Note: this blog post has been updated to include a video I prepared in 2003, and recently rediscovered. It summarizes some of the consultations carried out as part of the research described here.
After I got home from climbing South Carter, I took a nasty fall and broke a rib and tore my rotator cuff. This put me out of action for a month, and when I ventured north again to climb Mt Tecumseh (the lowest of the 48 4000-footers, at 4003ft, 1220m), I was careful: it was late October, and there was already plenty of ice and snow in the White Mountains.
I began a new journey in May of last 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.
Last time I described some of the pioneering research that CCF was doing, as they sought to sharpen their programming: an organizational capacity assessment, carried out by Alan Fowler; and a groundbreaking effort, by Jo Boyden and her team from Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford University, to understand how children and youth across the world were experiencing poverty.
In this post, I continue to describe my two years working with CCF as a consultant, helping that organization develop, pilot test, and begin to implement a new program approach for their global operations. Looking back, it was a very creative and exciting time for that organization, and it was a fantastic opportunity for me: I had been reflecting about how the development sector had changed, and I had learned a lot since my Peace Corps years, working with Plan International in South America, Plan’s headquarters, and with Plan in Viet Nam. Now I had the opportunity to work with a major INGO, and a great group of people, to modernize their approach, putting those reflections and learnings to the test. It’s worth telling the story.
I drove up from Durham on the morning of 24 October 2016, arriving at the trailhead a bit before 11am. Mt Tecumseh is in Waterville Valley and, in fact, the Waterville Valley ski area runs alongside the trail I was going up.
It was a clear and crisp New England morning, with the autumn colors all around, and a sprinkling of snow at the trailhead – there would be much more snow and ice higher up! I left the trailhead at about 10:52am:
(I’m writing this article in early August of 2017, and seeing these autumn colors again is a surprise: all is lush green now…)
The trail ascends gradually, steadily, alongside the ski area, up the Tecumseh Brook. From about half-way up, much more snow and ice began to appear, and I became nervous:
Going up, not so much of a problem, but I was nervous about what it was going to be like descending. I felt very unprepared, and having broken that rib and injured my left rotator cuff just a month before, I was still very wary of using that arm. If I slipped going down, it might be painful! Mistake?
I was nearly at the top when I reached the junction with the Sosman Trail, at about 12:18pm. There is a short loop around the summit of Tecumseh and, once I came to the loop, it also became very cold and windy, way below freezing, and I wasn’t dressed nearly warmly enough:
Here is the cairn at the summit; I arrived there at about 12:45pm:
At the summit, I put on my jacket and hat and gloves, had lunch, and tried to stop shivering so much! Two small groups of climbers passed by while I was there, but I was too cold to interact with them very much – they were also moving pretty quickly to stay warm!
The top is mostly wooded, but there were some great views to the east:
On the way down it was bad, but not as bad as I had feared. If I had slipped and grabbed onto a tree or fallen on my left arm, it would have been dangerous, but the difficult part was fairly short, and I took my time, getting down OK, just slowly.
Nice autumn colors.
I reached the trailhead again at about 2:45pm. The climb had taken just under 4 hours. Putting aside how risky the descent felt, and how cold I got at the top, it was a very beautiful day with fantastic views. I hadn’t hiked since the accident in mid-September, so it felt good to get back on the trails.
Since it was so cold and snowy and icy, in late October, and given that I was worried about the impact of any kind of fall, I decided that Tecumseh would be my last hike of the 2016 season. Tecumseh was number 23, so I had 25 4000-footers left to do!
As I described last time, I had been engaged to help CCF prepare a “program practices guide” which, in effect, meant developing, testing, and documenting a new program approach. It was a perfect step for me: after 15 years with Plan International, the development sector was changing rapidly, I had been fortunate to serve in a wide range of roles across the world, and was thinking a lot about what it all meant for our international organizations. I felt lucky to be able to work with a great team of people (Michelle Poulton, Daniel Wordsworth, and Mike Raikovitz at CCF, and fellow consultants like Alan Fowler, Jo Boyden, and Jon Kurtz) with the opportunity to create a wholly new program approach.
How to proceed? Great insights were coming from the CCF Poverty Study, and Alan’s “Organizational Capacity Assessment” had identified a number of CCF’s key strengths: unlike Plan International, CCF had developed a range of interventions that engaged directly with the development of children and youth as individuals: for example, Gilberto Mendez had created an impressive “child development” scale, which could be used to assess age-dependent cognitive, emotional, and social development. This stuff was new to me, because Plan’s work was entirely community-focused: where we worked with children and youth, it was to integrate them into planning and implementing project activities that were community-wide in nature. Most of CCF’s work was also community development – this was the best way to secure children’s futures – but they also had developed program expertise in child development. I found this to be very interesting and appropriate, and began to wonder why we had focused only on community-level work at Plan.
