The price of transparency

By Dr. Tessie San Martin
February 20, 2020

The sexual abuse and harassment scandals that rocked the international development sector in 2018 started with revelations about staff conduct during the Haiti earthquake response. As a result, Plan International, along with many other organizations in our sector, published information related to safeguarding incidences.

We quickly learned the cost of being transparent in this manner.

The end of a calendar year often brings surprises for non-profit organizations. Supporters, moved by the opportunity to make an impact, sometimes make large surprise gifts. This past December brought a different kind of surprise. We had applied for a grant from a foundation several months earlier and in December they told us that “as much as we would like to support the request, unfortunately, the events that took place in 2018 […] are precluding us from supporting at this time.” In the business of philanthropy, you win some and you lose some. But this one stung more than most. By all accounts, the foundation loved the proposal. Everyone agreed it was a good program design that would build community resilience among a vulnerable and marginalized population group. But to this foundation, the incidents highlighted in Plan’s annual Safeguarding Report disqualified our organization from receiving funding.

Donors the world over were right to be horrified by the revelations of sexual abuse and harassment. This was more than #AidToo. We are not just another industry caught up in the same sexual abuse and exploitation scandals that have already rocked Hollywood, journalism and the highest levels of government. We represent organizations that trade on being the voice of the most marginalized and vulnerable. How can we tolerate, and in some cases abet, abusive and exploitative behavior — in situations when the people affected, both those we purport to help and the staff who work for us, are at their most exposed and vulnerable? The international development sector deserved to be critiqued.

Plan, like many of our peer organizations in our sector, has committed to full transparency and reporting of every abuse/safeguarding case on an on-going basis. Tessie San Martin, in role as Plan International USA’s CEO & President, was among the first to sign the CEO pledge on behalf of  organization in 2018. Signing the pledge meant that we were required to re-think and re-design many processes, including employee vetting and worldwide incident reporting. The organizations that signed on to the pledge in 2018 took a risk, of course. They were signing on to full disclosure before any donor required it and before it was the standard in our sector. The execution of the CEO pledge means we are working with our peers in new ways — implementing survivor-centered processes, developing new systems to weed out the “bad apples,” dismantling the power structures that valued relationships over reporting incidents and vetting employees in our sector. But transparency comes with a price.

So, what does Plan do to protect children, staff and communities? The answer is that we do quite a lot, from background checks to training and investigating reports of incidents. In 2019, Plan engaged with more than 40 million children and young people. We are proud of our robust Safeguarding Policy, which aims to protect each and every one of these individuals. The policy demands rigorous training and monitoring of all actions that touch or affect children and puts child protection at the core of our work. This core includes understanding that each person has rights; among these are the right to be safe and free from violence.

We are committed to ensuring project participants understand when their rights have been violated and how to report a violation, as well as having the support they need following an incident. Plan is committed to building capacity for all genders so that everyone is equipped to create a world that is free of abuse and violence. Plan also has strong standards for supporters, including photographing and exchanging correspondence with children, and for interacting with children and their families to protect the children and young people our programs aim to help.

We have similarly strong policies to protect employees. Of course, policies do not on their own guarantee protection from bad actors. There is a whole system that needs to be built and maintained to support that — from personnel recruiting, vetting and continuous staff training, to supporter training and reporting. But beyond policies, systems, processes and training, the challenge for our community is one of culture. We must be committed to creating the type of environment that moves us to act quickly and decisively, but also with empathy and care, every time we discover issues. Through capacity building, collaboration and honest conversations, our sector is challenging the culture and structures that permit abuse of beneficiaries and within our own ranks. We are exchanging best practices and working on ways to better share information.

Plan has long been an advocate of transparency, whether in foreign assistance funding, the impact of supporters’ investments or within our own operations. We know that our international development community will ultimately do a better job safeguarding children, communities and employees when we are publicly held accountable. Our transparency in reporting safeguarding incidents led at least one supporter to deny funding and perhaps others to question their relationship with the international development community. But it was the right thing to do. We unquestionably have a higher moral duty because of our mission and with whom and where we work.

Our supporters have the right to know when we are not living up to their (and our own) standards and we have the obligation to continue to improve our safeguarding practices. Our mission is to partner with adolescent girls and children. Safeguarding young people and staff is truly mission critical, and it will remain our top priority.