I have good memories from when we received small gifts from the sponsors, says 12-year-old Subashini (left) to Bistandsaktuelt. Illustration: Pål Dybwik (inspired by a photograph by Shihar Aneez) 

Harsh criticism of Plan: ‘Betrayed 20 000 children – deceived its sponsors’

Plan International abruptly terminated its aid work in Sri Lanka after 38 years. ‘Completely irresponsible,’ according to a former employee. The NGO told spnsors that the children would be looked after. ‘A diabolical lie,’ says ex-governor of one Sri Lanka province. A damning internal report shows that Plan Sri Lanka spent two Norwegian kroner on administration for every one krone on assistance, in projects paid for by sponsors.

‘I would never have believed that an international aid organisation could sink so low. Plan has betrayed the children,’ says Maithri Gunaratne, ex-governor of one of Sri Lanka’s poorest provinces.

For 38 years, Plan International had a large commitment in Sri Lanka. 20,000 children had sponsors from a number of countries - and as many as 1,800 Norwegian sponsors had their own sponsor child when Plan Norway in January last year sent out information that the work was to be completed. Many had exchanged letters with the same child for years, but had only two weeks to send a final greeting.

Plan Internationals behaviour has chocked a lot of people.
Former employees and recipients of Plan's help in some of Sri Lanka's poorest areas, express to Bistandsaktuelt that it is incomprehensible that Plan could leave thousands of vulnerable children - without ensuring that they were followed up.

And several former employees believe the organization was not informed about the real reasons for choosing to withdraw. Plan struggled with sky-high costs and major internal conflicts. Externally, Plan explained the closing down of it operations by saying that Sri Lanka had had good economic development in the decade after the civil war - and the organization assured the sponsors that the children would be well taken care of.

Former Governor Gunaratne is dismissive of Plan’s explanation.

‘It's a diabolical lie. Plan has misled the sponsors. Poverty is still a huge problem. Plan has simply left a lot of children in a difficult situation, almost over night. As far as I know, none of the projects have been taken over by local organizations.’

Subashini (12) lives in a small, remote village in Monragala in Uva Province, a 5–6 hours’ drive from Colombo, the capital. Both the 12-year-old and her elder sister received help from Plan, but only Subashini had sponsors – a married couple from Japan.

The 12-year-old tells Norad’s online magazine Bistandsaktuelt [Development Update] that she was included in Plan’s sponsorship programme as early as 2013, when she got a place at a preschool. Since then, she has received presents every year from her sponsors, a married couple from Japan. She also received extra tuition in mathematics and Sinhalese.

Subashini (12) was included in a Plan program at the age of five, but after the aid organization withdrew from Sri Lanka last year, both she and her family have lost valuable support. - I would like to thank the Plan sponsors in Japan, says the 12-year-old. Illustration: Pål Dybwik (inspired by a photograph by Shihar Aneez)

‘After Plan pulled out, we’ve lost all the extra support,’ she said when we meet her in the yard outside her home together with her siblings, and her grandmother and mother.

Her mother tells us that in addition to helping the sisters with improved schooling, Plan also helped the family with the building of a latrine. She explains that the family is very poor and she is now struggling to make ends meet – and that this is a threat to the girls’ schooling.

Subashini says she wants to express her deep gratitude to the sponsors.

‘I still have good memories of the time we got little presents from the sponsors. It would be great if Plan could help us again,’ says the 12-year-old.

 

Local authorities: Poverty remains a main challenge

The poor infrastructure is often mentioned as an important reason for Uva’s continuing to be one of the poorest provinces in Sri Lanka. Nine out of ten inhabitants make a living from subsistence agriculture. Among other things, the province has many tea plantations, but little industry. In their development plan for the period 2019-23, the local authorities highlight precisely the widespread and persistent poverty as a considerable problem.

