I began a new journey in May this year (2016), tracing two long arcs:
- Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall, what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers. I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
- Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it like in the sector as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
This time, I want to describe a little bit about what it was like beginning to work in Plan’s Field Office in Tuluá, Colombia. But first…
After getting up to the top of Mt Flume, bruised and a bit bloodied by the long ascent up the slippery granite rock face, we descended slightly and then climbed up to the summit of Mt Liberty. Walking along Franconia Ridge Trail, the views were spectacular.
There was still a little bit of snow and ice in the saddle between Flume and Liberty, having been packed down by winter and early-spring hikers. (But nothing like I had dealt with on Mt Tom and Mt Field.) At the top of Mt Liberty, we could see many of the peaks that I will be climbing in coming weeks and months, that I will be describing in this series: on the west side of Franconia Notch, there were North and South Kinsman and Cannon; on the east side, where we were, we could see Garfield, Owl’s Head, North and South Twin, and the Bonds. Just ahead, Lincoln and Lafayette loomed – for another day.
Soon after reaching the top of Mt Liberty, Eric and I took a left turn and re-joined Liberty Spring Trail, which forms part of the Appalachian Trail here. We passed the busy Liberty Spring Tentsite (we were walking on a summer holiday weekend, crossing lots of folks coming up Liberty Spring Trail to the tentsite), and then back into the White Mountains forest for the long walk back to the parking lot.
Doing Flume and Liberty in one long day was the way to go, but it was exhausting, mainly due to effort involved in ascending the steep granite face of Mt Flume. Far better to do it counter-clockwise, as we did, because coming down Mt Flume would have been even more challenging than going up…I’m writing here about climbing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers. After a brief description of each hike, I reflect a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 32 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, and experiences along the way. This is my fifth blog of the series; over the next months, I hope to share thoughts in 43 more posts. We’ll see how that goes!
Over the next few entries in this series, I’m going to share what it was like to join Plan International, and live in Colombia, in the late 1980’s. These were very formative, exciting times for that international NGO, and for Jean and me. As I will describe, it was also an extremely challenging time for the nation of Colombia – somehow it’s very apt that, as I write this, a landmark peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the biggest remaining guerrilla group, the FARC, has just been signed. The FARC were very active in the area around Tuluá, where we lived in the late 1980’s … but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Jean and I were married in Massachusetts in October, 1985, on my only trip out of Ecuador during two years in the Peace Corps. When I finished up in Azogues and left Ecuador, I joined her in Somerville, eventually getting what turned out to be my last engineering job, at Tecogen in Waltham. It was a very good job, working with Leo Smolensky and Fred
Becker to design and build a prototype home-heating system using coal-water slurry. Those were days of high gasoline prices, and it was felt that burning an abundant, clean resource instead of oil was a good idea. But although grinding the coal into fine particles made removing the sulphur from it, and adding water made it relatively easy to pump and (in principle) distribute, it wasn’t easy to burn something that was 85% water!
I remember trying various paint-sprayers in the Tecogen parking lot early in the project, just getting a feeling for the slurry and how it would burn. The slurry was so corrosive that sprayer nozzles lasted only a few minutes. But we learned a lot, and were able to get the prototype to work stably for a visit from the US Department of Energy, who had contracted Tecogen to develop the prototype system. One of the DOE visitors told us he had never actually seen the coal-water slurry burn sustainably, so we were proud!
I experienced some “culture shock” returning to the US, reentering my native country. Just the scale of affluence, of consumer choice, was initially bewildering. In Azogues, for example, there had been two kinds of bread, just two kinds: two Sucre bread, and three Sucre bread, sold in small bakeries in town. (The “Sucre” was Ecuador’s currency until, a decade later, in the midsts of very high levels of inflation, they adopted the US dollar.) The only difference between the two kinds of bread, other than the price, was the size!
During my first week back in the US, I went to our local Somerville supermarket to buy bread. There was a whole aisle of bread! – white, whole wheat, oat, rye, etc., etc., etc. I got confused with the huge selection – after all, I was used to a choice of two kinds of bread, and was happy with that choice!! – so I just grabbed a loaf, any loaf, and went home. It was too much to deal with, in my culture-shocked condition.
Turned out I had grabbed a loaf of raisin bread, which was not what I needed.
Soon I re-adapted to the US, but it was a challenge!
I had been working at Tecogen for nearly a year when Plan International, the NGO that I wrote about earlier, got in touch, and that led to a very significant fork in the road for Jean and me.