And CCF’s existing program approach, which was called “Family Helper Project,” had some really good aspects. In particular, parent groups were established in each community, and these groups received funding directly from CCF’s head office in Richmond, Virginia. Even though the initial motivation for this model had come from a public-relations crisis in the 1970’s, it had the potential to be quite empowering.
But there were weaknesses. Alan Fowler had pointed out that CCF’s development model was “insufficiently holistic and lacks a cause-based analysis of child poverty, vulnerability and deprivation. Consequently, symptoms receive more attention than causes.” He also had noted that current the organizational approach meant that CCF worked in isolation from other development efforts; in particular, affiliated communities were not “capitalising on the decentralisation thrust in government reform and service delivery, with communities as legitimate claimants with rights, not supplicants.” CCF was not “developing a capability to build the capacities of local organisations and associations beyond the confines and requirements of managing CCF and community inputs.”
Daniel told a good story that illustrated this. He had visited a CCF-supported school in Brazil, where the parents and school staff had proudly boasted of their very-high enrollment rates, thanks to CCF. Then he visited a nearby school, which had no support from CCF, and the enrollment rates were just as good, thanks to support from local government, support which was also available for the CCF-supported school!
As I began to work with CCF on a full-time, external basis, I also started to note the use of language that I felt pointed to deeper issues. For example, the word “project” was universally used in CCF to refer to affiliated community groups, not as the rest of the development sector used the word: groups of activities producing a coherent set of outputs. And when I looked a bit more closely at CCF’s work, it was no surprise that project management was very weak or entirely absent.
And the organization referred to the flow of funding to local community groups as “subsidy.” Again, when I looked at this in detail, most funding to parent groups seemed to be going to “subsidize” ongoing expenditures (school fees or uniforms or supplies, for example), rather than being directed towards a clear theory of change, producing outcomes that would sustainably improve the lives of children living in poverty.
While these might seem to be minor, semantic differences, for me they seemed to reflect deeper, entrenched weaknesses that our renovation of CCF’s program approach would need to address. Over my two years working with CCF as a consultant, we introduced approaches that would seek to correct these weaknesses and, along the way, I tried my best to encourage shifts in thinking and, consequently, shifts in language.
I proposed an approach to developing CCF’s new program model which, like the OCA and the Poverty Study before it, would be rigorous and evidence-based. We would begin by benchmarking what other, well-regarded international NGOs considered to be their own best program practices. I would do my own research, both from my own experience and from available evidence. And we would convene reflection workshops across a selection of CCF’s own Country Offices to discover what they were proud of, and what they wanted to change. Then, with this array of evidence and reflection, Daniel and I would propose the key attributes of CCF’s new program approach.
Daniel and Michelle heartily endorsed this approach, and we began our research.
Between October, 2002 and March, 2003, we carried out field visits to Plan and BRAC in Bangladesh, and benchmarking visits with ActionAid, Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK, UNDP, and World Vision in Viet Nam, and ActionAid’s head office in the UK.
At the same time, we organized six workshops designed to allow staff, partners, colleagues, and community members to reflect together on a future CCF program approach and structure. Carried out in Angola, Brazil, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Richmond, these workshops were designed also to stimulate enthusiasm and momentum for change.
About half of the participants in each workshop came from the local CCF office. Usually, two or three participants in the field workshops came from CCF headquarters in Virginia. On two occasions, staff from the CCF regional office team attended, and CCF staff from Zambia were able to participate in the Angola workshop. Additional participants varied by location, but typically included senior staff from colleague organizations (INGOs, NGOs, UN Agencies), members of local CCF boards, CCF project staff, and community members.
I designed, facilitated, and documented all of these workshops, which were designed to be participatory, collaborative experiences, during which participants co-created a vision of CCF’s refined program approach. All six workshops were structured in two sessions, lasted two days, and employed similar methodologies:
The morning session of the first day employed a guided visioning technique (known as the “affinity exercise”) to identify program processes and issues that will be central to the future CCF program approach. A vast quantity of data was collected, and grouped, by affinity, into around 20 key processes.
In the afternoon of day one a structured methodology was used to identify a small number of program-related work processes of particular importance for the evolution of CCF’s program. Workgroups were formed to analyze each of these processes in great detail, meeting through the end of day one and the morning of day two. Session 1 closed with plenary presentations from each workgroup, and general discussion.
