Several of my articles in the “4000-footer” series touched on the work that I’ve done across cultures. Here I want to share an anecdote that illustrates how things can (nearly) go awry, even when the cultures involved aren’t that different.
The story involves two people who pop up several times in the series.
Jean and I were living in Tuluá, Colombia, in the late 1980s. Monique van’t Hek was my manager, a gifted and dedicated Dutch Field Director; I was her Assistant Director. I learned a huge amount from Monique during those years, and from Leticia Escobar, who was Monique’s manager. Leticia was Area Manager for Colombia and Ecuador, working from the Regional Office in Ecuador. Both Monique and I deeply respected Leticia, relying on her judgement and looking forward to her regular visits.
(As you may have seen, I wrapped up the “4000-footer” series thanking some of the many people who helped me, influenced me, taught me, over the decades described in those articles; Monique and Leticia figure prominently in that group. Thank you Monique, and thank you, Leticia!)
At one point during those years, Monique and I were struggling to deal with one problematic local staff member. “Roberto” (not his actual name) held a key position, leading the implementation of an important initiative. He was a smart and experienced professional but, sadly, he also had a major drinking problem, which was really getting in the way of his work, alienating him from our staff and resulting in poor performance. After discussing the situation several times, it seemed best that Monique speak with Leticia about the situation, at an upcoming visit, and get her advice.
At the end of that visit, Leticia and Monique had a private meeting. I knew that the situation with “Roberto” would be discussed at that meeting so, after Leticia returned to Quito, I dropped by Monique’s office to see what had been decided.
“I’m really confused,” she said. “It turns out that if we want to dismiss ‘Roberto’ we have to pay him $64,000!”
This was a real shock : “Roberto” earned less than $1000 per month, and his severance pay wouldn’t amount to anything near that much…
“What did Leticia actually say?” I asked, with a puzzled look on my face.
“Well, when I asked what she thought we should do, she just said ‘that’s the 64 thousand dollar question.’”
Of course, I immediately realized what was happening. In the 1950s, there was a popular American television game show, in which contestants were asked increasingly difficult questions, winning increasing amounts of money if they answered correctly. It all culminated with the most-difficult question; if the contestant answered that final, nearly impossible question correctly, they would win $64,000.
In the 1950s, $64,000 was a lot of money! Over time, an idiomatic expression entered American culture: when a difficult question was raised, one way of responding was to say “that’s the $64,000 question” – meaning, “that’s a very difficult one!”
Imagine if I hadn’t been there to translate! – “Roberto” might have received a huge windfall! Unluckily for him, I clarified things with Monique, who was rather relieved that we wouldn’t have to spend so much money if we decided that “Roberto” had to leave.
So, even across cultures as similar as Dutch and American, cross-cultural communications can go awry! Imagine the complexity when working across verydifferent cultures! This wasn’t the last time in my career that I would experience the eye-opening mysteries of working across cultures, but it was a good early lesson-learned about how very different cultures can be.
Check out my “4000-footer” series: 48 blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least4000 feet tall. And, each time, reflections on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, and experiences along the way:
Since then, in 44 posts (so far), I’ve described climbing some amazing 4000-foot mountains. I’ve reflected on two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador; my 15 years with Plan International; the deep, disruptive changes in the development sector over that time; the two years I spent consulting with CCF, developing a new program approach for that agency that we called “Bright Futures,” and most recently my time as International Program Director at ChildFund Australia.
Last time I continued to describe a new phase in my career, related to conflict. I focused in particular on conflict analysis, and I described climbing Mt Washington, my 43rd 4000-footer, and the highest of the 48, on 27 October 2017. Washington is the highest of the 4000-footers; in fact, it’s the highest mountain in the northeastern United States, a place where some of the harshest weather on earth has been recorded.
On that October day, after climbing Mt Washington, I also got to the top of Mt Monroe (5384ft, 1641m), which I will describe here. And I will expand on one important topic I highlighted in my first conflict-related article: the role of culture in conflict.
To skip the description of my first ascent of Mt Monroe, and go directly to exploration of culture and conflict, click here.
The Climb – Mt Monroe
I was quite out of shape that day, having spent the previous month (September, 2017) wandering around India with my old friend Ricardo Gómez. At this point, I wasn’t sure I was up to climbing two of the highest mountains in New Hampshire in one day, but the first part of the climb had been great: cool but not cold, bright blue skies. Getting to the top of Mt Washington was a challenge, and it got colder and steeper as I neared the summit.
