South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study

I’ve been writing a series of blog posts 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.

In this article, I move into another phase of my journey – working with CCF as a consultant for two years, helping that organization develop, pilot test, and begin to implement a new program approach for their global operations.  It was a very creative and exciting time for me, and (I think) for that organization, and it very much builds on the reflecting I’d been doing about how the development sector had changed.  It’s worth telling the story.

But first, let me describe my climb of South Carter, and the disaster that struck after that climb was over: an injury that would just about put an end to my hiking adventures for the rest of 2016.

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I had reached the top of Middle Carter at noon on 13 September, 2016.  After a quick lunch, I continued south towards the top of South Carter (4430ft, 1350m).

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Here is a view looking back at Middle Carter, taken at about 12:30pm:

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What a beautiful day it was.  Here are some views towards the east and south as I hiked away from Middle Carter:

 

 

Approaching South Carter, I had a fine view back towards the Wildcat Range, where I had hiked the day before.  Here Carter Dome (as yet, unclimbed at this time) is on the left, with Wildcat Mountain (which I had climbed the day before) on the right, with Carter Notch in between:

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Carter Dome On The Left, Wildcat “A” On The Right

 

Views to the east, towards the ocean, were also fantastic.  Here the Atlantic is clearly visible on the horizon:

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No insects, clear blue sky, heaven!

I retraced my steps from the top of South Carter, arriving back at the junction of Carter-Moriah and North Carter at 1:25pm.

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Descending from the Carter Ridge on North Carter, I reached the Imp Trail at a little after 2pm.

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This time I took the southern branch of Imp Trail, reaching the road (NH 16) at 3:45pm.  The Imp Trail reaches NH 16 slightly south of where it leaves from, so there was a brief road-walk to get back to the car, which was still there, eight hours later!

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My two days climbing four of the six 4000-footers in the Carter Range were spectacular – dry and clear, no insects, and few other hikers.  Two great days in the White Mountains, with a pleasant evening camping nearby.

*

Then I drove home back to Durham.  Since I had camped at Dolly Copp Campground the night before going up Middle and South Carters, when I got home my groundcloth and tent needed cleaning before putting them away.  So, the next day, I took them out the back of our second-floor unit, and went down the metal circular staircase, in my socks.  My plan was to clean up both the groundcloth and the tent, and then leave them out to dry in the sun.

But as I started down the metal spiral stairway, with the damp groundcloth in one hand, the tent in the other, wearing socks, I slipped and fell.  As my feet came out from under me, I landed with all my weight directly on the edge of a metal stair, hitting (and breaking) a left rib.  I then slid down the rest of the stairway, trying to arrest my fall by hanging on with my left arm.

(Readers may recall that I had hurt my left shoulder on the very first hike in this series, when I climbed Mt Tom and Mt Field.  There was ice on the trail descending from Mt Field, and I had slipped on steep ice, going down, and grabbed onto a small tree with my left arm, twisting and wrenching it up and behind me as I arrested the fall, my full weight, with my left arm.  That had seriously injured the rotator cuff on my left shoulder.)

On the stairway, this time, I severely re-injured that shoulder, tearing my left rotator-cuff.  And breaking a rib.  Ouch!

These injuries put me out of circulation for some time, so I wasn’t able to hike again until I went up Mt Tecumseh, in late October.  (It was hard enough just getting out of bed, for a few days at least!)  I probably shouldn’t have climbed Mt Tecumseh, but I got away with it… Several months of physical therapy followed over the winter of 2016/2017.

*

I returned from Viet Nam in October of 2002, and (as I mentioned last time) I had made a connection with Daniel Wordsworth just before leaving Hanoi when, out of nowhere, he had sent me an email.  It turned out that he had been the CCF Australia Country Director in Viet Nam during my first two years there, but I don’t think I had ever met him there: I think he worked at night and slept during the day, actually.

(Much later I would find out how the connection was made.  Daniel’s CEO colleague in Sydney, Jane Edge, had visited Hanoi when I worked there, and made an appointment to meet with me.  Just networking, I think, but it turned out that she had read one of the articles I had published during my sabbatical year – perhaps the only person I’ve ever met who had read that piece – which was a bit mind-blowing.  Later, I think she suggested that Daniel contact me…)

Daniel Wordsworth

Daniel Wordsworth in 2003

Daniel was the Program Development Director at CCF’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia.  More about Daniel in my next blog.