‘The main challenges for Uva are: a high level of poverty and increasing pressure on natural resources due to climate change and other factors,’ it says. The local authorities also point out that Sri Lanka’s economic growth only benefitted the people of Uva to a limited extent. The average household income there is NOK 800–900 kroner per month. For a household with five members, this boils down to only NOK 5–6 per head per day.

Major poverty challenges in Uva were a key reason why Plan Sri Lanka started its work in 1996 in Monaragala – the poorer of Uva’s two districts.

And until recently, the international aid organisation had responsibility for approximately 10 000 sponsored children in the province. The children had sponsors in a wide range of countries such as Norway, Sweden, Germany, Japan and the UK. Over the years, Plan Sri Lanka has done a lot of work in the area. They renovated schools and public health centres, and improved access to clean water and sanitation for thousands of inhabitants. Flooding and drought regularly cause major problems in the area, and Plan has also provided aid in emergency situations. Plan’s programmes, which were mainly funded by sponsors in Norway and other countries, helped the sponsored children and their families, as well as other children and adolescents in the villages.

RIEGER Bertrand / hemis.fr / Hemis / NTB  bus, rain, Bandarawela, TOURISM, Sri Lanka, Southern Asia, People, Incidental People, Outdoors, drink, agriculture, tea, Asia, plantation, road, Uva Province, public transport, Day, Food

Poor infrastructure is often cited as an important reason why Uva is one of the poorest provinces in Sri Lanka. Nine out of ten live on simple agriculture or work on the many tea plantations. Photo: Bertrand Rieger / Hermis / NTB

Like the local authorities, Plan also emphasises in its 2017–21 strategy that Monaragala continues to face huge challenges. For example, the percentage of people living below the poverty line exceeds 20 per cent, almost one-third of children under the age of five are malnourished and girls experience discrimination in education and often do not complete their schooling.

Plan Norge: ‘Some things could possibly have been done better’

Kari Helene Partapuoli, Secretary General of Plan International Norge, says she ‘mainly’ was unfamiliar with the criticism from employees and the high costs in Sri Lanka. She is nevertheless confident that Plan has made a positive contribution to Sri Lanka, but emphasizes that the decision to withdraw from the country was ‘complex’.

SriLanka_Plan_GenSekPartapuoli_iten.jpg

– The overall assessment was that it was no longer possible for us to operate efficiently, she says.

She underlines that Plan are fully aware that challenges remain in Sri Lanka, but the organization concluded that its resources would come to better use in other countries.

‘We are confident that in the 38 years Plan has worked on Sri Lanka the organization has made a significant positive contribution for around 500 000 children in hundreds of villages,’ she says.

Plan also stresses the persistent poverty in some areas such as Monaragala. They point out that those who are poorest have participated in Sri Lanka’s general economic growth to only a small extent, that inequality is a major problem and that the limited resources of the authorities mean that basic services are not available in a number of areas.

The organisation, which plans for a budget of approximately NOK 225 million in its 2017–21 strategy, emphasises that priority will be given to the most vulnerable children under the age of five. Moreover, it is stressed that Plan wants to vulnerable children in particular, including girls and children with a disability.

As recently as the end of September 2019, Plan sent information to its Norwegian sponsors about all the important work the organisation was carrying out in Sri Lanka. The organisation underlined that despite economic progress, ‘there was still a long way to go’. According to the information brochure the Norwegian sponsors received, ‘Many children are malnourished, and this can have a dramatic impact on their development.’

The sponsors also received information about the important work the organisations would carry out in the future. ‘With your support we will continue to ensure that children’s rights are respected,’ Plan writes in the brochure, listing a number of priorities. It ends, ‘These are just a few of the ways your support will continue to play a role in the life of the child you are sponsoring and other children in Sri Lanka. Thank you for all your help.’

However, only 2–3 months after Plan had informed its sponsors of the continued need for help, the organisation abruptly terminated its work in Sri Lanka. Had the poverty suddenly vanished? Did vulnerable and malnourished children no longer need any help?

