I began a new journey in May of 2016, aiming to climb every one of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall, and to write a description of each ascent. And, each time, I wanted to write a reflection, sequentially, on my journey since joining Peace Corps over 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
So far, I’ve written about 46 of those ascents, and traced my own journey, reaching nearly to the present day. Last time I shared a case study of cross-cultural conflict, involving two international NGOs. I tried to show how some of the tools and insights described in earlier articles (on conflict and culture) helped me understand the tricky and complex dynamics of that situation. And I described my climb of Mt Madison, my 46th 4000-footer, and one of the highest of the 48, on 12 June 2018.
In this article, I want to start wrapping up the journey thus far, with some reflections. As I write this, it has been just over 35 years since I flew from Boston to Miami, headed towards two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. In the previous 46 articles in this series, I’ve described climbing the same number of 4000-footers, and I’ve written about those two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, and the fifteen years that followed, with Plan International, in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, headquarters (in the US and then in the UK), and Viet Nam. I wrote about two exciting years as a consultant with CCF, helping create their (then) new program approach (“Bright Futures”), and serving as acting VP for Africa, based in Addis Ababa. Blogs about four great years with UUSC in Cambridge followed, and several more covered the six fantastic years I served with ChildFund Australia, working in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam. Most recently I’ve described more recent study and work on conflict, culture, and cross-cultural conflict.
In this article I want to reflect on a few themes that emerged for me as I prepared those 46 blogs. I hope you’ll enjoy it!
The 2018 climbing season began for me on 12 June, when I climbed both Mt Madison and Mt Adams (5774ft, 1760m). Scaling both of these 5000-footers, including the second highest (Adams) was very challenging. I was exhausted and a bit battered when I finished!
I described the first part of that long and tough day, getting to the top of Mt Madison, last time. Driving up from Durham at around 7am, I had started up the Great Gulf Trail at 9:15am, and after a tricky fall near the top, which left me a bit bruised and battered, I had reached the top of Mt Madison at about 1:30pm. Now I would continue to the south-west, descending Madison, past the Madison Springs Hut and, hopefully, up Mt Adams. All going well, I would then return to the Hut, and drop down Madison Gulf Trail and Great Gulf Trail to the parking lot:
The descent from Mt Madison was steep and a little bit tricky; and my right knee, which had really bothered me (the year before) when descending from Mt Monroe, began to hurt a bit. The pounding I was giving the knee as I dropped down was taking a toll.
Descending, I crossed a steady stream of people who must have been staying at the hut, which I passed at 2pm:
Here I turned left, past the Hut, and joined the Star Lake Trail, which would take me to the summit of Mt Adams. Signage was a bit unclear, but I went on:
Star Lake is actually just a tiny and shallow pond, the water source for the Madison Springs Hut. A beautiful spot, in the saddle between Madison and Adams. Here is an image looking back at Mt Madison above Star Lake, as I began the climb up Mt Adams:
A lovely, alpine area. The climb up Mt Adams was arduous, steep and rocky. Here is a view back towards Mt Madison; Star Lake still visible. Earlier that day I had ascended Madison along the ridge that can be seen to the right of the peak:
After some tricky climbing in high winds, I reached the top of Mt Adams at about 3:15pm. It had been nearly six hours getting here, across Mt Madison, reaching the top of the second-highest of the 48 4000-footers. I had now climbed 47 of the 48!
Look how far above Mt Madison I was!
It was cold and very windy at the top of Adams, and I was feeling very knackered. But I did stay at the top for a few minutes to savor the accomplishment. And the views were fantastic!
But soon I began the long descent, now favoring my right knee in a major way. It took me over an hour to drop most of the way down Mt Adams, carefully rock-hopping most of the way. It was 4:15pm by the time I approached Star Lake again:
Here I took a right turn onto the Parapet Trail:
And soon I reached the junction of Madison Gulf Trail. Here I left Parapet, and began to descend steeply down Madison Gulf:
I felt quite tired, and my knee was in some pain, so I took a couple of pain relievers!
Soon I regretted not having come UP Madison Gulf instead of descending it: very steep, large boulders, so quite difficult to descend. It seemed to go down very steeply for a very long time, which was not pleasant at all. No choice now!
