I’ve been writing in this series of blogs about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall. And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 33 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
Last time, I described the amazing team that I was privileged to work with in my role as Plan’s Country Director for Viet Nam, between July of 1998 and October of 2002. This time I want to describe the development context in Viet Nam in those years and beyond, and how Plan responded at the time. During my time in Hanoi, I documented many of my field visits using a DV camera, and I will include some images from two field visits I made during that time, also.
I climbed four of the 48 4000-footers over two days in mid-September, 2016. All four of those peaks can be seen on the map below: I got to the top of Wildcat “D” (which is the subject of this blog post) and Wildcat Mountain on 12 September; and I climbed South Carter and Middle Carter the next day. (There are four “Wildcat” mountains: Wildcat Mountain, Wildcat “B,” Wildcat “C,” and Wildcat “D.” Only two of these count as official 4000-footers!)
I camped at nearby Dolly Copp campground overnight on 12 September, before ascending Middle and South Carter on the 13th.
I drove up from Durham on the morning of 12 September, and began that day’s climb from the Glenn Ellis Falls parking area at about 10:30am. From the parking area, just south of Pinkham Notch, I crossed under Rt 16, and joined the Wildcat Ridge Trail, which is also the Appalachian Trail here.
After crossing under Rt 16, I started to climb, and soon ran into two “end-to-end” hikers of the Appalachian Trail. They weren’t “through hikers”; as I learned from them, some “end-to-end” hikers start at the south end of the AT in Georgia and walk north for a time, and then take a break, starting again from Mt Katahdin in Maine, going south. “Through hikers,” on the other hand, walk from Georgia to Maine (or vice-versa) without stopping.
It was a spectacular day, cool and dry, no bugs; the summer of 2016 seemed to be quite bug-free, which was unusual and great. That day I was lucky also to have some of the best views of Mt Washington (6288ft, 1917m), and much of the Presidential Range, that I’ve ever seen. Here are a few images of those views – Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, from the Wildcat Ridge Trail:
The walk up Wildcat Ridge Trail was quite steep in sections, but nothing out of the ordinary for the White Mountains. There is a steep climb up rock steps and up a rock chimney before reaching some spectacular views towards the south, and of the Presidential Range.
I reached the top of the Wildcat Ski Area ski-lift at about 12:15pm:
Here is the observation tower at the top of Wildcat “D” (4050ft, 1234m), which I reached just a few minutes after reaching the ski-lift:
So the climb up Wildcat “D” was just under two hours. From the top of Wildcat “D,” I would continue on to Wildcat Mountain (4422ft, 1348m), with amazing views to the west (Mt Washington and the Presidential Range) and, then, to the east (all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.) Stay tuned for more about that next time.
All in all, September 12, 2016 was one of the best days walking I’ve ever had in the White Mountains, over more than 40 years since I first visited in the late 1970’s. Definitely a day to remember…
During the years I worked in Viet Nam, I noticed that expatriates working for international NGOs seemed to fall into two groups: those who loved working there, and those who really disliked it, often with a visceral passion. Those who hated working in Viet Nam seemed to feel that the restrictions put on our organisations, and on us, were unreasonable. I’d hear them say things like: “if the government would just let us do our job…”
Yes, the process for registering as a foreign organisation was burdensome, and foreigners working in Viet Nam were required to maintain legal status in the country, resulting in periodic visa applications. Getting permission for people from other countries (even for those of us who were foreign staff living and working in Viet Nam) to visit field locations could be challenging and time-consuming. And, yes, it was very difficult for foreign agencies to work through local NGOs, as many of us were accustomed to elsewhere.
But, despite all of these challenges, our work in Viet Nam took place in an environment with very positive and progressive socio-economic policies, just what was needed to facilitate human development. The private sector (including agriculture) had been released from many of the restrictive policies that had been in place until the late 1980’s, and government priorities for women, children, and ethnic minorities were excellent, even given the widespread lack of capacity and instances of corruption. Viet Nam was poor in 1998, when I arrived, but the policy context was pro-poor, pro-women, pro-ethnic-minority, and pro-children.
To illustrate this, I want to go back to the framework that we developed earlier, when I was at Plan’s International Headquarters. Readers of this blog will recall that, during my tenure as Plan’s Program Director, I had set myself three major goals: build a programmatic framework for our development work; finish the restructuring of the organisation; and rationalise the growth of the agency consistent with strategic priorities.
