In wake of safeguarding scandal, IPPF approves organizational overhaul

A scene from the 2019 International Planned Parenthood Federation general assembly in New Delhi, India. Photo by: IPPF

LONDON — Six months after it was plunged into crisis over allegations of safeguarding failures and fraud, the International Planned Parenthood Federation has approved sweeping reforms to its governance and financial systems that senior leaders say will make the organization more agile, transparent, and effective.

At a meeting in New Delhi last weekend, representatives from IPPF’s 134 member associations agreed to a comprehensive overhaul, which includes replacing the charity’s existing governing council with an executive committee to be made up of a smaller number of independently appointed and more diverse trustees, and stripping the group’s six regional councils of their decision-making powers.

Members also agreed to change IPPF’s resource-allocation model — which has not been updated in more than 20 years — to make funding decisions more transparent and effective.

“IPPF’s integrity was at stake and our ability to serve people was becoming compromised ... because the old structures were not allowing the organisation to fully realise its potential.”

— Mina Barling, director of external relations, IPPF

The changes will lead IPPF, which is the world’s largest sexual health charity, to be “more agile, transparent and … will better serve the women and girls we are here for,” IPPF President Rana Abu Ghazaleh said in a press release.

Donors and sexual health advocates have welcomed the shake-up, which comes after an intense review initiated by IPPF in mid-May following allegations of sexual misconduct, fraud, and bullying involving Lucien Kouakou, former Africa regional director at the organization, and claims that IPPF leadership had sanctioned the hiring of prostitutes at charity functions.

The controversy triggered a crisis within the organization. IPPF Director-General Alvaro Bermejo and one other senior director resigned in early May, and members of the Western Hemisphere region, which includes 54 member associations, also threatened to leave the federation unless reforms took place.

Frustrated donors, such as the governments of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, demanded rapid changes to IPPF’s governance and financial systems and convinced Bermejo to withdraw his resignation to oversee the process. Bermejo set up two independent task forces, which came up with recommendations that were then adopted by IPPF’s members states and endorsed by its governing council in India last weekend.

Under the new governance structure, IPPF will be led by an independently appointed executive board made up of nine regional trustees and six appointed for their skills and experience. Half of the board will be women, and one-fifth of members must be under 25 years old. In an effort to address what the reform task forces described as "conflict and lack of trust between global and regional levels," IPPF's six regional councils will be downgraded to “regional forums” with no formal governance role. A General Assembly, with representatives from all IPPF’s 134 members, will meet every three years to review and approve strategy and scrutinize the board and the executive.

The charity is also introducing a new resource-allocation model to target more funding at people and countries “most at risk of being left behind” and allocate less to higher-income countries than in the past, according to an official document on the outcome of last weekend’s meeting.

Sexual and reproductive health sector advocates welcomed the changes, which they said will help overcome the decades-old organization’s previously cumbersome governance system.

“At this time of attacks on women’s health and rights, the world needs a very strong IPPF that is agile and can respond to these needs. That is what this reorganization has done,” Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen told Devex.

The changes will “strengthen IPPF’s effectiveness,” Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and former administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, wrote on Instagram. On Twitter, Sharman Stone, an external adviser to IPPF’s governing council and a former member of Australia’s parliament, called it a “new era” for family planning.

Via Twitter.

Donors have also welcomed the reforms. A spokesperson for the U.K. Department for International Development, which was criticized for continuing to fund IPPF while the safeguarding case against Kouakou was being investigated, described the changes as “necessary” to ensure that the charity meets DFID’s “high standards in preventing, investigating, and responding to sexual harassment, abuse, and fraud.”

The organizational and financial reforms come alongside safeguarding and whistleblowing reforms introduced earlier in the year. IPPF has also set up an independent panel to hear complaints against senior staff and trustees and also appeals.

‘We all knew the organization needed reform’

While the Kouakou allegations forced the family-planning NGO to reform, senior management in London and a number of member associations had been trying to change the federation for years, with efforts blocked by “regional politics,” an insider who asked to remain anonymous told Devex.

Bermejo’s predecessor, Tewodros Melesse, tried to reform the governing council in 2016 by adding six new advisers, hired for their skills and not to represent a region. However, the advisers lacked voting rights and thus had no power, the insider told Devex.

Furthermore, a presentation by one of the task forces in October 2019 refers to “IPPF not working effectively as a Federation” and to “conflict and lack of trust between global and regional levels,” among other issues. These problems were in danger of making IPPF ineffective, according to a senior official in the global SRHR community who spoke to Devex on condition of anonymity.

“We all knew the organization needed reform … IPPF was on the edge of becoming invisible and conservative … because it had been without strong leadership for so long,” the senior official said.

Mina Barling, IPPF’s director of external relations who offered to quit alongside Bermejo in May but later withdrew her resignation once the reform process had been agreed, said that the charity had been in crisis, and praised donors, clients, and partners for pulling together to save the organization.

“IPPF’s integrity was at stake and our ability to serve people was becoming compromised ... because the old structures were not allowing the organisation to fully realise its potential,” Barling told Devex in an email.

The external relations director, who joined IPPF at the same time as Bermejo, said she offered her resignation in May because she “felt that the Federation in its current state was not fit for purpose, and that it had also an obligation to keep everyone safe and focused on its mission,” she told Devex.

She praised IPPF’s donors for sticking by the charity and trusting it to turn things around, saying she hoped it would inspire others to be open about their challenges.

“The donors’ reaction to the crisis and their commitment to this next phase — giving us the support and the space to make changes — was critical. I hope it will encourage other organisations struggling with the same issues to also make reforms,” Barling said.

But IPPF is not out of the woods, and it has just six months to recruit its new board of trustees. In the meantime, the charity is being run by a transition committee led by current New Zealand board member Andreas Prager. The committee will hire a recruitment firm to select the 15 new trustees and also work on finalizing the new resource-allocation structure.

“There’s lots of work to be done in the next six months and keeping the same momentum and pace will be key,” Barling added.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.