He worked for Michelle Poulton, who was CCF’s Vice President for Program; I knew Michelle from my time at Plan’s International Headquarters – our positions were equivalent – but hadn’t stayed in touch after that.  I had admired Michelle’s obvious intelligence, experience, passion, and courage.

Michelle and Daniel were engaged in a fundamental reconsideration of how CCF approached its programming, aimed at realizing the agency’s strategic goal of being a “leader for children.”  John Schultz, CCF’s President, articulated the motivation quite well, with impressive humility and candor:

As a worldwide organization that has been lifting children and their families from the grip of poverty for over 65 years, Christian Children’s Fund (CCF) understands well the difficulty of our task. Not all of our approaches have worked and some have become outmoded over the years. Education alone is certainly not the guaranteed route out of poverty and deprivation we once thought. Anti-poverty programs of all types have had mixed success.

As a learning organization that has changed enormously and adapted to new situations and new locations, CCF is always seeking out ways to do what we do better. We know that breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty-making a truly long-lasting difference in a young person’s life — is a tall order. There are no set recipes. It is always good to reflect on our goals, our methods, and our rates of success in accomplishing our mission.

We arranged to talk by phone before I left Hanoi, and Daniel asked if I knew anybody who could help CCF create a “program practices guide” that would describe their new approach, which would have to be created.

It sounded like a perfect next step for me.  I had been thinking a lot about how things had changed in the development sector, and the idea of spending some time helping an agency think through how they could have the most impact was very appealing.  Jean and I left Hanoi in early October, 2002, and a week later I flew from Boston to Richmond to spend a couple of days talking with Daniel and Michelle and John Schultz, CCF’s president, about the assignment.  We quickly agreed that I would help out as an external advisor, working directly with Daniel to define, pilot test, and document CCF’s new program approach.

*

While I was in Richmond, I asked Michelle if I could meet with John Schultz.  I had learned from my time with Plan International that the kinds of changes she and Daniel were contemplating would need support from the top if they were to be successful.  So, one afternoon, I walked down to John’s office – it said a lot for Michelle and Daniel that they let me have that meeting by myself!

John and I had a good conversation.  It was clear that he was fully behind the changes that were being discussed; but two comments he made struck me in particular.  First, when I asked him about the degree of support for the programmatic changes that were coming, he said that “everybody supports the changes, but nobody understands them.”  That was a very perceptive and interesting remark, indicating that we would have to build consensus carefully, because once the nature of the shifts became apparent, support might evaporate.  Or, alternatively, just push the changes through…

He also took care to describe CCF as a “faith-based” organization.  That comment made me sit up and take notice!

This was 2003, and the US Administration, under President George W Bush, had placed great emphasis on working through “faith-based organizations.”  There was a White-House office tasked with increasing governmental partnerships, and grants were flowing to these agencies.  John Schultz himself was a retired Christian minister, and (after all) the agency he headed was called “Christian Children’s Fund.”  So I took his comments seriously.

But this was a problem for me.  I had witnessed the toxic combination of development assistance and religion in the past.  For example, I had seen people leaving evangelical Christian services in Colombia being given sacks of cement by the international NGO that was sponsoring the services.  And I had seen that same INGO proudly display its “transformational development indicators” in Uganda and in Viet Nam: in (predominantly) Christian Uganda, several indicators related to Christian conversion were included, but in (predominantly) non-religious Viet Nam, those indicators were nowhere to be seen in the agency’s literature.  This seemed wrong to me.

So when I was finished with my (otherwise very positive) conversation with John Schultz, I returned to debrief with Daniel and Michelle.  When I told them what John had said about CCF being “faith-based,” and shared my misgivings, Michelle said: “If that’s true, we’re both quitting!”  Then she went to speak with John Schultz!

Of course, what John meant was that CCF’s work had originally flowed from the values of compassion and solidarity of early-20th-century American Christianity, but that no religious content was, or would ever would be, included in the organization’s program work.

Well OK, then!

*

Some months before, CCF had completed a new strategic plan that articulated an overall aim of becoming a “Leader For Children.”  Michelle and Daniel had asked Alan Fowler to carry out an overall “Organizational Capacity Assessment” (the “OCA”), focused on positioning CCF to increase grant funding from technical donors.

I will describe a bit more about the OCA, below.  An action plan had emerged from the OCA, and the first goal of the action plan led directly to the CCF Poverty Study, which will also be described below:

  • Goal 1: CCF will work from a more comprehensive understanding of poverty, and its impact on children, and will seek to integrate itself within the global movement against poverty.