The tool that I developed to rationalise our growth was based on board-defined priorities, which resulted from an extensive process of consultation and reflection. The resulting framework indicated that Plan should grow where the need existed, and where the potential for impact could be verified. I had created a method to quantify these two criteria, to rank countries in terms of need, and potential for impact.
The creation of a simple indicator for potential for impact was more challenging, but the concept of a national performance gap, pioneered by UNICEF, turned out to be helpful.
The idea starts with the fact that a strong correlation exists between national wealth, as measured by gross national product (GNP) per capita, and various measures of social welfare. In general, the richer a country is, the better off its citizens are: average U5MR are lower, educational levels are higher, and maternal mortality rates are lower, for example. Because of this strong correlation, given a nation’s wealth, various indicators of social welfare can be predicted with a fair degree of certainty.
However, some countries achieve more than can be expected given their levels of national income, and others achieve less. These countries perform better than others. War, corruption, the political system of the country, budgetary priorities, and many other factors can affect this performance. In short, the performance of a country in deploying its national wealth, no matter how meagre, to achieve expected levels of social welfare must depend on a wide variety of factors – I felt that these were just the sorts of factors that could determine the potential for impact of Plan’s programs.
How was Viet Nam rated in Plan’s growth plan in June, 1995? Based on need, and potential for impact (as measured using the “performance gap” concept outlined above), Viet Nam was classified as a “super-grow” country, the highest priority for growth, together with Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. Plan’s analytical tool confirmed that something appeared to be going very right in Viet Nam – the country was achieving much more than would be expected at its level of economic wealth.
Another way of measuring the suitability of a country’s policies and political context for human development is to consider the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI), in particular how nation’s HDI compares with how other countries with similar wealth are doing.
On this basis, using data from the UNDP Human Development Report from 2000, Viet Nam ranks 24 places higher in terms of human development than it does when looking only at GDP per capita. In other words, considering its GDP per capita, Viet Nam’s HDI would have been expected to be 24 places lower than it actually was. This is a big achievement, indicating that the country likely had policies, budgetary allocations, and health and education systems that were relatively effective and efficient. Again, this was clear evidence that things were going in the right direction in Viet Nam…
So while there were undeniable restrictions placed on us, on Vietnamese civil society, and on political participation and freedom of expression, we were working in a place where many things were going in the right direction, at least in terms of human development. Remember that the American War had ended only just over 20 years before I arrived, and the legacy of that destructive conflict was still present.
For me, it was a very positive place to work, and I could see the different we were making in the lives of children and families living in poverty, partly because of the great team Plan had in Viet Nam in those days, partly because of the support we received from sponsors and other donors, but also partly because of the way that Viet Nam was structured and governed.
I also think that the root cause of some of the complaints by foreign NGO workers living in Viet Nam was, perhaps unconsciously, somewhat colonialist. This is a negative thing to write, so let me explain: in many countries, at least in those days, international NGOs could operate pretty much as they pleased. Many expatriates became accustomed to this situation, and appreciated the latitude to implement projects as they felt would be most effective. At best, they brought “best practices” to their work; but, often, many brought large egos, a reluctance to cooperate and coordinate with others, and some sense of the “white-man’s burden.”
Viet Nam was different, because the government was not about to let INGOs run amok. Over 1000 years of occupation by the Chinese, and long wars with the French and Americans, the Vietnamese people had achieved independence and the ability to manage their society the way that they, themselves, determined. Their government was not about to let international NGOs, and their foreign staff like me, run amok and do whatever they wanted.
Those expatriates who accepted this, and saw it as an advantage, a good thing, loved working in Viet Nam. I certainly felt that way!
Looking back from 2017, Viet Nam has now reached “medium-development” status. A great achievement of the Vietnamese people. Here are three graphs, using data from UNDP, that illustrate how things have evolved. Looking first at economic poverty, the proportion of Viet Nam’s population living on less than $1 per day (at purchasing-power parity) dropped from around 50% when I arrived in Hanoi in 1998 to 40% by the time I left, in 2002, and to well under 20% in 2008. An enormous reduction in economic poverty, at a pace that seems faster than all developing regions, and even faster than Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. Remarkable.
In terms of child poverty, which was Plan’s focus, the next figure shows how Viet Nam’s performance has been ahead of the achievements of the world on average, since the early 1990’s, with the average under-five mortality rate dropping from around 50 per 1000 live births in 1990, to just over 20 per 1000 live births in 2010. Another remarkable achievement.