Like many international NGOs in the mid-1980’s, Plan was expanding rapidly. This growth was mainly due to the massive public response to food shortages in the horn of Africa. Initiatives such as Live Aid and “We Are The World” had raised awareness of poverty in general, and of the situation in Ethiopia in particular, which led to a very strong increase in public response.
As a result, many international NGOs were able to scale up their programs in the late 1980’s. This figure illustrates the vertiginous growth that Plan was about to experience, more than quadrupling in size in ten years:
(Data for this figure are from Plan’s Annual Reports of the time; the figure is from an article I wrote some years later, which will be the subject of another blog later in this series.)
One consequence of this growth was that INGOs were becoming large businesses, with large budgets; risks were growing along with budgets. Boards began to insist on systems and controls, and we started to see much more focus on efficiency and accountability. At around this time, not coincidentally, we started to see senior executives come into the sector from the business world, bringing management approaches from the business world.
Plan was no exception, with a range of initiatives underway, as I’ll describe below. One way that Plan was handling its growth was by setting up regional offices. This was very lucky for me, because the launch meeting for the first Region – being established in South America, with the Regional Office to be located in Quito, Ecuador – was taking place at Plan’s headquarters in Rhode Island, and Annuska Heldring, their Field Director in Cañar, attended. Annuska, who figures centrally in the last two blogs of this series (here, and here), and I had stayed in touch after I left Ecuador, so Jean and I drove down from Somerville to Rhode Island to have dinner with Annuska one evening during the launch meeting.
It was great seeing Annuska, and soon after that dinner I was contacted by Plan – was I interested in coming down to Rhode Island for an interview? Annuska was working behind the scenes!
A few weeks later I went down to East Greenwich for an interview, which led to an offer to join Plan as “Assistant Director” at their Field Office in Tumaco, Colombia. Jean and I were excited at the opportunity, and so I accepted the offer immediately, moving away from engineering without looking back – to a life and and what became thirty years in international development.
After I accepted that job offer, however, Plan got back in touch, asking if we would be willing to go to Tuluá, Colombia, instead of Tumaco. Although I had travelled through Colombia years before, and must have passed through Tuluá in a bus, I didn’t have much of a sense of the two places, so we said “sure, why not!” It was all the same to us…
Later I came to understand why they made the change: Plan’s new CEO (then called International Executive Director, IED), Alberto Neri, was pushing the organisation to change very rapidly, in part as a response to growth prompted by the situation in Ethiopia, and several major initiatives were being pilot tested in 13 Field Offices in South America.
One of those pilot offices was in Tuluá. The idea was to add capacity to those offices so, in July, 1987, Jean and I flew to Cali, Colombia to begin what became 15 fantastic and formative years with Plan.
Alberto Neri, an Italian, had recently joined Plan, from the private sector. (Rumour had it that he had been manager of a high-tech valve production facility…) This was, of course, consistent with broader trends in the sector at the time, bringing in senior staff from the private sector to “professionalize” our organizations as they grew.
Alberto is on the right in this photo, taken at a meeting just after I joined Plan:
Replacing Plan’s beloved IED, George Ross, who was a social worker by training and had risen through the ranks, Alberto was an outsider with an abrasive and somewhat authoritarian streak. Or maybe it was just that he was from the business world and the rest of us were development hippies…
Although Alberto’s priorities, as I came to experience them from the Field Office perspective, made a lot of sense, and even though, as I came to get to know him personally (much later), we got along well, there was clearly a big clash of cultures going on. Plan was a family, and George Ross was the father; Alberto viewed Plan as a business that needed systems and accountability, and staff were employees, not family.
But all of that was far away from Jean and me, as we arrived in Tuluá.
In addition to being part of Plan’s first region – getting set up in Quito, covering South America, and led by Plan’s first Regional Director, Andy Rubi – the main focus for the 13 pilot offices was the implementation of four new systems, all aimed at enabling our offices (and, once the pilot period was completed, all of Plan) to handle the growth we were experiencing efficiently and effectively, with strong financial control.
Underspending was a big problem in Plan during those days, with surpluses building up, particularly from operations in India. This was a potential risk – why should the public support an organization that couldn’t spend the money it already had? Alberto felt that Plan’s Field Offices overall needed to do a much better job in planning their work to make budgeting more accurate and to enhance the quality of implementation.
From my perspective, as I joined Plan, he was right – so one of the new systems we were testing was focused on Planning and Budgeting. (Later, when I went to Plan’s headquarters as program director, we would deal with the accumulation of surpluses in a more robust way – more on that later!)
