South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002)

I’ve been writing in this series about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 33 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

Last time, I described arriving as Plan’s Country Director for Viet Nam, in July of 1998, and what it was like living in Hanoi.  This time I want to describe the team I worked with during the four years that I served in Viet Nam.

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I climbed South Hancock (4319ft, 1316m) on 30 August 2016, having reached the top of Mt Hancock earlier that day – it was a solo hike, looping across both Hancocks.

South Hancock was the 18th of the 48 peaks that I would summit in this series – there were still 30 to go!:

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After leaving the top of Mt Hancock, the Hancock Loop Trail continues to the top of South Hancock, which I reached at about 1:45pm.  South Hancock’s summit is wooded, but has a nice outlook towards the south.  Having been frustrated earlier, when a hostile dog had prevented me from having lunch at the top of Mt Hancock, when I arrived at South Hancock’s summit, two hikers were resting at the outlook.  Rats!

So I had a late lunch away from the top, and when the hikers moved on I spent some time at the outlook, which was fine.

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The Summit of South Hancock

Here are some images of the hike down from South Hancock and back to the trailhead, where I arrived at about 3:45pm:

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So it was a short hike from the top of South Hancock to my car, just about two hours.  All in all, a fine day in the White Mountains.

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Jean and I arrived in Hanoi in July, 1998, after having spent a year on an unpaid sabbatical.  Plan was very generous allowing this time to rest and reflect, which I felt I really needed after four rather intense years at International Headquarters (“IH”).

Readers of this blog may recall that three of my major projects at IH were focused on redefining Plan’s programmatic objectivestransforming the agency’s operational structure in the field, and orienting Plan’s growth to where the organization should be, strategically.  And I’ve mentioned at least once my feeling that one of Plan’s major weaknesses was its tendency not to finish major initiatives: when personnel changed, priorities were reinvented, and work underway before staff changes was very often abandoned.  It was like “Year Zero” whenever a new manager arrived.

This tendency was wasteful and, even worse, introduced an underlying cynicism into Plan’s culture.

I was determined not to fall into this trap when I took on the challenge of becoming Plan’s second Country Director in Viet Nam, a relatively new program country.  And I was excited at the opportunity to put the reengineering of Plan’s approach that we had carried out at IH into practice locally.  This meant that I hoped to:

  1. Determinedly build on the work of my predecessor, Supriyanto, and to never, ever disparage what had been accomplished in his tenure;
  2. Faithfully implement the operational structure that we had designed at IH;
  3. Reflect Plan’s new program directions in our work in Viet Nam;
  4. and, since Plan’s growth plan indicated that our work in Viet Nam should grow robustly, I would work to scale up our program in-country.

In other words, I wanted to face the real, practical consequences of what we had done at IH!

Let me describe how this worked.

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It was very easy to respect, recognize, and build on, Supriyanto’s work, because he was (and is) a very smart and pragmatic leader, a strong and practical manager.  In particular, he had made sure that Plan’s work fit into the structure of Vietnamese society, enlisting the local government structure into project management while at the same time devising and implementing a “Community Management System” which provided the checks and balances that Vietnam’s monolithic, single-party state lacked.  As an Indonesian, Supriyanto was deeply familiar with this kind of context (governance in Suharto’s Indonesia bore some similarities with the way that Viet Nam was structured), and the system he devised was very effective.  It worked, both in terms of being acceptable to local authorities, while also ensuring realistic levels of accountability.

I didn’t mess with it!

In fact, when the Vietnamese government proposed to award Supriyanto a medal for his work, I enthusiastically organized for him to return for the ceremony.  (Putting aside false modesty, I would receive the same medal, later…)

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As I arrived in mid-1998, Supriyanto was moving towards implementing the operational structure that had been devised at IH during my tenure there.  In particular, he had named two gifted Vietnamese women as “Operations Support Officer” and “Sponsorship and Grants Support Officer.”  These posts were meant to be, short-term, stepping stones into two of the core, common positions that we had designed at IH – “Operations Support Manager – OSM,” and “Sponsorship and Grants Support Manager – SGSM.”  Supriyanto had named them as “Officers” instead of “Managers” simply to give them time to grow and mature into the very significant responsibilities that the “Manager” positions entailed.  They needed to get ready.  And, I think, he wanted to let the incoming Country Director make the final decisions.  Smart guy.

Here is an image of the Country-Office based managers for Plan Viet Nam, around 2001:

Country Office Managers

Tran Minh Thu          Pham Thu Ba                Mark                Le Quang Duat

 

Tran Minh Thu is on the left in this photo, in red.  Minh Thu became SGSM when she was just 24 years old, and did an outstanding job in that complex role.  She had to oversee the complex and voluminous communications flow between families that Plan worked with and the sponsors that supported the program, hundreds of thousands of individual letters, reports, queries, etc., all across daunting barriers of language and culture.  She also managed public-relations, filming visits from Plan’s fundraising offices, which involved mediating and negotiating between very demanding western staff members and supportive but often inflexible government rules and regulations.  Viet Nam was a very popular country for these filming visits – a fascinating, picturesque place, with (for westerners) a very exotic culture.  This meant that misunderstandings were constant, which could easily have led to mistrust and conflict, but Minh Thu managed things astutely; I can only imagine the pressures she faced.

Later in my career, when Jean and I were based in Australia, I was able to get together with Minh Thu several times – she was living and working in Canberra.  It was good staying in touch with her.

Pham Thu Ba is in yellow, second from the left.  Thu Ba became OSM when she was only 26 years old, and is one of the smartest, hardest-working and most effective professionals I’ve ever worked with – in Plan and beyond.  Her dedication to Plan’s work was unrivaled, and her ability to supervise the complex financial, administrative, and operational side of our work was very impressive.  Again, I can only imagine the pressures that Thu Ba faced in shepherding our financial and operational work, but she made it look easy.

I often tell an anecdote about Thu Ba, which I think describes what it was like working with these amazing people.  At the end of my first year, I carried out the performance reviews of the people who reported to me, including her.  Even more than most, Thu Ba’s work that year (and later) had been superb, so I had only positive comments to share with her.

Imagine my surprise when, after finishing providing lots of specific, positive feedback, Thu Ba’s response was:

  • “You’re not doing your job.”

Wow, not the response I had expected.  She went on to tell me that, as the only foreigner in the office, staff expected me to bring “international standards” to their work, and to guide them towards doing better jobs.  So, if I couldn’t help her improve, I wasn’t doing my job!  And, helpfully providing feedback to me (!), she described how people in the office were viewing my style:

  • “You always start by saying something positive, something we are doing right, or well.  Then you sometimes add suggestions for improvement.  We don’t listen to the first part, only to the second part, because that’s where we can learn.”

What an amazing response.  Since Thu Ba’s work was of such high quality, it wasn’t easy to identify specific areas where improvement was needed, or even possible, but I promised to give her that kind of feedback in the future.  I did rise to that challenge, but it wasn’t easy!

That’s one aspect of what it was like working in Viet Nam in those years – the innate intelligence and hard work of the people, combined with the country’s relatively-recent opening to the world, meant that people like me were seen as very important resources that could be learned from.  We were automatically looked up to as sources of “international standards.”

Often this status wasn’t really deserved (some of the foreigners I knew in Hanoi couldn’t add much value), and it’s changed now (Vietnamese people I know there now no longer look to foreigners automatically as fountains of wisdom), but I enjoyed it at the time!

My experience leading and managing the great Vietnamese staff in Plan has influenced my style ever since.  We American managers take such a nurturing, affirmational approach (for example, we love using tools like “appreciative inquiry”), that we often neglect to indicate where staff can improve.  This is what was happening that first year with Thu Ba.  And we don’t spend enough time observing our staff.  Working in Viet Nam helped me in this regard – I always make sure to complement positive, affirmational feedback with areas where the staff member could improve or develop.

Later, Thu Ba trained in HR management and development at the University of London, and today she manages that side of Plan’s work in Viet Nam, which is a big job.  From Australia, as I will describe in a future article, I would continue to visit Viet Nam several times a year, and was happy to get together with Thu Ba and her husband and two children on most of my visits. In fact, Thu Ba would often take the initiative to convene a “reunion” of Plan staff from my time; these were always joyful events – I’ll include a video of one such reunion below.

On the far right in the photo, in a black shirt, was Le Quang Duat, who served as Program Support Manager during the last three of my four years in Viet Nam.  Duat was a bit older than many Country Office staff, which meant that he accrued a degree of intrinsic respect despite being much newer to Plan than Minh Thu or Thu Ba.  Because I could rely so confidently on how Thu Ba and Minh Thu managed the fundraising and operational sides of Plan’s work, I was able to spend a lot of time working with Duat on how we would evolve Plan’s program.  I relied on his insights into his country, his instincts, and his good hearted and sincere nature.

The term “Support Manager” might be a bit confusing for non-Plan staff, though I outlined the thinking behind the terminology in an earlier blog.  In summary, when we redesigned and brought a measure of consistency to Plan’s operational structure across all field locations, my thinking was that the organization should be as “flat” as possible, with as few layers of bureaucracy as possible.  This would enable Plan to be agile, focused on our “customers” (people living in poverty, and our supporters), and efficient.  Part of the new structure specified that field operations would be conceived as “Program Units” with “Program Unit Managers” reporting to the Country Director.  A core-common structure at Country Offices would include, in addition to the Country Director, three additional positions, reporting to the Country Director but not directly managing PU Managers.

Although in many countries these positions were often filled by expatriates, in Viet Nam they were ably performed by Minh Thu, Thu Ba, and Duat.  I was very lucky to work with these three professionals at Plan’s Country Office.

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Another key staff member was our Internal Auditor, Vu Khac Tan, who had also been named in his post by Supriyanto.  He did a great job, in my time, in a very challenging role.

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Two other aspects of Plan’s standard operational structure, as implemented in Viet Nam, are worth mentioning.  Firstly, field operations (outside the Country Office) were meant to be organized, whenever possible, consistent with the socio-political structure of the country, with “Program Units” coincident with provinces.

We faithfully implemented this concept.  Supriyanto had established four Program Units, with “Program Unit Managers” by the time I arrived.  Of these, three were in the north, in and around Hanoi, while the other was in the central region of the country:

  • Our first province, which actually had split into two separate provinces by the time I left, was Nam Ha.  Our work there was managed by Nguyen Van Mai, who was a very smart manager;
  • Hanoi, Viet Nam’s capital, was the second province Plan worked in; Nguyen Van Hung was the PU Manager there.  I worked closely with Hung, partly because he was based near to the Country Office, partly because his program in Hanoi was very innovative (he managed a large project focused on “street children” in the city), and partly because I liked him.  Hung’s English was very good, and somehow he became my “official translator,” helping me in many of our formal meetings with government.  He now teaches pharmacology at the University in Haiphong, but stays active as a consultant in child protection programming;
  • Our third province was Bac Giang, where Le Thi Binh managed our work, having succeeded Pham Van Chinh.  Binh joined Plan when Chinh moved to the Country Office to take on a technical role.  Chinh was an icon in Plan Viet Nam, having been Supriyanto’s first hire.  He was a rare, older Vietnamese who had studied overseas, in France, so was able to bridge cultures, which was very important in Plan’s early days, when the Vietnamese government was unfamiliar with the idea of an international NGO, even wary of the concept;
  • In Quang Tri, Nguyen Van Quang was Plan’s Program Unit Manager, succeeding Nguyen Van Hung (not the same person as the PU Manager in Hanoi).  Most of our staff was from the north of Viet Nam, where our Country Office was based and where the other three Program Units were.  Quang Thi was in the central region of the country, bordering the old border and DMZ, and Quang himself was from the central region, from Danang.  He joined Plan after leaving World Vision.  He did a great job managing the team and our partnerships there, and seemed to be a good, kind-hearted person.  Quang still works for Plan.

The growth plan that I had devised while at IH had put a high priority on growth in Viet Nam, we worked to expand during my four years there, trying to move towards poorer areas of the country.  We wanted to move our emphasis from areas close to Hanoi, towards more mountainous areas, and to expand in the central region.  So we were able to open operations in Phu Tho and Thai Nguyen, in the north, and Quang Ngai in the center.