Session 2, during the afternoon of day two, was focused on how we should document the new program approach: what documentation should look like, who its users would be, their requirements, etc. In several cases, one or two groups used Session 2 to focus in more detail on a program process from Session 1.
I recently rediscovered several summary videos that I prepared during the creation and pilot testing of what became Bright Futures. These videos were prepared in 2003, to help senior management get a sense of what was happening in the field.
So, here is a short summary video of the consultation workshops described above:
We gathered an immense amount of information during these months, relating to what other well-respected INGOs were proud of, along with what CCF’s teams felt were their own best practices. And, in parallel with these consultations, I was carrying out my own reflections: what had I learned along the way? What were leading thinkers (Robert Chambers, Amartya Sen, Mike Edwards, our colleague Alan Fowler, and others) saying?
At the end of this phase of work, in March, 2003 I produced a summary document that described all of our benchmarking, and proposed the outlines of what I thought CCF’s new program approach should be. The report is attached here: Phase 1 Report – Final. Much of the content in the rest of this blog posting can be found, with more detail, in that document.
Putting it all together, I came up with an overall description of what I felt was the most updated thinking of good development practice. Based on my nearly 20 years of experience at community, country, regional, and international levels on five continents, along with some good time to reflect and research; on an extensive benchmarking exercise with some of the best organizations in our sector; and taking into account the learning and aspirations of CCF’s own teams, as of early 2003, this was where I thought international NGOs should be aiming:
Development can be viewed as the expansion of the “capabilities that a person has, that is, the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she values.”(1) Poverty would then be seen as the deprivation of these capabilities, manifesting itself in general in forms such as: “a lack of income and assets to attain basic necessities – food, shelter, clothing, and acceptable levels of health and education; a sense of voicelessness and powerlessness in the state and society; and vulnerability to adverse shocks, linked with an inability to cope with them.”(2)
Poverty is also a highly contextualized phenomenon, with intermingled, inter-linked, and multi-dimensional causes and effects. The concrete manifestations of the domains of poverty are highly specific and particular to local contexts.(3)
In this light, good development practice:
To have lasting effect, is based on a clear understanding of the causes and dimensions of poverty at all relevant levels;
To make a difference, promotes economic opportunities for poor people, facilitates empowerment of the poor, and enhances security by reducing vulnerability(4);
To be sustainable, is based on catalyzing and building on the potential existing (though perhaps latent) in a local community or area, by supporting institutions delivering services to the poor, and by building institutions through which the poor can act(5);
To be appropriate and relevant, is based on an immersion in each local environment, and the active participation of the poor(6) themselves;
To have impact on the causes of poverty, is linked up and integrated at all levels: micro, meso, and macro.(7)
- Amartya Sen, “Development As Freedom,” 1999.
- World Bank, “World Development Report 2000/2001 – Attacking Poverty.”
- Deb Johnson, “Insights on Poverty, “ Development in Practice, May 2002.
- World Bank, “World Development Report 2000/2001 – Attacking Poverty.”
- Mike Edwards, “NGO Performance – What Breeds Success?,” World Development, February 1999.
- See Vierira da Cunha and Junho Pena, “The Limits and Merits of Participation,” undated.
- Mike Edwards, “NGO Performance – What Breeds Success?,” World Development, February 1999.
(This outline of “good development practice” looks strong and holds up well, at least for its time. If I were to create a similar statement now, from the perspective of 2017, however, I would include much more explicit references to building the power and collective action of people living in poverty, and to inequality and conflict. And with the progress made across the world on the MDGs, which has correlated with improvements on average in indicators related to basic needs, I would put more emphasis on other non-material manifestations of poverty, such as those identified in CCF’s own Child Poverty Study – exclusion and vulnerability and resilience. Finally, with the recent resurgence of populist nationalism and decline in support for globalization across the developed world, I would look to include much tighter connections with systems that reinforce and perpetuate poverty and injustice…
Later on I would put all of these concepts at the very center of my work and thinking… stay tuned!)
Returning to early 2003, I moved on to unpack these overarching principles into key themes that represented concrete areas for change in CCF’s program approach. Each of these themes represented, I felt, fundamental shifts that needed to be incorporated in our redesign of how the agency conceptualized, planned, implemented, and learned from its programming.
There were six themes of change:
Theme 1: CCF programs will be based on an understanding of poverty, of how children experience poverty, and of the causes of child poverty at micro, meso, and macro levels.
We had found that CCF’s programs were not based on a clear analysis of the manifestations and causes of child poverty in the particular local context, nor did they identify how interventions would link with other relevant efforts. And we had documented that sustained impact came from this kind of joined-up approach.