 

‘Regarded Plan as part of the family’

When Plan decided to terminate its work in the course of a few hectic months at the close of 2019, it informed its sponsors of the decision. In the information provided, Plan emphasised Sri Lanka’s economic growth, and also reassured any concerned sponsors that it had carried out ‘in-depth assessments’. The organisation also explained that aid work would be carried on by ‘local partners’.

However, this is at odds with what the people of Monragala have to say.

Bistandsaktuelt’s Sri Lankan journalist has spoken to around 15 families in several villages in Monaragala. Some had had Plan-sponsored children while others live in villages that have been helped by Plan programmes. He also spoke to teachers, preschool teachers, members of the village committees established by Plan, and officials at grassroot level.

Many say they received good help and support from Plan for many years and are grateful for that. Others are more critical and feel that the help they received meant little, claiming that the children only received a fraction of the amount the sponsors had actually contributed. But everyone our local reporter spoke to says that it was a complete surprise that Plan abruptly terminated its work, and that they do not know why the organisation left the area. Several of the people we spoke to point out that the poorest people, those who received support via Plan’s programmes, are experiencing much greater difficulties after Plan abruptly terminated its work.

And, they say, no local organisations have taken over the projects in the areas we visited – in complete contrast to what Plan promised the sponsors.

A primary school teacher in another village in Monragala, who as a child had received part of his education via a Plan programme, says that the majority of the villagers ‘regarded Plan as part of their own family,’ and that there was at least one Plan-sponsored child in all families.

‘Plan contributed to 90 per cent of the development aid work here. They helped the children and also supported me in my education. With the help of the organisation, the school building was completed just before they left. After Plan left, no one has come to our aid,’ says the preschool teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Bistandsaktuelt has visited 10 villages in the Monaragala district, where Plan has built schools and water and sanitation facilities. In 2019, Plan decided to withdraw completely from Sri Lanka after 38 years of efforts. Photo: Shihar Aneez.

A 42-year-old mother of two children tells us that Plan helped to provide water and sanitation services in the village, in addition to improving the children’s educational opportunities. She says that no other aid organisations have visited the village since Plan left.

‘No one has helped us like Plan. They helped us to improve schools, and assisted unemployed people in starting their own business and make a living. They really did a good job. Just leaving like that, that’s been difficult – a big loss. We had been told by Plan staff that they would continue to help us for five more years, but suddenly they were gone. And no one has told us what happened, why they just left,’ says Lalini (42).

For her 15th birthday, Kalani received a letter from her Swedish ‘sponsor parents’ with a short message wishing the teenager a happy birthday. However, when they visited her earlier that year, they had promised to support Kalani until she had completed higher education.

‘They were only here for half a day, and spent some hours together with my daughter, planted a tree and said they were looking forward to tasting the coconuts next time they came. I got the impression that they genuinely wanted to help. But since they left we’ve only received the one birthday greeting’, Kalani’s father says to Bistandsaktuelt.

He says that in retrospect, he and others in the village doubted Plan’s intentions.

‘They had some good programmes to strengthen the children’s understanding of their own rights. But people gradually started to doubt Plan’s intentions, because the local staff appeared to be more interested in taking photographs of the children than in helping them,’ the father says.

He says he is disappointed that the aid organisation suddenly disappeared.
‘They did not end their projects properly. If they say that they did, I can’t see at any rate that it has benefitted my daughter,’ the father adds.

 

Deceived their sponsors

‘I’m surprised Plan could sink so deep,’ says Maithri Gunaratne to Bistandsaktuelt.

In September 2019, Plan Sri Lanka's Country Director Nadia Noor (in green shirt) signed an agreement on an education project with then Governor Maithri Guneratne (right) in Uva Province. 2-3 months later, Plan International suddenly announced that the organization would no longer work in Sri Lanka. ‘I am shocked. Plan failed the children,’ Guneratne says to Bistandsaktuelt now. Facsimile: Daily News

Gunaratne is a prominent politician and lawyer, and was the governor of Uva up to the end of November 2019. By virtue of his position as governor, he signed a new agreement with Plan as recently as the end of September 2019 that stated that the organisation would contribute around NOK 600 000 to an education project in the province. The project was only a part of Plan’s work.
When Gunaratne signed the agreement, neither he nor his staff had any idea that Plan would terminate its long-standing work in the province just a few months later.

