During my years with ChildFund Australia, I was privileged to work with great people in six countries. In an earlier article, I wrote about the terrific Sydney-based International Program Team: Caroline, Jackie, John, Mai, Manasi, Maria, Ouen, Sanwar, Sarah, Richard, Terina … This time, I want to thank the teams in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam that did such great work to help children and their families overcome poverty.
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, 34 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
Last time I described how we built collective action for child rights into our program approach, beginning with an exciting pilot project in Cambodia. It was our way of building a rights-based approach into our development work, and I think there were many valuable lessons we learned through that project.
Earlier, I described ChildFund’s Sydney-based International Program Team. Now, in this blog article, I want to introduce our teams in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: the people I had the pleasure of working with, overseas, during those years in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam. Great people, doing great work…
To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Cabot, and go directly to my tribute to ChildFund’s teams overseas, click here.
The Climb – Mt Cabot
In the previous article in this series, I described climbing Mt Waumbek on 28 August. My plan was to get to the top of Mt Waumbek, stay the night at Moose Brook Campground, and attempt to climb Mt Cabot the next day. These are the two northern-most 4000-footers in New Hampshire, the farthest away from Durham, where we live, so it made sense to climb them both in one two-day trip.
I climbed Mt Cabot (4170ft, 1271m) on 29 August, 2017. Cabot’s a much longer hike than Waumbek, especially given that (instead of going up-and-back) I hiked a loop up Bunnell Notch Trail, across Kilkenny Ridge Trail (including a visit to “The Horn” at lunchtime), and finally down Unknown Pond Trail.
Unusually, this day was characterized by a certain level of worry and anxiety: the trail-head is at the Berlin Fish Hatchery, which closes its gates at 4pm. So, as I arrived at “The Horn” for lunch, at around 12:15pm, I began to worried about reaching my car in time! Would I be able to reach the top of Mt Cabot and get back?
I had camped at Moose Brook Campground the night before, so was able to get going pretty early, arriving at the York Pond trail-head at 8:41am.
There were two cars at the trail-head as I arrived, so (once again) it looked like I would have a quiet hike! After a lengthy stretch walking through hip-high shrubs and ferns, I emerged into typical White-Mountains low forest, along the side of a stream:
I reached Kilkenny Ridge Trail at just after 10am, an hour and a quarter after starting.
Along this section of Kilkenny Ridge Trail I encountered two hikers, both coming the other way. They were doing the “Coos Trail,” which I had never heard of; we had a short chat about the 48 4000-footers (they had done them all, and we exchanged thoughts about Owl’s Head and the looooong Lincoln Woods Trail.)
At around 11am I reached Cabot Cabin, which is NOT at the top of Mt Cabot:
There’s a small cairn just beyond Cabot Cabin, with views towards the north:
Readers may have noticed that I don’t mention much wildlife when I describe these climbs. That’s because there just isn’t much, or perhaps the animals that are in the area have learned to avoid humans. But I did see a beautiful bird, probably a grouse of some kind, just after Cabot Cabin:
The walk along Kilkenny Ridge Trail to the top of Mt Cabot is very pleasant – no real views, but a fine ridge walk. I got to the top of Cabot at about 11:20am – number 39!:
From the top of Mt Cabot I dropped down towards “The Bulge,” continuing along Kilkenny Ridge Trail:
Between “The Bulge” and the spur trail up to “The Horn,” I began to be concerned about the time. The trail-head, where I had parked, was inside the Berlin Fish Hatchery, which is closed (and the road gated, with the exit blocked) at 4pm. It was nearly noon, and even though I hadn’t begun the hike until just before 9am, when I consulted the map I realized that I wasn’t yet halfway done!
But I was determined to walk up the spur to “The Horn,” as the view from there was supposed to be excellent. I arrived at the junction with the path up to “The Horn” just at noon:
As promised, the views from the top were great, though the clouds that were building took off a bit of the luster:
I had a quick lunch there at The Horn, and decided to walk as quickly as possible to Unknown Pond: I figured that, if I arrived there before 1:15pm, all would be well and it would be easy to reach my car in good time. If I got to Unknown Pond much later than 1:30pm, it might be close! And even though I had my tent (down in my car), and would be fine, I didn’t want to spend the night at the trail-head, partly because there was no cellphone reception there and I thought Jean might be worried if she didn’t hear from me!