  • In Phu Tho, our work was managed by Ly Phat Viet Linh.  Linh was from the south of Viet Nam, which I think was a challenge for him, working in Phu Tho.  There were still some barriers to people from the south working in the north, coming from the country’s history.  Linh had followed the original PU Manager in Phu Tho, who had been dismissed, which was a second challenge for Linh.  But he did a good job and has since held several positions at UNICEF;
  • Our second Program Unit in the center of Viet Nam was in Quang Ngai, where our work was managed by PU Manager Nguyen Duc Hoang.  Like Quang in Quang Thi, we had hired Hoang from World Vision – World Vision’s loss, Plan’s gain.  Both Quang and Hoang were not Christians, which (sadly) seemed to limit their careers in World Vision.  Hoang was a very strong leader and manager, and handled setting up operations in Quang Ngai very competently.  He still works for Plan, in a very senior position;
  • Finally, near the end of my tenure, Plan opened operations in the northern mountainous province of Thai Nguyen, where our PU Manager was Tran Dai Nghia.   Nghia came from an academic background, and was himself from Thai Nguyen, which was an advantage for us.  Nghia was very able and smart, and handled initial stages of our work in that province very well.  I saw Thai Nguyen, known as the “capital” of the northern mountainous region, as a stepping stone towards working up in the provinces farther north and higher up, near the Chinese border.

Finally, Plan’s standard structure envisioned a “decentralized operations support – DOS” office, providing administrative and financial support to Program Units far from the Country Office.  We hoped to grow our work in the center of the country, and established a DOS in Hue, led and managed by Ary Laufer.  (Establishing a DOS in Thai Nguyen, supporting Program Units farther north, was also in our thinking…)

Ary had worked for Plan in West Africa, and did a fantastic job setting up the DOS (and the LGIU, see below) in Hue.  It ran well, and served as an essential support for our expansion into Quang Ngai, and Plan’s later growth (after I left) into the Central Highlands.  Ary worked hard, far from the Country Office.

When he joined, Ary would also be assigned the task of setting up and managing Plan Viet Nam’s pilot “Large Grants Implementation Unit”; I plan to write an entire blog article on the LGIU, which was a significant innovation.  The Unit was very successful before it succumbed to Plan’s fatal weakness when I left and the “Year Zero” phenomenon kicked in.  I’m hoping that Ary will contribute to that article, which will describe the challenge that the LGIU was designed to overcome, how we designed it, how it performed, and how it was closed.

Here are images of the full Plan Viet Nam Country Management Team, around the year 2000, with their base indicated on the map:

 

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And here is a video clip of a New Years gathering (“Tet”) that took place at the Country Office in early 2001.  Many of the people mentioned above appear in this video:

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I mentioned earlier in this article that Thu Ba often organized reunions when I visited Viet Nam, after Jean and I left.  Here is a short (4 minute) video of one such reunion, which took place in October, 2007, five years after we had left.  Jean and I had visited Bhutan, and spent a few days in Hanoi on our way back to New Hampshire:

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Of course, beyond the team that I worked with directly, there were dozens of other staff working with Plan in those days, who really made so many great things happen.  Along with the senior management team that I’ve mentioned here, people like Nguyen Minh Nhat (who managed our monitoring and evaluation program, later working with UNICEF and UNDP), Vu Duc Thanh (a brilliant IT professional who was our MIS officer), Mai Thi Thuy Nga (finance officer at the Country Office, who had a keen and sharp sense of humor), Thanh Thuy and Minh Ha (very capable and professional Sponsorship Communications Officers who worked with Minh Thu at the Country Office), Thuc Anh (another key finance officer), Nguyen Phuong Thuy (communications officer at our Hanoi Program Unit, now with ActionAid), Thanh and Quang (our first staff members in Nam Ha), Tran Thi Lan (the Health Coordinator in Quang Tri), Nguyen Thi Que (finance facilitator in Bac Giang), Tran Thi Thu (who handled sponsorship communications in Nam Ha), Vo Thi Bich Lan (sponsorship communications in Quang Ngai), Ngo Kim Dung (sponsorship communications in Bac Giang) … too many to mention.  Of course, I’ve forgotten some great, and superb people in this list, my apologies, please write to correct me!  But here is a complete listing, at least at one point in time: Plan Viet Nam Staff List – 2001.

My thanks to this great team.

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My time working with Plan’s teams in Viet Nam was probably the most memorable posting in my career so far.  I enjoyed every minute of our four years there.  At the time, levels of child poverty were still high, so our work was important – see the next post in this series for more about Plan’s work. It was a fascinating place to work, with its long history and deep culture.  And, as I’ve described here, I was honored to work with a motivated, smart, and hard-working team of people who wanted to improve themselves, and improve their country.  Many thanks to those amazing people for teaching me so much.

My next blog entry in this series will describe Plan’s work in Viet Ham.  Stay tuned!

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Here are links to 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.
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Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998

Jean and I arrived in Hanoi in July, 1998, for what would be four great years in Viet Nam. In this blog I want to share a bit about those years; I’ll go into more detail about my work there in future posts.

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I’ve been writing in this series about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, I’m also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 33 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

I climbed Mt Hancock (4420ft, 1347m) on 30 August 2016, the 17th of the 48 peaks that I would summit in this series.  Eric says that he and I had climbed Mt Hancock in March of 1991… I don’t have any recollection of that hike, but it must have been very chilly!

In August 2016, I had a very pleasant, solo, late-summer climb.  The Hancocks are located just west south-west of Mt Carrigain, which I had climbed about 6 weeks earlier:

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Hancock Notch Trail begins at the parking lot at the hair-pin turn on the Kangamagus Highway, 4.7 miles east of the Lincoln Woods ski resort.  I left the Hancock Overlook parking area at about 10:15am, having driven up from Durham that morning.

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After a pleasant walk through forest for about 45 minutes on the Hancock Notch Trail, I reached the junction with Cedar Brook Trail just before 11am.  It was a typical White-Mountains forest walk, moving gently uphill along the North Fork of the Hancock Branch river.

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Then after another hour or so of forest walking, just before noon, I reached a fork in the Hancock Loop Trail where I turned left to go up Mt Hancock.  There, lying on the trail, was a small pink backpack, dropped by a tired child?  (I left it there, figuring that the owners would retrace their steps…)

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From there, it was a fairly long and steep slog up to the summit of Mt Hancock.  I neared the top, hot and sweaty, at around 12:30pm.

There is a nice outlook, looking north-west from the top of Mt Hancock, and I had hoped to have lunch there, looking over toward Franconia Notch.  Sadly, there was a hiker there with a dog that was quite aggressive.  Even though the hiker assured me that the dog was “nice”, it was barking and snarling and trying to run at me, snapping its leash as it lunged – luckily it was leashed!  It felt like I shouldn’t stick around, so I left the top of Mt Hancock quickly, and hiked on towards South Hancock, with an empty stomach!

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Nearing the Top of Mt Hancock, Before the Encounter With the “Nice” Dog

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The Summit of Mt Hancock, Looking Back From the Top of South Hancock

 

I can understand why hikers want to take their dogs on these hikes, but some obedience training is in order.

After reaching the top of Mt Hancock, I continued along the Hancock Loop Trail, over South Hancock; I’ll describe that part of the day next time…

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After leaving Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”) in May of 1997, Jean and I spent a year on sabbatical in Durham, New Hampshire.  In those days, Plan was very generous in allowing staff with certain levels of tenure to take up to a year off, without pay, to reflect and recharge.  So that’s what I did, spending the year taking courses at our local university, writing a couple of papers for “Nonprofit Management & Leadership” on the work I’d done at IH (both papers have been used earlier in this blog series), and taking the first three of many Vipassana meditation retreats that I would continue through the subsequent years.

It was a great year.  I did also do a bit of work for Plan during those months: I prepared a feasibility study for Plan to open in Madagascar, which involved a trip to that fascinating place.  Later that sabbatical year I applied to become Plan’s first Country Director for Eritrea, and travelled to Asmara to begin laying the groundwork to open an office there. Sadly, conflict with Ethiopia soon erupted, and Eritrea began to evolve towards repression.  Even during my visit it was apparent that what had been an open environment for international NGOs was becoming much more hostile.

So Plan postponed opening in Eritrea, wisely.  Later, nearing the end of my sabbatical year, I applied for the post of Country Director in Viet Nam.  Jean and I flew from Boston to Hanoi in early July, 1998, for what would be over 4 years in that amazing country.

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I’m planning to write four or five blogs on my four years in Viet Nam.  I want to share what it was like working with the amazing Vietnamese people, what Plan did in those years, and how we restructured the operation to increase grant income.  I’ll finish with reflections on living and working there in those years.

But in this brief first entry, I want to describe what it was like arriving in Hanoi in mid-1998, beginning a long and very happy association with that country.

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Jean and I arrived in Hanoi in mid-July, 1998, having transited for a day and night in Hong Kong.  We were picked up by a Plan car, and took the long ride into the center of the city, still jet-lagged but excited.

The next morning, despite having travelled all over the world with Plan, across Latin America, Africa and most of Asia, we were completely unprepared for the assault on the senses that awaited us in Hanoi: unbelievable heat and humidity, and unending rivers of bicycles and motorbikes on most roads in the city.

After just a few blocks walking towards the Hoan Kiem Lake, were were drenched with sweat and traumatized at having negotiated our way across the city streets at what seemed to be mortal peril.  I vividly recall Jean and I taking refuge at a small restaurant near the lake, sitting in air-conditioning and drinking cold Coca-Cola with shocked looks on our faces.

We would come to love Hanoi – the people, the timeless character of the city – and we became proficient at crossing the streets: just visualize yourself at the other side, and walk slowly, predictably, across…  But we never adjusted to the heat of that country, and even friends and colleagues who visited during those four years, people who had lived in the toughest climates in Africa and Latin America, were gob-smacked when they arrived in Hanoi.  Except for Hanoi’s winter, roughly late-October through March, the heat was unending and the humidity simply dissolved our clothes and shoes.

 

Some landmarks from our time in Hanoi are shown on this (present-day) Google Map:

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IMG_4625Our first home was on Tong Duy Tan street, famous for having been the first area of private restaurants, as the socialist time began to evolve into a “socialist-oriented market economy.”  Right on the edge of Hanoi’s “Old Quarter”, it was a great place to live – lively and incredibly picturesque and unspeakably unsanitary.  A great place,  except for the railway that ran right in back of our apartment!  On our first morning after moving in, we went to the building reception to ask about the overpowering blaring through the night, and the caretaker indicated, with a smile, that the trains “only ran at night”!  Sounding their horns at top volume, of course, because Hanoi is very crowded, even with small homes right on the edge of the railway tracks, so running trains through there was dangerous.

We loved living at Tong Duy Tan, but the noise at night was unbearable, so after a year we moved to To Hien Thanh, which was more modern and a bit nearer to the Plan office.  I could bicycle (carefully!) to work from To Hien Thanh, and was able to jog many times per week around Lenin Park, which was an oasis of green (but with pungent water) in the city. We lived at To Hien Thanh for three years.

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A View In Lenin Park

 

Plan’s office was on Tran Nhan Tong, right across from the city circus (which became a tongue-in-cheek metaphor, funny but Plan Viet Nam was never that crazy) and next to the newish Nikko Hotel.  We had two floors at the top of a fairly modern building.

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Hanoi Circus, Right Across The Street From The Plan Office

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Plan’s Office in 1998, We Had The Top Two Floors.  Photo Taken In 2014.

 

Later, working with ChildFund Australia, I would return many times to Hanoi, so I will update this map with landmarks from that time, later on in this blog series…

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Jean ended up having some very interesting jobs in Hanoi – teaching English at the Hanoi International School, helping in the HR section of the new Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, and doing some training as a consultant.

As I began working as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam, one very special connection was renewed. Loyal readers of this blog series will remember a reference to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, Chris Gilson. Chris had been a water promoter in the same group (“Omnibus 44”), assigned to Guaranda in Bolivar Province.  Here are Chris and I during Peace Corps training:

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After finishing Peace Corps, Chris had gotten a masters degree at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, married Jean, and had two children (Katie and Tommy.)  Chris had joined Catholic Relief Services (CRS), having a few roles in their Baltimore headquarters, including overseeing their Cuba work.  Chris had visited Quito when Jean and I were living there, on a work trip, and we got together then.

Chris and I had occasionally stayed in touch over the years.

So imagine my surprise when, after just a couple of months in Hanoi, I received a memo from CRS announcing the arrival of their new Country Director for Viet Nam, the one-and-only Chris Gilson!  I showed up at his welcome reception, to his shock.