This focus on planning and budgeting fit in well with my own background as an engineer, so I was very comfortable with it. Along with Plan’s new Planning and Budgeting software (we were testing the second version – “PB2”), I introduced project-planning methods and tools such as Gantt Charts, helping staff plan and track projects better and more accurately. Our great staff in Tuluá embraced these tools with great enthusiasm.
Complementing “PB2” was a new general ledger system, “FS2”. Before this, Plan’s accounting system was manual; FS2 was the first computerized accounting system introduced into the organization. It was meant to import data from PB2, and would then be able to produce a range of budget and actual reports at the end of each quarter. The idea was that these tools would enable offices to better plan and implement their budgets.
In 1987, Plan lacked a number of HR systems that were common in the private sector, such as a consistent way of establishing job descriptions, modern performance appraisal processes, and an approach to career development, etc. Alberto pushed Plan to professionalize all of these practices, and set up support structures in headquarters and the Quito Regional Office to help. In Tuluá we tested these new HR systems, starting with job-task analysis and moving into job design, and job grading and remuneration systems.
(One fantastic HR system that Plan did have was new-staff orientation, at least for new expatriate staff. It was so good, in fact, that I’ve shared the training package that I went through in 1987 as a model several times in my career since, in other organizations that were creating orientation materials, but nobody has come close to creating anything this good. Here is a scanned copy of the main section of that package, dating from December, 1985: Plan – AD Training Manual – 1985.
Why do I think this package is so good? It’s thorough and concrete, and demanding, in a good way: you had to actually carry out all of the key tasks in the Field Office, physically, yourself, and get your manage to sign off. So, once you had gone through the training process, over at most six months, you were actually ready to manage and support that particular function in the Field Office, because you had done it yourself. No other orientation package I’ve seen since prepared new staff so thoroughly to be competent at the basic functions of the office they were joining.
Finally, note the reference to growth on the first page of the package, consistent with the driver that I’m emphasizing in this article:
“There is a push to complete this project (the orientation) as soon as you can because of growth. We need FDs (Field Directors). We will consider an AD (Assistant Director) for FD after 18 months.”)
Ann Kerrigan-Amaral and Meredith Richardson were leading the HR modernization from Plan’s headquarters, very effectively.
Plan had a good approach to setting strategy at Field Office level, but didn’t have a system to measure impact, so the agency put resources into developing and rolling out the “Field Office Evaluation System” – FOES. This involved establishing a “baseline” situation in the population we served, remeasuring the same set of indicators three years later, and then comparing and analyzing any changes.
Most of these new systems were computerized, so all 13 pilot Field Offices received two of the new-fangled IBM Personal Computers that had just entered the marketplace. Here’s a photo of our new computer room with one of our new IBM “AT” machines:
As our 13 pilot offices began to pilot test these new systems, much stricter financial controls were rolled out across the entire organization. Now, for example, delegations of authority were put in place so that, for example, Field Directors could only sign contracts up to certain levels, beyond which staff in the Regional Office had to get involved.
And Alberto was pushing Plan to become more efficient, setting a target that was called “70/20/10”: this meant that, over time, at least 70% of our budgets had to go towards “tangible benefits” in communities; at most 20% would go to staffing costs; and at most 10% would be for other, administrative costs such as office rent, transportation, etc.
This was a good goal, because (from my perspective) Plan was spending too much money on itself those days, and even early on in my time I could see that there were certainly ways we could be more efficient. But messaging and implementation were both counter-productive: the new ratios were set without much discussion (at least that I was aware of), and seemed arbitrary. Especially, counting staff as purely an overhead cost was wrong and counter-productive, leading to “creative accounting” in some cases. Program staff should have been counted as part of the program, surely. (We made that change later…)
Over time, we were able to achieve Alberto’s goal of 70% tangible benefits. But, as leadership changed and (well-intentioned) priorities shifted, the situation deteriorated again, and by 2009 these ratios were quite a bit worse than they had been before Alberto’s time.
Overall, however, the 70/20/10 goal was healthy, as were Alberto’s initiatives in general. His approach to implementing them, and his interpersonal skills, however, let him down and created upheaval at headquarters.
Being one of the 13 pilot offices was a great opportunity – for Plan Tuluá, for the staff, and for me. I certainly learned a lot about financial accountability, and business systems and controls, which I wouldn’t have learned as early or as quickly elsewhere. Like my two years in Azogues, I was in the right place at the right time to learn and grow quickly.
