(Note: I’ve updated this post in July, 2018, after climbing Mt Whiteface once again. I’ve recently completed ascending all 48 4000-footers, and am going up a few again, in different seasons…)
I began a new journey in May of this year (2016), tracing two long arcs in my life:
- Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), 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.
To jump directly to my description of how we developed and implemented an approach to community “empowerment” in Plan South America, skipping the description of my ascent of Mt Whiteface, click here.
The Climb – Mt Whiteface
The ninth of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Whiteface (4020 ft, 1225 m), which is slightly to the Southwest of Mt Passaconoway. I went up both of these peaks on 15 June 2016, just five days after having gone up Mt Osceola and East Osceola.
I hiked over to Whiteface from the top of Passaconoway along the Rollins Trail, reaching the top at around 2:30pm. Whiteface’s summit is uninteresting, but there are some beautiful granite outcroppings just past the peak, which give the mountain its name, from which the views are great:
Here in the distance you can see “Ferncroft”, where I began and ended that day. The photo is taken from the granite outcroppings just to the south of Whiteface’s peak:
Unusually, at least for the summer of 2016, there were massive numbers of black flies at those granite outcroppings, so I didn’t stay long. Swarms, like other years. It’s a lovely place with fantastic views, so it’s a pity that I had to leave so quickly…
Much of the way down was on the Blueberry Ledge Trail, which was very steep as I left the ledges, fleeing those black flies. Many of the signs along the way were painted in appropriate colors:
This was a great day – warm but not too hot, and enough of a challenge to be interesting. Except for the black flies at the top of Mt Whiteface, it was a perfect day!
Empowerment in Plan South America
Last time I described Plan’s first Regional Office in South America in the early 1990’s. The overall organization was still growing quickly, and regionalizing. But morale at International Headquarters (IH) in Rhode Island was bad and, as a result, it seemed to becoming less effective. So, less relevant to what we were doing… My sense was this was mostly because of the clash between Plan’s still-new International Executive Director, Alberto Neri, and the existing organisational culture.
As a result, in the early 1990’s, under the leadership of Andy Rubi, the South America Regional Office (SARO) began to fill the vacuum. This was, to a great extent, a reaction to Alberto Neri’s strong emphasis on financial controls – most of us supported those changes, but wanted also to work on improving our programs.
I want to describe two of the ways that SARO moved ahead as IH seemed to drift a bit. In this blog post, I will describe our efforts to pull the region together around a concept that was new to us, which we called “empowerment”. This evolution became one component of a strategic planning exercise – which, itself, was another manifestation of how we were filling the vacuum left by IH. A controversial action.
Next time I will describe how we adapted and implemented Total Quality Management, which was picked up by IH and considered by the overall organization.
South America’s embrace of “empowerment” came as we learned from several innovations that were taking place in Field Offices in the region, in particular what Annuska Heldring was doing in Cañar. So in many ways this strategic evolution was a good example of bottom-up change: a wider organisation recognising and embracing an innovation that was coming from the “coal face.” This process led us to establishing a “vision” for Plan in South America, something that we were very proud of.
But, on reflection, I think that we might have been overstepping some boundaries – more on that later!
I’ve described how I met Annuska Heldring when she arrived in Azogues to set up a Field Office for Plan. As she set up Plan Cañar, I remember hearing her describe how she would have very few staff. At the time I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and had never heard of Plan, so I had no sense of the importance of what she was talking about, nor the implications for Plan. But I do recall Annuska telling me about the challenges she had faced as Field Director in The Philippines, before coming to Ecuador, in the Field Office in Iloilo. Because of labor problems there, the Field Office had been closed; that experience had obviously had a very large impact on Annuska.
As a result, when she left the Philippines and began to set up the Plan Cañar Field Office, she was determined that it would be set up without the dozens (or hundreds) of staff that were typical for Plan offices in those days. Plan Cañar would have just a few, mostly senior staff, plus a driver. This meant that, because there were virtually no staff to manage projects, community members managed project implementation with, for example in the case of the water system in San Rafael, the support of government. (In San Rafael, that was IEOS and me!)
So, I think that putting the community in the driver’s seat wasn’t necessarily the point, at least in Annuska’s mind. It seemed that she mainly was determined to avoid staff headaches, so created a “low-staff” model. What we ended up calling “empowerment” – communities leading their own development, as was their human right – was a by-product of having low numbers of staff. Not that simple, obviously, but that’s how it felt.