Chris and Jean stayed in Viet Nam longer than Jean and I did, around six years I think.  It was great having my old friend there, learning about the country together and building our connection.  While Chris ably ran CRS’s work in-country (and in Laos), his wife Jean played the key role in establishing the first post-war USAID presence in Viet Nam.

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I will describe Plan’s work in Viet Nam, and the team I worked with, in the next few blog entries.  For now, I just want to note how strong my affinity with Viet Nam, and the Vietnamese people, became.  Of course, as an American living and working there, it was impossible to escape the shadow of my country’s tragic involvement with the country but I came to find that, unlike the US, in many ways the Vietnamese people had moved forward and were thriving, optimistic, and full of energy.

So, for example, aside from one encounter on the street in Hanoi, early in our time there, I never felt anything but welcome and appreciated.  Just the opposite, in fact.  Which struck me, and strikes me still, as a miracle, given that we killed 3 million of their people in a proxy Cold-War conflict in which we fought on the wrong side.

But there were other echoes of that history of conflict.  For example, all of the partners what Plan worked with during my time there, from central-government level all the way to our project work at commune level was with government or “less-governmental organizations” (such as the Youth Union, the Women’s Union, etc.) whose leaders had often fought on the other side of the “American” War.

Three anecdotes that I always go back to when I think about having been an American working in Viet Nam during those years.  Plan’s work was overseen, at central level, by the “People’s Aid Coordinating Committee,” known as “PACCOM.”  Initially, my counterpart there was a middle-aged man whose English-language skills were quite amazing.  One day, at lunch, I asked him how he became so fluent, and his answer was a bit chilling: as a young man he had been a translator at the Hanoi prison (which became know in the West as the “Hanoi Hilton”), assisting the interrogation of American POWs.  That explained it!  But it led me to imagine the scenes that he had witnessed as a very young man.

One of my closer relationships with local officials was with a great guy, Mr Truong Si Tien, who was the Vice Chairman of the Quang Tri People’s Committee.  For some reason, we really hit it off, which was very productive for Plan of course.  He had fought for the Viet Cong forces, which took control over Quang Tri in 1972 and never relinquished it.

There came a time that we had a vacancy in our leadership in Quang Tri province, and one day I received a resume from Mr. Tien.  He had never suggested any candidates for Plan before that, so I took the resume that he sent me very seriously.  The candidate had worked for USAID during the war, and there was a long gap in his resume after 1975 until fairly soon before our vacancy came up – he was working for the UN office in the central region of Viet Nam.  My sense was that this person was very special – he would have been marginalized after the war, having worked with the American government, but now I had a very senior government official, who I had faith in, recommending him to me.  I had to interview this guy!

And what a story he had!  He walked into the interview with a serious limp, which he later explained to me was caused by stepping on a land mine just after the war ended.  Apparently, many people who had worked with the Americans in the war were put to work clearing landmines with bamboo poles… After that, he spent a decade or more repairing raincoats in the Dong Ha market.  Imagine the loss of human potential!  Highly educated, fluent English – repairing raincoats.  But he worked his way out of his predicament, even having lost a foot, and ended up with a very good job and the backing of a senior government official.  An amazing guy, a heartbreaking story.

I wish we could have hired him, but (for other reasons) he wasn’t the most suitable candidate… That experience made me reflect on the sorrow of that war.  And I often felt very privileged to work in Viet Nam, as an American, to be able to do my small bit to help restore a little bit of the harm done in my country’s fundamentally wrong and corrupt war.

Finally, an anecdote from September 11, 2001.  I ended up serving on the “Steering Committee” for the NGO Resource Center, which was a joint government/INGO body that supported foreign NGOs working in Viet Ham.  There were four elected INGO representatives on the Steering Committee, and four government representatives. Because PACCOM was a committee under the umbrella “Viet Nam Union of Friendship Organizations” (“VUFO”), the NGO Resource Center Steering Committee related indirectly to the chairman of VUFO, Mr Vu Xuan Hong (who I would encounter again later, when I was working from Australia, and come to like and respect.)  Mr Hong was a very senior member of the government, holding rank equivalent to a Minister.

One day, in late September, 2001, the four foreign members of the Steering Committee received invitations to have lunch with Mr Hong.  This had never happened before. Given his seniority in the government, we were all very curious and interested, and looked forward to the meeting.  He booked a private room right on the Hoan Kiem Lake, at a restaurant known for traditional Vietnamese food.

After lunch, Mr Hong got down to business.  He wanted to share something with us that had just happened.  He had just received the text of a speech given by Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State.  The speech had been delivered in Washington, to an invited group comprising the heads of US-based international NGOs.

“We’ve never received anything like this before,” Mr Hong said, “and so we paid attention.”  Plus, he went on to explain, the speech had just been given a few days before, and was accompanied by a Vietnamese-language translation, parallel to the English-language text.

“That has certainly never happened before, so we paid very close attention,” he said.

In that speech, given just a few days after September 11th, Colin Powell had outlined the US government’s response to the attacks, and went on to refer to international NGOs as “our government’s boots on the ground.”

“So, we get it,” said Mr Hong.  “It’s clear to us.  We get the message.”  Colin Powell, an ex-General, ex-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referring to American NGOs working in Viet Nam as “boots on the ground” – this was an unfortunate message being given to a high official in the Vietnamese government!

Even though he was fluent in English, and had plenty of experience working with American agencies, I don’t think that Mr Hong understood that Colin Powell was using “boots on the ground” as a metaphor, and didn’t mean to say that American NGOs were part of a US military force.  But decades of history got in the way, and that message didn’t make it any easier for US-based NGOs to build trust with the Vietnamese government.  The shared, and tragic, history of relations between our nations got in the way of understanding each other.

Even though I am American, Plan was based in the UK and was supported through PACCOM’s European Desk.  So, at least partially, I was shielded from the little blip in mistrust that Colin Powell’s speech, and the way it was communicated to the Vietnamese government, caused.

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But Viet Nam is a country, not a war.  Stay tuned for upcoming blogs on what it was like working with the amazing Vietnamese people, what Plan did in those years, and how we restructured our operation to increase grant income.

Before closing, here is a ten-minute video collage, taken from many hours of film that I took during those years.  It’ll give you a flavor for the country, and Plan’s great team.

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Here are links to 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.

 

Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters

In early May, 1997, Jean and I left the UK and flew to Boston, on our way to spend a year on sabbatical in New Hampshire.  I had spent four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”) as Program Director, having planned to stay for only three; as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I agreed to stay a fourth year to lead the restructuring of Plan’s field structure, and to support the rollout of the new structure.  Then it was time to move on.

The last four entries in this series have described the major initiatives that we undertook while I worked at IH (defining a new program approach, goals and principles; deciding where to expand and where to shrink Plan’s program work; and restructuring how we worked at country level), and included, most recently, a “guest blog” from Plan’s International Executive Director during those years, Max van der Schalk.

It was an honour to work at IH, to contribute to Plan’s work at that level.  I look back on that time with some pride in successes, and also with a clear realisation of areas where we fell short.

So, this time, I want to share my own reflections on those four years at IH.  Joys, sorrows, successes, and failures, and lots of lessons learned.

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I’ve been writing a series of blog posts that describe how I’ve been climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall.  The idea is to publish 48 posts, each time describing getting to one of those summits, and also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago, on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.  This is number 16, so covering all 48 of those mountains might take me a couple of years…

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Last time I described how Raúl and Kelly, friends and colleagues from Australia, and I climbed Mt Eisenhower on 20 August 2016.  From the summit of Mt Eisenhower we retraced our steps back down the Crawford Path and then reached the top of Mt Pierce (4312ft, 1314m), just after 3pm.

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This Cairn Marks the Summit Of Mt Pierce

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Here are my hiking companions on the way down Mispah Cutoff, close to the point where we would rejoin the Crawford Path:

 

We had planned on climbing three 4000-footers that day – continuing south from Mt Pierce along Webster Cliff Trail, to Mt Jackson, and then dropping from there back down to Saco Lake where we had left the car.  But by the time we reached Mizpah Spring Hut we were very knackered, so decided to take the Mizpah Cutoff over to rejoin Crawford Path, and then hike back down to the parking area that way.  Retracing our steps.

So we didn’t get to the top of Mt Jackson, which awaits ascent on another day – but we did scale Mt Eisenhower and Mt Pierce.

It was a strenuous hike that day, but with beautiful views and no insect problems.  Glorious views from the Presidential Range, mainly looking south.

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Looking back on four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), what stands out?  Let me share some thoughts on what went well and on what went badly.

What went well

  1. We made good choices about what to change;
  2. The way we went about making those changes was, mostly (but not always), smart;
  3. We were able to involve some of Plan’s future stars in what we did, giving them exposure and experience at the highest organisational levels, thus helping to build a new generation of Plan leaders;
  4. I’m glad I set a goal of leaving IH in three years, even though it took me four.

Let me reflect briefly about each of these positive aspects of my time at Plan’s head office.

First, in addition to normal, daily tasks and senior-management duties, I decided to focus on three major change projects, all aimed at creating unity of purpose across what was, I felt, a quickly-atomising organisation.

I had outlined these priorities to Max in our first interactions, before I even went to IH. Described in three earlier blog posts in this series, these projects were focused on: overhauling Plan’s program approach; deciding, in accordance with set strategy, where to grow and where to phase out our work; and finishing Plan’s restructuring by reorganizing the organization’s field structure.

Looking back, these were very good choices.  Before moving to IH I had served as Plan’s Regional Director for South America, and had appreciated wide latitude to run operations in that region as I saw fit.  As Plan finished regionalizing, with six Regional Offices in place by the time I was brought to IH, and as each of the six Regional Directors began to “appreciate” that wide latitude,  Plan was in real danger of atomizing, becoming six separate kingdoms (all six were, initially, men!)

So I selected those three major change projects carefully, seeking to build unity of purpose, to bring the organization together around shared language, culture, and purpose.  This would, I hoped, balance the centrifugal forces inherent in regionalization and decentralization with necessary, binding, centripetal forces that would hold Plan together.  Building unity of purpose around a common program approach, a common structure (with local variations in some particular functions), and a shared understanding of where we would work.

Plan should have taken these change efforts much farther – for example, to build shared staff-development tools around the core, common positions at Country Offices, and finishing a monitoring and evaluation system centered on the program goals and principles that we developed.  More on that below.  But, in four years, I think we accomplished a lot and, generally speaking, we were able to notably increase unity of purpose across Plan.

Second, as we developed those changes, we were (mostly) pretty smart about it.  Plan’s new program goals and principles evolved from a wide organizational conversation, which began with a workshop that involved people from across the agency.  Development of the Country Structure began with a “skunk works” that involved a very impressive set of people, chosen both because of their expertise and experience, as well as their credibility.  In both cases, we took initial prototypes across the organization, through senior management and the board, and the results worked well… and lasted.

As I’ve described earlier, the preparation of the organizational growth plan, on the other hand, was primarily handled by me, myself, without anything like the kind of participation, contribution, and ownership that characterized the other two projects.  Yes, we consulted, but it wasn’t enough.  Partly as a result, the growth plan was less successful in bringing Plan together than were the other two projects.

1607-4210So the way we went about addressing unity of purpose in Plan was effective, mostly.  The model of advancing change in an international NGO by convening a focused reflection, including key staff, and honestly consulting the initial prototype across all stakeholder groups, seems appropriate.  (See below for some reflections on implementation, however.)

Third, I look back on the people that we involved in those projects, and I’m proud that we helped bring Plan’s next generation of leadership into being.  Just to give a few examples, participants and leaders in those key efforts included people like Donal Keane, who would become my manager when I went to Viet Nam as Plan’s Country Director; Subhadra Belbase, who would soon become Regional Director in Eastern and Southern Africa; Jim Emerson, who helped me create the planning framework for Country Offices, and who would later become Finance Director and Deputy IED at IH; Mohan Thazhathu, who would become RD for Central America and the Caribbean, and later a CEO in other INGOs; and many others.  To a great extent, this was purposeful: I wanted to involve the right people, and I wanted their experience, and the associated high-profile visibility, to help move these amazing people onward and upward in Plan.

Finally, I’m glad I set a goal of leaving IH in three years, even though it took me four.  My experience working with many INGO headquarters is that people stay too long: head offices are exciting places to work and to contribute; people who join our social-justice organizations (mostly) have strong desires to make the world a better, fairer, more-just place, and a lot can be accomplished from the center.  Plus, there are great opportunities for power and prestige, not to mention ego-fulfillment.