My own assignment was to support work on the second goal:

  • Goal 2: CCF program practices will be guided by a more refined development approach that mitigates both the cause and effect of child and community ill-being through holistic and sustainable intervention strategies.

Next time, I will describe the research that I carried out as we developed what became known as “Bright Futures.”  This time, I want to describe the OCA, and the CCF Poverty Study, two efforts that produced important inputs for what became “Bright Futures.”  These projects were clear evidence that Michelle and Daniel, and John Schultz, were very serious about transforming CCF into a world-class evidence-based development organization: they were questioning almost everything, in an honest and open spirit of discovery.  Exciting stuff.

*

The Organizational Capacity Assessment – “OCA”

Michelle had asked Alan Fowler to review CCF’s capacity to reach a major strategic goal: increasing private funding by 50%, and growing technical grants by a whopping 800%.  Alan was, and is, one of our sector’s “respected elders” – people who have thought and written deeply about our work.

Along the way, I had read several of Alan’s books, and many of the papers he produced.  (I had never met Alan, though had briefly collaborated with his wife, Wendy Crane, when she was with Plan International: as I arrived at Plan’s headquarters in 1993, a new strategic plan was being finalized, and it was my responsibility to finalize the plan.  Wendy had been on the taskforce developing the plan, so we worked together to finish it up and present the draft to Plan’s senior management and board.)

If CCF wanted to have an unvarnished assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, Alan was the perfect choice.

Data for Alan’s draft “OCA” report, dated April, 2002 (a few months before I arrived on the scene) was gathered through in-depth case studies, a survey, and focus group discussions.  He began with an appreciation of what CCF was already doing:

A major finding is that CCF’s distinct model of parent-driven and managed development using directly remitted sponsor funds has the potential to place it in a good position to raise funds from professional grant makers – predominantly the official aid system.

CCF’s approach produces what parents want for their children. It creates local community capacity, albeit within the narrow confines of managing CCF inputs. It fosters community ownership of change. It is sensitive to local and culturally appropriate forms of organising and oversight. It has helped bridged cleavages within communities and kept at bay political and external interference. And, it has helped women make significant gains in terms of position, voice and capabilities. These assets are some of CCF’s best-kept secrets.

But Alan had some significant suggestions, many of which led directly into the Poverty Study, and also into what became Bright Futures.  For example, the following observation was an important element in the organization’s decision to study how children and youth actually experience poverty:

However, there are important weaknesses in the CCF development model. It is insufficiently holistic and lacks a cause-based analysis of child poverty, vulnerability and deprivation. Consequently, symptoms receive more attention than causes.

As will be seen next time, Bright Futures would emphasize building the capacity of local partners to interact with, and influence, government service provision, in favor of people living in poverty.  The OCA pointed out the importance of building this into the new approach:

Attention needs to be given to policy and practical reform and strengthening in the CCF community development methodology. The policy parameters for CCF assistance require adjustment to deal with the problem of ‘development ceilings’. This does not automatically imply that CCF should gather every conceivable development competence in house. Rather, it implies building the capacity to relate and link communities to others. Of particular importance is capitalising on the decentralisation thrust in government reform and service delivery, with communities as legitimate claimants with rights, not supplicants.

Associated with this type of review, is developing a capability to build the capacities of local organisations and associations beyond the confines and requirements of managing CCF and community inputs. In other words, that the principle of community engagement is one of organisational development, not project management.

These findings would provide important underpinnings to what became “Bright Futures.”  Alan had identified with great clarity many of the ways that CCF’s program approach was falling short; it would be for Daniel and me to propose the remedy.

But first, Jo Boyden and her colleagues were busy interviewing children in five countries, trying to understand how they experienced poverty.  The resulting “Poverty Study” would be fundamental to the design of “Bright Futures.”

*

The CCF Poverty Study

Consistent with the first goal that emerged as CCF considered Alan’s recommendations in the OCA, Jo Boyden was asked to carry out a ground-breaking effort to understand how children actually experience poverty.

A few years earlier, the World Bank had commissioned a landmark study of the lived experience of poverty, interviewing over 20,000 men and women across the globe.  The document that emerged, “Voices of the Poor: Crying Out for Change,” had a powerful effect on work in our sector.  (I’ve mentioned the work of one of the study’s authors, Robert Chambers, in an earlier posting, and I will return to highlight an impressive talk he gave many years later, at a conference I attended in Canberra.)

