Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights

December, 2018

Last time I wrote about the “Golden Age” of International NGOs, and speculated about what’s next for these agencies: resurgence, gradual decline, or extinction?

This time I want to talk about conflict.  For me, conflict is one of the key themes of our world now, inside organizations, in the lives of people facing poverty and deprivation, and beyond. It’s a big topic, so there will be a few articles on this theme.

To begin, I want to share five key insights related to conflict.  These insights have helped me greatly as I’ve built my abilities to navigate, manage, and transform conflict. I’m hoping you find them useful, too…

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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.

But first…

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I had reached the summit of Mt Hale just over an hour after starting to hike, on 11 September 2017.  After a brief rest there, I continued on the “Lend-A-Hand” trail towards Zealand Mountain (4260ft, 1298m):

The hike along “Lend-A-Hand” was very pleasant, though I was a bit concerned about how far I was dropping down: inevitably, I would have to recover all of this elevation, and more, to reach Zealand!  But after some time descending, I entered a section that was rather unusual for this high elevation – open, flat, and a bit boggy.  The views were striking, especially to the south, as I passed by a smaller mountain on my right (shown as the unnamed 3700ft peak on the map, above.)  Some autumn foliage was beginning to emerge on this late summer day:

At 11:15am I reached the junction with the Twinway Trail, which I would take to the south towards Zeacliff and then west to reach Zealand Mountain.  I was actually quite near Zealand Hut at this point, but didn’t visit it until later in the day when I would return to this spot on my way down.

The walking was beautiful here; there are some pleasant waterfalls on the Whitewall Brook here near the junction, just a few moments up along Twinway:

The ascent of Zealand Mountain starts up steeply from Whitewall Brook, rock-hopping steadily upward.  I arrived at the top of Zeacliff at around noon, where the views were spectacular, as advertised.  Autumn colors were just starting to arrive in the area down below me, towards Thoreau Falls and Ethan Pond:

There were five or six people at the top of Zeacliff, taking in the view.  From there, I continued on the Appalachian Trail to the west, and the first section was high up, but with open views all around … a bit boggy here and there:

Appalachian Trail Blaze

The walk from Zeacliff to the top of Zealand Mountain isn’t too steep, mostly gently up and down through scrub pine, except for one section where there is a short ladder:

From near this ladder, I could see North and South Twin through the trees; I had climbed these the week before with our Granddaughter V:

I arrived at the spur that leads towards the top of Zealand Mountain at 1:02pm, and reached the wooded peak a few moments later:

Zealand Summit Cairn

Here I had a late lunch, by myself, until about 1:20pm.  Another hiker reached the summit just as I left, so I had a nice quiet time to eat and rest at the top.  No view, as advertised, but it still felt great to reach my 43rd 4000-footer!

When I had started this hike, taking into account the shorter days now that the summer was ending, I had calculated that I needed to leave Zealand Mountain at the latest by 3pm if I was going to arrive back at the car before dusk.  So since it was 1:20pm, I was making good time, well ahead of my worst-case scenario!  No hurry … 

So now I turned around, walking back towards Zeacliff along the ridge.  Going the other direction, I caught some nice views towards North and South Twin, and towards the presidential range:

Looking Towards Mt Washington
North and South Twin

Though without many views, this section of the Twinway is fairly open and not too steep, so it’s pleasant walking.  I arrived back at Zeacliff  just after 2pm, and the afternoon light was even better than it had been earlier: here is a photo looking towards the Willey Range, with Mt Tom (where I began this blog series in May of 2016), Mt Field and Mt Willey, and Mt Washington in the distance:

I continued from Zeacliff, down Twinway to the junction with Lend-A-Hand that I had come up, earlier… to reach Zealand Falls Hut at about 3pm.  I know I’ve been saying this a lot, but the views here were really fantastic – from the Hut itself, and from the ledges on Whitewall Brook, down towards Zealand Pond:

I left Zealand Hut at about 3:20pm, heading down towards Zealand Pond.  The initial descent is a bit steep; on this mid-September day, the trees were bursting into color:

I reached Zealand Pond at about 3:30pm, and took a few photos and a video:

At 3:49pm I took a left onto Zealand Trail, walking alongside Zealand Pond for a while:

Zealand Trail runs along an old forest railway down from the pond to Zealand Road, 2.2 miles of fairly straight and level, very well-maintained, path, passing the junction with the A-Z Trail at 4:45pm.   I reached the end of Zealand Trail, at the road, at around 4:45pm, where there were lots of car parked – a popular spot to start a longer hike, or to get to Zealand Hut.  I walked back down Zealand Road to reach my car at 5pm:

This was a fantastic day – clear, dry, cool, perfect for a long day climbing in the White Mountains.  A really, really great hike, reaching two 4000-footers (numbers 42 and 43) on one perfect day.  Unbeatable views from Zeacliff, and from the area around Zealand Hut.  I made a note to come back to stay a night or two at Zealand Hut, with Jean, a year from now.