This reality can be entrancing, and can lead to people staying for too long.  I wanted to be the kind of person who didn’t overstay my time, and I wanted Plan to be the kind of organization where the most important place to work was the field, not International Headquarters; in fact, my predecessor as Program Director, Jim Byrne, returned to the field from IH, as Country Director for Bolivia and then Ghana.  I was determined to follow that great example, and did so.

Plus, I was pretty burned out after four years, partly because of the things that went badly during those four years…

What went badly

  1. I was much too gentle with Plan’s Regional Directors;
  2. After designing organizational changes as described above, with lots of consultation and co-creation, we should have been much more forceful when it came to implement the resulting decisions;
  3. I wasn’t smart enough in relating to Plan’s Board;
  4. Again related to the Board, we didn’t tackle basic governance problems, especially the imbalance due to the huge success of Plan’s Dutch National Organisation in those days;
  5. Personally, I was much too focused on making the three major changes that I described above, and didn’t spend enough time attending to the wider, political reality inside the agency.

First, I should have been much tougher with Plan’s Regional Directors during my time as Program Director.  In this, I agree with much of Max van der Schalk’s “guest blog,” published earlier in this series, when he says that he “learned from experience to mistrust most of the RD’s. I wasn’t always sure of their honesty and I also doubted that the whole team felt responsible for the effectiveness of the organization. Quite a few RD’s appeared to me to take advantage of their position and to think mainly about their own achievement.”

I completely understand what he’s referring to.  When Max arrived as Plan’s IED, he organised senior management to include the Regional Directors.  This was a change – previously, Plan’s senior management had all been IH-based.  Thus, in principle at least, all major operational decisions, and proposals to be made to Plan’s board of directors, would go through a staff team that included the field managers at Regional level.

From my perspective, this was very smart.  It was a great way to balance headquarters priorities with the realities of field implementation.  But, sadly, Plan developed a bad case of what I called the “Heathrow Syndrome” in those years – the global agreements that we made when Senior Management gathered in Woking, outside London, seemed to evaporate (at least for our six Regional Directors) when they got in to the taxi to go to the airport.  And then, by the time they boarded their flights home, their priorities seemed to have already shifted to their Regions, and thoughts of the wider organisation seemed to have disappeared.

In fact, a couple of the Regional Directors of the time should have been dismissed for behavior that was even worse than the “Heathrow Syndrome“, and I should have done more to encourage that.  Even though they didn’t report directly to me, I should have been much more willing to advocate changes to Max, been much less gentle.  In the future, I would be more willing to take action in similar situations.

After leaving IH I came to realise that part of the problem was related to the emotional connection that NGO staff – at least the good ones – make with their work.  Our people, at their best, associate their own values and self image with the aims of our organisations: we work for justice, human rights, to overcome oppression and deprivation, because we hold those values very deeply.img_6662

This emotional connection is a strong motivational force and, if managed well, can produce levels of commitment and passion that private-sector organisations rarely achieve.  But it often also means that NGO people overly personalise their work, take things too personally, and resist change. Perhaps part of the reason that several of Plan’s Regional Directors in those days resisted thinking globally and acting locally was that their personal ambitions – for good and for bad – were advanced more easily by thinking locally and acting globally.

Second, and related to my first point, after designing organizational changes as described above, with lots of consultation and co-creation, we should have been much more forceful when it came to implement the resulting decisions.  For example:

  • there should have been no exceptions for putting in place the agreed country structure, because a suitable level of flexibility was already included;
  • we had agreed to develop training packages for the four core, common positions that would be in place at all Country Offices, but we didn’t get that done;
  • we should have mandated that all Country Strategic Plans be structured around the new Domains and Principles that comprised Plan’s Program Approach;
  • an effort existed to design and implement a “Corporate Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation” system, which didn’t really get off the ground until Catherine Webster took over the project;
  • finally, I should be been much more insistent that the agreed growth plan be followed, insisting on plans to close operations in the countries where our strategy mandated phase-out.

Generally speaking, my conclusion here is that we were right to design changes in a very open, participatory way, and to consult (and adjust) with all key stakeholders before finalising decisions.  That was good.  But once decisions were made, we should have been much stronger, much tougher, in carrying out those agreements.  Over time, that approach might have reduced the toxic “Heathrow Syndrome.

Third, I should have developed a much stronger relationship with Plan’s board of directors than I did.  Again, in his “guest blog,” Max notes that he is “… less than happy about my relationship with the Board and I missed a chance there…”  As Program Director, I naturally had less direct relation with Plan’s Board than Max did, but I could have usefully developed more of a connection.  That might have helped me achieve my own goals, advance the organization, and also helped Max (though he might not have agreed with that, or even accepted it!)

For example, one Board member was named to work with us on the development of Plan’s program approach; Ian Buist had worked in the UK government’s overseas aid efforts across a long career, and his contributions to what became Plan’s “Domains” and “Principles” were valuable.  In retrospect, I would have been more effective, more successful, and more helpful to Max if I had developed similar relationships with other program-minded board members.

But I wanted to focus on program, and felt that working with the Board was not my role; Max would involve me when it was necessary, I thought.  But, of course, I knew Plan much better than Max did, having at that point worked at local, regional, and global levels for nearly ten years, so my reluctance to put more energy into working with Plan’s board was short-sighted on my part.

Fourth, and perhaps most fundamental, comes governance.  When organisational governance doesn’t function smoothly, watch out!  And, in those days, if not broken, Plan’s governance was not working very well at all, for one main reason.

When I was at IH, Plan’s funds came from nine “National Organisations” in nine developed countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US).  The way that Plan’s corporate bylaws were designed meant that the Dutch organisation was allocated four seats, four votes, on the 25-person board, even though over 50% of Plan’s funding came from the Netherlands.  (In comparison, the Canadian and US National Offices, each bringing in around 10% of Plan’s funding, each had three seats, three votes.)

This lack of balance – over half of Plan’s funding coming from the Netherlands, with the Dutch organisation having just 16% of the votes on Plan’s board – distorted the agency’s behavior in negative ways, ways that I could see in my daily work.

Unsurprisingly, and most damaging, was that an informal power structure evolved to compensate for Plan’s unbalanced governance.  This could be seen in action in several ways.  For example, it felt to me as I observed board meetings, that Dutch board members had effective veto over any major decisions: if a Dutch board member spoke strongly against, or in favour of, a proposition at a meeting, the vote would always go that way, despite the Dutch only having 4 of 25 votes.

There’s nothing inherently bad, or wrong, or evil about what was happening; it was completely logical that the interests of the biggest financial stakeholder would become paramount.  Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg!  But the problem was, as I saw it, Plan’s formal governance structure wasn’t able to handle the reality of those days, so informal mechanisms evolved, and those informal mechanisms were not always transparent or effective.

For example, I vividly remember a lunch meeting which included Max, me, and the National Director for the Netherlands.  The Dutch National Director was, without a doubt, a genius fundraiser, and had build Plan Netherlands into an iconic force in Holland, known and respected by virtually everybody in the country from the royal family on down.

His undoubted accomplishments were accompanied by similar levels of ego and assertiveness.

I don’t recall the exact issue that we were discussing that day over lunch, but I do remember our Dutch colleague expressing his strong disagreement with the direction that Max and I were planning to take.  Those kinds disagreements are common in any human endeavour, of course.  But he took it one step further: in so many words, he made it very clear that, if we proceeded with the course of action we were planning, he would have Max dismissed.

In Plan’s formal governance setup, the Dutch National Director was not a Plan board member, and had no formal influence on Max’s job security.  But the informal governance structures which had evolved, to recognise the importance of the Dutch Office’s success to the overall organisation, meant that his threat was completely credible.

Another example of the dysfunctional consequences of Plan’s imbalanced governance came soon after I (and Max) left IH.  Max’s successor fired one of Plan’s Regional Directors, who was Dutch.  From my perspective, this was probably well within the new IED’s authority, but from what I heard (I wasn’t in the room!) the actual dismissal was not handled very astutely.  The Regional Director then threatened legal action to challenge his dismissal and, as I understand it, had an assurance of financial support from the Netherlands office in this action – essentially, one part of the agency would be suing the other!  This led to several years of estrangement (and worse) between Plan and the Dutch Office, our biggest source of funds!

Apparently, the imbalance in governance, and resulting informal power structures, extended to the Dutch Office having the ability to veto personnel-related decisions, at least when a Dutch Regional Director was involved!

These examples illustrate how our operational management was influenced by the realities as seen from the point of view of our biggest revenue source.  Nothing wrong with that, in theory – in fact, it makes a lot of sense.  But in the absence of a formal governance structure that reflected organisational realities, informal mechanisms evolved to reflect the needs of Plan’s biggest funder: such as heated lunch discussions, and a law suit against Plan funded by one of its own National Organisations.  These informal mechanisms drained our energy, stressed us all, and became major distractions from what we were supposed to be focused on: the effective and efficient implementation of our mission to help children living in poverty have better lives.

Now, the best solution to re-balancing Plan’s governance would have been for other National Organisations to grow – for the Australian or Canadian or German or US offices to increase their fundraising closer to what our Dutch colleagues were achieving.  Then Plan’s existing governance structure would have functioned well.  Alternatively, perhaps, at least in the short term, we could have increased the votes allocated to the Dutch organization.  In these ways, the imbalance described above would have been corrected without informal mechanisms.

What actually happened, sadly, was that the Dutch organisation ended up shrinking dramatically, as the result of a mishandled public-relations crisis.  In fact, I think that our management of that crisis actually illustrated the basic problem: Plan’s Dutch Office refused to let us address false accusations coming from a Dutch supporter as we should have done, and the problem just festered, got worse and worse.  But the informal power of the Dutch Office, caused in part by the governance imbalance I’ve described, was such that we at Plan’s International Headquarters were not able to go against the preferences of the Dutch Office to take the actions we felt would have defused the crisis.  (Namely, full, frank, and fast disclosure of the facts of the particular case.)  In this case, I’m pretty sure that we were right and the Dutch Office was wrong… and, as a direct result, Plan’s fundraising in the Netherlands dropped by half.

My sense is that these kinds of governance dynamics are common in federated International NGOs (ChildFund, Save the Children, Oxfam, World Vision, etc.) though there are differences in the particularities of each grouping, of course.  The solution, as far as I can see it, is to periodically re-examine governance and make sure that structures fit the reality of the agency.  (Ironically, Plan had attempted to review and adjust its governance before I arrived at IH.  Glorianne Stromberg, who readers of this blog series have already met, was Board Secretary in those days, during Alberto Neri’s time; she had proposed a far-reaching update of Plan’s governance.  Probably Glorianne’s proposals would have helped reduce the imbalance I’ve described, and would also have addressed Max’s feeling that the Board was too big…)

Finally, I was much too focused on my program changes, my three projects, and was not “political” enough.  In a sense, this failure on my part relates to all of the above accomplishments and setbacks – if I had been more astute “politically” I could have helped Max correct the behaviour of several Regional Directors, and connected more effectively with Plan’s board of directors.

But I just wasn’t interested in spending my limited time and energy on those things.  I was focused, passionate, and effective focused on program matters (goals and principles, structure, and growth.)  I felt, and still feel, that behaving “politically” would be inconsistent with the values and aspirations of the NGO sector.  I wanted to enact those values – honesty, transparency, empathy, compassion – and I didn’t see how I could do that while also being “political.”

Today I think I see that it is indeed possible to be focused and true to the moral and ethical values of our sector while also being “political.”  It’s not about learning from Machiavelli; rather, it’s mostly about being able to handle conflict competently.  Conflict is inherent in the human experience, certainly including at senior management levels in an INGO like Plan!  Managing conflict productively, being able to confront conflict situations with confidence and panache, is a skill that I would deepen later, some years after my time at Plan’s International Headquarters.

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Those four years at IH were great.  Weighing up all the successes and failures, large and small, looking back there’s no doubt in my mind that Plan was stronger and more unified when Jean and I left the UK, in May, 1997, than it had been when I arrived.

But it was time to move on, and it would be for others to take up the challenges and joys of running that organization.

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In future blogs in this series I’ll describe my tenure as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam, as consultant at CCF, as Executive Director at the UU Service Committee, and as International Program Director at ChildFund Australia.  As I approached my work in those organisations, I tried to apply what I learned from those four years at Plan’s International Headquarters, from the successes and failures described above.  Stay tuned!

