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.
World’s poorest bear brunt of climate crisis: 10 underreported emergencies | Global development
From Afghanistan to Ethiopia, about 235 million people worldwide needed assistance in 2021. But while some crises received global attention, others are lesser known.
Humanitarian organisation Care International has published its annual report of the 10 countries that had the least attention in online articles in five languages around the world in 2021, despite each having at least 1 million people affected by conflict or climate disasters.
The findings, from a collaboration between the charity and international media monitoring service Meltwater, highlighted how the accelerating climate crisis is fuelling many of the world’s emergencies, said Laurie Lee, CEO of Care International UK.
“There is deep injustice at the heart of it. The world’s poorest are bearing the brunt of climate change – poverty, migration, hunger, gender inequality and ever more scarce resources – despite having done the least to cause it,” he said. “Add Covid-19 into the mix and we see decades of progress towards tackling inequality, poverty, conflict and hunger disappearing before our eyes.”
The number of people in need of humanitarian aid is expected to rise to 274 million this year, or one in 28 people, and more than 84 million people have been uprooted. Lee highlighted the impact of the UK’s 2021 foreign aid budget cuts, saying that it “resulted in over £166m less in humanitarian aid reaching the 10 countries mentioned in this report compared to 2019.”
First on the list, Zambia has 1.2 million malnourished people and about 60% of the 18.4 million population living below the international poverty line of $1.90 (£1.40) a day. Women produce 60% of the country’s food supply, but families headed by women faced higher poverty rates than those headed by men.
Food insecurity in Zambia has primarily been blamed on prolonged drought, but rising corn prices and flooding have contributed.
Currently in the news amid renewed tension between Russia and the west, in Ukraine, 3.4 million people were in need of assistance in 2021, after years of conflict.
“While a comprehensive political solution for the conflict is still not in sight, people in eastern Ukraine are daily forced to put their lives on the line. Along the 420-km ‘contact line’ that separates Ukrainian government-controlled territory from that of the separatists, the situation is particularly dangerous,” the report said.
Malawi is facing a food insecurity crisis, with 17% of the population severely malnourished. Droughts, floods and landslides have been predicted to worsen over the coming years. Cyclone Idai in 2019 severely affected harvests and left tens of thousands displaced.
“The climate crisis is hitting people here earlier and much harder than the people of the global north,” said Chikondi Chabvuta, advocacy lead for Care International in Malawi. “We are already seeing real-life consequences with delayed rainfall, heavy and destructive rainfall, unpredictable rainfall patterns, infertile soil, destroyed harvests.”
Central African Republic
In Central African Republic (CAR), where civil war has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, half of the population face food insecurity. A ceasefire agreement struck in October 2021 is fragile and more than 700,000 people have been internally displaced – more than half children. CAR is ranked second to last globally on the Human Development Index. “On average, a child attends school for just under four years, and girls for only three,” the report said. About 30% of children are in work.
Poverty, violence and the climate crisis are leading problems in Guatemala, which is on the migratory route to Mexico and the US. Two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day and 38% of the population face food insecurity.
Camps sheltering those sent back by Mexico are overcrowded, meaning many live on the streets, the report said. Guatemala is considered one of the world’s most dangerous countries, with 3,500 murders in 2020 alone. “Although about 3.3 million people in the country rely on humanitarian aid, the frequent occurrence of violence is in many cases a barrier to accessing urgently needed assistance,” said the report.
Nearly 5 million people live under the control of armed groups, and 6.7 million people are dependent on humanitarian aid.
Food insecurity has been blamed on an economic recession caused by the pandemic. It has particularly affected indigenous communities, those uprooted internally and 1.8 million Venezuelan refugees, mainly in northern Colombia.
Ranked as the country gaining the least attention in 2020, Burundi was seventh in 2021 when 2.3 million of the 12.6 million population were in need of humanitarian assistance.
The country secured only 27% of the $195m pledged in aid. Extreme weather, hunger and political unrest were among the challenges faced by Burundians. In a country where 90% of people rely on small-scale agriculture, only a third of land is suitable for cultivation, due to drought, floods and landslides. The report also highlighted structural discrimination against women – 20% of those in Burundi’s decision-making bodies are female, while 60% of the agricultural workforce are women.
