At WEF in Vietnam, Plan International CEO puts sexual harassment on the agenda

Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International. Photo by: Sikarin Thanachaiary / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

HANOI, Vietnam — Leaders across sectors need to start examining their own unconscious bias, Plan International CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen told attendees of the World Economic Forum ASEAN. The small, 30-minute breakout session on sexual harassment was a first for a WEF regional meeting, which host private sector power players, high-level government officials, and a handful of development professionals at gatherings around the world each year.

The topic is a familiar one for Albrectsen, who took the helm at Plan in 2015. She is currently leading a revamp of the child rights organization’s approach to safeguarding its beneficiaries as well as its 10,000 staff members across 80 countries. As co-chair of WEF on ASEAN, Albrectsen took the opportunity to raise a few ideas “that we felt could be quite both topical and interesting for them to discuss,” Albrectsen told Devex at the forum. About 20 people, most of them women, attended the session held in a nook by the coffee stand.

“We’ve met many, many private sector partners here that have said it’s really great to see it’s on the agenda,” she said. “I’ve also met a few that have said ‘[sexual harassment] is not a problem,’ so that just validates why it’s necessary.”

In February, Plan publicly reported six cases of sexual abuse and child exploitation committed by staff or associates between July 2016-June 2017. In the same 12-month period, there were nine incidences of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by staff on other adults.

The disclosure came on the heels of a wave of sexual abuse and exploitation allegations made against the aid sector, causing many organizations to re-evaluate the way they protect beneficiaries and staff. Plan International UK is among the charities — including Save the Children UK and Oxfam GB — to have signed a letter pledging a series of "urgent and immediate" measures, including more resources for safeguarding.

“Sexual harassment or any type of bullying really is abuse of power.”

—  Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO, Plan International

In examining their own internal structure, Albrectsen was glad to find robust reporting mechanisms and stringent standards in place for child protection that far predated her leadership: “We can go back and look 10, 15 years and see that whenever we had found any kind of abuse of beneficiaries, the actions that the organization had taken were really consistent and clear, and we have them documented,” she said.

The level of oversight and scrutiny of sexual harassment or bullying in the workplace, however, wasn't nearly as strong. Some of Plan’s efforts in the past six months have involved hiring a full-time employee to translate the rigorous reporting and procedures in place for child protection into workplace-focused policies. The organization is training dedicated staff around the world to better manage investigations into sexual harassment, and asked all employees to sign a strengthened code of conduct.

As a leader, Albrectsen wants to promote transparency of their practices rather than to hide behind defensiveness of any failings. Perhaps even more importantly, she said, is the introduction of an ongoing internal conversation about power and privilege in their workplace culture: “Sexual harassment or any type of bullying really is abuse of power,” she said.

Plan’s leadership team and international board will receive training in unconscious bias. It’s a conversation Albrectsen plans to continue both within the organization’s halls and outside of them, considering the aid sector isn’t alone in its shortcomings or efforts to stamp out misconduct.

There are three main thoughts that will cross the mind of any private, public, or nonprofit senior manager when confronted with a case of sexual abuse or any abuse of power, she said.

“You'll be thinking obviously about the victim … There will also be that nagging thought that maybe somebody has been wrongfully accused or that somehow your due process system isn't correct … then you'll be thinking about the organization's reputation.”

It’s when an organization doesn’t understand which of these thoughts should take top priority that they run into trouble, she told Devex. “The only way to protect both your staff and to get your systems right, and address your reputation is to put the victim first. You cannot have a question in your mind. You've got to get your value system straight.”

Plan will continue strengthening internal procedures in the coming months, and Albrectsen expects an uptick in the number of sexual abuse reports as a result of stronger mechanisms. Already, several “historic” cases have come to light, she said. There is opportunity for WEF to continue to provide space to discuss the topic as well — perhaps in a bigger hall next time, she said.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.