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I was lucky to spend six years as International Program Director for ChildFund Australia, a great organization with great leadership, doing important work.  Along with a terrific job and fantastic work environment, another highlight of those years was living in Sydney: a vibrant and welcoming place, with infinite opportunities and an exciting vibe.

Late in our years in Sydney, I ended up taking a couple of courses at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), first in Mediation and then on Principled Negotiation.  At first I looked at this coursework just as a way of acquiring skills that would be useful in my work.  Plus it had been over ten years since I had done any formal study, so it felt like it was time to wake up the side of my brain that might be a bit under-utilized!

Given my full-time work, I didn’t really consider doing a degree – this was skill-building.

But during this time I was fortunate to come into the orbit of a brilliant and gifted teacher and mentor, Dr Rosemary Howell.  Along with her work with executives at the highest levels of Australian industry and society, Rosemary teaches dispute resolution at UNSW, and I was very lucky to study Principled Negotiation with her and her husband Alan Limbury.  I’ve had the good fortune of studying with some renowned teachers (including Bernie Mayer, who we will meet later in this article and in my next posting), and Rosemary is at the very top.  She inspires and enlightens, and is a brilliant artist as well.

Near the end of that class, Rosemary suggested that since at that point I had done two of the eight requirements for a Masters Degree in Dispute Resolution, why not enroll in the degree program?  Enrollment wouldn’t cost anything, and if I decided to go on to the degree, I would be able to count these first two courses.  Otherwise, if I waited very much longer, I’d have to start fresh.

I’m glad that I followed Rosemary’s advice, because I thoroughly enjoyed doing the whole degree, which I finished just after we left Australia, in 2015. And, as it turned out, if I had delayed very much longer, I would have had to retake the Mediation course…

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In upcoming articles I will to share some examples – many of which will be from my own real experience – of how we can take advantage of the opportunities that conflict gives us: to improve, and see things differently, to restore harm. And I will dedicate articles on two topics that I think deserve the space: on conflict analysis, and cross-cultural conflict.

First, in this article, I want to share five insights that I gained as I progressed in my studies of conflict.  For many, certainly for conflict professionals, these insights will seem a bit elementary; but I’ve shared them in presentations since finishing my degree, I’ve found that others sometimes find them as interesting as I do.

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First Insight:  Conflict is a normal part of life.  Nobody likes conflict.  We usually try to avoid conflict, because its dangerous.  But conflict can be positive if managed well.

Like most people, I avoid conflict. Maybe I avoid it a bit less now that I have studied it so much, and have gained some tools that help me manage it productively.  But still, conflict makes me feel anxious and nervous. 

I’ve come to believe that if we can come to see conflict as a normal part of life, and stop striving to avoid it at all costs, we can unlock the great potential for positive change that is latent in most disputes.  To understand why this is the case, read on!

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We live in a time of great conflict, at many levels, and I would argue that conflict is one of the themes of our age, our zeitgiest.  There are many causes of this.  For example, just taking the United States as an example, inequality has risen hugely in recent decades:

As can be seen, this trend can also be seen in many, probably most, countries.  I would argue that this rise in inequality is leading increased social conflict, as some feel left behind, and (quite reasonably, sadly) feel that the rules are rigged against them.

Another relevant trend is that our populations are becoming much more diverse.  While this is positive in many ways, I would argue that if we don’t take intentional steps to learn to live together, to understand and appreciate the beauties of other cultures, this trend can contribute to conflict:

In my own lifetime, the proportion of the population that can be categorized as “white” has gone from over 80% to around 60%, and continues to drop. For me, this is a very positive trend, but we are witness to the backlash that has emerged in recent years, as some in formerly-dominant groups seek to maintain their privileged status.

A third example of trends, in the United States, that are leading to increased conflict, is political polarization:  

Whether this particular reality is a consequence, or a cause, of conflict doesn’t really matter here; to me, this trend is leading to a decline in civility and, then, to increased social conflict.

Other causes of increased conflict might include climate change, which has displaced millions, as has civil conflict; globalization, which has brought disparate cultures into close contact, and caused the economic inequality we can see above, within and between countries, with some economies and some populations stagnating while others thrive; the impact of information technology and artificial intelligence, which has dislocated so many areas of the economy, leading to a rising sense of dislocation and insecurity.

All of these trends, and others, have contributed to conflict, which has become one of the major themes of our age.  We see this in society, and in our organizations.  As I worked through my Masters degree, I became more and more convinced of the importance of this topic.

There are good reasons why we tend to avoid conflict, and why it’s hard to see it as a positive, generative phenomenon – I’ll get to that below.

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For now, to begin to unpack this insight, firstly, what is conflict?  Of course, there are many definitions but, for me, this one (from Lebaron and Pillay(1); references are provided below) is pretty useful:

  • Conflict is “a difference within a person or between two or more people that affects them in a significant way.”