So I walked very quickly from “The Horn” to Unknown Pond, reaching there at 1:14pm, just before the self-imposed deadline I had set! The walk was pleasant, but I moved so fast that I didn’t see much of it!
Unknown Pond is quite pretty, with a campsite nearby – perhaps worth a visit sometime when the sun is out!
Here I reached the junction with Unknown Pond Trail, which I would follow 3.3 miles down to the trail-head at York Pond Road, where I had left the car:
Much of the rest of the day would be spent walking down alongside the stream that flows out of Unknown Pond, hiking at full velocity – I really didn’t want to be stuck behind the Hatchery gate!
There were many small meadows along the stream, with nice wildflowers, and as I dropped down in elevation, there were even some indications of the coming autumn:
So I flew down Unknown Pond Trail, not knowing when I would arrive at the trail-head; not sure if I’d make it or not because I couldn’t tell where I was!
I need not have worried, because I arrived at my car at 2:40pm – over an hour to spare!
Mt Cabot, at least when hiked in a loop as I did, is a pleasant and long ascent, not challenging but a long day. I had climbed number 39 of the 4000-footers – 9 to go!
ChildFund’s Teams in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam
ChildFund Australia is part of a global group called, collectively, the ChildFund Alliance. It’s a fairly loose grouping, in which each Member operates quite autonomously, and the few common policies that did exist across the ChildFund Alliance were not strictly enforced. I will write more about some of the unusual behaviors of INGO groupings such as the ChildFund Alliance and Plan International in an upcoming article in this series.
For now, I just need to mention that, in the ChildFund Alliance, some Members both raise funds in their home markets and implement programs in developing countries, while others essentially only raise funds, supporting the work of other, more operational Members. ChildFund Australia is in the former category – raising funds in Australia and also operating programs as “Lead Member” in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam, with other ChildFund Alliance members supporting our work financially.
During my six years with ChildFund Australia, I worked directly with those five Country Office teams, and in this article I want to introduce those teams.
ChildFund Australia’s first operational Country Office was established in 1985, in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Working in PNG is very challenging; it’s a context of great poverty, incredible cultural and ecological diversity, huge inequality, astonishingly high costs, and shocking levels of violence. My admiration goes to the three ChildFund Country Directors that I worked with in PNG, and their staff, that did such great work in the most challenging environment I ever worked in: I can compare it only to working in Tuluá, Colombia in terms of complexity and challenge. And PNG is more complex and challenging.
Warwick “Smokey” Dawson had been CD in PNG for a few years when I arrived. A lanky, phlegmatic Australian with lots of experience in PNG, Smokey and his wife Jeannie had established a high degree of discipline for local staff, and were doing some good work.
Here Smokey is to my left, with Terina Stibbard (our Sydney-based International Program Coordinator, who worked with PNG) on the far right, rear:
But when I arrived in Sydney in 2009, our program operations in PNG were at a fairly small scale, and were in fact drifting slowly downward. We were underspending our budget, and seemed to struggle meeting the basic requirements of our fundraising (mostly sponsorship). Operational costs were very high. As a result, our program ratios (a proxy for efficiency) were too low, and there were some strong and persistent opinions in Sydney that we should close our work there. But, at the same time, PNG was a place with extreme child poverty, so I definitely wanted to try to address whatever was holding us back before giving up.
But certainly I was in no position to make changes myself, both because it wasn’t my role to directly manage things overseas, and also because at that point I was mostly learning about the (major!) challenges of working in the Pacific. It’s a very complex and challenging environment, and I was on a very steep learning curve! So hats off to Smokey and the team.
But we were very lucky to have Terina Stibbard as International Program Coordinator for PNG, based in Sydney – her passion and drive would be invaluable in turning around our operations in Port Moresby.