But I had succeeded! Now the question was: did I have the energy, and the daylight, to climb Mt Monroe?
Eric had driven up from Durham with me, but had decided not to do the climb that day. Instead, he would drop me at Pinkham Notch, and then pick me up at Glen Ellis Falls parking area, saving me a mile hike on the Direttissima Trail.
I had a decision to make after I ate lunch at the top of Mt Washington. The days were getting much shorter now, as we got into autumn, so I hadn’t been sure if I would have time to climb both Washington and Mt Monroe. So I decided to make the call once I got to the top of Washington. I could see Mt Monroe from the top of Mt Washington, down below me. At least I wouldn’t have to climb much more, and it didn’t look too far off. I was making good time, and wasn’t feeling too exhausted…
So … I decided to tackle Mt Monroe.
I figured that, if all went well, I would take the Crawford Path down to the Lake of the Clouds Hut. From there I would climb Mt Monroe and double back to the Hut, and then take the Camel Trail over to the Davis Path and down to the Glen Boulder Trail.
This looked like a challenge, especially since I was leaving Mt Washington at a little after 1pm and the sun would set by 5:40pm. Would I have enough time?
I mentioned last time that there were a few late-season tourists with me at the top of Mt Washington. Most of them were now queuing to take the Cog Railway back down. They were bundled up and seemed very cold in the wind; likewise, I began to shiver as I finished lunch, so I put on another layer of clothing, my cap, and a pair of gloves.
Leaving the top of Mt Washington, at first I couldn’t actually find the trail – it was so windy and cold that I wasn’t really thinking clearly because of the cold. After wandering around the top for a while, stumbling about in confusion, looking for the Crawford Path in the snow and shivering, I returned to the Cog Railway queue, where I found a large relief map on the wall. It seemed that the Crawford Path began near the antennae that are clustered in one area of the summit. So I backtracked over there, but still couldn’t find any signs… but I could see rock cairns leading downward.
I started down from the summit. The wind was so strong that I was blown over several times; I was really depending on my walking pole for stability, and began to worry that I would damage it as I was tossed around by very strong gusts of cold wind. That would make things even trickier…
There was a heavy dusting of snow, that had blown into drifts in areas, and plenty of ice on the trail as I went downward, and I slipped quite a few times.
The hiker in red that can be seen in the photo above had stopped to talk with me; he was working at the Mt Washington observatory and was heading back up that way. I guess he could see that I was nervous at the weather conditions, because he took the time to assure me that those gale winds would end in about 1/4 mile, and from there it would be calmer.
Ahead of me, down the slopes of Mt Washington, I could see the rock cairns marking the trail and, beyond, Mt Monroe. Above the cairns and Mt Monroe were the White Mountains around Franconia Notch, and a blue sky beginning to cloud:
Light snow, to be sure, but there were plenty of drifts that were icy and quite slippery. It was scary, I can tell you!
After about 0.4 miles I came to the intersection of the Westside Trail. It was steep walking, as you can see from the angle!
I had descended a fair way; the antennae at the top of Mt Washington were visible far above me:
You can see that the gale winds had lessened, since my eyebrows had calmed! (And you can see that I had calmed down a bit, too!)
Soon after 2pm I arrived at the junction of the Crawford Path with the Crossover and Camel Trails; the Lake of the Clouds Hut was directly below me. I would return here after looping over the summit of Mt Monroe:
What a spectacular day!
From the Lake of the Clouds (the lake, and the Hut) I could look back up at Mt Washington:
I pressed on from the Hut towards Mt Monroe, with increasing doubts about when I would finish the hike. Despite some steep climbing, and some icy stretches, I got to the top of Mt Monroe at about 2:30pm. The views from there were spectacular:
So I had climbed 45 of the 48 peaks! Yippee!
But there was no time to waste celebrating, it was getting late… so I headed back down. The sun was starting to drop back behind Monroe as I descended:
The icy patches that I had encountered on the way up Mt Monroe were trickier on the way down, so I had to slow down to avoid slipping: a fall on the way down would be much more dangerous than on the way up! So I took my time, but that fed into my nervousness about making it down off the mountain before dark…
At 3pm I was back at the junction of the Camel Trail, which I took.