( I would just add that conflict can between a person or people and human institutions.)

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As we unpack conflict, this would be a good place to introduce Bernie Mayer, who I mentioned in the introduction to this article. I was very lucky to study with him at UNSW, in a course he taught focused on building skills in conflict analysis.

But in the interest of space, instead of covering that important topic here, I’ll focus an entire article on conflict analysis in an upcoming article in this series; it merits that kind of attention!

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How does this kind of “difference within a person or between two or more people” emerge?  Typically there is a sequence like this (taken from Felstiner, Abel, and Sarat, 1981(2)):

  • In the first, pre-conflict stage, an “injurious” experience has taken place, but it is “unperceived.”  In other words, something harmful has happened, but it is not yet affecting the people involved in a significant way, and we don’t typically identify the problem with another person or people.  In this stage, we can have strong feelings, of anxiety or anger, or simple dissatisfaction, but perhaps without a particular focus for these feelings, and we haven’t yet identified specific harm;
  • When a transformation to the second stage occurs, we “Name” the problem and identify that it has been “injurious.”  Now we become conscious that we’ve been harmed in some way, injured.  But the transformation of the situation into conflict is not yet complete;
  • If the situation is to evolve into actual conflict, we must identify another person or people who we feel have caused the harm we have Named.  In other words, we must “Blame” somebody.  Still, however, no conflict has arisen;
  • For the situation to actually transform into conflict, we must take action to remedy the harm we have Named, which we feel has been caused by the person or people we have Blamed.  This means that we must “Claim” a remedy. Now the situation has been transformed into a conflict.

I’ve found this framework – Naming, Blaming, and Claiming – to be very helpful as I’ve approached conflicts in my own life, and when I’ve been working to help others manage conflict.  Without Naming, Blaming, and Claiming, there really isn’t a conflict to be managed!  There might be a problem, sure, or some sort of challenge to be overcome, but not a conflict as such.

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Once a social situation has transformed into conflict, the situation can evolve as shown in this figure:

In this model, after a conflict is Named, a person is Blamed, and a Claim is made, conflict is triggered by some sort of denial of the Claim. As the conflict escalates, we reach a point of agitation. Matters accelerate, and the intensity of the conflict peaks. After the peak, conflict de-escalates and we recover our initial calm.

We can probably all remember, vividly, events that proceeded like that…

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Another insightful way of depicting conflict escalation across groups or nations comes from Friedrich Glasl’s Cold-War work:

Glasl’s 9 stages offer a different way of seeing the escalation section of the figure above. It’s easy to imagine the nightmare of Cold-War devastation in the stark, bleak language used: “total war with all means, limitless violence.” The conflicts that affect us on a daily basis – at home, at work, in our neighborhoods – aren’t so dramatic; but the process of escalation described by Glasl is useful in placing ourselves in a sequence, and understanding what might come next, even if we don’t have access to thermonuclear devices!

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One article that influenced me deeply in this regard is entitled “Conflicts as Property,” by Nils Christie (3).  Published way back in 1977, this article gave me an insight into why conflict can be seen as a positive thing.

Here is an excerpt from the abstract:

“Conflicts are seen as important elements in society. Highly industrialised societies do not have too much internal conflict, they have too little. We have to organise social systems so that conflicts are both nurtured and made visible and also see to it that professionals do not monopolise the handling of them.”

Nowadays, with so much conflict here in the United States, and indeed around the world, I’m not so sure that we have too little conflict! But I still take Christie’s point that our legal systems have “stolen” our conflicts from us, denying us the opportunity to learn to resolve matters through dialogue, negotiation, mediation. He feels that we have lost something very basic in our humanity as we’ve “outsourced” the management of conflict to “professionals.” I think I agree.

How can something as threatening as conflict be seen as positive, or generative? Another reference helped me see this clearly: Bernie Mayer suggested that I read “The Functions of Social Conflict” by Lewis Coser (4). I’ve blogged about this book earlier, focusing on how I think it helps explain why INGOs are such complicated places to work. But his main focus is on how conflict brings the need for change to light, and how it can unify groups. A very helpful perspective, and highly recommended.

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Second Insight: Blame it on the amygdala!  

As events are transformed into conflicts, how do we experience this, as human beings?  Brain science tells us that the “amygdala,” an almond-shaped organ in our limbic brain, plays a key role here.

Simplifying things significantly, our brains have three regions: Reptilian, Limbic, and Neocortex.  These regions evolved in that order as human beings developed, with the Reptilian (instinctual, lizard) brain emerging first, followed by the Limbic, and then the Neocortex:

MRI studies have recently greatly advanced our understanding of human behavior. When we are in conflict, using MRI technology we can see that the “amygdala,” an almond-shaped organ in the Reptilian region of our brains, becomes very active.