Next time I’ll begin to reflect on four years living and working in Viet Nam, as Plan’s Country Director in that very special country.

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Here are links to 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.

Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters

After four years as Director of Planning and Program Support (Program Director) at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), I stepped down in early May, 1997.  Jean and I would spend the next 12 months on sabbatical in New Hampshire.

My time at IH was very eventful for me, as I hope I’ve described in the four previous blogs in this series.  Even today I feel (mostly) proud of what we achieved, but at the end of it I was certainly ready to go back to the field.  After the year-long sabbatical, I would wrap up 15 great years with Plan: Jean and I would move to Hanoi, where I would serve as  Plan’s Country Director for Viet Nam.  But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself …

During my time at IH, I worked closely with Plan’s then-new International Executive Director (“IED”, equivalent to CEO), Max van der Schalk.  In an earlier blog in this series I described Max as “Dutch, in his late 50’s, who had just completed a long career at Shell, finishing up as President of Shell Colombia … I found Max to be very easy to get along with.  He was a great listener, funny and curious, and very confident in his own skin.  Max had just as much business experience as Alberto (something that Plan’s board clearly wanted), but seemed to be a much more accessible, open, and emotionally-intelligent person.”

Before I wrap up my description of those years at IH, sharing some overall reflections, it occurred to me to ask Max to share his thoughts about his five years as IED: another perspective on some of the events I’ve been describing from my own point of view.

Max kindly agreed, and his reflections are included below as a “guest blog.”  Next time, it’ll be my turn!

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This is one in an ongoing series of posts that has been describing how I’ve been climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall.  The idea is to publish 48 posts, each time, also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago, on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

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I climbed Mt Eisenhower (4780ft, 1457m) on 20 August 2016, with Raúl and Kelly, friends and colleagues from Australia.  We also climbed Mt Pierce later that day, and we had planned to climb Mt Jackson as well, but we ran out of steam.  In my next blog I’ll write about our walk down from the top of Eisenhower, over Mt Pierce, and then the long hike back down Crawford Path via the Mizpah Cutoff.

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We drove up from Durham that morning, and parked by the side of Saco Lake, just across from the old Crawford Depot.

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The first part of the hike took us around the lake, rejoining Rt 302 briefly, arriving at the start of the Crawford Path, the “oldest continuously-used mountain trail in America,” or so the sign says!  The section we walked on was created in 1819 by Abel and Ethan Crawford.

 

 

The walk up Crawford Path was pleasant, a steady upward walk.

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We came across several large, beautiful expanses of bright green moss that day.

 

We arrived at the saddle between Mt Pierce and Mt Eisenhower a little before 2pm, and took a break there.  It was a beautiful spot, with a view towards the north and Mt Eisenhower:

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Kelly, with Mt Eisenhower on the right.

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Raúl and Kelly

 

From here, towards Mt Eisenhower, the Crawford Path forms part of the famous Appalachian Trail.  The section leading up to Mt Eisenhower is above the tree line, through some low scrub and ledge with fine views in all directions.

It was quite cool and windy at the top of Mt Eisenhower.  There were plenty of other hikers around, walking up or resting around the cairn at the top, where we arrived at around 2:15pm:

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The Summit of Mt Eisenhower

We were all pretty tired when we got to the top of Mt Eisenhower, and the day wasn’t even close to half over!

I’ll write more about our ascent of Mt Pierce, and the long walk back down to Crawford Notch, next time.  But the walk up Eisenhower was great that day, and the company was just as good.

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Max van der Schalk served as Plan’s International Executive Director for five years; for four of those years, I worked directly with, and for, him.  Earlier, I described how I ended up being appointed to that position, and I noted Max’s involvement in the three major projects that I advanced in my four years in this blog on Plan’s Program Directions; in this blog on the preparation of Plan’s growth plan; and here as related to our creation of the new country-level operational structure for the agency.

I thought it would be valuable to get Max’s perspective on events during those four years.  And I don’t know of very many “memoirs” from nonprofit CEOs, particularly in the international development sector, so his thoughts might be useful more broadly.

So, since I’m still in contact with him, I invited Max to share his thoughts, which follow:

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“I arrived in Rhode Island from Colombia. I had had 30 years experience in industry and the main reason I was selected for the job of IED was that this experience was mainly in the developing world. That also caused my interest in the job: I had seen enough poverty to know that something should be done to eradicate that pest on human happiness. When I arrived at IH I was asked whether I joined the charity in order to make up for the sins I had committed in private industry. My answer was exactly the opposite: I was going to introduce a businesslike attitude to the charity in order to make best use of the generous contribution of so many people to poverty reduction, specially child poverty.

I commenced by trying to create a management team (IED, RD’s and IH managers) that would feel joint responsibility for the quality of the programme part of the organization. Despite the efforts of some of the more capable managers in the team, this was never achieved. To the contrary: the RD’s didn’t see eye to eye with the IH managers and what was worse : they didn’t see eye to eye with each other. There was  a lack of mutual confidence. This was something new, in my 30 years industry experience I had not encountered that. I learned from experience to mistrust most of the RD’s. I wasn’t always sure of their honesty and I also doubted that the whole team felt responsible for the effectiveness of the organization. Quite a few RD’s appeared to me to take advantage of their position and to think mainly about their own achievement.

Part of the reason for that behaviour is the difference in work attitude in charity as compared to industry. Where in industry people are motivated by the objectives of the organization and by their success in achieving these, in charity staff has a much more personal viewpoint about what should be done. As a result you could find great differences in how the money was spent in PLAN: some field offices were mainly concentrated on health matters, others on education or on wealth creation for the communities they were assisting. My cooperation with Mark was so useful because he had the intelligence to see that that was not the optimum way to spend the money. I brought him into IH to create a framework, setting out the objectives and ambitions of the organization: to reduce poverty in our communities and achieve a way they could live comfortably without outside financial contribution. This was eventually achieved, though acceptance of this framework throughout the organisation took a long time. In the end it was generally accepted by all staff, but we never achieved full acceptance by the International Board.Max at IH01

The International Board (IB) consisted of non-executive directors of the fundraising organisations. The number of directors each country organisation could appoint to the IB was dependant on the money they contributed. The Board was far too big to be useful, some 25 persons. The main problem was that board members were generally from a business or government background, seldom was there any experience in development work. However they all thought they had a full understanding of the problems of international development and furthermore that they knew quite a bit more about running a business than the PLAN staff. This created an atmosphere where instead of being supportive they were often highly critical of the way the organization was run. Furthermore, because of the various nationalities that were represented there was often a cultural difference amongst the various board members. As IED I made the mistake to try running the show as far as possible without the active participation of the IB, but that led to a lack of trust of board members in their Chief Executive. This was shown very clearly when my 5-year term came up and I was requested to continue in the job. I said I only wanted to do that if the IB would become a supportive board rather than a critical one and if I would get complete freedom to technically run the show on my own, without specific approval for things like staff changes and office accommodation. The Chairman of the IB did a round of phone calls to discuss my request with his colleagues and the outcome was a clear NO to both .

Reflecting on the things that went well during my tenure and the things which could have been done better, I am not unhappy with the results obtained. We clearly formalized the objectives of the organization and the way to achieve them. We also exchanged many – expensive- expatriate staff members for high quality local staff, thereby reducing the cost of carrying out the work of the charity. We also created a career path for staff and improved the audit procedure: both financial audit – how was the money spent – as the programme audit – how successful were the programmes. The organisation grew rapidly in money, volume and results; a number of additional national organisations were created. However, I am less than happy about my relationship with the Board and I missed a chance there. It is always difficult to change the culture of an organization, but we changed the staff attitude considerably and with good results for our effectiveness. I could have achieved the same results with the International Board, but as I was unhappy with their attitude regarding my role, I decided to ‘walk around them’ . On balance I believe I made a wrong decision there and it resulted in my effectiveness being less than what could have been achieved.

After I resigned from the charity, I expected I would be asked to join the local board of either the Dutch ( my nationality) or English ( my residence) organisation. This didn’t happen and my relationship with the organisation ended the day after my resignation. I felt very disappointed about this, but now – at a much bigger distance – I feel I should blame my own attitude to the IB and also to the local boards for this total rupture. I just wasn’t liked by them………

My next job after PLAN was Chairman of the Board of my local Health Authority and I learned so much of my negative experience of dealings with boards in PLAN, that I was sure the managers in the NHS working in my area would not form a similar opinion about my board’s role. And that was indeed very effective, so I learned my lesson just in time before I sat at the other side of the table!”

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Next time I will describe the rest of my hike with Raúl and Kelly that day – down from Mt Eisenhower and over Mt Pierce.  And I will share my own reflections from those four years at IH.

I’m grateful to Max for sharing his perspectives here in this “Guest Blog.”  They set up my own reflections – in some ways consistent, in other ways different.  That will come next time.

So, stay tuned!

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Here are links to 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.

Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International

In this blog I want to describe how we finished the restructuring of Plan International in the early 1990’s.  Regionalization was complete, and Plan’s International Headquarters had been right-sized, and so now we needed to finish the job and review how Plan was structured in the field, at country level.

This is one in an ongoing series of posts that has been describing how I’ve been climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall.  The idea is to publish 48 posts, each time, also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago, on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

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I climbed Mt Carrigain (4700ft, 1433m), a solo hike, on July 20, 2016.  It was a fairly long, strenuous, and very beautiful hike.  Like all but one of the hikes I did in 2016, there were no significant insect problems.

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Sawyer River Road runs southwest from Hart’s Location, New Hampshire.  It’s an unpaved forest-access road that is closed in the winter.

I drove up from Durham that morning, and left the parking area on Sawyer River Road at about 10:30am, and took the Signal Ridge Trail.

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I arrived at the junction with the Carrigain Notch Trail at 11:15am.  From here I would hike a loop, arriving back at this same place 5 1/2 hours later, after climbing Mt Carrigain…

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At around 1pm, nearing the top of Mt Carrigain, I stopped for lunch on Signal Ridge.  This view is towards the north, looking across Rt 302.  The Presidential Range can just be seen, with Mt Washington in the far distance, on the left side of the image, just about touching the clouds.

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From my lunch spot on Signal Ridge, you can see the top of Mt Carrigain – there is a fire lookout tower at the summit.

 

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I arrived at the top of Mt Carrigain around 1:30pm, and approached the fire lookout tower.

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Here I’m on the top of the tower, looking back down at the trail I had just hiked up.  The arrow points to where I had lunch that day:

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Here are a few more views from the tower that day, looking in various directions:

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Here is a view of the section of the hike along Signal Ridge.  This photo was taken about a month later, when I was climbing Mt Hancock and South Hancock; I’ll describe that hike later.  You can see Mt Carrigain, and maybe also the fire lookout tower.  The plateau where I had lunch, Signal Ridge, is also visible.

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The evocatively-named “Desolation Trail” leads off of the top of Mt Carrigain.  From here I would loop around to the east of Mt Carrigain, through Carrigain Notch.

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I arrived at the junction of Desolation Trail and Carrigain Notch Trail at about 2:50pm, having dropped steeply from the top of Mt Carrigain.  It was a pleasant hike

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Ten minutes later, I reached the junction with Nancy Pond Trail.

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From here, it was a long, long hike slowly up Notch Brook to Carrigain Notch.  And then dropping down alongside Carrigain Brook to the end of the loop.

Mt Carrigain loomed over me through the forest cover as I walked through Carrigain Notch for nearly two hours.

Here I have arrived back at the earlier junction, which I had passed at 11:15am.  It’s the end of the long loop over Mt Carrigain and up Carrigain Notch.  The loop took me about 5 1/2 hours!

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The walk back out to the parking area was pleasant:

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It was a long day, which I could have shortened by turning around at the top of Mt Carrigain instead of continuing on the loop around and through Carrigain Notch.  But I’m glad I did it, because the day was fine and the walking was interesting.

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In my last blog in this series, I wrote about the second of three major projects carried out when I served as Program Director at Plan International’s International Headquarters (“IH”).  When I moved from my previous post as Regional Director for South America, Plan’s then-new International Executive Director, Max van der Schalk, and I had agreed that I would stay in the Program Director role for three years, accomplish some specific goals, and then I would return to the field.  (In the end, as I will describe below, I stayed at IH for four years, because it took us another year to finalize the country structures.)

