A wake-up call?

By Dr. Tessie San Martin
June 9, 2021

Plan International’s approach to programs and advocacy embraces the philosophy that the work we do to support girls’ equality and children’s rights must be led by the children, youth and girls that we seek to support. Our work is grounded in communities and their priorities, supported by the strength of a global organization that operates in more than 75 countries around the world.

And it works. Plan has returned to communities it has exited to review whether and how longer-term impact is being realized, and we’ve seen that results have a greater chance of enduring when there is local ownership.

For example, of the course of 17 years, Plan worked in the Bura and Voi regions of Kenya to improve access to water, sanitation, education, health services and economic opportunities. Six years after leaving the region, an independent study concluded that there were long-term positive impacts such as the majority of students still attending school and families having increased resilience to shocks and disasters through better sanitation, water storage and health services. This is credited to the sustainable ownership of projects in families and communities before Plan left the region.

Imagine, then, the collective dismay within Plan after an article in The Guardian was posted criticizing Plan’s departure from Sri Lanka in 2019.

No organization wants to see its name in a negative headline, and certainly no international development organization wants to be portrayed in the media as abandoning communities that need support. More important than any headline, however, was the feedback from children, community members, local officials and our donors. Program participants spoke of benefiting from Plan’s programs and the children interviewed enjoyed making connections with their sponsors around the world. Local partners hailed Plan’s work as impactful and important. But all felt abandoned when Plan made what they saw as a hurried exit with poor communication.

Exiting any community requires weighing a variety of factors and hearing diverse viewpoints, and Plan acknowledges we made a number of mistakes during the exit process. We didn’t follow our own best practices, which we have proven work. A misstep anywhere in the Plan family is a misstep for us all.

We pledge to improve transparency around future decisions to leave communities and countries, and to ensure the process follows our internal policies, which include:

— Having a clear policy framework relating to decisions on presence and reach. A strengthened portfolio review process evaluates the performance of countries and communities against key indicators as a basis for making exit decisions. In the last few years, it was used to confirm a longer-term presence in the Central African Republic, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as to open a new office in Mexico.

— Starting consultations earlier with people impacted by the decision to close down our presence in a country. Where routine consultation is compromised — for example, in a situation of urgency or high sensitivity — key leadership positions must be consulted at the earliest practical opportunity.

— Reviewing and rehearsing our crisis management protocol with all Plan International senior leadership.

— Reviewing escalation protocols within Plan International management.

We can’t afford to use buzzwords like “localization” and “diversity, equity and inclusion” if we aren’t truly following these principles in all scenarios. Decisions at the top of an organization must be made in partnership with those affected by the decision — families, communities and staff. It has real-world consequences when we don’t consider all angles and views before we make important decisions, like when and how to exit communities.

Plan isn’t unique in making this mistake. I have hope we can change and take the time to correct our missteps, making this a wake-up call to spur change in our organizations — and in our sector.