When we are in conflict, the amygdala releases hormones such as adrenaline, which influence our behavior at the deepest level, in ways that help us, and in ways that are deeply dysfunctional. In particular, since the amygdala is in the Reptilian region, when it activates it tends to disable the Limbic and Neocortex, greatly reducing our emotional and rational abilities. We “deskill.”

All of us have experienced “emotional flooding” when we in conflict.  This is a feeling of high anxiety, even panic, that leads us into the familiar “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” syndrome.  In conflict, the Reptilian brain takes over, shutting down the Limbic and Neocortex regions of our brains; rational, thinking abilities fall to the side. Our thinking narrows, and we become deskilled.

Thousands of years ago, perhaps, this behavior of the amygdala might have been adaptive in a positive way: fighting or fleeing or freezing could have represented the best alternatives on the savanna when confronted with a dangerous animal, or in prehistory when encountering strangers from another tribe.

But in today’s globalized world, emotional flooding is no longer an adaptive trait when we come face-to-face with difference.

I’ve found it very helpful to understand how my brain is behaving when I’m immersed in conflict, and why it’s acting that way, why I’m behaving and feeling that way! In fact, when we emotionally flood, we are responding to chemicals that our brains are producing, we are designed that way. But we don’t have to be prisoners of evolution, with training and practice, we can manage our amygdalae!

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Third Insight:  We have preferences for handling conflict.  And there are tools we can learn to manage conflict productively.  Approaching conflict with authentic, paradoxical curiosity is key to peacemaking. 

Each of us has a preference for handling conflict. There are several models describing these different approaches; the model that I found the most useful is the “Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Instrument“:

On the “Y” axis, we look at how assertive we are in addressing conflict, while on the “X” axis we plot how cooperative we are:

  • An “avoiding” style combines low assertiveness with low cooperation. I think that this is a very common preference, certainly one that I can relate to!;
  • A preference that combines high assertiveness with low cooperativeness is a “competing” style;
  • On the other hand, a person who is highly cooperative but unassertive in a conflict situation can be described as “accommodating”;
  • A highly-assertive, highly-cooperative style is “collaborating”;
  • Finally, a “compromising” approach to conflict is typified by medium levels of assertiveness and cooperativeness.

I like this model, because it seems to describe preferences that we actually observe in the world: highly-assertive, uncooperative people who push too hard to get their way, damaging relationships unnecessarily; very cooperative people who are unassertive, and who are often taken advantage of; etc.

At the same time, there are a range of tools that we use to manage conflict, ranging in terms of the control that we have from avoidance (total control) to violence (completely out of control):

Between avoidance (as I’ve noted, a very common tool) and violence there is a range of conflict-management tools, progressing from more control to less:

  • When the issue at hand isn’t really that important, and there is no strong motivation to preserve the relationship that is involved in the conflict, avoiding can be the best tool. It’s certainly a common approach, and there’s nothing wrong with using it in the right circumstances. But I think that we overuse this tool, avoiding conflict when the stakes are actually high, when relationships are actually very important to us. In these cases, we should address the conflict, our lives will be the poorer for not addressing it. But we don’t, because, even though we should address the conflict, we don’t know how! As a result, when issues are significant and an important relationship is threatened, we don’t take action, we avoid, and the conflict festers and grows;
  • The other common tool we use is informal discussion and problem-solving. Here we give up a little bit of control, because we are seeking to reach agreement with the other party, who we cannot ultimately control. This tool is much better than avoidance, and can be used with issues are important or not, where relationships must be preserved, or not. Most of us have experience with this tool, but as Christie points out, the “outsourcing” of the management of our conflicts to legal “professionals” has led to our having much less experience with these kinds of situations, of dialogue with people we are in conflict with;
  • We can view negotiation as a formalized version of the previous tool. Here, again, a little bit more control is relinquished, because the process is directed into a defined process. But the two parties to the conflict work without the participation of any other participant, so they themselves have full, though shared, control of the process. The version of this tool that I learned from Rosemary Howell, “Principled Negotiation”, is presented in the seminal book “Getting to Yes,” a very well-known management treatise;
  • We give up more control when we use mediation as our conflict-management tool. Here a “neutral” facilitator, with no mandate to determine resolution of the conflict, manages the discussion, still seeking to reach a point at which problem-solving leads to a mutually-agreed plan of action. Mediation as such is voluntary: parties must not be compelled to use this tool. However, in many situations nowadays the use of mediation is a requirement before entering into certain kinds of litigation, as a cost-saving method;
  • Arbitration involves giving up control, almost entirely. Parties to the conflict agree that, after presenting their arguments, the arbitrator will decide how the conflict will be resolved; this decision is binding on the parties. An advantage of arbitration is that it has a well-developed legal framework, so is enforceable in most cases;
  • If the parties cannot agree to use any of the foregoing tools, they often resort to litigation, where they give up control entirely. This is Christies’ “theft” in action: professionals such as lawyers and judges now take over entirely, using impersonal mechanisms (the “law”) to decide who is right, who is wrong, and what must be done. I think that we significantly overuse this tool in our modern societies. Of course, there are many advantages of litigation, theoretically, in terms of protecting less-powerful parties, etc. The adversarial legal system has made a huge and positive difference in our societies, not least because it reduces the level of violence (the final tool, below) we experience. But we know that these advantages are often not fully realized in practice, and there are disadvantages as well, in addition to the compelling case that Christie makes: our legal system is enormously expensive, slow, and subject to abuse by the powerful and wealthy;
  • Finally, violence isn’t really a tool of conflict management, it seems actually to be the entire loss of control. But it is a tool we use in conflict situations, the tool we should seek to avoid at all costs.