Niger is deeply vulnerable to climate disasters. Persistent droughts and recurring floods have had catastrophic consequences: nearly 3 million people rely on humanitarian aid. About 1.8 million children need food assistance and almost half of all children under five are malnourished.
Militias in eastern and northern Niger have caused 313,000 people to be displaced as of last September. “Providing emergency relief is often hindered by the fact that infrastructure is destroyed, operation areas are marked by violence and rural areas are difficult to access,” the report said.
Zimbabwe has acute food insecurity with increasingly extreme climate conditions and economic mismanagement causing 6.6 million people to need humanitarian aid. More than a third of the population (5.7 million) lack sufficient food.
“The harvests in many rural areas are not sufficient to secure basic food supplies and other needs. In these regions, households must rely on local markets when supplies are depleted – but the prices there are unaffordable for many,” the report said.
Poverty and violence have exacerbated the humanitarian situation in Honduras, prompting many to leave for the US. About 70% of the population live in poverty, according to a 2020 study.
There have been problems with farming due to drought, hurricanes and floods. The country has 937,000 displaced people, the highest number in Latin America.
“In Honduras, people therefore often talk about poverty being female, as it is mostly women who stay behind with the children,” the report said.
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Covid created 20 new ‘pandemic billionaires’ in Asia, says Oxfam | Global development
Twenty new “pandemic billionaires” have been created in Asia thanks to the international response to Covid-19, while 140 million people across the continent were plunged into poverty as jobs were lost during the pandemic, according to Oxfam.
A report by the aid organisation says that by March 2021, profits from the pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and services needed for the Covid response had made 20 people new billionaires as lockdowns and economic stagnation destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of others.
From China, Hong Kong, India and Japan, the new billionaires include Li Jianquan, whose firm, Winner Medical, makes personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, and Dai Lizhong, whose company, Sansure Biotech, makes Covid-19 tests and diagnostic kits.
The total number of billionaires in the Asia-Pacific region grew by almost a third from 803 in March 2020 to 1,087 by November last year, and their collective wealth increased by three-quarters (74%), the report said.
The report said the richest 1% owned more wealth than the poorest 90% in the region.
Mustafa Talpur, campaigns lead at Oxfam Asia, said: “It is outrageous and highly unacceptable that poor people in Asia [were left at] the mercy of the pandemic facing severe health risks, joblessness, hunger and pushed into poverty – erasing the gains made in decades in the fight against poverty.
“While rich and privileged men increase their fortunes and protect their health, Asia’s poorest people, women, low-skilled workers, migrants and other marginalised groups are being hit hardest,” he added.
In 2020, an estimated 81m jobs disappeared and loss of working hours pushed a further 22–25 million people into working poverty, according to the International Labour Organization. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific region’s billionaires saw their wealth increase by $1.46tn (£1.06tn), enough to provide a salary of almost $10,000 (£7,300) to all those who lost a job.
Covid has claimed more than a million lives in just Asia, and countless more deaths will result from increased poverty and disruptions to health services. The report said women and girls were more likely to have lost jobs or income. Women are also more likely to work in frontline roles, putting them at further risk; in the Asia-Pacific region, women account for more than 70% of healthcare workers and 80% of nurses.
In south Asia, people from lower castes do the bulk of sanitation work, often without protective equipment, and face poverty and discrimination that prevent them from accessing health services. The pandemic has exacerbated this, said Oxfam.
The wealth gap is set to grow. Credit Suisse forecasts that, by 2025, there will be 42,000 more people worth more than $50m in Asia-Pacific and 99,000 billionaires. The number of millionaires by 2025 is projected to be 15.3 million, a 58% increase on 2020. Both the World Bank and IMF have said that coronavirus will cause a significant increase in global economic inequality.
Talpur said: “The political system is protecting the interests of the tiny rich elite. Governments have consistently failed to work for the majority during the pandemic. It was the juncture of global solidarity, but rich countries and big pharmaceutical companies turned away their faces.”
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