia changed its strategy on March 25. The red color shows areas under Russian control, which have been expanding for the last month and a half.

Donbas is an area covering around 52,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Costa Rica. It is divided into two oblast (administrative units) – Donetsk and Luhansk. Along the northwest, it borders the Kharkiv region, home to the city of Izyum, which is the starting point for Russia’s attempt to encircle Ukrainian defenders holding the frontline. From there, Russian troops have been trying to advance towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the military headquarters and de facto capital of Donetsk, although they have had limited success.

March 24


When the Kremlin’s troops announced that their target was eastern Ukraine, they were already controlling much of Donetsk, Luhansk and the area extending to Kharkiv.

April 8


Two weeks later, the situation on the front had barely changed after a reorganization of the invading troops except in the area of Izyum, the new Russian center of operations.

April 22


The siege of Mariupol, which made Ukrainian defenders retreat to an industrial site, allowed Russia to free up troops to cement control over the northern end of the city.

May 8


Despite Ukrainian counterattacks that are gaining back territory near Kharkiv, the areas under Russian control increasingly encircle the Donbas border

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believes that the Kremlin’s forces near Izyum are regrouping and resupplying before resuming offensive operations in the southeast and southwest.

In the south of the country, near Crimea and the Black Sea, there is a similar situation: slow but constant Russian advances and reinforced positions in places like Kherson, which was swiftly captured in the early days of the invasion. Ukrainian counterattacks have barely made a dent on Russian forces, who have increased the territory under their control week after week. Moscow has been concentrating anti-aircraft and missile systems in the northern area of Crimea, said the ISW. This could be a prelude to resume offensive operations towards Zaporizhzhia and Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine.

March 24


April 8


April 22


May 8


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Every drop is precious: the Mexican women saving water for their villages | Global development

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Amazon: Violence in Colombia putting “the lungs of the world” at risk | International

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Flying through the Amazon jungle, the pilot, a former Brazilian colonel, descends from 1500 to one thousand meters above sea level to approach the majestic Puré River.

The Puré crosses the border between Colombia and Brazil, a site that has become strategic for illegal mining and drug trafficking. In its channel more than 30 mining vessels can be seen from the colonel’s plane – tirelessly working to extract gold, illegally, from its waters.

In 2015 the National Parks of Colombia built a cabin called Puerto Franco in honor of the researcher Roberto Franco, the first to discover isolated indigenous peoples in Colombia, people who during the last centuries have decided not to have any contact with Western civilization. From the air, only remains of the cabin built in honor of Franco can be seen. Illegal armed groups burned it down during the pandemic.

This cabin had a very important purpose: to protect the isolated indigenous people of the Colombian Amazon. Indeed, in the depths of the Amazon jungle, very close to Puerto Franco, live the Yuri, an indigenous group that lives in voluntary isolation.

The Río Puré National Park was created for their protection and along with it the most remote cabin in Colombia. Park ranger Luis Rivas, 70, a traditional expert from the Cubeo ethnic group, lived here, charged with keeping illegal miners, drug traffickers and guerrillas away from the isolated indigenous people.

Puerto Franco cabin, after being burned by illegal armed groups in Río Puré, in December 2021.
Puerto Franco cabin, after being burned by illegal armed groups in Río Puré, in December 2021.PNN Río Puré

One night, in the midst of the pandemic, Rivas dreamed that he was in danger and asked Parks officials to remove him from the area. When he reached the nearest town, he caught Covid-19 and died. Some time later, officials from the National Parks found out about the destruction of Puerto Franco during a flight over the Puré River. Since the pandemic they have been unable to access protected areas in the Amazon due to threats from illegal groups that now dominate this territory.

The rangers of this national park, like those of nine others in the Colombian Amazon, which covers almost 15 million hectares, had to leave their territory from one day to the next. “We had to send a plane and get everyone out. There was no time, they threatened us,” says a former National Parks official who prefers not to give his name for fear of reprisals from the guerrillas. This former official believes that these threats respond to the implementation by the Government of the Artemisa strategy, a program to stop deforestation in the Amazon.

In 2020 Colombia was the most dangerous country for the second year in a row for environmental defenders. According to the British NGO Global Witness, 65 environmental leaders were murdered.

Although this crisis has been brewing for decades, it has worsened since the signing of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in 2016. “The organizations that try to protect the Amazon have come into conflict with the interests of these powerful groups. and, as a consequence, they have increasingly become targets of attacks”, explains Juan Carlos Garzón, a researcher at the Ideas for Peace Foundation.

“I am threatened by the guerrillas,” says anthropologist Arturo, 45, who prefers not to give his real name precisely for this reason. He has walked through the Amazon region with a security detail since he reported to the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition in 2020 that the Carolina Ramírez guerrilla group arrived one day at the park cabin where he worked and told them that they had to leave. “They told us that they had declared war on Parks and that they did not want uniformed whites in the protected areas,” he recalls.