That the World Bank, such an enormous organisation with such an uneven record of impact, would take the time to listen to so many people living in poverty was, itself, impressive.  Even if the document’s findings didn’t seem to have much impact on many projects, particularly larger, infrastructure-focused efforts, it was easy to see the powerful effect it had on the wider policies and commitments of the Bank.

The findings from “Voices of the Poor” were organised around ten themes:

  • Livelihoods and assets are precarious, seasonal and inadequate.
  • Places of the poor are isolated, risky, unserviced and stigmatized.
  • The body is hungry, exhausted, sick and poor in appearance.
  • Gender relations are troubled and unequal.
  • Social relations are discriminating and isolating.
  • Security is lacking in the sense of both protection and peace of mind.
  • Behaviors of those more powerful are marked by disregard and abuse.
  • Institutions are disempowering and excluding.
  • Organizations of the poor are weak and disconnected.
  • Capabilities are weak because of the lack of information, education, skills and confidence.

This was important stuff, and I really liked that the authors had recognised that poverty, for those who experienced it, was more than deprivation.  Much more.

I still highly recommend “Voices of the Poor” – for me, it’s become one of the seminal, foundational texts for our sector.  But Daniel and Michelle recognised that the Bank study was incomplete in one important way, especially for a child-focused agency like CCF: it didn’t look at poverty from the perspective of children and youth!

As CCF sought to reformulate its program approach, this was a gap that needed filling.  And, importantly, it was an opportunity for the organisation to contribute fundamental research to the sector, and to thereby raise its fairly-low profile.

CCF had asked Jo Boyden to carry out the ambitious project that would fill this important gap.  Jo was a well-respected professional, with a strong background in participatory methods with children and youth, then working at Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford University.  Daniel and Michelle formed a steering committee, including Alan Fowler and, later, me, among others.

Jo and her team would produce three reports: firstly, they produced an extensive review of contemporary literature and thought related to child poverty, included here CHILDRENANDPOVERTY1 – COPY.  There were ten main findings, which I copy here from the report’s executive summary:

  1. Assumptions and Cultural Bias.  The literature of child poverty is based on demarcations of children and childhood drawn from Western cultures, and promotes certain conceptualizations of child and family relationships as the ‘goal’ of alleviation strategies, while vilifying others as the ‘cause’.
  2. Inaccurate Measurement, Irrelevant Indicators.  The literature is overly dependent on the statistical, quantifiable dimensions of child poverty, and organizes its knowledge around adult and institutional requirements rather than real situations. This has meant that the terminology, indicators and resulting interventions are often irrelevant to children’s lives in many ways.
  3. Overly-Simplistic Macro-Micro Linkages.  Not enough attention is given to how features in the macro environment — such as economic policy, political governance and conflict — translate into impacts on children. This partly because child poverty studies tend to adopt a ‘snapshot’ approach, making it difficult to assess the longitudinal effects and linkages to larger macro frameworks.
  4. Stigma and Discrimination.  The understanding of how child poverty is regarded by and responded to within the community is poor, and myopics, exclusively targeted interventions may themselves encourage or create further discrimination, as is the case with disabled children. There too little focus on how institutionalized systems of exclusion (e.g. caste and ethnicity) interact with the economic poverty of the family.
  5. The Narrowness of Health.  Health is a prime indicator of child poverty, but in the literature it is largely confined to considerations of mortality, excluding the mental health issues and other less visible concerns of older children. Local understandings and practices of healthcare are ignored, as are the views of the children themselves.
  6. The Reification of School-based Education.  Literacy and schooling are consistently held up as the universal keys to breaking the cycle of poverty in the literature, despite increasing evidence from many countries that education may be contextually useless or damaging, particularly for girls. The benefits are far from automatic, and are rarely available to all.
  7. The Myths of Child Labor.  Culturally biased notions of childhood as ideally ‘work-free’ have vilified the labor contribution of children and over-determined the causal link between work and poverty. There is evidence that in many cases employment can actually be more beneficial to the child than schooling, and may be entered into willingly without parental pressure.
  8. Overstating Vulnerability.  The creation of categories of ‘especially vulnerable children’ such as street children, AIDS orphans and child sex workers has led to disproportionate attention at the expense of other children suffering similar but less visible threats to their protection. It also appears that the vulnerability of such groups is in many cases overstated or misplaced, and being singled out in such a way may unintentionally further their stigmatization.
  9. Ignoring Child Agency.  The literature is very reluctant to accord any social or economic agency to children, despite increasing evidence of children taking control over their own lives at significant stages, and developing strategic capacities for coping that were once thought beyond them. 
  10. Understanding Poverty and Protection.  There is little recognition of child poverty as a protection issue, despite significant reports into child prostitution and trafficking. If at all, these threats to the protection of children are nearly always considered as originating from outside the home, and very little information is available on how poverty affects levels of domestic violence, family dynamics or alcoholism, for example. Some simply see these issues as pertaining to crime and lawlessness, and therefore outside their ‘development’ mandate.

