People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed
Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed”
In this article, I want to take stock and reflect on the first two phases of my journey: two years in Peace Corps Ecuador, and fifteen great years with Plan. As I looked back, a lot had changed for me, times were indeed strange… and the world had been utterly transformed.
But, unlike Bob Dylan, I still cared.
I began a new journey a year ago, 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.
Last time I wrote about the design, creation, and abrupt and destructive closure of an innovative approach to funding and implementing large grant projects in Plan Viet Nam. In October, 2002, I would step down as Country Director for Plan, resigning from Plan. A major milestone for me: after 15 great years with Plan, I was ready for something new. And I was pretty clear about what that would look like …
On September 13, 2016, I climbed both Middle and South Carter Mountains. First, I want to describe the hike up Middle Carter (4610ft, 1405m.)
It was another gorgeous day, just as clear and pleasant as the day before, when I had climbed Wildcat “D” and Wildcat Mountain. I had stayed the night before at Dolly Copp Campground, so was able to get a much earlier start on this day as I saved the two hour drive from Durham.
Dolly Copp was (and is) under construction, necessary renovation. I had a simple flat area, picnic table, and nearby (common) toilet in the area of the campground that was not being renovated.
My plan was to head up on the northern branch of the Imp Trail, up to the lookout on Imp Face, take North Carter Trail up to the ridge, and then get to Middle Carter. Then I would continue south to climb South Carter, and then retrace my steps to return via Imp’s southern branch. This would leave me with a short road hike north to get back to my car.
I parked on the side of Rt 16, at the northern entrance to the Imp Trail, at about 7:45am, and headed east. It would be 3.1 miles up to the junction with the North Carter Trail:
The hike up the northern branch of the Imp Trail was pleasant, a typical late-summer White-Mountain forest walk.
I arrived at Imp Face at just after 9am, and (as promised) the views west and south towards the Presidential Range were fantastic:
Not a cloud in the sky, dry and free from insects. Heaven!
I arrived at the junction with North Carter Trail at 9:49am, and continued to climb.
It was 10:45am when I arrived at the ridge-top, joining Carter-Moriah Trail, coincident here with the Appalachian Trail:
From the junction, it was just over a half mile along the ridge to reach the top of Middle Carter. Along the way, there were “five ledgy humps, with boggy depressions between” (from the White Mountain Guide.) Some had convenient planks:
What an amazing walk: nearing the top of Middle Carter, views to the west (the Presidentials) and east (towards the Atlantic Ocean) opened up again:
And then the top, just before noon. No views here, the top is forested. But I stopped for lunch; a bit early, but I had been five hours climbing so far:
From the top, I continued south to reach South Carter, returning via the southern branch of Imp. I’ll describe the rest of this clear, beautiful, insect-free day next time!
Just as I was leaving Hanoi, I got an email from out of the blue, from a person I had never met: Daniel Wordsworth was Program Development Director at CCF in Richmond, Virginia, and he wanted to know if I knew anybody who could help them reinvent their program approach. Though I didn’t know Daniel, I had met his manager, Michelle Poulton, when I was at Plan’s headquarters, liking her and respecting her abilities and passion. And Daniel told me that Alan Fowler, one of the “aid sector’s” real thinkers, was working with them, which was impressive. I thought I might know the perfect person for the job …
But before describing the two great years that followed, as we developed and tested what became CCF’s new approach, “Bright Futures,” I want to reflect a bit about what had changed – for me, but mostly in the world of development, poverty, and social justice – in the 15 years between my start in this work (beginning with two years in the Peace Corps, in Ecuador, 1984-86) and my departure from Plan after 15 years (Viet Nam, 2002).
What an amazing 18 1/2 years! Today, as I write this, nearly 15 years have passed since I left Viet Nam… but I still feel incredibly lucky:
- lucky to have been sent to Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and to have been assigned to Cañar, where I was given big responsibilities, and located far from other Volunteers!;
- lucky that Annuska Heldring arrived in Cañar while I was a Volunteer, because she helped fund my most innovative project (San Rafael), taught me a lot about how to manage a big international NGO … and later opened the door for me at Plan International;
- lucky to have worked for Monique van’t Hek during my first posting in Plan, in Tuluá, Colombia – I learned a great deal from her about how to run an NGO, how to manage people, how to speak Colombian Spanish! And lucky that I later worked for Leticia Escobar when I became Field Director there, a smart and very dedicated professional;
- lucky to have worked for Andy Rubi, Plan’s first Regional Director, once I moved to Quito;
- lucky to have joined Plan during a period of rapid expansion, which gave me many, many opportunities to learn at a rapid pace during a phase of professionalization of that, and most other, international NGOs;
- lucky to have had the opportunity to succeed Andy Rubi as Regional Director for South America for Plan; and lucky to move to become Plan’s Program Director at International Headquarters; where I was
- lucky to work with Max van der Schalk, Plan’s CEO of the time;
- lucky to have had support from Max and Plan’s board to decide to tackle some fundamental changes in Plan;
- lucky to finish my time in Plan in Viet Nam, such a special place, with such special people (Thu Ba, Duat, Minh Thu, Ary, etc.)