Finally, looking at one particular indicator of community development, the proportion of Viet Nam’s population using an improved source of drinking water rose from around 65% in 1994 to 95% in 2010, moving from well below the world average to significantly above.
Of course, I can’t claim that Plan caused all, or even a significant proportion, of this progress! Rapid socio-economic development of this kind is due to a wide range of factors, most especially good policy and hard work. Plan was contributing in our own way, in places where the government couldn’t always reach without support. Something was going right in Viet Nam, at least in terms of economic and human development, and the results are clear to see.
One particular challenge for Plan, and for all of the INGOs working there at the time (and since) was reconciling the nature of Vietnamese governance with our Western values of participation and democracy. While government policies related to social justice (treatment of gender issues, ethnic minorities, etc.) were well-designed and consistent with the focus of most INGOs, and were in fact the best I’ve ever seen in any country, our focus on involving and empowering people was more challenging to implement, because our approaches were not consistent with the way that Viet Nam had structured itself.
One approach we took was to try to base our work involving and empowering people at village level on the words of Viet Nam’s leaders, and its laws. I had this “propaganda poster” designed to use words of Ho Chi Minh in this effort:
The words translate, roughly, as “the people know, the people meet, the people do, and the people check.” This usually meant, in practice, that “the People’s Committee” did those things; but we tried to broaden it to reflect what we thought Ho Chi Minh actually intended, where the people themselves got involved and engaged in meaningful ways. Which was what we intended!
And we tried to use various decrees of the central government, which established frameworks for “grassroots democracy,” as entry points towards participation and empowerment. To some degree, it worked, but the top-down nature of Vietnamese society (“democratic centralism” was one term that was used to describe the political system!) represented, in many ways, boundaries for these efforts.
Part of our efforts to connect with the Vietnamese government involved me, as the representative of Plan in Viet Nam. Field visits always included protocol meetings with the Provincial, District, and Commune People’s Committees. In Hanoi, also, there were opportunities to connect at various levels.
By the time I had been in-country for two years, I was fairly well known, and knew my way around. One perk that went with that kind of status was being invited to the yearly “Consultative Group” (CG) meetings, where the multi- and bi-lateral donors met formally with the government to review how the aid program was going. The World Bank Country Director co-chaired these important meetings, along with a Deputy Prime Minister; several (I)NGO representatives were invited.
The WB Director in my time was Andrew Steer, a brilliant and charismatic leader who did a fantastic job, ably supported by Nisha Agrawal and Carrie Turk, both of whom had come from NGO backgrounds. Here is a photo of the INGO representatives attending the 2001 CG Meeting, along with Andrew Steer:
At the end of CG Meetings, unless things had gone very badly, participants were invited to a closing meeting with the Prime Minister. The first time I attended, the closing meeting was quite strained; apparently there had been tensions within the government unrelated to the CG Meeting. The second year, all was positive, so we walked over to the PM’s offices and reported to him.
After the meeting with the Prime Minister was over, he invited the group, maybe a hundred people, to move up to a stage for a group photo with him.
Once the photo had been taken, people began to move off and leave. I had brought a camera with me, and held back. Imagine my surprise when I found myself standing with the Prime Minister with nobody else around!
So I moved quickly, knowing that a photo of the two of us would be priceless evidence of Plan’s status in such a hierarchical country.
My only regret is that I was determined not to have my eyes closed, because I guessed that the PM would not hang around for long. So my eyes are wide open!
My Vietnamese language skills were good enough for me to understand when, after the photo was taken, the PM asked his staff member: “who is this person?” Luckily, the aid answered correctly, so all was well!
That photo hung in all of Plan’s offices across the country, until I left.
One way that we “fit in” to the way that the Vietnamese people had structured their society was the mechanism through which we implemented projects. A set of procedures had been designed by my predecessor Supriyanto and our Operations Support Manager, Pham Thu Ba, which they called “Community Managed Projects,” or “CMP.” As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, Supriyanto was originally from Indonesia, and the way that the Suharto government had structured that country was quite similar to Viet Nam’s approach; so, along with Thu Ba, Supriyanto was able to design a method for project implementation that fit into the Vietnamese way of working while also ensuring suitable levels of accountability and financial control.