For me, these were powerful findings, dramatically illuminating the biases and blind-spots that were common in our sector.  It was particularly challenging, to me, to read the critique of how we were overemphasising formal education, and demonising child labor, without considering the real impacts of each.

Parallel with the literature review, Jo’s team was engaged in semi-structured and focus-group discussions with children in five countries: Belarus, Bolivia, India, Kenya, and Sierra Leone.  Her report is included here: CHILDRENANDPOVERTY2 – COPY.

This was the most important output of the CCF Poverty Study: actually listening to children, across five continents, hearing them describe their lived experience of poverty, in their own words.  For example:

  • A 16-year-old girl in Kenyas said: “I feel bad. I feel like the odd one out…You lack self-esteem. You feel like you shouldn’t talk wherever you are, like you shouldn’t be expressing your ideas. You feel lonely. You feel ashamed. Like if you have only two underpants and you have to wear one and wash the other and hang it up to dry everyone will always see that you have only two – the red one and the green one – and you are alternating between them.”
  • A young woman in Sierra Leone said: “You have to be humble to the aunt and uncle and show them respect. You must not be proud. Because you don’t have a mother, you don’t have a father so you have no other choice but to be humble. If you do good things you never get praised – they always shout on you and put you down.”
  • A 30-year-old woman in Bolivia said: “There’s no justice. For them (urban population) there’s justice, there’s law, while here there’s nothing, we die and that’s it. Quietly we disappear…that’s how it is.”
  • A 9-year-old girl in India said: “It does not look good when Patlia children say on our face that ‘you are Harijan and we do not eat the food served to you’. I do not feel good when they do not eat in the school. It hurts me.”
  • A young girl in Belarus said: “Poverty means unequal relationships with others. If you are poor you suffer from stigma. Others look at you in a certain way like you’re worthless. Feeling unimportant: ‘No one will listen to me, no one cares for me’. ‘You don’t count’. ‘I’m poor, I don’t count, I’m a piece of dirt.’”
  • A 12-year-old boy in India said: “Of course I want more money because ultimately, food is the ultimate thing you want in life, you know there’s lots of problems we don’t have enough money to get food, for ourselves so we would…we have only two goats and two cows and we have little land, and that’s what we do.”

In summary, the CCF Poverty Study found that children understand poverty as a deeply physical, emotional and social experience.  This experience is felt acutely and minutely from an early age.  And, for them, poverty is more about experience than about resources.

The final output from Jo’s team was a summary document that sought to integrate the literature review with the voices of children: CHILDRENANDPOVERTY3 – COPY.

*

Early in 2003, the Poverty Study Steering Committee met in London to try to make sense of it all.  I felt fortunate that, by then, I was a member of the Committee.  Our aim was to formulate a poverty framework, using what we were hearing from children about their lived experience, that could be used by CCF staff as a key input for program design.

Those three days in London were fantastic – collaborative, creative and mutual team-work that produced a framework that would stand the test of time for CCF.  We agreed that:

  • For children, poverty is a deeply relational and relative, dynamic, and multi-dimensional experience.
  • Poor children are deprived of essential material conditions and services; they are excluded on the basis of their age, gender, class, caste, etc.; and they are vulnerable to the increasing array of threats in their environments.

We came to call this the “DEV” framework: like adults, children and youth experience poverty as Deprivation – the typical “lack” of basic needs.  But, from a surprisingly early age, children living in poverty also feel Excluded from their communities, and Vulnerable to risks and threats around them.

The Poverty Study was very valuable in encouraging CCF staff to recognise that poverty, for children was much more than a “lack” of basic needs.  This way of thinking about child poverty, from the lived experience of children themselves, would be a fundamental foundation for Bright Futures.

*

The OCA and the CCF Poverty Study were very impressive examples of rigorous, evidence-based research.  But, in a very real sense, they were just studies, on paper.  The next, and most important step, would be to integrate insights from these studies into what CCF actually did, on the ground, in poor communities.

It would be up to Daniel and me to create, test, and document CCF’s new program approach, Bright Futures.

I’ll begin to describe how we did that, next time.

*

Here are links to earlier 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:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;

  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed.
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