But there were drawbacks. PB2 and, especially, FS2 were both very buggy. Plan wasn’t really set up to build software, to say the least, and on several occasions, the FS2 database became corrupted (through no fault of the Plan Tuluá accounting staff) and all transactions for the fiscal year had to be re-entered. That was a lot of work, and frustrations built as the systems failed several times.
I feel very fortunate to have joined Plan, and to have gone to Tuluá. To a great extent, this was because of my new manager – Monique van’t Hek, Plan’s Field Director there.
I would come to learn a great deal from Monique, who was a dynamic and smart leader and manager, with very strong organizational and social skills. She was able to build close relationships and strong loyalty, while also maintaining clear and unquestioned authority. A difficult balancing act, which she did very well.
Here’s a photo of Monique and I, with a couple of other Plan staff members (Lijia and Narda), at a meeting:
One of Monique’s greatest achievements in Tuluá, of many, was the creation of what became “Barrio Internacional.” When I arrived in Tuluá, Monique was already working with a large group of around 200 single mothers, helping them get organized to obtain financial support from the Colombian government to help build their own homes.
Over the next three years, Monique worked patiently and carefully with this group, helping them raise funds step-by-step, purchase a large plot of land on the periphery of Tuluá, design a model for their new homes, learn how to be carpenters or carpenters’ assistants, and build their own houses. I watched Monique in action, as she met every week in the evenings, building the solidarity and confidence of this group of very poor and vulnerable women – progressing through the stages of what was a very ambitious project.
The new neighborhood became a reality a year or so after Monique left Plan Tuluá, after I had stepped into her shoes as Field Director. My own contributions to the Barrio Internacional project were minimal, mainly just learning and supporting what Monique had built – so I was very glad when she was able to attend the inauguration of Barrio Internacional as guest of honor; even a terrible case of hepatitis didn’t deter her from attending!
Throughout my career with Plan I was very lucky to work with people like Annuska, and Monique, as mentors. In future blogs in this series I will recognize a few more of them, people like Leticia Escobar, Andy Rubi, Donal Keane, Max van der Schalk, and Ricardo Gomez.
And here are photos of all the staff of Plan Tuluá, at the 1989 Christmas party in La Marina:
They were a joyful group in Tuluá, and I learned a lot from them. For example, I vividly recall our program head (Lucyla Posso) and several program staff working to carry out a PRA exercise – I had no idea what that was, but they were excited by this new methodology. I was still caught up in my engineering approach – Gantt Charts, etc. – and didn’t pay enough attention to what Lucyla, Lijia, and Oscar Arley and others were doing. Later I would catch on to the power of PRA methods!
As I will describe in my next blog, living and working in Tuluá in those days was a dangerous proposition, but our team faced the dangers inherent in working amidst one of the world’s most vicious narcotics cartels, surrounded by two violent rebel armies (FARC and ELN), and facing the ongoing legacy of the terrible political violence that had been an integral part of Tuluá’s history.
I have many fond memories, and great admiration for the Plan Tuluá team. It was a long time ago, and so I will remember only a few of the many great staff… but here are a few members of that team that I want to thank and remember:
- Monique van ‘t Hek, our leader, of course;
- Fernando Arciniegas, one of our field managers, a courageous leader;
- Neubellis (“Belly”) Asprilla, Receptionist, always full of life and humor;
- Deisy Arias, Administrator, very competent and straightforward, a pleasure to work with;
- Jairo Avila, our IT officer, who handled the introduction of those new PCs with great ability;
- Alfredo Colonia, another field manager, quiet and competent;
- Lijia Espinoza, who managed the field social promoters, and did a great job;
- Oscar Arley Gómez, Health Manager, a gifted community worker;
- Gladys Enid Hurtado, who was very effective and competent, managing our donor-services work;
- Olga Beatriz Londoño, Finance Manager, who managed our transition to an electronic ledger with great professionalism;
- Lucyla Posso, the Program Manager, who I relied on to handle the complexities of our programming and the many staff-management issues that inevitably cropped up;
- Carlos Zarate, M&E Manager.
And many, many others – I’m sad and embarrassed not to remember them all: please write to remind me!
In my next blog, I’ll describe what it was like to live there in that tumultuous time in Colombia’s history. And, after that, I plan to describe how we built a special water system in an informal settlement near Tuluá, called Cienegueta.
Here are links to other blogs in this series. Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
- South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
- Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
- Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
- Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
- South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
- Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
- Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
- Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
- Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
- Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
- Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
- Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
- Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
- Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
- Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.