‘I would never have believed that an international organisation that has worked in Sri Lanka for many decades, and has chosen to work in a poor province, would cease its work almost overnight.

Gunaratne har no time for the explanation given by Plan to both the Sri Lankan authorities and sponsors in a number of countries about why the organisation terminated its work in Sri Lanka.

‘It’s a diabolical lie. Plan has deceived its sponsors. There is still major poverty in Uva. Covid-19 and drought have made the situation even worse for many people in rural areas, especially the poorest. Plan has quite simply abandoned a large number of children in a difficult situation completely without notice. As far as I know, none of the projects have been taken over by local organisations.’

Gunaratne also emphasises that Plan’s completely unexpected exit has created considerable problems for the local authorities, which were already struggling with few resources and major challenges.

‘Plan worked in specific areas. We drew up our plans and budgets based on the knowledge that they worked in specific areas, helping people there. When they just packed up and left, that created a whole lot of additional problems locally.’

‘And you received absolutely no notice?’

‘None at all. I completely fail to understand how an organisation can sign an agreement in September, only to leave the area a few months later. I think it will be difficult for other international organisations to work in the same areas, because Plan’s conduct has created great distrust in aid organisations generally.
Gunaratne also criticises how Plan has spent money after leaving Uva.

‘I have been told that they were still spending money on the staff in Colombo long after they terminated their work in Uva. It’s difficult to understand that they choose to prioritise that while terminating their efforts to help poor children,’ he says.

 

‘High costs, low morale’

Bistandsaktuelt has spoken to several former members of staff, and has also been given access to the written case documents. The content of conversations and the documents indicates that there were other reasons for the decision of Plan International’s management to abruptly terminate its work in Sri Lanka than what the organisation had told sponsors and the general public.
In fact, Plan Sri Lanka was an organisation that was struggling with major problems of a serious nature.

Internal turbulence, staff conflicts, claims of harassment. At times, the staff also arranged strikes targeting management.

This had been going on for several years, and top management were aware of the problems. A key source of the unrest and trouble was a major restructuring process initiated by Plan’s management, and spearheaded by Danish CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen. Fairly soon after Albrectsen took up the post in autumn 2015, top management decided that Plan International should focus more on a “rights based approach” and less on service delivery in all countries.
Plan intended to focus on promoting increased awareness of girls’ rights in particular.

This major reorganisation was strongly opposed by many employees in the country where the organisation had worked for almost four decades. An internal report from Plan Sri Lanka in 2019 states that: ‘(…)Management had to deal with staff unrest resulting in strikes/ protest against the new direction the programme was taking.’ Reference is made in particular to opposition from ‘ longer term staff .’

An even more surprising finding in the report is that many employees consider money from sponsors in Norway and other countries as ‘ free money and feel entitled to programme it as it has been done in the past’

The authors of the report also believe that Plan Sri Lanka has ‘ unsustainably high levels of operating costs and the exceptionally low levels of staff morale.’
Internal Plan documents also show that many of the local staff believed that the new rights-based approach of management was not suited to the local situation and did not give poor people in Sri Lanka the help they themselves said that they needed.

Kumari (15) lives in a village without access to clean drinking water. For several years, the 15-year-old received support from Plan, including extra lessons in English. Now the mother says that the family is fighting to make ends meet. ‘Now that Plan has left, there is no one here who can help us anymore,’ Kumari says to Bistandsaktuelt. Illustration: Pål Dybwik (inspired by a photograph by Shihar Aneez)

 

Damning evaluation

The message communicated by several former employees we talked to was that as a result of the internal turbulence, Plan Sri Lanka became a very inefficient organisation. This impression is confirmed by a damning evaluation report produced by the Sri Lankan consultancy firm IPID.