These tools, especially the ones on the left-hand side of the diagram above, where we retain a degree of empowerment, are very helpful.

But, the most important approach that I’ve learned actually doesn’t appear in that diagram! I’m thinking of authenic curiosity, and I gained this insight from another important text, “The Moral Imagination,” by John Paul Lederach (5):

I can’t begin to summarize the profound lessons contained in this book but, for me, the notion that to build peace we must remain authentically curious has been fundamental.

I’ve learned that, for me, there is little chance of reaching any sort of resolution if I fall into “fundamental attribution error”: the mistake of concluding that, because the other person is doing things I don’t like, they are bad people. It’s quite hard to move from that place of judgement to a restoration of harm.

How to avoid fundamental attribution error? If I can keep being curious about why the other person is behaving they way they are, instead of simply concluding that they are mistaken or bad, I’ve learned that I avoid the trap. And this lets me begin to really understand what’s going on…

I’m a big admirer of John Paul Lederach.

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Fourth Insight:  All conflict has cultural aspects.  Conflict is culturally defined – these are good starting points, but be careful! 

Having worked most of my career across cultures, I found the study of cross-cultural conflict to be very relevant, useful, and interesting; in fact, a course on that topic was my eighth, and final, subject in my degree. Many conflicts that I had experienced during my career involved different cultures, with surprising twists and turns – I will be describing a few of these in future articles in this series, so stay tuned for that!

And I will be publishing an entire blog post in this series on the topic of cross-cultural conflict.

Just to introduce the topic here, I found the famous “Ladder of Inference” to be a great starting point to understand those strange cross-cultural twists and turns:

The Ladder of Inference

Of course, our consciousness is not so linear, but there is meaning in seeing the process as a ladder. And it’s in assigning meaning to data that we observe (in this case, the behavior of people we are in conflict with) where culture comes in. When another person, from a different culture, assigns different meaning to a situation we share, we can begin to have problems communicating about the situation, which can easily lead to conflict.

How can we understand differences in culture? Here again I was lucky to study a very useful resource: Hofstede’s Six Dimensions of Culture. Hofstede’s work is significant enough that I will be publishing a blog in this series dedicated to it in the near future.

So stay tuned for more on Hofstede…

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Fifth Insight:  We evolved in villages where we all knew each other and there were only small differences in culture.  Now, because of globalization, cross-cultural conflict is becoming more common. So managing conflict is a key skill in our globalized world.

This Fifth Insight is simple, but has nonetheless been very useful in my work. It synthesizes several of the other Insights presented here.

Culture is relevant to all conflicts, even within relatively-homogeneous settings, because culture strongly influences how we approach disputes. But things have changed: centuries ago, contact with different cultures was much rarer than it is today, in our globalized world. This means that we come across the unexpected “twists and turns” as we deal with conflicts more often, in our communities (which are much more diverse than before) and in our organizations (likewise, much more heterogeneous than earlier.)

This means that all of us, even if we don’t work in international non-profit organizations as I have done for 35 years, will benefit from learning about conflict, how to manage conflict to address differences and gain the positive, generative outcomes that are latent in many disputes.

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There you have my five key Insights on conflict. I plan to present Bernie Mayer’s “Wheel of Conflict” next time, a great tool for understanding and analyzing conflict. I’ll share the term paper I did in his class, on the conflict in Ferguson, Missouri.

After that, I hope to publish a paper on cross-cultural conflict, including a more-complete exposition of Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions.

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Here are the references I’ve used in this article.  I highly recommend each of them; they will each yield much deeper insights than I’ve been able to describe in this article:

  1. Lebaron and Pillay, “Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences”, Nicholas Brealey; 1st edition (November 2, 2006);
  2. Felstiner, Abel and Sarat, “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes: Naming, Blaming, Claiming…,” Law & Society Review, Volume 15, Number 3-4 (1980-81);
  3. Nils Christie, “Conflicts As Property,” The British Journal of Criminology,  Volume 17, Number 1 (January 1977);
  4. Lewis Coser, “The Functions of Social Conflict“, Free Press (November 1, 1964); 
  5. Jean Paul Lederach, “The Moral Imagination: The Art And Soul Of Building Peace”, Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (August 26, 2010). 

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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;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?

Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed. What Next?