Over those years, I had evolved and grown, and changed, and the context of the work I was doing had changed deeply.
I want to share some thoughts about how the context for the work I was doing had changed. This will provide the context, also, for what I would do after leaving Viet Nam: helping CCF (now ChildFund) create, test, and roll-out their new program approach, globally; and then becoming Executive Director for the UU Service Committee, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I will describe both of those experiences in future blog posts; my intention here is to describe how things had changed, externally, in the world. Because those changes led to the work I did at CCF and the UU Service Committee…
Human deprivation, at least as traditionally considered (as the “lack” of basic human needs), had dropped, and in 2002 deprivation was still dropping fast. Things were getting better, at least in simple terms. On average. For the majority.
The United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) MDG Statistics database helps illustrate how things were evolving: using those data, here are nine graphs illustrating how the world was getting better, fast – at least in terms of basic human needs) – during those years:
- Economic Poverty was declining very quickly. While I was working in Tuluá, nearly half of the population living in developing regions in the world were living on less than a dollar a day (adjusted to $1.25 to retain comparability). By 2011, that proportion was down to less than 20%, an incredible improvement. And while this change was heavily driven by changes in eastern Asia (poverty dropping from 60.7% to 6.3% in that region!), big improvements were being seen across the world:
- Child deaths, measured by the Under-Five Mortality Rate, were also dropping quickly. Between when I moved to Quito to work at Plan’s South America Regional Office (1991) and the mid-point in my service in Viet Nam (2000), the global average U5MR dropped from 100 (per 1000), down to 83; and by 2015, it was at 50. Down by half in just 24 years; perhaps a dry statistic, but this actually means that many millions of children were alive that would not have survived otherwise:
- Malnutrition had been a huge problem in Viet Nam, affecting well over half of children in the country. Across the world, the prevalence of underweight children under age 5 was on track to drop by nearly half between 1990 (25%) and 2015 (14%). Incredible progress, mirrored in Viet Nam:
- Maternal mortality in the developing world was also dropping fast, from 430 per 100,000 live births in 1990, down to 230 in 2013. Still way too high, but progress was fast and, seemingly, accelerating:
- Enrollment in primary school was trending up, steadily, growing from 80% in 1991 to over 90% by 2015, as was the ratio of girls to boys in primary education (which was nearing 100%):
- Since I had begun my career (in Azogues) working on water and sanitation, I want to share two final trends. The proportion of people (in developing regions) using improved drinking water had moved from 70% in 1990, to nearly 90% in 2015:
and the proportion of people (in developing regions) using imported sanitation had risen just as quickly, from 43% to 62%:
Incredible progress, something that the entire human race should be proud of.
Credit for these shifts must go, first and foremost, to those people who were living in poverty. Their hard work and dedication was the primary force behind the astonishing changes illustrated here. Also, in many (but not all) places, local governments were major drivers of improvement. And certainly the rapid increases in monetary income, driven to a large extent by economic globalization, in turn were translated into other, related material gains in well-being, especially in eastern Asia.
And credit is also clearly due to the way that so many people (including the public in the Global North), governments, and institutions joined the fight to tackle poverty. Agencies such as Plan International, CCF, Save the Children, Oxfam, etc.; bilateral agencies such as USAID, AusAID, CIDA, SIDA, DFID, etc.; and foundations such as Gates, Rockefeller, etc. And movements like Live Aid, Live 8, etc.
(It’s notoriously hard to prove causality in social science, hard to know which stakeholder had contributed to what part of this positive change. Later, when I was working with ChildFund Australia, we would design a way of helping communities understand how conditions were changing, and to understand which stakeholders were contributing to those changes – more on that, later!)