Through the procedures spelled out in our CMP, projects were basically managed by committees based on government structure at the grassroots, commune level, linked with oversight committees at higher (district and province) levels. These structures worked very well, pragmatically inserting Plan’s work into the realities of Viet Nam at that moment in its history. It was interesting to watch our field leadership and Thu Ba negotiate the day-to-day tensions inherent in the different approaches of the Vietnamese government and our international non-governmental organisation. For example, would contracting and purchasing related to project implementation follow government procedures, or Plan’s (sometimes more transparent) procedures? Our CMP specified these matters, but when specific decisions came onto the table, the negotiation dance would often begin.
One strong advantage of Plan’s CMP was that, since project implementation was embedded in the government structure, when things went wrong we could elevate the discussion to district or province level. And, since provincial leadership was extremely powerful, problems got resolved! If Plan had tried to operate, somehow, apart from the government structure, things would have been much more difficult. Perhaps we expatriates might have felt better, momentarily, more comfortable doing our own thing as we pleased; and project implementation would have felt more familiar; but in the end things would have fallen apart.
One of the people I learned the most from in Viet Nam, at least amongst the foreigners working there, was Lady Borton. Lady had been in Quang Ngai during the American War, and for many years after the end of the war had been spending much of her time working for the American Friends Service Committee in Hanoi. She and I were elected members of the Steering Committee of the VUFO-NGO Resource Center, a joint resource providing support for international NGOs working in, or wanting to work in, the country.
She had also played a key role in uncovering the My Lai massacre, in the late 1960’s.
So Lady had been in Viet Nam for a long time, and knew more about Viet Nam than anybody else I knew, at least any foreigner; she loved the country, and the Vietnamese, and had worked tirelessly in the cause of reconciliation. I learned a great deal from her, and feel lucky to have gotten to work alongside her in those years.
One of the many ways that Lady was helpful to many of us when we arrived in-country, if were lucky enough, was to get our hands on a copy of “To Be Sure…“, her guide to . Since Lady was always very happy to have her article circulated freely, I’m attaching it here – To Be Sure — Final. This important document explains, to a foreign audience, how Viet Nam was structured, and how foreign INGO workers could best work. Thank you, Lady!
I’ve talked about the context, and how we tried to fit in, but what did Plan actually do in Viet Nam during those years? Perhaps the best way to describe it is by sharing our Country Strategic Plan, 2000-2005. The document is relatively short, as was required, providing a summary of the situation in-country and our intended response. The document can be downloaded here: Final CSP 2001 – Sent to RD on 3 August 2000. Note that formatting of the document has been affected by software changes in the intervening 17 years, but it’s readable.
We started (and ended) the CSP by describing the lives of two (fictional) Vietnamese children:
Tran Thi Thuy lives in Quang Tri Province, with her parents and younger brother, and her father’s mother and father. For a ten-year-old girl, Thuy is very small, though she is bright and attentive, and seems happy. Her parents are rice farmers, working the small plot of land they have been allotted by the People’s Committee. Normally they have enough rice, even to sell a little, but last year Thuy’s parents lost their harvest when floods came in November. Their house flooded, and Thuy had to help find food; they hope for a better year this year, the Year of the Dragon. Thuy attends a local primary school that is in very poor condition; she reads and writes well, but she has some trouble with math. Students have to be careful because the fields around the school contain landmines from the American War. After class, Thuy takes care of the family’s water buffalo, helps her mother prepare lunch and dinner, and takes care of her brother and the pig (sometimes she cuts banana roots for the pig to eat.) Thuy would like to be a teacher someday.
Pham Thi Nguyet is twelve, and lives in a house in Phuc Xa ward, in Ha Noi. Her mother sent Nguyet, and her 16-year-old brother, to Ha Noi from Hung Yen Province two years ago, to find work. They send money back to Hung Yen to help their family. Like many children of the street in Viet Nam, known as “children of the dust” in Vietnamese, Nguyet lives a precarious existence. Her work begins before dawn, preparing food for her landlady to sell. In exchange for this, Nguyet and her brother have a place to sleep. During the day, Nguyet’s brother shines shoes on the street in Ha Noi, while she sells newspapers. Some of Nguyet’s brother’s friends use drugs, and Nguyet herself has had some frightening encounters with people on the street. Like Thuy, Nguyet is very small for her age, though she is bright and has an open and positive attitude. She would like to become a seamstress.