Those three carefully-chosen major projects would be:

  1. We would articulate a set of program goals for the organization, high-level enough to be suitable across our six Regions, yet specific enough to build unity, align our work with best practices, and enable accountability.  My description of that project is here;
  2. We would create a growth plan for the organization, so that resource allocations would be more rational, less political, less dependent on the force of character of a particular management presentation.  I wrote about that project last time.
  3. We would finish the restructuring of the agency.  Now that regionalization was complete, and IH had been right-sized, we needed to finish the job and review how Plan was structured in the field, at country level.  That’s the subject of this blog post.

With clear goals, an objective way of allocating resources across countries, and the completion of our restructuring, I felt that Plan would be well-positioned to focus clearly on program effectiveness, and be less internally-distracted.  More united.  And I was determined to take a systems approach – fix the problems Plan faced by changing the system using those three key levers – goals, structure and resource allocation.  I sought to change the system in part by creating a new and shared language with which Plan staff would describe and understand our work in common ways, a new lexicon.

In this post I want to describe the third of those three projects – finishing Plan’s restructuring by creating the key operational unit, the Country Office, in place of the Field Offices of the past.

(Portions of the content below have been adapted from a journal article I wrote and published in “Nonprofit Management and Leadership,” after I left IH.  A copy of that original article can be found here: NML – Fragmentation Article.)

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In 1993, Plan’s field structures were diverging.  Notwithstanding superficial consistency, Regional Offices were gradually evolving, some moving toward larger structures, others devolving responsibilities downward.  Of equal concern was the situation below the Regional-Office level.

Prior to regionalization, Plan’s operational structures were clear and consistent: a Field Director managed each Field Office, reporting directly to Program Coordinators at IH in Rhode Island.  When Plan regionalised, Field Directors began to report to Area Managers who were located in Regional Offices, and who in turn reported to Regional Directors.

For example, when I arrived in Tuluá, Colombia, readers of this blog will remember that I reported to the local Field Director, Monique van’t Hek; she reported to Leticia Escobar, who was our Area Manager based in Quito.

In those days, most countries where Plan worked had several local Field Offices; no country-level structure existed as such.  One Field Director was assigned the additional task of relating to national authorities in the country, as Plan’s representative.  For example, when I was in Colombia that role was taken by Ron Seligman, who was Field Director in Cali.

But as a result of decentralization, these structures were diverging.  In 1992, for example, the region of Central America and the Caribbean proposed eliminating all Field Director positions, releasing a large number of expatriate staff to be absorbed by other regions.  This was a major shock – what was the organisation going to do with all the people no longer required in that region?!  In West Africa, on the other hand, a country-level Field Director position evolved and local management was put into place in Field Offices, sometimes using a team-based approach.

This structural divergence was seen as a problem by Plan’s senior management: if our operational structures became different in each region, managing the organization would become unnecessarily complex.  So in 1994 I proposed that we begin a study to define a common structure toward which all regions would evolve.

Mintzberg(1) advises that “the elements of structure should be selected to achieve an internal consistency or harmony, as well as a basic consistency with the organization’s situation”.  Consistent with this aim, and mindful of my department’s commitment to build organizational unity while recognizing Plan’s decentralized nature, I designed a bottom-up, participatory process through which we would design a new structure.

During a preliminary stage, internal documents covering Plan’s entire experience with decentralization, relevant academic and professional literature, and practice in other (INGO and private sector) organizations were reviewed.  Concurrently, each Region named a team to carry out a study of current structures and make recommendations.  An extensive organizational design survey was circulated, collecting information about individual jobs, office workflow, and work-related communication from 232 managerial and professional staff in Regional Offices, Country Offices (where they existed), and Field Offices in all Plan regions.  An expert external consultant (Dr Tony Dibella, who had worked with the organizational learning team at MIT) advised this process.

As a result, a set of general design options were presented to the Plan’s senior management (which I was a part of, of course.)  Results of the ensuing, robust, discussion are shown below.

Senior Management Agreements Made Regarding Regional Structure

The International Management Team (IMT) recognized that introducing country structures will lead to adaptation and change in the current Regional Offices, and that country operations are being implemented in diverse forms across the organization.  After reviewing current structures in each region and discussing the results of a study commissioned to propose a common field structure for the future, the IMT reached consensus on the following:

Countries will be the prime operational units in Plan International.

Over the next six months, standard countrywide functions will be defined, and a uniform job profile for country directors will be produced. This will be carried out by the Director of Human Resources together with selected IMT members and Country Directors.

Using existing methodologies, an analysis of skills required, and a review of training needs of the current incumbents, training programs for country directors will be designed. This will be coordinated by the Director of Human Resources together with selected regional and country staff, over the next twelve months.

After fully defining standard country roles, Regional Offices will evolve into networks.  By moving some functions to countries, Regional Offices will shrink, becoming more focused on networking and learning.  If new functions or additional human resources are needed for multicountry functions, the bias will be to locate them in countries, whenever feasible and cost-effective.

Countries will be given latitude to structure program operations.

However, best practices will be defined and implemented for nonprogram functions, unless valid reasons for variation exist. This will allow the organization to focus more on program matters in the future.

Subsequently, the International Board of Directors endorsed the proposal that “countries . . . become the prime operational units in Plan International.”

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At this point, I had been at IH for the three years that Max and I had agreed.  I felt it was important to move on, because many people at Plan’s headquarters, and in the head offices of other INGOs, seemed to get trapped and stay for years and years, or decades.  Or maybe they wanted to stay on at the center, with the power and authority that came with being based there.  I wanted to send a different message: working at IH would be like being based anywhere – you came in, made a contribution, and moved on.  In this case, I tried to make light of it by saying that I would leave headquarters and go back to the field, to “face the mess I had created at IH!”

Plus I was feeling quite burned out.  Headquarters for many organizations is a stressful place, because staff are squeezed by governance bodies (our Board of Directors) on one side, field realities on another side, and the normal politics of any complex human undertaking on the third side.  I was accomplishing a lot, but felt stressed by managing the different realities.

But our IH-based senior management team (Max, me, Catherine Webster, Nick Hall, and Richard Jones) felt that I needed to stay one more year, to finish up the design and lead the implementation of the new structure.  So I agreed, somewhat grouchily I recall…

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To this point, the role of my department and of the field was clear.  My department (Planning and Program Support, “PPS”) managed the process of organizational reflection, but Regions took the lead in analysis and proposal development.  The process continued, as agreements recorded above set the stage for a full-scale, participatory design of Plan’s field structures, led by PPS.

I can’t remember why PPS took the lead, when (as can be seen above) we had agreed that the HR Director would manage the process.  That is a logical choice, but it’s likely that such a challenging restructuring of field operations would not have worked without the person leading it having field experience and credibility, which our HR Director did not have.  And I did still have…

From December 1995 through October 1996, a core, common country structure for Plan was developed in a bottom-up, participatory manner.  Modelled after the process taken to develop Plan’s domains and principles, a workshop was convened first, to create a foundation for organizational discussion. This workshop, held in February 1996, again included participants from much of Plan, at various levels.

I designed that weeklong workshop very carefully.  Modelled after the famous Lockheed “Skunk Works” that were successful in accomplishing nearly-impossible tasks in very short times, I invited a group of people who I knew would work hard, and who would bring both creativity, experience, and credibility into the process.  We rented an entire, empty floor in the same building where IH was located, brought some basic desk furniture up, and asked people not to visit.  I basically locked the door, because I wanted everybody very focused on the crucial task at hand.  This would not be a normal NGO meeting, with everybody expressing opinions and going home.  No, here we were going to work out a detailed proposal for a new structure, with tasks and job descriptions drafted and ready.

Here are some photos of that workshop:

I’m sure I will not remember the names of all the people involved in that workshop, but here are a few that I recognise from the photos: Amadou Bocoum, Catherine Webster, David Muthungu, Donal Keane, Ernesto Moran, Heather Borquez, Hernando Manrique, Janet Dulohery, Jim Byrne (who had been my predecessor as Program Manager), Mohan Thazhathu, Subhadra Belbase, and Winnie Tay.  Apologies to those who I have inadvertently omitted.

I dropped by often, but didn’t participate all the time.

The workshop worked very well, and was a big success.  The workshop first produced a purpose statement for the Country Office.  Key activities carried out by the Country Office and the front line were articulated, and grouped into six “functions.”  Then, importantly, a recommended core, common structure for Plan Country Offices was developed around those functions, with four core positions that would be included in each Country Office; job profiles and performance standards were defined at the workshop for these core positions.  However, it was made explicit that other positions and structures would be designed and implemented in program countries, depending on local requirements.  In other words, Country Directors and their teams would be completely free to structure operations according to need, beyond the core, subject of course to normal budgetary review processes.

The four core, required, positions would be:

  • The Country Director, leading and managing, responsible and accountable for, all aspects of Plan’s work in a particular country;
  • The Program Support Manager (“PSM”), focused on program quality and program strategy.  The PSM would be located at the Country Office;
  • The Sponsorship and Grants Support Manager (“SGSM”), focused on building strong and accountable relations with donors and other supporters.  The SGSM would be located at the Country Office;
  • The Operations Support Manager (“OSM”), who managed “back-office” administrative functions such as finance, IH, logistics, etc.  The OSM would be located at the Country Office.

We were very clear that one of the biggest benefits from having four common, core positions was that we could develop and link our people: there would be enough commonality of tasks, terminology, and accountabilities that an SGSM, say, in Mali could relate very easily to what another SGSM in, say, Bolivia was doing.  They could learn from each other because they shared language, etc.

So one of our key proposals was that the four common, core positions would be actively networked across the Plan work, enhancing learning and organizational coherence and culture.  At the same time, we thought a lot about pathways for career advancement.  We imagined that future Country Directors would serve in at least two of the other common, core positions, in at least two different Regions.  Again, this would provide coherence across the wide variety of cultures where Plan operated, and a breath of experience in the basic roles in the organization.

Program implementation in the country was meant to be structured as necessary.  Just to provide some degree of common terminology, we decided to call these structures “Program Units” that would be managed by “Program Unit Managers.”  Program Units would most-commonly be geographical in nature – located in a specific location, ideally coincident with some aspect of the political structure of the country.  But, since Program Units were meant to be very flexible, they could also be organised sectorally, or with a particular advocacy purpose, or located with a technical ministry, or in any number of ways.

The use of the term “Support” for the core positions, except for the Country Director, was very intentional.  All Program Unit Managers were to report to the Country Director, helping keep the Country Director grounded in the realities of field implementation.  Otherwise, we feared that CDs would be too distant from program implementation and that, therefore, decisions could become less realistic as the Country Director drifted into more abstract, country-capital-focused realities.

The PSM position would turn out to be the most problematic of all the four core positions, only because the position was designed NOT to have line authority over program implementation.  People who moved into the PSM roles as we implemented the new structure, mostly, were accustomed to leading and managing, and found it frustrating to have to influence rather than direct.  My reasoning was that the pace and pressures of program implementation were so fast and heavy, that it was easy to focus exclusively on getting projects implemented.  Space for thinking strategically was squeezed out by the pressures, common in Plan, of spending the budget, managing sponsorship backlogs, and handling yearly audits.

The PSM was meant to be shielded from these pressures, so that SOMEBODY in Plan would have the time to focus on program quality!  My own position, not in the line of authority, was similar in that sense, but I never had trouble getting things done.  After all, I sat next to the IED!  And the PSMs should realize, I thought, that they sat next to the CD!

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Output from the workshop was shared with Plan’s senior management, and then with our partner fundraising organizations, in another two-day workshop.  Nearly all Country Directors and Regional Directors, along with Regional Office staff, participated in full-day review sessions, during which they examined the draft structural recommendations made in our workshop, and made suggestions for improvement.

Throughout this process, a series of updates were issued to all staff, detailing progress, reporting interim results, and building consensus. Much of the feedback received was incorporated.

The Country Office was to be the key component of this new structural architecture. Positioned as the fulcrum between the micro and macro levels in Plan, the Country Office would handle program implementation at the grassroots level, while also becoming the key point of contact within the broader Plan organization outside the country.  The Country Office would interpret and localize policy and implement operational systems and procedures in the country context.  As part of this balance of micro and macro, it was deemed necessary to include some measure of standard structure. This core would tie the organization together; the remaining structure could be adjusted to suit local realities.