December, 2018

Apologies for the long silence since my last posting… I’ve recently taken up an interim position as COO for the Disability Rights Fund, which has left me a bit less time for writing…

Anyway, by the time I finished six great years at ChildFund Australia, I had been working in international non-governmental organizations (“INGOs”) for nearly 30 years.  Some have said that those were Golden Years for the sector…

In this post, I want to reflect a bit about those so-called Golden Years, and what comes next.

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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.

But first…

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I climbed Mt Hale and Zealand Mountain on 11 September, 2017, a beautiful, clear and cool day to be out and about in the White Mountains.  This time, I want to describe the (short) hike up Mt Hale (4054ft, 1236m).

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I thought that getting to the top of both Mt Hale and Mt Zealand in the same day might be a challenge or, at least, a very long walk, so I decided to leave Durham fairly early.  So I left town at 6am, and (after stopping for coffee and a sandwich, as usual) arrived at the Hale Brook Trail trailhead at 8:30am.  The trailhead is on Zealand Road, which I would have to walk down a fair distance at the end of the hike.

For the very first time in all of these (42) hikes, I think, my car was the only one parked at the trailhead as I prepared to depart.  This made me guess I wouldn’t see too many people, at least until I got up to the Appalachian Trail (which would be after summiting Mt Hale):

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Hale Brook Trail is immediately steep upon leaving the parking area, and pretty much keeps climbing steeply the whole (short) way up.  I crossed Hale Brook about 30 minutes after starting to climb.  Very beautiful place:

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After a series of switch-backs, the trail gradually became somewhat less steep as I neared the top.  At 9:45am the trees began to thin out, and become shorter, so it got lighter as more sunlight got through.  I arrived at the summit of Mt Hale at 9:51am, an hour and 20 minutes after leaving the parking area; as was typical, this was faster than what the White Mountain Guide indicated (2 hr 15 mins.)

This was summit number 42, of 48!

Even though the day was clear, there were no views from the summit of Mt Hale.  The top is marked by a large cairn of rocks, next to the fittings from what appears to have been an old fire-tower, long gone:

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Summit of Mt Hale

 

Despite the lack of any view, the top of Mt Hale is pleasant, with a nice feeling, perhaps due to the relatively spacious cleared area around the rock cairn.  So I stopped for a quick rest before continuing along the “Lend-A-Hand” trail, initially dropping down into a beautiful fern and moss area, hiking towards Mt Zealand (which I will write about next time!):

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It had been a very pleasant, though pretty relentlessly-steep, 2.2 miles from the car.

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I have described this series of blog posts, my “4000-footer” articles, to be the story of the rise of international non-governmental organizations in the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  That’s useful shorthand, because my story began in 1984 (when I joined Peace Corps), long before the MDGs came into effect (in 2000.)

During that period, international NGOs emerged into the mainstream of international development.  Our organizations grew rapidly as a result of the massive public response to the famine that struck the Horn of Africa in the mid-1980’s; I’ve used this figure in an earlier posting, showing the phenomenal growth of Plan International in those years:

(The article that I’m taking the Figure from is available here: how-should-an-international-ngo-allocate-growth.)

Plan International doubled (in terms of field expenditure) between 1987 (when I joined) and 1990!  And we then doubled, again, by 1995!

And Plan was changing in other ways, too, partly related to our growth.  For example, the number of countries where we worked, and places in those countries where we had operations, grew rapidly.  We grew in other dimensions, too: for example, moving more towards working to influence governments at national and local levels through advocacy and, too timidly, seeking to influence public opinion in countries where we raised funds.

(See my earlier posting in this series describing how we created a growth plan for Plan International.)

Finally, internally, as I have described in earlier articles in this series, Plan was professionalizing in my early years with the agency.  I think this was, in part, due to the financial growth illustrated in the figure: our board of directors began to pay much more attention to financial risk, and started to recruit senior staff with experience in the business world, including Alberto Neri.

As I’ve described in this series, I myself benefited enormously from this “professionalization”.  Joining Plan in Tuluá, our Field Office was a pilot for all of the changes that Alberto wanted to put in place.  We were implementing stronger financial and audit systems, along with stronger internal controls; much more extensive HR management and development practices; and a sophisticated Monitoring and Evaluation system.  I grew up in our sector learning about these improvements, benefiting from the attention and support that we had as a pilot office.

Other INGOs experienced very similar trends; so, in purely financial terms, these were clearly Golden Years for our sector.  In addition, and more importantly, given the later success of the MDGs (putting aside for now the very important question of causality – what caused the great progress made with the MDGs?!), this was arguably also a “Golden Age” for development…

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Several authors have reflected on this “Golden Age.”  In this blog entry, I want to share thoughts from a few authors, including me, and reflect a bit on where we stand today.

One good example of these “Golden Age” reflections comes from Paul Ronalds, the CEO of Save the Children Australia, in this fairly recent article (2017), : RONALDS – End Of The Golden Age.