So when Smokey Dawson left, returning to Australia, I thought that a good next step might be to hire a PNG national as Country Director. Given the complexities of working in such a unique culture, surely somebody from PNG would be better able to navigate this world, this parallel universe? And, given her long experience overseas, I thought that Terina would be the perfect “critical friend” for a Papuan Country Director…
So Terina and I interviewed a range of candidates, both expatriates and PNG nationals. In the end, we were lucky to find Andrew Ikupu, a PNG national with a PhD from Adelaide. We felt that Andrew would be able to manage across the wide differences between these two cultures – PNG and Australia.
Here are a couple of images of Andrew:
I liked Andrew a lot – he was very charismatic and smart. Andrew was deeply immersed in his culture, and his long experience in Australia meant that he was also well able to bridge to other points of view. He knew his country very well, and brought a unique combination of competencies to the role. I learned a lot from him during the years we worked together.
On the other hand, I think that it was very challenging for Andrew to serve as our Country Director. Firstly, having a decent salary and steady income in such a desperately-poor, and deeply-tribal place meant that, as a PNG national, Andrew faced constant pressure to help people in his home area (his “Wantoks” as they are called in PNG). This pressure was financial (if a “Wantok” needed financial support, Andrew came under pressure to help), and also logistical (for example, if somebody in his home area was sick and needed to be evacuated, there were no formal alternatives; the only recourse people felt they had was to ask him to send a ChildFund vehicle, which he couldn’t do.) I think he resisted these pressures, at least mostly, but I also think it was a big challenge. I’m not sure I did Andrew a favor by hiring him…
At the same time, Andrew was in poor health, having developed diabetes just before joining ChildFund. This illness is endemic in the Pacific, as a result (I think) of the encounter between a group of people living very traditional lives, with very traditional diets, abruptly transitioning to unhealthy Western food. People there experienced a dramatic dietary shift to eating processed products, sugar, alcohol, etc., which seemed to have a big, negative impact on people in PNG and the Pacific, and certainly on Andrew. The long-term consequences for people of the Pacific are likely to be quite negative.
So I think we made a good choice, but at the same time serving as ChildFund’s CD in PNG was very stressful for Andrew Ikupu. We were very lucky that, just as Smokey was leaving, we also recruited another gifted senior manager: Manish Joshi joined as Program Manager for PNG. Andrew and Manish worked together for some time and, when Andrew stepped down*, Manish was appointed Country Director.
Here are Manish and Andrew during the time that they worked together:
Manish came to ChildFund from India, having recently worked in PNG as a United Nations Volunteer, in Madang with local government, so he was quite familiar with the country and the culture. Manish did (and, as I write this article, still does) a truly outstanding job as Country Director, managing to address operational issues with a steady hand, and dramatically expanding the scale and scope of our program.
Early in Manish’s tenure, we made a very significant decision: we would stop raising funds through child sponsorship in PNG. The associated costs of running sponsorship systems were way too high, and the complex and detailed nature of managing those systems in the chaotic context of PNG was too big a challenge for our (and any) team. The whole system never seemed to work there. But the flip side of this decision was that we would have to fund our programs exclusively through grants, which have their own serious complexities. A very major challenge.
Manish and his team, with Terina’s support, succeeded brilliantly in this transition, exceeding all expectations. One asset we would gain was the hiring of a very strong Program Manager (Aydel Salvadora) to replace Manish as he moved into the Country Director role. Aydel served as a very competent “pair of hands,” enabling Manish to worry about the rest of our operation.
Amazingly, program activities increased steadily, despite having closed child sponsorship, and operations in general became more stable and functional. Our program ratio improved rapidly, and the operation moved quickly towards being financially sustainable. Even more importantly, I think we were making increasing impact on child poverty.
Few INGOs can claim as much success in this challenging environment. Of course our local staff deserves much credit, and Terina Stibbard played a fundamental role across the tenures of Smokey, Andrew, and Manish, keeping our support from Sydney at very high levels, and investing her heart and soul into the challenge.
But the most important factor in our success was the appointment of Manish Joshi as Country Director. During the years that we worked together, I spoke with Manish most weeks by Skype, and almost every week there would be a situation or two – inside ChildFund or (most of the time) outside in the PNG environment – that was somehow catastrophic in a way that made Manish shake his head and worry. We would talk about whatever it was, work through what we could do to minimize the impact on our world, Manish would chuckle about what an amazing place PNG was to work in, and then he’d get onto the issue in a relaxed but determined way.