At 5pm I took a short video of a wet, mossy patch:
It was not until 5:30pm that Madison Gulf Trail flattened out significantly, so it was over an hour of steep descent. Very slow going… torture! Here is an image of a makeshift bridge, taken just after 5:30pm:
Madison Gulf Trail was not well-maintained, so even when it got to be a bit less steep it was still slow-going. Now I was into typical White-Mountains forest, with small waterfalls:
Even though it was getting a bit late in the day, since I was hiking in mid-June I had plenty of time before it would be dark, so I wasn’t too worried. Even so, I was somewhat concerned that I had missed the turnoff for the Osgood Cutoff trail, relieved when I reached it at just after 7pm:
Here I would turn left briefly, and then continue downward to join the Great Gulf Trail. This would take me down the West Branch of the Peabody River to reach the junction with Osgood Trail that I had taken at 10am that morning (seemingly decades earlier!)
A few moments later I passed a tree growing out of a boulder, slightly reminiscent of Angkor Wat!
Reaching that junction with Osgood Trail at 7:30pm, I continued downward through the pleasant evening light to reach the parking lot at 8:15pm. A pleasant walk, soft path underfoot, with a few mosquitoes in the late evening:
Arriving at the car, I was in pain and exhausted. It had taken me 11 hours to reach the top of Madison and Adams, and return to the trail-head. Although I enjoyed it a lot, and felt exhilarated by the day, this hike was beyond my capabilities, a bit too much. I did recover a bit, got more energy after finishing up the steep descent down Madison Gulf Trail from Mt Adams. And I had climbed to the top of two of the highest 5000-footers in one day, an accomplishment for sure. Worth celebrating!
I reached Durham at 10:30pm, finishing a long and incredible day! One more 4000-footer to go: Mt Jefferson, and the end of the journey (for now), awaits!
Since this is my penultimate article in the “4000-Footer” series, I want to share reflections on a few of the themes that have emerged for me as I looked back. It was a great, long ride from my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer to today, almost exactly 35 years later as I write this. So this article is in some ways a bit of a look back at the 46 articles that preceded it…
It’ll be a briefer article this time, just a few thoughts.
I’ve been lucky to work across the globe, and in many different roles. I’ve learned that there is a big difference between leadership and management. Both are important in our sector, but I think that leadership is about being authentic as a human being, and management is about having the tools needed to run a business. Different things. I was lucky to learn a lot about both over these years.
My career has been in the social-justice arena, and I’ve been very lucky to work with great people doing good work. So, are we “do-gooders”?
It always made me a bit uncomfortable when I would hear colleagues talking about helping “poor people.” To be fair, there weren’t very many who talked that way, and I often thought about why that kind of description didn’t work for me…
I’m reminded of the week we spent in Miami, in February 1984, as Omnibus 44 got ready to ship out to Ecuador to be trained as Peace Corps Volunteers. The Peace Corps Country Director, Ned Benner, and a couple of his staff, had flown up from Quito for the training, along with a couple of current Volunteers.
One day during our staging in Miami they put on a role play, with a PCV named Rita (I think) playing the part of a Volunteer who kept using the phrase “I’m here to help…” They were making an important point, of course, about humility and entitlement. “Don’t ever say that” was the message!
And, inadvertently, I think they were making the point I’m trying to make here: that those years of working in international development, overseas, and advancing social justice, domestically and internationally, were important for me and to me. I was learning, and I was realizing myself, and I was experiencing life across dozens of countries, and I was having a lot of fun. Yes, also, I was realizing myself and my potential through service, in a great cause, but I think it’s important to note that I benefitted enormously.
So when I hear people talk about having worked to help poor people, or when people praise us for our “sacrifices,” it makes me nervous about motivations. It seems to me that if our motivation is about others, a whiff of “white-man’s burden” or “mission civilisatrice” creeps into us, which can puff up our egos. Better, I think, to recognize that we are lucky to do the work we do, that we grow as people along the way, and that as we are accompanying people living in poverty and facing oppression, we learn as much as we give.
Across the years described in this series, our understanding of the fundamental nature of human poverty changed pretty dramatically. From even before I went to Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and through my time with Plan International, until early in the 21st century, much of the “international development” sector was focused on “basic needs” – helping people increase income, achieve better education and health, etc.
As progress was made on the MDGs, however, it became clear that our thinking about poverty had to shift. Sure, progress was dramatic, on average, across the world, but many people were being left behind, not included in the general progress being made. For example, it should be no surprise that several of the MDG indicators that were lagging behind related to women and girls. Finally, we began to think about justice and equity, not just basic human needs, as we thought more deeply about why people – such as women and girls – were being left behind.
