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Lessons from Sri Lanka

25 June 2021
How we are learning from the mistakes we made when closing our Sri Lanka operations in 2019. By Gunvor Kronman, Chair, Plan International

In 2019, Plan International made the tough decision to close our office in Sri Lanka. During our 38 years in the country, we supported more than 500,000 children and their families in five provinces and hundreds of villages, managing projects to improve education, to combat violence against children and to promote equality.

The decision to cease work in Sri Lanka was because of a number of factors which seriously impacted our ability to work effectively. These included operating and management failures in a complex environment  and the inability to transform into a rights-based development organisation that aligned with Plan International’s global purpose and ambition.

Rapidly increasing operating costs were an additional factor. It is not unusual for countries with relatively small budgets, which was the case for Plan International in Sri Lanka, to have higher than average administration cost ratios because it is harder to secure economies of scale. However, in Sri Lanka specifically, we incurred additional costs relating to increased security, severance payments arising from a restructure, coupled with decreased funding from donors as the country’s position on the global Human Development Index improved.

While we believe our decision to exit from Sri Lanka was the best course of action given the circumstances, in retrospect it is clear that we made a number of mistakes during the exit process. Security concerns – including staff safety - was a major factor in the haste of our departure, and we regret not having been more forthcoming about this at the time.

We are truly sorry and apologise to the children, communities, donors, staff and partners involved in our work in Sri Lanka who feel that we left abruptly and that our communication at the time was not sufficient or effective.

It is very rare that we have to take the decision to exit from a country but given the legitimate concerns about the way we left Sri Lanka, we have undertaken a rigorous internal review of our practices and protocols to learn vital lessons to avoid such mistakes happening again, and to improve how we plan for such a scenario in the future.

Important conclusions drawn from the review process include:

  • the need to formally define the essential criteria for leaving a country, including allowing sufficient time for the exit process to be effectively planned and implemented
  • the importance of formalising how sponsored children, their families and wider communities are supported in the event of a transition out of a country
  • the need for more effective and transparent communications with sponsored children and their communities, with sponsors and donors, and within our organisation. 

We understand the need, and share the desire, to be fully trusted as an organisation, and are committed to learning in order to keep improving. We remain resolute as an organisation to learn from this chapter in our history so that we can best support the children and young people we work with globally.