In the initial part of the evaluation, which commenced in autumn 2019 and was completed in January 2020, Plan received good testimonials in several areas, including for its relevance in Sri Lanka. The evaluation states that the organisation has helped to improve the situation of children, and it receives plaudits because the organisation has chosen to work in areas with a ‘large proportion of poor people, where there are challenges associated with malnutrition, health and education.’

Plan International:

  • A non-governmental organization focusing on children's rights. Established in 1937, is headquartered in England and operates in 75 countries.
  • Plan International receives support from sponsors and institutional donors such as Norad. The organization had around NOK 9.5 billion in income in the financial year 2019/2020 and states that it has reached around 50 million children with its work.
  • Plan Norge was established in 1996 and is one of 22 member organizations in Plan International Inc. Today, around 130,000 children have a Norwegian sponsor via Plan Norge. The organization has around 60 employees and in 2018/19 raised around NOK 495 million.
  • Plan Sri Lanka was established in 1981 and had 80-100 employees when the organization closed down towards the end of 2019. The annual budget in recent years was NOK 25-30 million. Most of the income came from sponsors.

But overall the evaluation, which commenced in 2019 but ended in January 2020, was damning in its criticism of Plan Sri Lanka’s work. The consultants reviewed six projects in Uva and found that:


• The administration costs for Plan’s projects paid for by sponsors are ‘extremely’ high: In Uva province Plan spent two kroner for each krone that was used on the projects. In other words, 67 per cent on administration.
• The administration costs for two national projects were 83 and 94 per cent, respectively.

As the consultants writes: ‘the results in some projects are very limited, but the administration costs are still extremely high’.

The report also points out that a number of projects have limited sustainability and will probably grind to a complete halt if Plan stops its work.

As Bistandsaktuelt understands it, the ongoing internal turbulence, and the enormously high costs were the main reasons that the Plan management suddenly decided to withdraw from Sri Lanka. Andy Baker, one of the regional managers in Plan International, issued a warning in 2018 already to the staff of Plan Sri Lanka that the organisation could be closed down unless enough employees agreed to give notice in return for a severance package. Around 35 employees left, and in early 2019 the same manager sent out an e-mail in which he wrote that things were looking much better. In the course of 2019, Plan Sri Lanka again hired a number of people.

But the organisation, whose core values are openness, honesty and transparency, said nothing about internal conflicts and sky-high costs when it withdrew: not to the sponsors, the partners, or the people Plan’s projects were supposed to help. Instead, the grounds given by Plan’s management for its decision to withdraw were the generally positive economic developments in Sri Lanka – and that they could therefore be more useful elsewhere.
‘The grounds for withdrawing that Plan gave to sponsors and the authorities were really just nonsense,’ says one former employee who wishes to remain anonymous.

 

‘They just vanished’

Mother of three Marcha (35) is a sole carer since her husband left her seven years ago. She lives in the far north of Sri Lanka, in the last area held by the Tamil Tiger rebels, where the civil war lasted longest and where there was fighting right up to 2009. The Mullaitivu District is still marked by an extensive military presence, with military checkpoints every four kilometres on the gravel roads – and a population, mainly Tamils, who are used to living in close contact with the government soldiers who are posted here. And the great majority of them live off the land, from hand to mouth, from day to day.

Marcha tells Bistandsaktuelt that representatives of Plan Sri Lanka turned up at her home one day in 2017.

‘They said they wanted to film me and take pictures while I was at my job on a peanut plantation. Then a team arrived, including two foreigners. They filmed me on the way to work, while I worked, and then they followed me home and filmed me here at home. I was given some food, because the filming meant that I lost some working hours. It was a positive experience for me, and I really hoped that Plan’s help would change my life and the lives of my children for the better,’ says the single parent.