In late 1996, after preparing job profiles and performance standards for each of the four core positions and finalizing detailed guidelines for filling these positions in each country, final proposals were approved.  In addition, a clear planning mechanism for the new country structure was developed, leading to production of Country Strategic Plans.  It was agreed that the roles of Regional Offices and IH would be reviewed in light of the new country structures, to ensure that duplication and structural conflict were minimized. It was further agreed to develop training packages for each core position.

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This process worked well, but perhaps not quite as well as the development of Plan’s program Domains and Principles.  Generally speaking, field involvement and ownership of the process of restructuring was high.  But it was difficult to assign discrete portions of the project to decentralized operational units, particularly in the second phase of the project, so ownership of the process was not shared quite so widely.  This was due at least in part to the highly sensitive nature of the project, which was reshaping core senior positions (and livelihoods) across Plan. As a result, the role of PPS became somewhat more directive and the atmosphere slightly less harmonious.

Perhaps the level of process ownership was not quite as high as that achieved in developing Plan’s Domains and Principles, but the resulting structure was accepted and implemented.

As a result, by the end of 1999, all program countries had implemented the core common structure, and networks of the core positions were operational in much of the Plan world.  In fact, the structure lasted for quite a while; there were some local adaptations, of course, but in general Plan would have CDs, PSMs, SGSMs, and OSMs, with Program Unit Managers, in most places for quite a while.

Later in this series, I will write much more about my experience serving as Plan’s Country Director in Viet Nam from 1998 to 2002.  But when Jean and I arrived in Hanoi, of course, Plan’s new country structure was already in place, so I had a PSM (Le Quang Duat), an OSM (Pham Thu Ba), and an SGSM (Tran Minh Thu), along with four Program Unit Managers (Pham Van Chinh, Nguyen Van Mai, Nguyen Van Hung, and Hung Quang Tri.)

So the new country structure was implemented and functioned.  On that most basic level, the effort was a big success.

But beyond that, followthrough was spotty, as was unfortunately common with Plan.  I left IH fairly soon after completing this final project, and Max departed fairly soon after I did – more on that next time!  Once we were gone, to my knowledge, no review of regional and headquarters functions ever took place, nor did “Regional Offices evolve into networks… (or) shrink, becoming more focused on networking and learning.”   In fact, mostly, Plan’s Regional Offices continued to grow and grow over time, increasingly absorbing resources that, in my view, would have been better utilised at country level.  At least, that was our idea when we developed the country structures in the mid-1990’s.

And networks of the four core, common positions never really functioned in as disciplined fashion as they could have and should have – they were in place, as I noted above, but Plan could have gotten much more benefit from the commonality we included.  Also, to my knowledge, Plan never developed the training and development packages focused on those positions.

Perhaps if both Max and I had stayed at IH we could have seen this process of restructuring through to its logical conclusion, and battled back the forces of bureaucracy and top-heavy management structures.  But, as I mentioned when describing how I led the adaptation of Total Quality Management in Plan, one of the organization’s biggest weaknesses was, and has always been, its inability to follow through on initiatives over the necessary period of time.

However, I would soon experience the reality of the new country structure, directly, myself!

Because it was time to leave IH.  I had agreed to stay for three years, stayed a fourth, so it was time to go.  So, on the day before John Major lost office, and Tony Blair became Prime Minister, Jean and I flew from Heathrow to Boston.  I had been granted a one-year, unpaid “sabbatical,” and my plan was to relax and recharge, take some classes and learn how to meditate.  We would settle for a year in Durham, New Hampshire, where Jean grew up.

Our next step, after Durham, would be Viet Nam, where I would become Plan’s second Country Director in that country, and where I would see the new country structure in action!

Before writing about that experience, my next blog in this series will contain some final reflections on working at IH: what was it like, how did Max and I do, what went well and what didn’t… stay tuned.

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Here are links to 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.

 

  1.  Mintzberg, Henry (1993), Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organizations, Prentice Hall International Editions, New Jersey USA.

South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International

In my last blog in this series, I wrote about the first of three major projects carried out when I served as Program Director at Plan International’s International Headquarters (“IH”).  When I moved from my previous post as Regional Director for South America, Plan’s then-new International Executive Director, Max van der Schalk, and I had agreed that I would stay in the Program Director role for three years, accomplish some specific goals, and then I would return to the field.

Those three carefully-chosen major projects would be:

  1. We would articulate a set of program goals for the organization, high-level enough to be suitable across our six Regions, yet specific enough to build unity, align our work with best practices, and enable accountability.  I wrote about this last time;
  2. We would create a growth plan for the organization, so that resource allocations would be more rational, less political, less dependent on the force of character of a particular management presentation. That’s the subject this time;
  3. We would finish the restructuring of the agency.  Now that regionalization was complete, and IH had been right-sized, we needed to finish the job and review how Plan was structured in the field, at country level.  That’s for next time.

With clear goals, an objective way of allocating resources across countries, and the completion of our restructuring, I felt that Plan would be well-positioned to focus clearly on program effectiveness, and be less internally-distracted.  More united.  And I was determined to take a systems approach – fix the problems Plan faced by changing the system using those three key levers – goals, structure and resource allocation.  I sought to change the system in part by creating a new and shared language with which Plan staff would describe and understand our work in common ways, a new lexicon.

In this post I want to describe the second of those three projects – the preparation of an objective, data-driven, rigorous growth plan for Plan International.

(Portions of the content below have been adapted from two journal articles I wrote and published in “Nonprofit Management and Leadership,” after I left IH.  Copies of those original articles can be found here: NML – Fragmentation Article and here: how-should-an-international-ngo-allocate-growth.)

But first…

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I’ve been writing over the last few months about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall.  Each time I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

On July 3, 2016, Eric and I climbed North and South Kinsman, two of the three 4000-footers in the Cannon-Kinsman range, just west of Franconia Notch.  Last time, I wrote about getting to the top of North Kinsman, which was really just the first 25% of the day! Here I’ll describe the second part of that long, long day here – the ascent of South Kinsman (4358ft, 1328m), and our return to the beginning of the hike.

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We had arrived at the top of North Kinsman at around 2pm, after leaving the parking area on NH 116 at 11am.  The short, 0.9m hike over from there to the summit of South Kinsman didn’t take too long – we arrived there at around 3pm.  It was a beautiful day, but you can see how I had perspired through both shirts on the way up!:

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The Summit of South Kinsman

 

Here’s a view of the Kinsman range, taken from the top of Mt Lincoln, in June of 2017.  Moosilauke and both Kinsmans are easy to see, across Franconia Notch.  Lonesome Lake is just viewable in the middle right:

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The walk down off of South Kinsman was “steep and rough,” but otherwise a beautiful, typical White Mountains forest walk, with a nice rock sculpture along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 20 minutes after leaving the top of South Kinsman, we passed just to the east of Harrington Pond, with a beautiful view of the sky towards the south-west:

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Harrington Pond

 

It was a steep drop off of the top of South Kinsman, with several small waterfalls along Eliza Brook:

 

This section of Kinsman Ridge Trail forms a small part of the famous Appalachian Trail, which runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Maine, some 2190 miles, end-to-end.  Along the Appalachian Trail there are lean-tos and huts used by thru-hikers for overnights, as well as for day-hikers like Eric and I for quick rests.  One of those huts, Eliza Brook Shelter, is found along Kinsman Ridge Trail:

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We arrived at the Shelter at 4:45pm and, about a half-hour later, we arrived at the junction of Reel Brook Trail, which we took, heading west, downhill.

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After descending down Reel Brook to NH Rt 116 in around 3.5m of pleasant White-Mountain forest we arrived back where we started – it was nearly 8pm!

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Photo of the Trail-Head, Taken At 7:44pm

 

The loop over North and South Kinsman had taken us 9 hours, 13 hours if you include the drive up from Durham and back home.  But it was a fantastic day.

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My second major priority at IH was finding a better way for Plan to allocate resources, which meant deciding where the agency would grow.  This felt like a very strategic question: Plan was growing quickly those days, and deciding where to invest those new resources was important.  It would be a tangible manifestation of our strategy.

My own experience with this topic was, in some ways, an example of how not to approach these decisions.  As Regional Director for South America, before going to IH, I had obtained authorisation to negotiate with the government of Paraguay with the aim of reaching an agreement for Plan to work there.  From my perspective as Regional Director, this made sense, and with my old friend Andy Rubi acting as International Executive Director at the time, before Max’s arrival, I was able easily to get approval and so we began to work in Paraguay.  My well-known ability to dazzle senior-management meetings with slick presentations didn’t hurt, either!

In retrospect, even by the time I arrived at IH soon after we opened in Paraguay, that decision seemed questionable: there were many places in the world with more need than Paraguay.  I had been very parochial in my approach, battling to expand as much as possible in South America, my “patch,” not really considering what was best, overall.  But there had been no overall strategy for allocating resources across countries in Plan at that point, no analytical approach to balance the normal political advocacy and rhetorical skill that was all we had.  So I was approaching things in the “normal” way.

Helping the organization make these sensitive decisions in a strategic manner would be valuable, a key lever of change that would help us “think globally and act locally.”  Once at IH, I thought that if I could find a way to approach resource allocation in a skilful way, it might help us pull together and operate as a united organisation despite the centrifugal forces created by regionalisation.

But, could I find a way for Plan to allocate resources in an objective way?

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International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) can scale up their work and impact in several ways, but they often find expansion to be difficult to manage.  Of course, there are well-known strategic and managerial challenges facing growing organizations in all sectors of the economy, and INGOs in particular face tough choices when seeking to scale up their impact.1  In addition, unlike private and public sector organizations, INGOs lack simple and commonly accepted analytical tools for targeting additional resources consistent with their organizational aims. A slow but steady blurring of institutional focus can result.

As I have described earlier, by the time I arrived at IH, Plan was quite decentralized, with a structure divided into six regions spanning the globe; within these regions were 42 program country offices.  Day-to-day management was  undertaken by the International Executive Director (“IED”) and six Regional Directors; International Headquarters staff, based in Woking, England, provided services to program and donor country operations.  Members of the International Board of Directors, who were all voluntary, were nominated by the national boards of the donor country offices, in numbers based on the number of children supported by each donor country.  Staff in Plan’s fourteen national donor country offices were responsible for recruiting and serving individual sponsors and other donors.

Plan’s income grew strongly over the 1990s, and therefore annual field expenditures were increased from around $50 million in 1987 to over $219 million in 1997, an impressive increase in real terms of more than 220%.

Before 1995, when we created a new approach, Plan’s geographical expansion was guided pragmatically and opportunistically.  The result was that incremental resources were directed toward countries where the organizational capacity to grow already existed.  Although there is nothing inherently wrong with opportunistic growth, or pragmatism for that matter, this approach allowed the organization to drift.

For example, as can be seen in the Figure, the world average under-five mortality rate (U5MR), weighted for population, dropped continuously from 1975 to 1993.  The world was making good progress!  The weighted-average U5MR corresponding to Plan’s caseload distribution rose from 1975 to 1980, indicating that Plan was gradually moving toward needier countries.  But after 1981 this trend reversed, and the organization gradually began to work in relatively less needy countries. In fact, Plan gradually was, unintentionally, evolving toward working in countries in which under-five mortality rates were decreasing more quickly than the global average.

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Two examples illustrate the trend. First, from 1977 to 1978, Plan’s weighted-average U5MR increased from 126 to 132. This increase took place because of strong expansion in Burkina Faso, Bolivia, Haiti, Mali, and Sierra Leone, countries with U5MRs above the Plan average, and a reduction of caseload in Korea, with a relatively low U5MR. So although Plan was reducing its caseload in Ethiopia, a high-U5MR country, and increasing it somewhat in Colombia and the Philippines, which had U5MRs lower than Plan’s average, the net effect was to increase global weighted-average U5MRs.

From 1981 to 1982, Plan’s weighted-average U5MR dropped from 137 to 132.  Here an increase in caseload in countries with U5MRs above the Plan-wide average, such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Sudan, was more than offset by strong growth in Colombia, Ecuador, and the Philippines, which were relatively low-U5MR countries.  Caseloads were increased in Colombia, Ecuador, and the Philippines at least in part because it was easier for staff to manage growth in these countries, a trend that continued through the 1980s.

For an organization seeking to build better futures for deprived children, families, and communities, this drift toward relatively less needy environments was unsettling and inappropriate.  Especially during a decade of exceptional growth, a mechanism to enable Plan managers to target organizational expansion was needed.