Soon the voices in Sydney that had been insistently calling for the closing of our program in PNG became quiet. Which made me feel very proud of our teams.
This photo was taken during my final visit to the Port Moresby Country Office, in late 2015. Manish Joshi is fourth from the left, and Joe Pasen (our Development Effectiveness Manager) is to my left. Other key staff in this photo include Aydel Salvadora (who followed Manish into the Program Manager role), and program leaders Olive Oa, and Sharon Pondros:
Nigel Spence, our CEO, is also in there (sixth from the right, in the back.)
And here is a photo from an early visit to PNG, with me on the left and Joe Pasen in the foreground:
I’ve written about the villager Hillary, and shared a “Case Study” about his garden project, in an earlier blog article in this series. Here Manish and I are visiting Hillary’s garden, with a ChildFund PNG staff member:
Apologies to other staff members who I haven’t named – huge thanks to all of you!
It was a great pleasure working with Manish, who built ChildFund PNG into an important, high-performing organization in one of the world’s most challenging places. Thank you Manish! And warm appreciation goes to Terina Stibbard, who brought her formidable passion and energy to building ChildFund PNG.
ChildFund Australia’s second Country Office was established in 1997, in Viet Nam. By coincidence, I became Plan’s Country Director in Hanoi at about the same time, and I can remember meeting ChildFund’s second and third Country Directors there.
Later I would work with the first ChildFund Viet Nam CD, however, during my time consulting with CCF – by that time Daniel Wordsworth had moved to become Program Development Director in Richmond, Virginia, working with my old colleague Michelle Poulton. I’m still not sure why I never met Daniel when we were both in Hanoi; perhaps it was Daniel’s predilection for nocturnal working hours…
I’ve written more about Daniel in several earlier articles in this series…
By the time I joined ChildFund Australia, Peter Walton was finishing seven years as Country Director in Viet Nam. He had done a great job there, and was ready to move on.
Here are three images of Peter (and others) from my first visit to ChildFund Viet Nam:
Peter’s departure was a challenge, partly because it came very soon after I joined ChildFund (I certainly didn’t want him to leave, at least not so soon after I arrived!)
But, in a sense it was good timing. At the time, the Viet Nam operation was viewed by staff in Sydney as the model that our offices in PNG and Cambodia should emulate. And it was also viewed by staff in Viet Nam as the model! So the establishment of a program team in Sydney, with a mandate to lead program thinking, would be tricky for our team in Hanoi to handle…
Peter’s transition, although the timing was bad, was an opportunity to assert the proper role of the Sydney International Program Team and International Program Director.
Hiring Peter’s successor was my first major overseas recruitment in my role at ChildFund. So I was very lucky to have already met Deborah Leaver in Sydney.
At that time, Deb was Program Manager at ActionAid Australia, one of the few other INGOs based in Sydney. (Most are based in Melbourne or Canberra.) When I was reaching out to meet colleagues in my early months, Deb was one of the most welcoming, inviting me to visit her office near Sydney University and spending over an hour with me. I was impressed, during that visit, with Deb’s obvious drive, energy, experience and intelligence. So I was very happy when, a few weeks later, she asked if she could put her name forward for the Viet Nam Country Director position.
My response was: “of course!”
Here are two photos from our first visit to Hanoi, where we traveled together so I could introduce her as our new Country Director:
Here is the Country Management Team in place when Deb arrived in Hanoi:
ChildFund Viet Nam expanded on several important dimensions during Deb’s tenure. We grew into a new province, Cao Bang, on the northern border with China. And our local website and communications work really moved forward. Our visibility in the development community was greatly enhanced, in a very good way; we became one of the “go-to” agencies.
Several images of Nguyen Ba Lieu are included in the photos that I’ve shared, above. He is on the far left in the image just above here. Lieu was our Program Manager in Hanoi, and was one of our very first employees back in 1999 or so. In fact, I can remember meeting Lieu when I was with Plan, ten years before I joined ChildFund!