As a Peace-Corps Volunteer in Cañar, years before I arrived in SARO, what Annuska was doing seemed to work pretty well to me, but I had no sense of the audacity of this way of working, from Plan’s perspective. It was only when I got to know Plan, in Tuluá, that I gained a clear perspective, and began to see what a revolution Annuska had begun. Plan Tuluá was pretty typical, with around a hundred staff, including dozens of “Social Promoters” that did much of the project work. With, of course, lots of involvement of local community members, and it worked very well, but it was quite different from what Annuska was doing. At its best, Plan Tuluá was very empowering, but Plan Cañar was very, very different.
By the time I got to the South America Regional Office, Annuska’s office had been running for four or five years, and was performing well in terms of many of the things that we measured: unlike many Field Offices those days, Plan Cañar was spending its budget¹, complied fairly well with what we called “Sponsor Relations” – the elaborate system that Plan had put in place to specify communications between sponsored children and families with “Foster Parents” – and was extremely “efficient.”
This last point became very important. Because of Plan Cañar’s low numbers of staff, Annuska was able to allocate a relatively very high proportion of her budget to project implementation. Not only were staff salaries a low proportion of her budget (although her staff were highly paid, there were few of them), but associated staff-related costs such as office rent, vehicles, etc., were also low. Again, perhaps this wasn’t Annuska’s intention, but Plan Cañar really stood out when we in the Regional Office, and IH, reviewed budget ratios.
And for Plan in those days, budget ratios were extremely important. Alberto Neri had established a goal that Plan offices would spend at least 70% of funds on “tangible benefits”; no more than 20% on staff salaries; and no more than 10% on operating costs.
Like many of Alberto’s initiatives, to me this one made a lot of sense to me. Many of our offices were spending even less than 50% on “tangible benefits” in those days, and encouraging all of us to become more efficient made sense to me. I could certainly see ways that we could become more efficient. But, also like many of his initiatives, it was handled clumsily, pushed too rigidly, and alienated the very people who were implementing it, and who would have been his best allies. There was a backlash.
So Alberto liked what Annuska was doing, because it was low-cost. And we in SARO and across South America began to like the model, too, because there seemed to be a big difference in the communities, it was a better way of doing development. People from villages in Cañar managed projects themselves, learned a lot from that experience, and did good jobs – at least as well as our armies of “Social Promoters” seemed to be doing in other offices. And when I commissioned a review of the Plan Cañar model, asking my old boss Monique van’t Hek from Tuluá to review things, the conclusions were very positive.
There were a couple other Field Offices where Plan was putting community members more centrally into the driver’s seat; for example, Mac Abbey in Plan Loja (Ecuador) was doing something similar. These other initiatives were perhaps not quite as radical as Annuska’s approach in Cañar, but the difference was that they were approaching the change intentionally from the point of view of “empowering” the community, rather than having a “low-staff” model as such.
We at SARO began to pick up the importance of these initiatives, and started a process of strategic planning that incorporated the shift towards “empowerment” into a region-wide commitment. Plan South America got excited at this strategic movement, partly because the overall organization seemed to be drifting, and it gave us a cause to rally around. And, ironically, Alberto was very supportive, for his own reasons (as I described above, he liked the low-cost aspect of the model.) The rest of the organisation – senior management at IH, staff in other regions – was much less enthusiastic!
Here is a page from a regional newsletter that I prepared. You can see that Plan’s South America Region was committing to working in a quality way; to “empowerment”; and to focusing on children and our donors.
These statements were developed through a careful process of reflection and discussion – you can see me being rather careful in the last two paragraphs here, noting that we hadn’t yet “fully debated and endorsed” the final two strategic directions.
What I think became a bit more controversial were the Vision and Mission statements for the South America Region. Here, as I foreshadowed above, perhaps we went a bit too far, because the wider organisation was developing Vision and Mission statements at the same time, and it probably would have been more appropriate for us in SARO to simply focus on strategies that fit within Plan’s overall Vision and Mission. In fact, the four Strategic Directions that are shown here fit very well within the final Vision and Mission that were adopted by Plan, globally. But we in South America had a lot of momentum, felt that IH wasn’t leading, and we were going to move ahead.
Here’s another page, from a presentation I prepared at the time:
The presentation goes into lots of detail for each of these three elements of what we thought “Quality” should be in Plan.
This was good stuff. Defining “Quality” as having those three pillars – unity of purpose, continuous improvement, and an empowering management culture – still makes sense to me, at least in an NGO setting.