When Plan International visited Marcha (35) in Mullaitivu in 2017, it gave her hope for a better future. The single mother was disappointed when she never heard from the organization again. Illustration: Pål Dybwik (inspired by a photograph by Shihar Aneez)

Although Marcha can plant vegetables on her little property, she does not have access to a water supply – which makes it difficult to farm.
‘There is no-one here to help me provide for the children.’

She relates that she has not heard from Plan since that day in 2017.

‘I have been to all the information meetings held by the authorities or aid organisations in recent years. I have asked for help, but since Plan was here in 2017, I have had to manage on my own. I was very hopeful, since Plan spent so much time, and filmed me. It seemed so promising, but I have heard nothing since then,’ says Marcha.

Like Monragala, 350 kilometres further south, the Mullaitivu region is one of the poorest in Sri Lanka. In its development plan for 2018–2022, the local authorities stress that the long-term effects of 30 years of civil war are the reason. It is pointed out that many young people are still traumatised by the war, in addition to the fact that the whole area was hard hit by the tsunami in 2004.

It was because of the poverty that Plan Sri Lanka began to phase in to this area in 2017/2018. The organisation’s own plans state that over 20 per cent of the population are very poor, and that 36 per cent of children under the age of five are malnourished. Stunting – deficient mental and physical development because of malnutrition – is noted to be a big problem.

Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP / NTB

When the last «battle» between Tamil Tigers and government forces took place in Mullaitivu in 2009, 26 years of civil war were over. Mullaitivu, where Plan began engaging in 2017, is one of the poorest areas in Sri Lanka. Until the late summer of 2019, the organization registered over 1000 vulnerable children who needed help, but the work stopped when Plan chose to withdraw completely from Sri Lanka later that year. The photo is from May 2009. Due to the continued large military presence, it was difficult for Bistandsaktuel's journalist to take photos when he visited the area in April this year. Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP / NTB

Plan established a field office in Mullaitivu in 2018. The international aid organisation hired people, launched projects and made a thorough survey of the needs of the most vulnerable children and families in the area. In the late summer of 2019, between 1000 and 1500 children were recruited for sponsorship, according to former employees, but then Plan Sri Lanka suddenly stopped its work.

Bistandsaktuelt has spoken to several former employees, who all wish to remain anonymous because of their present employment. They are highly critical of the fact that Plan left the area without any kind of notice.

Local authorities: ‘Plan did not follow the regulations’

Poverty remains a major problem in Mullaitivu, the area where the last battle of the civil war took place in May 2009. This is confirmed by K. Vimalanathan, District Secretary of the National Government of Mullaitivu, in a written response:

‘There are 44,377 families in Mullaitivu, of which 31,600 families live below the poverty line,’ he writes, pointing out that the need for help is great, especially in the education sector.

He also writes that Plan did not follow the formal rules for reporting to local authorities in Mullaitivu, and that local authorities therefore do not have a lot of facts about what the organization did.

He points out that it created problems when the organization suddenly left Mullaitivu, that poor people contacted the authorities because they did not understand why the organization suddenly left. He has one message for Norwegian donors: ‘Please kindly convey our regards to the people of Norway for their Humanitarian assistance for the people of Sri Lanka. Before financing any organizations, the financing agencies should about verify the particular NGO's previous activities and genuineness.’

‘It’s a contradiction in terms to spend vast resources on phasing into an area one year because the need is great, and then suddenly stop the following year. This area is dirt poor. Claiming positive developments in the national economy is totally meaningless. That Plan suddenly left must have been a shock to all those who had received promises of help,’ says one former employee that Bistandsaktuelt spoke to.

Another former employee is of the view that Plan did a lot of good work for many years, but that the conflicts between some employees and the management of Plan Sri Lanka were destructive.

‘Plan was a good organisation, but the management discovered too late how they were being obstructed. No organisation can tolerate 60–70 per cent of the money going to administration. There was great need in the north. Plan could have made a difference in Mullaitivu, they could really have helped people. But because of internal problems, conflicts between the management and some local employees, everything was shut down before it really got going.’