For me, Paul portrays the situation accurately – “… this unprecedented increase in resources and influence is over: the golden age for INGOs has ended.”  But his analysis of why this is the case seems a bit simplistic, which leads him to propose what seems to me to be “more of the same”; for Ronalds:

  • we need to produce more evidence of effectiveness, and to
  • share this evidence with better communications;
  • we need to invest more in capturing and communicating evidence of impact; and
  • donors need to be willing to pay for that increased cost. 

He argues for mergers to gain efficiencies of scale, and the use of new technologies to “respond to the rise of nationalism and xenophobia.”  This somehow will lead to more support for the SDGS.

In other words, I’m sensing that underneath Paul Ronalds’ thinking there is a sense that there is nothing wrong with what we are doing, we simply need to consolidate the sector and demonstrate we are doing the right things.

Paul Ronalds is a great thinker, with long and successful experience in the sector.  In fact, I was delighted that he accepted my invitation to speak at a ChildFund program gathering a few years ago, in Sydney, when he was working in the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office, in Canberra.  His thoughts then were very helpful.

But we’ve been making the case for better demonstration of effectiveness, and for consolidations in the sector, for decades.  Despite this, and despite progress, the situation that Paul Ronalds portrays, accurately, has come into being.

So I think we need to go a bit deeper if we are to deal with the situation we find ourselves in.

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To be fair, my own views on the situation a few years ago were far from deep enough. For example, during the preparation of the ChildFund Australia Strategic Plan in 2014, I prepared a presentation about trends in our sector for our board: I pointed out four trends that we needed to grapple with.

I began by pointing out the enormous progress made over the last couple of decades, using MDG tracking data to prove the point. Then I outlined four trends that were creeping up on us.  Firstly, progress on the MDGs, along with demographic shifts, meant that 75% of the world’s poor were now living in middle-income countries:

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My second point back in 2014 was that continuing social conflict, fueled to a great extent by climate change and globalization, was leading to increased vulnerability and a concentration of poverty in fragile states:

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The third trend that I highlighted was that we were living in an era of major social transformations, involving: historically-high levels of income inequality; continuing urbanization; the collapse of the post-World-War-II institutional arrangements; and the rise of civil society (for good and ill).

And, finally, echoing what Paul Ronalds would point out later, it was clear that the previously-privileged role for INGOs was rapidly eroding, with the arrival of for-profit managing contractors, strong civil society in the Global South, and donor fatigue in the Global North.

(A version of this presentation is here: Mega-Trends for Blog.)

For me, in 2014, this meant that ChildFund Australia needed to grow our expertise in child protection and social inclusion, and protection; take the investments we had made in our Development Effectiveness Framework to demonstrate tangible results and “value for money”; and build our partnerships with other development actors upward, sideways, and downward.

A good analysis, and good recommendations, for that time in history.  Nothing very original, though: I echoed a lot of Paul Ronalds’ thinking and recommendations, which is not surprising, since there was a lot of this kind of thinking going on in 2014.

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Looking back, I can see that, in those days, there was a significant “cottage industry” of INGO thinkers who were pretty well aligned, making quite similar recommendations.  But there were people, even back then, who were ahead of the curve.  For example, my colleague Alan Fowler took me by surprise once when he told me he thought that INGOs would focus in the future only, or mostly, on service delivery!  The implication, for me, was that he thought that social-justice advances would only come from local organizations.  That took the wind from my sails for a while…

And Enrique Mendizabal had similarly taken me by surprise in an ACFID University Linkages conference in Sydney when he shared his sense that international development, as such, was no longer relevant… see an earlier post on this site.  His brave and convincing keynote made most of uncomfortable, but we did sit up and pay attention!

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Since then, of course, things have evolved.  Though progress has continued in many senses, and there have indeed been some mergers and consolidation in our sector, nationalism and populism have surged and support for the work of INGOs has continued to ebb.

So the third example I want to share here is from Penny Lawrence, who is a bit bleaker than Paul Ronalds or myself, perhaps aligned more with Alan Fowler and Enrique Mendizabal but not quite as radical.

Many of my readers will have paid close attention to the recent challenges faced by Oxfam (and, more to the point, people in Haiti who had been preyed upon by Oxfam’s staff there.)  Penny Lawrence left Oxfam, taking responsibility for the situation (she had served as Chief of Staff for Oxfam International), and later spent some time off to think about our sector.  For me, the resulting article is a bit more realistic about our prospects: LAWRENCE – Whither Large International NGOs?

Having interviewed many senior managers in INGOs about the profound changes we face, Lawrence ends up advocating fairly radical change, but seems to pull her punches at the end, perhaps simply trying not to forecast the end of our sector, hoping that bold action now will keep INGOs alive and relevant:

“Whilst each large INGO has to find its own way, each also needs to ensure they devote sufficient time and resources to exploring the next horizon whilst they are also under such pressure and when the current aid grant/contracting model is not yet so broken and can continue to be exploited. Is contracting really large INGOs’ niche? I am not sure it is and unless large INGOs diversify and divest quickly, the disadvantages of their size will increase their irrelevance to make them the dinosaurs of the golden age.