So, huge progress in tackling material deprivation. But other, more negative trends were also becoming evident, trends would greatly influence the next phase of my career:
- While economic globalization was having huge positive effects in eastern Asia (and elsewhere), distortions were building. In particular, the benefits of globalization increasingly were being concentrated at the top of the economic ladder; the rules of economic liberalization seemed to be rigged in favor of the richest. Inequality was growing fast:
- Populations were becoming much more diverse. Demographic diversification, which can be seen in the figure below, in one particular country, was taking place alongside the progress illustrated above. For me, this diversification was a great thing but, sadly, it seemed also to be fuelling forces of intolerance, oppression and exclusion in many places:
- And the world situation, as Jean and I moved from Hanoi to New Hampshire in October, 2002, seemed increasingly full of injustice. The Bush administration was gearing up to invade Iraq, inventing a series of transparent lies (connection to the attacks of September, 2001; weapons of mass destruction; freedom and democracy) as justification.
So, great material progress, certainly, but also signs of growing injustice. I began to think a lot about how to integrate these new (to me, anyway!) manifestations of poverty into the work our international NGOs were doing to address material poverty.
Unfortunately, the conditions for that kind of integration were not very promising.
This seemed ironic, because the NGO movement had really emerged from specific injustices, and many of them had been vehicles for social activism by their “membership.” But by the time I left Plan, most if not all of the major INGOs had grown to be so large, so corporate, and so focused on institutional survival, that they had become very averse to challenging the ways that existing power structures perpetuated injustice. They were, indeed, deeply embedded in those very power structures, part of them at the highest levels.
INGOs had adopted corporate, private-sector ways of working and being (see my “Trojan Horse” paper – McPeak – Trojan Horse – Submission to Deakin – Final), which enabled them to prosper in the elite world of the United Nations, the large bilaterals, and professional foundations. These stakeholders were mostly interested in the kinds of material progress that had been made, illustrated in the first set of figures presented here. Leaders seemed uninterested in working in the more-challenging, harder-to-measure, contested space of justice, exclusion and vulnerability; indeed, they were unable to work in that space, having lost the activist capabilities they had been born with.
To the extent that good INGOs were evolving, they were moving towards working with more-excluded populations – for example, ethnic minorities in mountainous areas of Viet Nam – and doing advocacy work to prod governments to address inequality and exclusion. ActionAid and Oxfam seemed most interested in moving into these spaces, but the problem was that donors weren’t as interested in funding advocacy work, because it seemed less “tangible.” And even those agencies that worked more with “excluded” groups were still working on “basic needs” for excluded people – necessary, no doubt, but perhaps not addressing the causes of exclusion.
Overall, in those years, the “aid sector” was aligned to the MDGs, and great work had been done; but the task seemed to be changing, and the ways that the “sector” had evolved was, I feared, not going to enable them to work on the new problems of justice, exclusion and vulnerability.
Arriving back in the US after many years abroad, then, my own thoughts were focused on how poverty was shifting, the upcoming war in Iraq, the political situation in the US… exclusion, vulnerability, people’s power. It seemed to me that the international NGOs that had helped make such great progress in reducing human deprivation, the organizations that I had been working with, like Plan International, were not fit for working on the emerging issues of unaccountable government, growing inequality, exclusion, and vulnerability. They even seemed uninterested in these trends, perhaps because they had been built to work in stable, predominantly-rural settings – that was their niche.
It all seemed to come together for me when Daniel Wordsworth and I spoke, just before I left Hanoi. He and Michelle wanted to move CCF’s program approach towards something much more relevant to the times we lived in, and were investing time and energy in a real voyage of reflection and innovation – what was CCF’s institutional context? What was child poverty? What did children think? Therefore, how must their program approach evolve? Exciting stuff.
Soon after arriving in New Hampshire, I flew to Richmond, Virginia, and sat down with Daniel, Michelle, and John Schultz (CCF’s then-President) to discuss how I might be a part of the change they were leading.
So, once again, I was lucky. I was able to work with Daniel and Michelle to study the new context of poverty, consider the institutional reality that CCF faced, and design and pilot test a new program approach. A program approach that would incorporate building the power of excluded people to influence injustice. And, later, I was able to move to the UU Service Committee, to work on human-rights activism and political advocacy in the context of the Bush-era invasion of Iraq, denial of civil liberties, the use of torture, refusal to address climate change, etc.
Stay tuned for my next blog article, as I begin two great years as a consultant to CCF!
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.