And we paid a lot of attention to implementation, with the Regional Office providing support, funds, frameworks, guidance and accompaniment. Mostly, we provided ways to share across Field Offices. For example, here are four pages from workshop materials supporting an important event held in Cali, Colombia, in March of 1992:
The purpose of this workshop was to help Field Directors from across the South America Region to prepare their transition to “Empowerment” – to “empowering” Field Offices, locally adapting what Annuska and Mac and others had pioneered. There were few aspects of the end result that had been pre-defined; mostly, we learned together from what was happening out in the field.
I learned a lot from all of this. As I look back on our regional focus on “empowerment,” a few things stand out to me:
- I really like how we at the Regional Office were able to perceive that a key innovation was happening, how we paid attention to it, embraced it, without having to invent it ourselves, and that we sought to catalyze the spread of the innovation. That was a good role for the Regional Office;
- The documents I have, and my own memory of events, show a lot of enthusiasm, and mutual learning. There was very little “top-down” feeling to SARO’s move towards “empowerment.” Maybe it felt “top-down” to some others, but I don’t think it was;
- The essence of the shift, that community members we were working with had the right to be in the driver’s seat, that the decisions they would make would be as good as, or better than, Plan staff’s decisions – that was a correct instinct.
But also, looking back, I think that other elements of the wider organization – at International Headquarters, in other Regions – were beginning to perceive us in South America as wanting to be independent, operating autonomously. Our own “Vision” and “Mission”… rapidly changing program models … “not asking permission…” and even not asking for forgiveness!
Their suspicions were somewhat justified. We in South America were asserting ourselves as a response to the weakness of the agency’s center. Perhaps this is common when organizations regionalize, a normal struggle between center and region, between “parent” and “child.” But from our perspective, morale at the center of the organization was bad, South America was the first area to regionalize, so we had a strong sense of unity and energy, and much of the rest of the agency was preoccupied with resistance to Alberto Neri. So we in South America simply filled the vacuum.
A couple of years later, as Program Director at International Headquarters, I tried to take these lessons into account. I tried to reassert the proper role of the center of the agency, ensuring unity of purpose, measuring results, and supporting organization-wide learning, while taking care that elements of the organization outside head office took the lead in important agency-wide initiatives whenever possible.
More on that later!
SARO’s focus on “Quality” led to a Plan-wide movement to adapt and adopt Total Quality Management for the entire organisation, an effort I was a key part of.
I’ll describe my involvement in that project – chairing Plan’s Quality Council – in my next blog post in this series!
Postscript: I climbed Mt Whiteface again on 29 July, 2018, after having completed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers earlier that month; Mt Jefferson was my final climb – stay tuned for my blog about that!
I wondered how it would feel to start the cycle anew – it felt good! It had been a bit over 2 years since I had climbed Whiteface and Passaconoway, and some things had changed… most importantly, there were virtually ZERO black flies at the top of Whiteface this time. That made a big difference – I was able to linger at the top of that peak and enjoy the great views.
The other major difference this time was the crowds! Back in 2016, I remember that there were only a few cars parked at Ferncroft, maybe 8 or 10 at the very most. But that was a mid-week climb; this time, on a summer weekend, there were around 100 cars, maybe more!
This time, I climbed Mt Whiteface first, going up on the Blueberry Ledge Trail to the top, and then continuing along Rollins Trail to Passaconaway. I left Durham at around 7:45am, and arrived at the trail-head at about 9:15am.
(A side benefit of doing these more-southerly 4000-footers again was that I spent less time in the car. This hike, covering Whiteface and Passaconaway, would take 7 hours, and I had a total of 3 hours driving – a better climb/drive ratio than I had been used to recently!)
It was a beautiful, warm day, perfect for hiking.
Last time I had descended Whiteface on the Blueberry Ledge Trail, and it felt quite steep. Better to ascend it, as I did now, two years later. I arrived at the steep sections with the exposed granite that give the mountain its name at about 11am:
I reached the top of Mt Whiteface at about 11:30am, and had half of my lunch there. There were about 5 other people there at the top, fewer than I had feared (given the number of cars down at Ferncroft!). I spent a few minutes at the summit enjoying the view, taking my time since I had not been able to stay last time due to the voracious black flies! This time there were many dragonflies – fun to watch and not a bother at all!
Then I continued towards Passaconaway.
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, 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;
- Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
- Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
- Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
- Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
- North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
- South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
- Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed. What Next?;
- Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
- Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
- Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
- Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
- Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
- Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…