Then we summarized the CSP:
Thuy and Nguyet represent the reality for many children in Viet Nam today. After decades of conflict and isolation, the economic transition of the last decade has undoubtedly improved the lives of the nation’s children, and the unique structure of Vietnamese society has enabled important achievements in health, education, and gender equity. But children now face greater risks and increased vulnerability; malnutrition levels remain very high; and the quality of education still lags. Underlying these trends, poverty persists, particularly in highland provinces, in the central region, and among marginalized groups.
Together with children such as Thuy and Nguyet and their families, with program partners and authorities, PLAN/Viet Nam has identified some of the most pressing issues affecting children, and has formulated integrated programs and methodologies to address these issues together with its partners and communities:
- Because of a lack of access to adequate education, PLAN will carry out programs in preschool and basic education.
- Due to poor access to adequate health care, PLAN will support nutrition, reproductive health and primary health care programs.
- Livelihood and reforestation programs will address the causes of low employment and productivity among the poor.
- The increasing vulnerability of children will be addressed through the implementation of an ambitious children-in-need-of-special-protection program, along with programs in disaster management and landmines.
- Because children have limited access to good quality water, sanitation, and shelter, PLAN will implement programs in water and sanitation, and housing improvement.
- To stimulate better participation in child-focused development, including children, PLAN will implement a wide-ranging leadership-training program.
- And to build solidarity among PLAN families, sponsored communities, and donors, a building relationships program will be continued.
Underlying all of these programs will be an effort to scale up PLAN’s impact, and to influence broader child-related policy development in Viet Nam.
That’s what we did, or at least what we tried to do: in our provincial Program Units, we helped improve access to adequate education and health care; supported livelihood and reforestation programs; worked to build protective environments for children; supported water, sanitation, and housing improvement programs; trained leaders; and sought to build solidarity among families, communities, and donors. From the Country Office, we worked to influence child-related policies.
Consistent with the CSP, once we set up the Large Grants Implementation Unit (LGUI – see below, and in my next blog post) Plan was able to go well beyond these fairly-standard projects, and begin to address a much wider range of manifestations of child poverty. More on the LGIU, later!
One of the things that I was most proud of, during my four years serving as Plan’s Country Director in Viet Nam, was how often I was able to get to visit our work in the provinces. In part, this was because our team at the Country Office was so strong (see my descriptions of Le Quang Duat, Tran Minh Thu, and Pham Thu Ba in my previous blog post), as were our managers at Program Unit level, in the provinces.
But it would have been easy to stay in Hanoi, there was plenty to do there and plenty of demands from Plan’s hierarchy in the Regional Office and donor offices. But I managed to get to the field for (roughly) week-long visits nearly 50 times in my four years there, which allowed me to stay connected to the realities of our work, build relationships with Plan’s staff and our partners, and to simply be true to the best ethos of our non-profit sector – to accompany the people we were working with, and for.
I have hours of film of these visits, unedited records of the people, the setting, and our work. Here is video of two visits, both of which took place in October, 2000.
First, here is a five-minute video of my visit to Bac Giang province, north of Hanoi. Bac Giang had been Plan’s third provincial office (after Nam Ha and Hanoi itself), still an area with plenty of poverty, as can be seen:
Pham Van Chinh was Plan’s Program Unit Manager in Bac Giang when I visited; many thanks to him and his team, and to our local partners, for hosting my visit, and many others during those years.
And here is a longer (almost 29 minutes) video of a visit to a new province for Plan in those days, Thai Nguyen – a beautiful, poor place, much less developed than Bac Giang in those days:
Tran Dai Nghia was Plan’s Program Unit Manager in Thai Nguyen when I visited; many thanks to him and his team, and to our local partners, for hosting my visit.
(I might include more video in later edits of this blog post. I have more! They document, in a way, a part of the history of Viet Nam, of the history of Plan in Viet Nam, and of the people involved in that effort, that is unique.)
Next time, I want to share our experience pilot testing a new structure in Plan. This was our attempt to solve a problem that had vexed the organisation for many years: how to increase the proportion of funding coming from non-sponsorship sources, in particular, in the form of “large grants” from bi- and multi-lateral aid agencies. It’s a story of innovation, success and, ultimately, failure.
I’ve invited Ary Laufer, the person who contributed more than anybody to make the “Large Grants Implementation Unit” in Viet Nam the success it was, to share his thoughts on the experience.
So, stand by for the next chapter in the story!
Here are links to 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.