This theme was important and represented a fundamental change from the output-oriented, “subsidy”-type approach that characterized the agency’s approach in 2003.
Theme 2: CCF will provide closer support to development processes.
CCF was rightfully proud that local parents’ groups were in charge of program activities; this was a positive differentiator for them. But it had led to a lack of interaction with, oversight of, or support to what was actually happening on the ground: in other words, CCF simply (and, often, naively) trusted parents’ groups to do the right thing. This was leading to bad practice, and worse. So I was suggesting the establishment of some sort of local CCF support staff function, close to program implementation, to provide support and oversight. Of course, there were tradeoffs here, and local staff might well fall into the trap of marginalizing the parents’ groups, but I felt that could be mitigated.
This theme was also important and represented a fundamental change from the stand-offish approach that was currently in place.
Theme 3: The agency of parents, youths, and children will be central to CCF’s program approach.
Here again, CCF had a strength, and I recommended that the agency continue, and reinforce, work with parents’ associations; their “agency” was a key institutional niche. But existing parents’ groups were isolated from local civil society, and often lacked the capability to implement more robust programs. In those cases, I was recommending that CCF train them to act as funders to relevant institutions, local NGOs for example, and to them move away from being implementors, project-management bodies. This would enhance their stature in local civil society, reduce their isolation, and (in principle at least) improve project management.
I also recommended including youths as active protagonists in the development processes affecting them: this was not only consistent with the findings of the CCF Poverty Study, and with the principles of child rights, but was also a pragmatic choice: children, as with any other group of human beings, understand their situations from a unique and uniquely valuable perspective.
This theme was important and represented a fundamental change, building on one of the strengths of CCF’s current approach, but correcting some of the more-simplistic practices that had led to isolation, and questionable impact. I recommended adjusting, and going much further.
Theme 4: CCF will strengthen programmatic linkages, both horizontal and vertical.
Related to Theme 1, I was recommending that CCF link up and integrate its program at all levels: micro, meso, and macro. This did not necessarily mean that CCF would operate at all levels; rather, building program design from extensive immersion and reflection with the poor and poor children, and focusing the National Office in-country on interactions with other development actors, CCF could link its programs and partners at various levels, seeing its grassroots interventions as illustrations of national programs and, importantly, offering learning from the grassroots to help the design of those national programs.
This theme was important and represented a fundamental change, connecting CCF with broader development efforts in each country and connecting its work with programs at other levels where this would increase sustainable impact.
Theme 5: Changes will be made to CCF’s corporate systems.
In particular, I advocated fundamental changes to CCF’s monitoring and evaluation, financial, planning and budgeting, performance appraisal, and donor-relations systems. These changes would need to be made to support the fundamental programmatic changes implied by Themes 1 through 4.
The details of these changes are outlined in the Phase 1 Report (Phase 1 Report – Final). Very deep reconsideration of, in particular, financial, HR and M&E-related systems, were recommended.
Theme 6: Substantial support to frontline staff, partner institutions, and communities will be required.
I felt that major efforts would be required to support staff, partners, and communities in the deep changes emerging from the recommendations I was making, if they were accepted. These were major changes, which would require structural shifts (for example, putting CCF staff in support offices near project implementation), a whole new set of competencies (for example, project and partner management) and introducing wholesale changes in core systems (finance, M&E, etc.) A comprehensive HR-development plan to support all stakeholders in the transition was required.
Along the way, I was helping Daniel create updates to the organization, keeping people informed about the progress we were making. The third of these updates, summarizing the themes of change, is attached here: Update 3 final
These themes of change, outlined in much more detail in that Phase 1 Report, would, if approved by Daniel and the rest of CCF’s senior management, would represent very deep shifts for CCF. But we had carried out the research and reflection processes in a professional and thorough fashion, and I was delighted that the report was received quite positively.
CCF’s senior management gave us a green light to craft a program approach that would be consistent with the recommendations I had made. Which was very exciting, and challenging. I was being asked to help this major INGO to build the best possible program approach – what a great opportunity.
I will describe that new program approach, which CCF’s President John Schultz would baptize as “Bright Futures,” in my next blog post in this series.
Tecumseh would be my last 4000-footer in 2016. Winter was coming to the White Mountains, and it was time to take a break until the spring thaw. The winter of 2016-2017 would be cold with a lot of snow, even in Durham, so it wasn’t until early June of 2017 that I was able to get up another 4000-footer. On 2 June 2017 I would climb Mt Jackson; that would be number 24, and I would be halfway there!
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.