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Plan’s situation was not unique. Geographic expansion experienced by INGOs is often strongly influenced by where growth can be managed.  Internal politics, pressure from governmental development agencies and other external funders, attention from the mass media, theories currently in vogue among development professionals, the ability of an individual manager to speak persuasively in public, or simply the dynamics of a particular meeting often drive these decisions.  As a consequence, organizational strategy – particularly concerning target populations – can become less of a focus. Day-to-day pressures dominate the attention of managers.

That sounds a lot like what driven me with the (in retrospect, wrong) decision to open in Paraguay!

Such pressures are not necessarily harmful. But without objective analytical tools that can demonstrate that resource allocation decisions are consistent (or inconsistent) with institutional strategy, organizational drift of the sort that Plan was experiencing can result.

To help correct this evolution toward less-needy populations, I proposed that a methodology be developed to direct Plan’s geographical expansion, and Senior Management approval was obtained.

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A wide-ranging in-house analysis of global poverty trends, funding prospects, and organizational capacities was then carried out in 1994. The culmination of this strategic review was the November 1994 approval by Plan’s International Board of nine “Strategic Directions for Growth,” covering a range of issues such as program effectiveness, priorities for institutional strengthening, the fundraising approach, and a policy for human resource development.

One of these Strategic Directions was particularly relevant in developing a methodology to guide resource allocation: in the section entitled “Where to Work,” it was stated that “Plan should gradually evolve towards needier countries, and towards poorer regions within new and exist- ing program countries.  The essence of Plan’s intervention is that useful and sustainable development is achieved, so that the quality of life of deprived children in developing countries is improved.  The potential for this impact should be verified before entry into new program countries” (emphases added).

Therefore, the first step for the growth plan was to develop indicators to gauge the two central points of the policy statement: the need of a country and the potential for impact of Plan’s program there.  Such indicators would have to be intuitive and useful for managers rather than suitable only for experts, employ data that were widely available in a regularly updated form and generally accepted, and amenable to quantitative techniques so that results could be as objective as possible.

Of course, a data-driven approach would only take us so far; but I thought it was the right  place to start.

Measuring Need

Because of the focus of Plan’s work on children, any management indicator of need had to be related to child welfare.  The Under 5 Mortality Rate (“U5MR”) can be viewed as the “single most important indicator of the state of a nation’s children” for a variety of compelling reasons:2

  • “It measures an end result of the development process, rather than an ‘input’”;
  • It is “known to be the result of a wide variety of inputs”;
  • It is less susceptible to the fallacy of the average because an advantaged child cannot be a thousand times more likely to survive than a deprived child.

At the same time, the U5MR is intuitive and useful to managers, and data are updated regularly by many agencies.  Finally, the U5MR is amenable to quantitative manipulation because it is an absolute, not a relative, measure.

On this basis, I selected U5MR as the parameter by which Plan would assess need for its growth plan.

Measuring Potential for Impact

The creation of a simple indicator for potential for impact was more challenging, but the concept of a national performance gap, pioneered by UNICEF, turned out to be helpful.

The idea starts with the fact that a strong correlation exists between national wealth, as measured by gross national product (GNP) per capita, and various measures of social welfare.  In general, the richer a country is, the better off its citizens are: average U5MR are lower, educational levels are higher, and maternal mortality rates are lower, for example.  Because of this strong correlation, given a nation’s wealth, various indicators of social welfare can be predicted with a fair degree of certainty.

However, some countries achieve more than can be expected given their levels of national income, and others achieve less.  These countries perform better than others.  War, corruption, the political system of the country, budgetary priorities, and many other factors can affect this performance.  In short, the performance of a country in deploying its national wealth, no matter how meagre, to achieve expected levels of social welfare must depend on a wide variety of factors – I felt that these were just the sorts of factors that could determine the potential for impact of Plan’s programs.

Just to go a bit deeper, consider two hypothetical countries with similar national wealth, as measured by their respective GNP per capita.  The solid line in the Figure depicts the global correlation between income and some hypothetical measure of child welfare, constructed by carrying out a log regression analysis on the performance of all countries.  As can be seen, country A has a (say, marginally) higher level of child welfare than does country B and is in fact doing better than the correlation analysis would have predicted.  With the same economic resources, country A must somehow be creating a socioeconomic environment that is more amenable to child development than is country B.  It is important to note that the absolute level of child poverty in both country A and country B can be quite severe, with many needy children in each country, but the relative performance of the two countries varies.

But we can see that something is going right in country A, relative to country B.

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Bearing in mind that Plan sought to focus its work in areas where conditions are not hostile to sustainable development (it was not a humanitarian organization, at least in the mid-1990’s), the organisation might anticipate having more impact in the country that is achieving all that can be expected (no matter how little) with the resources (no matter how meagre) it has. In other words, Plan should target its marginal resources on country A instead of country B.

Thus, instead of somehow directly measuring the likely impact of Plan’s program in a given country, a task that is conceptually complex, I decided to use an indirect measure: the performance of that nation in achieving child development, no matter its national wealth.

To assess this performance concretely, a compound index of the status of children was created.  The index was formed by combining the U5MR, the percentage of primary school children reaching grade 5, and the enrollment ratio of females as a percentage of males in primary school.  These data are all readily available, intuitively simple to use, and absolute rather than relative measures.  (The U5MR is therefore used twice in this analysis: once directly, to measure need, and again indirectly, as one of three components combined and analyzed to measure government performance. The U5MR was chosen again because it is an effective measure of need and at the same time well represents the impact of efforts of a government in the health and education areas.)

This index, which I referred to as the “Plan Index”, was then analyzed to determine whether a given country, while qualifying as a Plan program country, was achieving more or less than could be expected given its national income.  The difference between actual and expected performance was denoted as the “Plan Gap”.

I calculated the Plan gap by performing a standard log regression on the Plan Index against per capita income at purchasing power parity.  A graphical portrayal of the result is given in the Figure; the gap between the smooth series of diamond-shaped points, which represents expected levels of the Plan Index for all countries qualifying as program countries, and real levels, shown as round points, represents the Plan Gap.  A positive Plan Gap (actual points above predicted levels) indicates that a country is performing better than would be expected given its national wealth; a negative gap suggests that performance is lagging.

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The analysis described was carried out on the eighty-one countries that Plan considered for program operations.  Then these countries were prioritized by combining the U5MR (measuring need) with the Plan Gap (measuring potential for impact); the U5MR was added to 2.5 times the Plan Gap to produce a compound index that was used for sorting.

The results are shown next: the table orders countries by this compound index; current program countries are shown in italic type, and countries selected for active consideration as new program countries are shown in boldface type. Thus Niger would appear to have the highest priority and the Dominican Republic the lowest. Four countries in which Plan had program operations in 1995 – Colombia, Paraguay, Sri Lanka, and Thailand – no longer qualified and therefore we decided to discuss their phase-out.

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Qualitative Factors

All that data analysis was great, but it took us only so far.  We thought that a methodology based exclusively on data would still miss much of value: informed judgment, experience, and intuition – also valuable tools when considering resource allocation.  And responsiveness and flexibility are two of the virtues of NGOs.  These attributes can be especially useful when employed in the light of the rigorous data-driven analysis that was carried out.

Therefore, we arranged for the quantitative analysis outlined above to be reviewed by a panel of Plan staff, a member of Plan’s International Board of Directors, and an invited guest from another large INGO.  A few of the qualitative factors examined in this review included:

  • Projected U5MR.  What is the trend for need in the country? Is the effect of HIV/AIDS likely to increase U5MRs beyond current trends?
  • Development climate.  Is the environment in the country conducive to development? Is the government in favor of NGOs working there? Has the government signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and produced a plan of action to implement the convention?
  • Risk.  How risky is the environment in the country? Is it stable? Are international investors working there? How likely is conflict, war, or some other similar problem?
  • Market potential.  Is there likely to be interest from sponsors and other donors? Are there ties between the country and any of Plan’s donor countries?
  • Saturation.  How many INGOs, bilateral agencies, and multilaterals operate in the country? What are their budget and geographical coverage? Is there room for Plan?
  • Caseload potential.  Is the population of needy children large enough to enable sufficient economies of scale for Plan?

Starting with the quantitative analysis outlined above, this discussion produced a proposal for resource allocation (a growth plan), which was reviewed by Plan’s senior management team of field and headquarters-based staff.  Thus the objective analysis was complemented by extensive discussion based on real, informed experience.

For example, although analytical work highlighted Niger as the highest priority in 1995, political instability there (not completely captured in the quantitative analysis outlined above) meant that Plan did not consider working in that nation until later.  And though some Plan Regional Directors felt strongly that Plan should continue to direct resources to countries such as Colombia and Sri Lanka, analytical results were helpful in convincing managers that these countries, though undeniably poor, had less child-related need than others and should thus be lower priorities for the organization.

The final growth plan was therefore created by combining the priorities and recommendations emerging from rigorous analysis with the informed experience of field-based staff.  Decisions were influenced, still, by political influence within the organisation and by rhetorical flourish, but these factors were now balanced by data.

I attach here a version of the growth plan prepared for consideration by Plan’s International Board of Directors in June, 1995 – plan-international-growth-plan.  Note, on page 7, a recommendation that Plan phase out operations in Paraguay!

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During the rest of my time at IH, Plan’s senior management team frequently reviewed resource allocation requests, both when annual budgets were formally approved and when adjustments were made during the year.  Since discussions began with a review of the analytical results from the growth plan, the entire process became less confrontational, more objective, less emotional, and more productive.  The competing views of field managers were tempered with objective and rigorous analysis.  Rarely, when consensus on a particular resource-allocation decision was not reached, Max made the final decision. In most, but not all, cases, he endorsed the course of action recommended by the growth plan.  Where his decision varied from the plan, it was often to strike a geographical balance across Plan’s regions.  These more-objective discussions had a significant effect on resource allocation decisions.

However, the process used to develop the growth plan was far from perfect.  I managed the project, partly this was because of my own background and training in engineering, I was comfortable with the mathematics underlying the growth plan.  In particular, explaining the “Plan Gap” to those in senior management with different backgrounds was challenging.

Feedback was sought and endorsement gained at several points along the way as we developed the methodology but, unlike the development of Plan’s organizational goals (described last time), real involvement from the field was minimal, limited to giving feedback rather than, as in the earlier project, managing parts of the effort.  The emotional commitment of members of my department to the redirection of Plan’s growth toward particular areas (Africa) or issues (HIV and AIDS) was strong; a vocal “Africa lobby” took vigorous part in the discussions as well as behind the scenes.  And, in contrast to our work on Plan’s goals, the process did not begin with an organization-wide workshop, and communication of results to the wider organization was sporadic.

Personally, I was quite enamored of the elegant methodology that emerged, taken by its rigour and the insights embedded in the Plan Gap and Plan Index.  As a result, even though Max was just as pleased with the end result as I was, and greatly appreciated its rigour (he was also an engineer by training), ownership of the growth plan was less evident outside headquarters, and resistance to the results that came from its application was pretty strong.

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Why did development of the growth plan stray from the lessons learned in successfully developing the Program Directions (and, as will be described, the final of the three projects, the restructuring of Plan’s country operations)?

I think that, in part, it was because, unlike the other two projects, the growth plan was by nature a win-lose proposition.  The growth plan led to quantitative growth of the organization being redirected from one area to another, with some regions gaining resources and others losing.  This led to a high level of anxiety on the part of field staff.  Together with the emotional attachment of staff in my department and myself to the growth plan model, the trap was set and we fell into the old top-down behaviors that had been common in earlier reincarnations of Plan’s headquarters.

Still, I think that the growth plan served a useful purpose.  By the end of 1999, another review of Plan’s growth strategy concluded with recommendations forwarded to senior management.  This review was based on the approach outlined here, further refining the model built in 1995.  Although reaching similar conclusions, the study focused on internal systems needed to ensure effective short-term management of growth supply and demand, while updating the long-term, strategic aspect of the original plan with identical methods and similar results.

So, while not entirely successful, the Growth Plan helped us to allocate resources more strategically, and I certainly learned some lessons on how NOT to manage sensitive projects like this one!

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My next blog in this series will describe how we finished the restructuring of Plan’s field operations, which led to the creation of Country Offices.  It was a big effort, with huge implications for many people… and it went much better.

Stay tuned for more!

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Here are links to 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.

 

  1. See  (Edwards and Hulme, 1992; Billis and MacKeith, 1992; Hodson, 1992)
  2. Reference to UNICEF here?