It will require courageous, connected leaders to make tough choices on functions and then rethink structures, financing models, and people strategies, in order to deliver an agile organisation capable of continued learning and change. They will need to inspire, listen to and engage change weary staff and volunteers to drive and support change and to overcome the considerable blockages that stop change within their organisation too.

Form must follow function, but it seems to matter less what structure you change to – what really matters is that you understand your role and do not just ‘sit there’ when all around you is changing…”

(Duncan Green from Oxfam GB analyses the Penny Lawrence paper here.)

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A final analysis of the prospects of our sector – actually a series of blog articles – comes from my colleague Daniel Wordsworth.  Daniel is exactly the kind of courageous, connected leaders” that Penny Lawrence is thinking of.

I like Daniel’s articles very much, because while he shares a grim view of our organizations’ likely future, he points out a way forward: a return to the values and principles that, long ago, underlay our sector:

Daniel doesn’t spend any time lamenting the situation that INGOs find themselves in.  In his usual forthright style, he welcomes “today’s era of populism” as a wake-up call that should lead us away from some big mistakes:

  • We have focused on basic, physical needs, ignoring higher-level aspirations that all people have;
  • We have embraced technocratic solutions, “divorces from human aspirations,” and thrown money at problems that, sometimes, are not amenable to project solutions;
  • We have professionalized and distanced ourselves from the people we attempt to serve (who have become us, ourselves, to a great extent);
  • We have become dependent on official donors, thinking that they have the answers or, at least, we have to accept their “answers.”

I have made very similar arguments in the past: see my “Trojan Horse” article mentioned in an earlier post in this series.  In that article I argue that:

“… the influx of private-sector culture into our organizations meant that:

  • We began increasingly to view the world as a linear, logical place;
  • We came to embrace the belief that bigger is always better;
  • “Accountability” to donors became so fundamental that sometimes it seemed to be our highest priority;
  • Our understanding of human nature, of human poverty, evolved towards the purely material, things that we could measure quantitatively.”

I will attach a copy of the article I wrote on this topic here:  mcpeak-trojan-horse.

In his fifth and final post in the series, Daniel Wordsworth calls for a return to what I would argue was our sector’s starting point: grounding our work in the actual situation and experience of the people we actually seek to serve, their expressed needs and opinions.  What I would call solidarity and accompanyment, human connection and respect, embracing human compassion and turning away from the sterile professionalism and technocratic mental models that took over our sector.

Wordsworth wants us to:

  1. Replace Largeness with Closeness;
  2. Replace Control with Collaboration;
  3. Replace Models with Empathetic Design;
  4. Put the Passion Back in Our Profession;
  5. Emphasize Vision, Not Money.

Daniel’s organization, the American Refugee Committee, has taken a bold path and is  embracing these inspiring ideas as a way of addressing the dire situation that Paul Ronalds, Penny Lawrance, and I have all pointed to.  His way forward is the only viable path I have seen.  It’s a frightening path, partly because as we reject the institutional arrangements that have funded our work, our organizations are likely to shrink (at least for a while.)

But going in this direction at least will allow us to stay true to ourselves.  Our work will be more relevant to the people we serve.  The current wave of nationalism and populism does not mean that human compassion has disappeared; most people still want to connect with others, to reach out to those who face the massive challenges (displacement, inequality, racism) of our time.  Which means that it might work…

And, anyway, the old structure is dying, so let’s celebrate its success and bury it.  And be part of a new wave, building on some of our sector’s values and that fundamental yearning for human compassion, that could take us forward, together.

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The great American writer, Wendell Berry wrote, in 1990, that “we are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period in the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable.”  In these Trumpian times, it’s hard to disagree with Berry’s assessment – we would probably all agree that things have gotten worse since 1990.

But then he goes on to say that “history simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use.” I think we all feel this way a lot of the time: how can we, as individuals, influence the enormous forces around us that form this “destructive and stupid” period of history.  And in the INGO sector, the technocratic, dehumanized way that we have evolved has led many of us to lose at least some of the original spirit that brought us to this work.

Berry continues, however, and saves the day by saying that “protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”

Here I think that Wendell Berry is really on to something. We realize the best qualities in our hearts and spirits when we take action to make things better, fairer, more just.

For me, there are only two choices:

  • We can try to resurrect our organizations by getting better at what we’ve been doing, professionalizing and scaling up, despite overwhelming evidence that the world around us has changed.  This will be, I believe, a blind alley;
  • Or we can take the path that people like Enrique Mendizabal, Daniel Wordsworth, and other pioneers are showing us, returning to the values of our sector, believing in people and putting aside our egos.  Our organizations may be smaller that way, at least for a time, but we will be able to make a real difference and our hearts and spirits will rise.

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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;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction.