Lessons learned from Sri Lanka

By Shanna Marzilli
January 19, 2022

In 2019, Plan International made the difficult decision to close our office in Sri Lanka. Plan rarely exits a country, and this process requires a number of factors and views. At the time, we believed we were making the best decision given our understanding of the situation. Following questions from supporters and the media in August 2021, Plan commissioned an external after-action review. It has become clear that there were a number of mistakes along the way and that we did not have the full picture.

As an organization, we are sorry to the children, families, community, staff and volunteers affected by our exit.

During Plan’s 38 years in Sri Lanka, we supported more than 500,000 children, along with their families and communities. Much of this support focused on education, disaster risk reduction, child protection, and youth entrepreneurship and employment. While many of these programs will have a lasting positive impact, a quick exit with limited communication will also be remembered.

The review process found six key areas for improvement. This includes a lack of oversight and internal systems within Plan Sri Lanka, the use of non-local leadership in a complex economic setting, a lack of communication to children, communities and other stakeholders, a lack of clear evidence of safety concerns and problems with organizational culture in-country.

While this review was specifically focused on Sri Lanka in 2019, Plan examined the results to ensure our global operations are prepared for future exits. Four actions are being taken, some of which were already underway.

1.  Institution building and standardized structures.

We have undertaking more regular auditing and strengthened financial and administrative oversight. We are revising our Financial Authorities Policy and Scheme of Delegation for more transparent reporting procedures and performance reviews. In addition to quarterly performance reviews, we have introduced monthly dashboard reporting to more easily ensure funds are being used efficiently and effectively.

2. People

While over 98% of our staff work in their home country, we are focused on continuing to develop more staff in every country to become leaders while making sure we always assess the local context and recruit the best person for the role. In Sri Lanka, some of the leadership was not from the country. We have recently launched a comprehensive People and Culture Strategy to strengthen all our people processes.

3. Purpose and impact.

Striving for lasting impact is one of our core values. The processes for potential country entry or exit are being reviewed. In the rare event that Plan International decides to leave a country, a phase-out would begin two years in advance. In other very rare instances, the politically unsettled nature of some of the countries where we work means that a rapid withdrawal may be necessary. We have already been implementing such preparedness in relevant countries.

4. Values and culture.

We have introduced of a rigorous performance management framework that will enable issues to be identified and resolved more quickly, and for best practices to be shared more rapidly across the organization. We are also improving the definition of roles and responsibilities to streamline operations and strengthen capabilities.

Plan has long been proud of what has often been viewed as a unique approach by involving children, families and communities in decisions that relate to their lives rather than dictating programs through best practices and outside perspectives. Today, this approach is becoming increasing less unique. That is a good thing. However, it also means that if we are to be a leader in this area, we have to live up to our ideals in every situation.

In Sri Lanka, Plan failed to consider all voices and communicate effectively. Long-term impact isn’t just setting up programs and policies that are able to last for decades, but is also in the way development organizations make people feel respected and heard.