(Very important to note here that many, many people were thinking about social justice and human rights all through this time, and long before. The labor-rights movement, the civil-rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the abolitionists long before, of course they were fighting for justice. It’s just that the INGO world, and the bilateral and multilateral agencies, perhaps the public at large, and certainly I, myself, was still looking at poverty as the lack of things. Nothing wrong, for the time. And soon we would learn better…)
The work that I did as a consultant with CCF, and in particular with their Program Development Director Daniel Wordsworth, is a good example of how my own thinking was evolving. We put together, and tested, a new program approach for that organization, which we named “Bright Futures.” Bright Futures placed an emphasis on human dignity and stigma, not just basic needs, and we included a clear focus on building the collective action of marginalized people for children’s rights. Good stuff, and an example of the evolution that was happening.
This evolution took me, for a time, out of the “development” sector and to UUSC, an organization focused on activism, social justice, and human rights. At ChildFund Australia, I helped design a program approach that included building the power of people and children living in poverty. It led to a new formulation of international goals, the “Social Development Goals” that have more of a focus on “getting to zero,” peace and justice, and climate action.
What’s missing in the new formulation? Conflict, of course… more on that below.
So as rapid progress was made on fulfilling “basic human needs” and the international community’s view of human poverty evolved to include more of a focus on social justice, many international NGOs struggled to adapt.
In a sense, they were victims of their own success: it was hard to let go of the tools and concepts that had been so useful. These large organizations were doing very good work and, by the turn of the century they had annual budgets of millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars, and thousands of employees – the stakes were very high, and institutional survival became a fundamental driver. Perhaps that drive for self-preservation, growth, dominance in the sector, distracted many of these organizations from their missions…
Today some of the INGOs that were prominent in the 1980s have adapted well to the new age, but others struggle to remain relevant. One big mistake that our sector made was our unthinking incorporation of private-sector culture into our organizations. As I argue in my “Trojan Horse” article mentioned in an earlier post in this series, “… 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.”
As we fell into those traps, my sense is that we began to lose some of the spirit that had motivated us from the beginnings of the sector. This was a significant mistake, one that, perhaps, undermined our confidence as a sector to some extent…
I will attach a copy of the article I published on this topic here: mcpeak-trojan-horse. (For another take on this, see the insights of Daniel Wordsworth that I discussed in an earlier blog in this series.)
I’ve been very lucky to work, over 35 years and across six continents, with many hundreds of highly-motivated, committed, passionate people. In some ways it wasn’t luck, because the nonprofit world, the NGO sector, attracts people who want to make a positive difference – these are overwhelmingly good, dedicated people.
(Of course, there were a few bad eggs along the way, but very few and, anyway, no matter…)
The advantages of working with such passionate, dedicated people are many, and obvious: I almost never had to work to motivate the teams I managed, commitment and dedication was nearly never lacking. What a pleasure, and an honor working with these people: once we were able to clarify the task, inspire and connect it with our mission, build a collaborative approach, and align efforts with people’s passion, we were able to move very quickly.
The only challenge – a big one – was that such committed, inspired, motivated people tend to associate themselves, their personal identity, very closely with their work. Again, the result of this association is, mostly, very positive, but when it became necessary to change things, to make sometimes-tricky management decisions, firmly, our people can take things very personally.
I wouldn’t change this characteristic of our people – it’s a huge asset, and trading our dedicated people for wage-earners would be catastrophic! But it does mean that leaders and managers in our sector have to lead and manage in a very consultative and empowering way, and we have to face great resistance when, for whatever reason, we have to make top-down, unpopular decisions.
Managing in consultative and empowering ways – that’s something that I think the for-profit sector can learn from us: see the Trojan horse article I’ve linked to above for more on this.
There are of course times when we as leaders and managers have to make unpopular decisions. The danger is that our commitment to participatory values makes us hesitate to make decisions which aren’t seen as being consistent with that ethos. I’ve described a couple of these situations in this series (for example), and it’s been a good learning for me: sometimes I had to do the right thing for the mission, for the organization, in ways that weren’t consultative or empowering. There were a few times when I should have moved in that way, and paid the price for hesitating. A good learning for me… I got a bit tougher across the years, in this respect.
Thousands of international NGOs sprang during the years after the 1980’s crisis in the Horn of Africa, with many growing into very large organizations.
Back in the 1990’s, many of us thought there would be a shake-out in the sector: there were just too many INGOs. Most of us thought that the sector would likely split into two groups:
- a few very large, generalist INGOs working on mass poverty, “basic needs”; and specialized. These agencies would gain economies of scale through growth, by merging with other agencies, and would occupy a market position characterized by efficiency. So we saw a consolidation coming;
- a larger number of specialized, focused NGOs working on particular issues, with specific capabilities, presenting themselves to the market as issue “experts.” We thought that this kind of smaller, specialist organizations would emerge.