 

‘Lost faith in aid organisations’

One of Plan’s former local project coordinators in Mullaitivu tells Bistandsaktuelt that many people have lost faith in aid organisations following Plan’s abrupt disappearance. She says Plan was already busy selecting Sri Lankan children who were to receive support from sponsors in various countries.

‘We gathered data in nine villages on the basis of three criteria, including poverty. Plan asked us to gather information about various families’ access to water and sanitation services, and the children's access to education. After we had gathered this information and delivered it to head office, we never heard from them again.’

She relates that some local employees who worked for Plan were subsequently contacted by the local people. They wondered why no projects were ever initiated.

‘As it was local Plan employees who met the local people and gathered the information, we are the ones who are now getting all the questions. But I don't know what happened. When I talked to the regional Plan manager to ask what had happened, he told me that he did not work for Plan any longer. What I can say with certainty is that a lot of people have now lost faith that aid organisations come to help.’

Maithili (30) lives in a half-finished shack at the edge of Mullaitivu town.

Although her husband works as a bricklayer, there are only bricks in parts of the walls. One wall is a sheet of fabric, and there is corrugated iron on the roof. The 30-year-old tells Bistandsaktuelt that the little family struggles to make ends meet, and says that was what she told Plan’s representatives when they visited the family in 2017.

‘They took pictures of us, and the way they talked to us gave us hope for the future. But we haven't heard from Plan since, and we are still waiting for them to come back and help us.’

Maithili (30) lives in a half-finished shed on the outskirts of Mullaitivu town. She says that she and her husband are struggling to make ends meet, and that this was the message to Plan representatives when they visited the family in 2017. The mother of two thought Plan had come to help, and says she is disappointed. ‘They took pictures of us. Plan gave us hope, but we are still waiting for their help.’ Illustration: Pål Dybwik (inspired by a photograph by Shihar Aneez)

 

Former Plan director: ‘Cynical and irresponsible’

One person who knows better than most what the reasons underlying Plan’s withdrawal were, is Sunadari Jayasuriya. She was deputy country director for programme work in Plan Sri Lanka’s programme, and worked in the organisation's management for three turbulent years.

‘The closure hit around 20 000 children hard. Plan suddenly decided to discontinue all aid work, without informing the children and their families in vulnerable local communities. It is shocking that a respected organisation like Plan can treat children they are supposed to help like that,’ she says to Bistandsaktuelt.

Plan Sri Lanka worked here. The dark brown areas have been visited by Bistandsaktuelt. The shaded fields are other areas in which Plan International had programmes. Illustration: Pål Dybwik

Jayasuriya is a lawyer who was educated at King’s College, London, and has previously worked for the aid organisations Oxfam and World Vision,and for the EU. The experienced aid worker gave notice to Plan Sri Lanka in autumn 2019, just before the organisation closed down, and is highly critical of her former employer.

Jayasuriya is suing Plan, but stresses that the case, which is being dealt with in the Sri Lankan courts, concerns her rights as employee. She points out that in the present connection her criticism is not about Plan as employer, but about how the organisation has treated people it was supposed to help, and those who support the organisation – Plan sponsors in Norway and a number of other countries.

In her opinion, the international aid organisation chose the solution that was ‘easiest’, instead of dealing with the problems in a responsible, open manner. She describes Plan’s sudden exit as highly unprofessional and unethical.

‘Children from poor, vulnerable families were put in a very difficult situation,’ says Jayasuriya.

She also feels that Plan was dishonest with its sponsors in Norway and other countries, and maintains that the information that Plan gave them about the reasons for the sudden exit were not true.

‘The explanation given, with reference to the positive economic developments in Sri Lanka, and that Plan’s work had achieved its goals, is grossly misleading. There is still great need in a number of the areas where Plan worked, and it is quite impossible to justify such an abrupt withdrawal,’ says Jayasuriya.
In her view, the management of Plan International have behaved in a cynical manner.

‘I know that some sponsors were shocked when they could no longer support the children, both over the way they were informed, and by the fact that all contact with their sponsored children was suddenly cut off. In my opinion, it shows that the Plan management totally lacked empathy, and showed no consideration for the feelings of the children or of the sponsors. That is not the way an international sponsorship organisation should behave,’ says Jayasuriya.

‘Plan International must tidy up behind them’

The former assistant country director maintains that Plan International must now accept responsibility and sort out the chaos the aid organisation left behind it.

Editorial note on Bistandsaktuelt´s methology:

  • Bistandsaktuelt has collaborated with a local Sri Lankan journalist, and has interviewed a number of people in a vulnerable life situation. Criticism has been warned that criticizing Plan can create conflicts locally. To make sure that those we have interviewed do not have problems, we have chosen to use other names of those we have interviewed who previously received support from Plan. But Bistandsaktuelt knows the identity of everyone who is mentioned and speaks out. We have also had in-depth conversations with former Plan employees who wish to remain anonymous. Bistandsaktuelt does not usually use anonymous sources. In this case, however, we have chosen to do so, because we believe that what they convey - and which is supported by written sources - is important.

It is the poor people in the areas in which Plan worked that Jayasuriya is most concerned about. She relates that she notified Plan’s senior management in the UK about this, and asked Plan to perform a thorough review of the shutdown in Sri Lanka. The former Plan employee says that it is Plan's lack of consideration for the recipients and lack of openness that upsets her most.

‘The organisation has spent large sums on the pay packages of international employees and international consultants who were brought to Sri Lanka. Now they should instead spend money on helping the vulnerable children who suddenly lost all support. The pandemic has made the situation even more difficult, and Plan could really have helped people in the poorest areas now,’ she says.

She believes Plan’s management should be honest about why they withdrew.

‘The international management should accept responsibility and explain why Plan suddenly left Sri Lanka. The sponsors in particular have a right to know this. That would make it easier for the authorities or another organisation to fill the gaps Plan left behind it. Plan should also be honest for the sake of the credibility of international organisations. That credibility was severely undermined by the irresponsible manner in which Plan left Sri Lanka,’ she says.

Are you a Plan-sponsor?

Bistandsaktuelt would like to get in touch if you have supported a child via Plan's sponsor program in Sri Lanka. Feel free to contact us by email or phone for a completely non-committal chat:

  • Tor.Aksel.Bolle@norad.no / +47 996 17 612
  • Espen.Rost@norad.no / +47 900 76 847

Jayasuriya is also critical of Plan Norway and other national Plan organisations that had sponsors with sponsored children in Sri Lanka.

‘I am not certain how much Plan Norway and the other national Plan organisations knew about what went on in Sri Lanka. But even if they didn't know everything, they must have realised that something was wrong when Plan suddenly withdrew the way they did. It’s a breach of Plan's own rules for phasing out of a country. As far as I know, not a single national organisation, not Plan Norway nor any of the others, contacted Plan Siri Lanka to hear what happened to the children who were abandoned. I really hope that sponsored children in other countries do not experience anything of the kind. It is highly reprehensible,’ she says.

The ex-governor of Uva province, Maithri Gunaratne, is also of the view that Plan International should spend some of its considerable revenues on tidying up behind them so that the poor in Plan’s project areas receive proper treatment. If they don’t, he feels that the authorities in countries where the organisation collects money, such as Norway, must take steps.

‘Plan should send people here to ensure that the organisation keeps its promises to the poor people in the areas where they worked. If Plan does not do that, the EU or national authorities should penalise the organisation,’ says Gunaratne.

  • Translated by Beverley Wahl and Jennifer Follestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.
  • Original text available here.
Publisert: 19.05.2021 11.00.19 Sist oppdatert: 21.05.2021 10.42.23