An indigenous Ticuna, in the Colombian Amazon jungle.
An indigenous Ticuna, in the Colombian Amazon jungle.Anadolu Agency (Getty Images)

The guerrillas stole their gasoline, cameras, computers and all the material they used to study the terrain. “They only left us a small motorized boat to get out,” says Arturo, who decided to leave as soon as he could when he saw his life in danger. Since that time two years ago, whenever he has tried to return, so have the threats. Indigenous officials remained in charge of the parks while Arturo tried to continue leading the projects as best he could from a distance.

However, he recently decided to leave his post: the situation, he says, was becoming more and more frustrating. Arturo was part of a group of park rangers who brought a report to the Truth Commission and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in which they asked to be recognized as victims of the armed conflict, considering that the guerrillas “took us out under threat and everything was abandoned. I feel very powerless,” he says.

Arturo wonders, what did National Parks do with those who are threatened for trying to take care of a territory that belongs to everyone?, although in truth he knows the answer: nothing. According to official data, 12 park rangers have been killed between 1994 and 2020.

The deputy director of National Parks of Colombia, Carolina Jarro, explains that at the moment they are under very strong pressure from illegal mining, a business that they estimate represents close to three billion Colombian pesos in profits for criminal groups each year. The proceeds, moreover, are used to launder the resources obtained from drug trafficking: “Attempts have been made to control illegal mining in the Puré River because the uncontacted indigenous groups are there,” explains Jarro, citing the burning of the Puerto Franco cabin.

The deputy director also notes that the guerrillas do not stop at threatening the park rangers, saying that they have stolen material from the organization that the rangers need to do their work. “Groups outside the law prefer not to have anyone to see what happens, that’s why they kicked us out,” Jarro says

Two illegal dredgers (facilities whose purpose is the extraction of minerals found under water. In this case, gold), on the Puré River, in the Amazon.
Two illegal dredgers (facilities whose purpose is the extraction of minerals found under water. In this case, gold), on the Puré River, in the Amazon.Camilo Rozo

Although officials are currently unable to be inside the parks full time, they are using remote sensing technology to monitor activity in these protected areas. “We can see when the guerrillas build a house, when they create a road. Thus, we can file criminal complaints about the damage that is being done. We have not abandoned the place, we have to go out for protection. But we are always watching,” Jarro says firmly.

Jarro has worked as an official in a park in the Amazon region for the last 10 years. A trained sociologist, she climbed the ranks of the administration before becoming head of a specific area, the name of which she cannot reveal due to the threat from the guerrillas. Its mission has been to protect a group of indigenous people who emerged from isolation some years ago, only to be enslaved by the miners and rubber tappers who exploited the area’s resources. Now, many of these indigenous people, from the Nukak ethnic group, are highly resistant to contact: “In the beginning, it was the indigenous people themselves who negotiated with the guerrillas so that they would let us enter and work with the communities. There was never a bigger problem.”

However, after the peace process, everything changed. “The guerrillas held me hostage for two days, and after that they told me that I couldn’t set foot in the park again,” says Juana.

The government’s response: Militarize

The only solution Colombia’s national government has come up with has been to militarize these protected areas via a program known as ‘Operation Artemisa’.

In 2020 President Duque said in an interview with the World Economic Forum that “our strategy for fighting deforestation is a combination of carrot and stick. We’re fighting against illegal activities that destroy the tropical jungle. At the same time, we’re building up nature-based solutions. In the past two years, we have been able to reduce the rate of deforestation by 19%.” Duque has since said his government is aiming for a 30% reduction overall.

This month the Minister of Defense, Diego Molano, announced that 10,000 million pesos will be invested in the military bases of La Pedrera and Tarapacá for the control of illegal mining and the fight against drug trafficking.

Esperanza Leal Gómez is Director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Colombia. She says that protecting environmental leaders is the responsibility of the whole Colombian state, which must guarantee conditions for workers in the National Parks so they can “operate…without putting their lives in danger.”

Panoramic view of the Puré river, border between Colombia and Brazil.
Panoramic view of the Puré river, border between Colombia and Brazil.
Lucía Franco (EL PAÍS)

Gómez explains that the park rangers are not only essential for the conservation of the environment, but that they keep those at bay who want to exploit it: “The most latent threat is the dispute over territory between various illegal armed actors and civilians, who are being left unprotected.”

The director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Colombia, Sandra Valenzuela, agrees. “As long as these threats continue, the national parks, their park rangers and uncontacted indigenous people will be in danger. Colombia must find a way to guarantee security and ensure the survival of the lungs of the world.”

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