Some of that happened, but we missed two important developments. Firstly, as I pointed out above, poverty was changing, and “mass poverty,” “basic needs” poverty, was quickly disappearing, at least in the main, on average. But we also missed the emergence of “Southern” NGOs – that is, NGOs and INGOs formed in the Global South (the “developing world”.)
These two trends have had a big impact on our sector, in ways that we hadn’t foreseen when we predicted consolidation and the emergence of specialist NGOs. Yes, the larger, generalist INGOs have consolidated to some extent, and emphasize their efficiencies. But, responding to these additional trends, many of them have also tried to focus on particular issues, pivoting away from “basic needs.”
For example, I worked for 15 years for Plan International, and across those years we worked mostly on community development issues, even when we began to speak in the language of human rights. Today, Plan presents itself as an organization advancing the rights of girls – a laudable position that narrows their focus on a particular excluded population. (What this positioning means in practice is another question…)
And loyal readers of this series will recall that I worked for two years as a consultant with ChildFund US, and six years as International Program Director with ChildFund Australia. The wider ChildFund Alliance worked for years to reduce violence against children, and now presents itself as focused on child safety – another laudable position that seeks to address a particular issue of injustice.
Our earlier thinking was right, however, about the trend of specialization. In these articles I’ve mentioned my admiration for the work of Daniel Wordsworth and the American Refugee Committee – focused on the humanitarian crisis of our age.
And I’ve mentioned that I’ve recently finished six months as interim COO at the Disability Rights Fund (“DRF”), a participatory grantmaking organization that seeks to empower persons with disabilities, including internally inside the organization, and in their governance. As a participatory grantmaker, DRF illustrates another of the trends that I’m seeing – the emergence of capacity in the Global South. DRF is not operational in the Global South, it operates by supporting grassroots people’s organizations. In these ways – focusing on a particular issue of social-justice exclusion, and working to support local people’s organizations – I think DRF represents the way that our social-justice sector should be working now.
So the trend toward specialization is clear, driven by changes in poverty. And I think we’ll see more organizations begin to operate as grantmakers, like DRF, supporting NGOs in the Global South rather than being operational themselves. The big INGOs should watch out!
Globalization and information technology helped the many advances in human development that I’ve described here. But these same trends are also contributing to the rapid increase in conflict that we are seeing across our societies and, inevitably, inside our organizations. (We can’t isolate our organizations from the societies they are part of…)
Conditions for widespread conflict are emerging in front of our eyes, all around us: economic inequality rises; the climate warms rapidly; people move in their millions escaping war and poverty; the public loses faith in government, the media, and post-War institutions; and populist political movements fan the flames of resentment and intolerance. It’s ironic that these trends are arising, given the massive improvements in human wellbeing that have taken place, but it’s our reality.
This means that conflict will be one of the most important characteristics of our age, becoming only more and more important in the future. We need urgently to address the causes of this trend, working to build fairer economic systems, more responsive democracies.
But – make no mistake – conflict in our societies will grow. So as we work on the causes of conflict, we also need to build resilience in our communities, learn to appreciate diversity, develop the ability to manage difference through dialog, and we need to equip ourselves with tools to manage conflict. To mitigate and to adapt. We’ll need to do this with urgency, because conflict creates a negative feedback loop: more conflict will exacerbate the causes of conflict.
It’s easy to see this happening in our societies, and equally easy to understand the urgency. But our organizations are not isolated from our societies and our communities, which means that we will need to manage, prevent, and resolve conflict inside our workplaces, too, as an urgent priority.
But we are not equipped for this challenge. Our educational systems don’t teach conflict resolution, and in our professional development these same skills are almost never prioritized. In my own case, late in my career I realized that a crucial key set of tools had been neglected: leaders and managers alike needed to be able to manage, resolve, and transform conflict inside our organizations. So, as I’ve described, I decided to take a deep dive into conflict, working to gain a second Masters degree, this time in Dispute Resolution at the Law School of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
So now I’m focused on helping organizations, in particular in our sector, navigate this new world of internal conflict. It’s going to be a key skill for their survival, and I think I can help.
There are probably many other reflections to share, but … enough for now!
It’s been a great journey, sharing climbing the 4000-footers of the White Mountains of New Hampshire with you, and looking back at the last 35 years. One more blog article will complete the series: next time, I will described climbing my final 4000-footer, Mt Jefferson, and I will take the time to thank a few of the many people who I’ve learned from, and been inspired by, along those years.
So, stay tuned for one last article!
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:
- 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.