Lieu was a vital part of our team in Viet Nam**, with a strong gift for working with local government partners (a complicated, and essential, aspect of working there.) And he had a very agile and active mind, regularly creating interesting frameworks and concepts that were meant to guide our thinking and our work – not only for ChildFund Viet Nam. I think that this meant that perhaps he had to adjust the most when I arrived on the scene and the International Program Team came into being, with our mandate for leading program thinking; but he handled the change with his innate grace and humility.
Deb Leaver thrived in the CD role, and ended up staying for seven years before moving to Laos with another organization. During that time she continued to build our program and enhanced the stature of ChildFund in the Vietnam development community. And she started a family there in Hanoi.
As I’ve hinted already in this article, one challenge Deb faced was that her arrival coincided with the establishment of the Sydney International Team, and my own new position as International Program Director. During Peter Walton’s time, as I mentioned, ChildFund Viet Nam was seen as the leading Country Office, in effect leading program thinking for the overall agency. My arrival meant that things would change – the Viet Nam team would now contribute to program thinking, of course, but would no longer act autonomously, no longer lead things. And now there would be more space for other Country Offices, in PNG and Cambodia (and, later, in Laos and Myanmar) to contribute.
This was a tricky transition, and Deb worked hard to integrate ChildFund Viet Nam into the program-development efforts of the wider organization, under my leadership, while also maintaining the sense of agency and pride that had been built up during earlier years when the Viet Nam office essentially served as the program-development entity for ChildFund Australia.
I enjoyed working with the ChildFund Viet Nam team a great deal. And it was great working with Deb: she was hard working, very smart, with a very wicked sense of humor. It is a testament to her work with her senior management that her successor came from inside ChildFund Viet Nam: Nguyen Bich Lien, who had overseen administrative aspects of our operation, became our Country Director when Deb moved to Laos after seven years in Hanoi.
Huge thanks to the whole ChildFund Viet Nam team, and to Deb Leaver. It was great working with all of you!
ChildFund Australia’s third Country Office was in Cambodia, under the leadership of Carol Mortenson. In 2009, the office was about a year old, our newest program, working in Svay Rieng province, in the far east of the country on the border with Viet Nam.
As I mentioned last time, given the nature of Cambodian governance, Carol made the astute decision early in her tenure to, essentially, work through local government to implement projects. As a result, ChildFund faced relatively few difficulties operating on Cambodia. Other agencies, whose mandates were more explicitly focused on human rights advocacy or democratization, faced a much different, much more challenging operating environment.
One key hire that Carol made early on was to recruit the gifted and talented, inspirational Sophiep Chat as her Program Manager. Sophiep brought a unique set of skills to his role, and was of great help also to our wider program-development efforts beyond Cambodia. I always enjoyed working with Sophiep, one of the most gifted NGO leaders I’ve worked with, and I learned a great deal from him – his contribution to our work in Cambodia, and to wider program development for the wider organization, was fundamental.
Later, two other gifted Cambodians joined Carol’s team:
- Solin Chan became ChildFund Cambodia’s Development Effectiveness and Learning Manager, playing a key role in creating and implementing the overall ChildFund Australia Development Effectiveness Framework (DEF). As with Sophiep, I learned a huge amount from Solin, who moved to work with UNICEF late in my time with ChildFund. Solin was a very smart, and funny, professional who worked closely with Richard Geeves in moving the DEF forward;
- Oum Vongarnith, our Finance and Administration Manager, was another key member of our team. Hardworking and determined, we relied on Oum to make sure that operations were efficient and effective, and he never let us down. I greatly enjoyed his sense of humor, and his dedication to our work was unrivaled.
During my time at ChildFund Australia, the Cambodia team grew into a second province (Kratie, north of Phnom Penh, on the Mekong) and slowly began to diversify our operational partnerships beyond local government.
Carol Mortenson left ChildFund Cambodia after a productive seven years, the same length of time that Peter Walton had been with ChildFund in Viet Nam. I thought that this was a good, long period of time, and reasonable to consider leadership changes.
After an extensive recruitment, we were lucky to bring Prashant Verma into ChildFund as Country Director.
Prashant came from Plan International in Cambodia, and brought with him probably the highest energy of any Country Director I’ve worked with. His drive and commitment to our work was amazing to see, and upon assuming his position he immediately began to discern areas where we could advance the effectiveness of our work. We were fortunate to bring Prashant on board, and although I only worked with him for a short time, I learned a lot from him. Prashant is one of the most innovative Country Directors I ever worked with, and was a perfect successor to Carol.
My deep thanks to both Carol and Prashant!
The fourth of our Country Offices to open was in Laos. In Peter Walton’s last few months with ChildFund, he supervised initial research into our possible expansion into Laos, having hired a team of two consultants to carry out the work. The outstanding work of those consultants, Chris Mastaglio and Keo Souvannaphoum, positioned us astutely to obtain a license to operate in the country. Then they were selected as (respectively) Country Director and Program Manager.
We were very lucky to bring Chris and Keo onboard as our first staff in Laos. They knew the country and its development context very well: Chris had been working in Laos with other INGOs for some time, and Keo was a Lao citizen with an advance degree from Duke University.
Personally, I found working with Chris and Keo to be a constant source of inspiration. At first, Laos is a seemingly relaxed and uncomplicated place to work; but once we got going, the real situation revealed itself to be far more complex and challenging than initially perceived. Chris and Keo knew this from the beginning, and positioned ChildFund in a very interesting space where we could make a lot of positive difference in the lives of children in Nonghet District while also subtly encouraging change in the deeper causes of poverty in the country. This balancing act was very difficult and, in fact, most INGOs that tried to work in both areas were not successful. It is a real testimony to Chris’s and Keo’s hard work and keen insights that we were able to stay engaged, successfully and sustainably (though not without some very nerve-wracking moments) in both domains.
As a result, ChildFund became a leader in the INGO community, and our work in Nonghet flourished, making a big difference in the lives of some people who were facing great poverty.
Our first working area was in Nonghet District of Xieng Khouang Province, in the Northeast of the country, right on the border with Viet Nam. A very good choice, because it was quite remote and the population was mainly from the Hmong ethnic group, somewhat excluded from Laos’s development process.
These images were taken in January of 2011; it was very cold in the winter!
Chris is a veteran rugby player, from Newcastle, and before joining ChildFund he had been coaching the Lao Women’s rugby team alongside his INGO work. After a few years with ChildFund, Chris came up with a very innovative and fascinating project, supporting the development of female youth through rugby. As this sport was new to Laos, it wasn’t “gendered,” so could be used as a tool to develop leadership skills, conflict management, teamwork, psycho-social development, etc.
The project, later called “Pass It Back,” was very successful and later expanded into other countries in Asia. Today Chris directs the Pass It Back program, which is now a partnership with World Rugby, Asia Rugby Federation, and Women Win. When Chris moved over to concentrate (more than) full-time on Pass It Back, we recruited his successor, and I was delighted that Keo was the successful candidate! So Keo became our second Country Director for Laos.
It was a huge pleasure and honor working with these two gifted professionals and their teams in Vientiane and Nonghet. My hats off to both Chris and Keo, and their teams, truly.
The final Country Office to be established in my tenure with ChildFund was in Myanmar, initially headed up by the very gifted and smart Burmese Country Manager Win May Htway, and then by her successor Nini Htwe. (After I left ChildFund, and Nini departed, Win May returned as Country Director.)
This is an image of Win May (on the right) with Oum Vongnarith, our Finance Manager in ChildFund Cambodia. Oum provided outstanding support to the Myanmar operation from Phnom Penh, with frequent visits to Yangon and Mandalay:
From the start, we hoped to work in a different way in Myanmar: Papua New Guinea is sui generis. In Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam, the nature of the national political reality meant that we worked mostly, or exclusively, with and through local and regional governments. This worked, but had obvious drawbacks.
But, ideally, organizations like ChildFund Australia work with and through local civil society – in principle this is more efficient, builds the capability of local society over the long-term, and is embedded within the actual reality of the country. But working with local organizations requires a very different skill set than we in ChildFund had developed in our other Country Offices. So we would have to learn by doing, and much would depend on our own local leadership – first and foremost, our Country Director.
So we were lucky to have recruited such experienced and dedicated local Burmese Country Directors.
We approached this carefully, researching the development context in Myanmar and then preparing a proposed approach. We prepared a document summarizing how we hoped to work in Myanmar and, since it implied such a large change in our model, once Nigel Spence was in agreement, we took it to our board of directors for discussion and approval.
When we had refined our proposed approach, and had approval from our board, we got going. Maria Attard was the International Program Coordinator for Myanmar (and Viet Nam), and she managed the process of selecting our initial staff and first partners. This went well: Win May was amongst our first employees, a brilliant choice of a courageous and passionate leader. Our first partner organizations were selected, knowing full-well that things would likely go very well with some, and not so well with others.
Based around the capital, Yangon, Mandalay, and Shwebo, north of Mandalay, our first partners included organizations focused on street children, early-childhood development, primary education, youth, etc.
We saw this initial period of work in Myanmar as “Phase 1” of a possible shift to working through local civil society instead of implementing ourselves. We weren’t thinking that ChildFund Australia would make that shift everywhere, but that it would be an important tool in our repertoire.
Many INGOs had already made this shift, years before, so in a sense it was overdue for us. On the other hand, most the other major INGOs in Myanmar had begun to work in the country after Cyclone Nargis and, since the nature of the Myanmar government at that point was so oppressive, they had been forced to work directly, implementing projects with their own staff. Even the INGOs that trumpeted their commitment to working in “partnership” with local civil society were not doing so, at least in Myanmar. Because, in the interim, governance had changed (and improved) dramatically there, our relatively-late arrival gave us the opportunity to try to work in the right way.
“Phase 1” was meant to be a learning period, in which we worked with a larger number of partners, across a wider range of sectors and geographies, enabling us to learn and refine our approach and, in “Phase 2,” focus our programs more tightly on a narrower set of sectors and fewer partners.
This worked well – we had successes and setbacks. One partner went a bit crazy and stopped cooperating. Some project work wasn’t consistent with what ChildFund sought to achieve. Most partners and projects went well.
But probably our biggest challenge was that our organizational systems and procedures were designed for direct implementation of projects. At a deeper level, our culture and mental models were all consistent with operations being through our own staff. Organizational ego is a problem in our development sector in general, but gets in the way even more significantly when working through partners. And when our Myanmar staff began to interact with their peers in other ChildFund Australia countries, some sharing of experience actually ended up being quite unhelpful, because even in the same organization the operating models weren’t at all comparable. These clashes of systems and assumptions caused on-going irritants and glitches, which is normal as this kind of fundamental shift progresses.
Many thanks to Win May and Nini and their teams in Myanmar, and to Maria Attard, for their hard work and courage in moving forward with such a different model. It was very hard work, and they blazed a trail for ChildFund Australia. Thank you!
Myanmar was changing very quickly during the years that I was traveling there with ChildFund Australia. The last military government seemed to be trying to reform, at least in some areas, and you could feel things loosening up. Then free elections were held and the National League for Democracy came into power. Optimism was in the air. (Sadly, the giddy optimism of these early days seems now to be very tempered by ethnic conflict and a range of other setbacks…)
It was an interesting and positive time for the country, and visiting was fascinating. One other reason that I enjoyed visiting Myanmar was that my own meditation practice is Burmese in origin, so I was able to connect with that part of the country’s tradition several times a year.
Here are a few images of the country taken during my visits:
I would get together with our Country Directors, face-to-face, at least once each year. Here is an image from an early get-togethers, with (from the left) Carol, Andrew, Chris, Deb, and me:
And here is an image of the ChildFund Australia Country Directors in place as I departed, in 2015: from the left, Keo (Laos), Nini (Myanmar), Manish (PNG), Deb (Viet Nam), Prashant (Cambodia), Chris (Laos, then Pass It Back), and me:
My heartfelt appreciation goes to our teams in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam. It was an honor and privilege working with all of you. Thanks for your incredible hard work and commitment!
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
- South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
- Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
- Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
- Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
- South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
- Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
- Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
- Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
- Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
- Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
- Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
- Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
- Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
- Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
- Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
- Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
- Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
- Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
- Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
- North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
- South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
- Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed. What Next?;
- Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
- Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
- Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
- Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
- Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
- Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…
*- Sadly, Andrew Ikupu died a few years after I left Australia.
**- Also very sadly, Lieu died a year or so before I left Australia.