After a short, steep climb, I reached a long, fairly-flat section of the Camel Trail, and then of the Davis Path. On my left, to the north, the peak of Mt Washington accompanied me, always visible, as you can see in these photos, taken as I crossed the high plateau towards the descent down Glen Boulder Trail:
Some sections along here already had some moderate snow buildup:
The views were amazing, but I was beginning to be quite tired and my left knee was starting to give me some trouble, so I was paying less attention to my surroundings. It was beginning to be a slog, verging on being a “torture hike”!
I reached the junction with the Glen Boulder Trail at a little after 4pm, and I was very tired. But I remained optimistic, because I thought that it would be downhill all the way down to the road, which would be easy (unless the long, pounding descent made my knee hurt, which it did!):
Because Eric would be waiting for me down at Rt 16, I wouldn’t have to walk all the way to Pinkham Notch, so instead of having 3.2 miles to go, it was more like 2.8. Easy, right?!
But I was still worried about the sunset that was due to come at 5:40pm. I only had around 1 1/2 hours to get all the way down Glen Boulder Trail before sunset…
For a while I walked through some high-altitude scrub trees:
But soon I began to approach the steeper descent, and could see the road below. Wildcat Ridge (which I had climbed in 2017: getting to the top of Wildcat “D” and Wildcat Mountain, with the Carter range beyond) was across the way, now in direct sunlight from the west: the sun would be setting behind me as I descended Glen Boulder Trail:
At just past 5pm I passed Glen Boulder, a major milestone hereabouts:
Here the trail began to descend steeply, and I began to lose my enthusiasm completely. My left knee was really hurting, and the walking was on top of large granite boulders, which made things much worse: the rocks jarred my knee as I dropped down onto them, again and again.
By 6pm it was getting quite dark and, honestly, I was not enjoying the walk at all. I followed along behind two other hikers for a while, and finally passed them just before it got completely dark. I took one last photo before getting out my flashlight:
As you can see, I was at the junction of the Direttissima Trail, which is still nearly a half mile from the Glen Ellis parking area. The trail descended steeply nearly the entire way from the Glen Boulder, until perhaps 0.2 miles from the parking area. I delayed getting the flashlight out of my pack for too long; the moon was peaking from behind the clouds occasionally, so I was able to manage, carefully.
But once I did get the flashlight going I was able to move more confidently, and soon the trail leveled off and I could walk without too much worry that I would trip and slide down the hill!
I don’t think that I ever, ever, have finished a hike in the dark, at least since my very first backpacking trip way back in high school! So it was an interesting experience walking into the parking area at Glen Ellis using the flashlight, and finding Eric waiting for me. Not something I’d like to repeat too often, because even with a good light you can’t see around you very well, of course… but it went OK.
Eric saw my flashlight approaching, and he flashed his car lights. It was 6:30pm and I was completely exhausted and my left knee was in serious pain. But I had conquered two of the last, and two of the highest, of the over-4000-foot White Mountains! Just three more to go…
We stopped in North Conway for a good Mexican dinner before heading south, and I got home to Durham around 9:45pm. It had been a very long day!
So, at the end of October 2017, only three 4000-footers remained: Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. But the days were getting shorter, and temperatures were steadily dropping; as you have read, Washington and Monroe had been real challenges. My knee hurt, and I wanted to rest it.
So I decided to postpone finishing the 48 peaks until the next season. 2017 had been very productive: I had climbed 22 of the 48 4000-footers despite having been in India for an entire month right in the middle of the climbing season. Added to the 23 mountains I had climbed in 2016, I was very close to finishing – just three more to go for 2018…
But I had run out of time. And even though I had climbed 45 of the 48 peaks, I had only published 26 of the blogs. So I figured I would spend the next few winter months catching up on the blogging!
I climbed Mt Monroe again, this time in the summer season, nearly two years later. For a short description of that climb, skipping my reflections on culture and conflict, click here.
Culture and Conflict
As I mentioned last time, late in our years in Sydney, I took a couple of courses at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), first in Mediation and then on Principled Negotiation. At first I looked at this coursework just as a way of acquiring skills that would be useful in my work. Plus it had been a long time since I had done any formal study, so it felt like it was time to wake up the side of my brain that might be a bit under-utilized!
I ended up really enjoying that academic work, and learning about conflict and dispute management…
In my first blog posting about conflict, I shared five key insights that I had gained as I worked through my masters in dispute resolution at the University of New South Wales. Of the five insights I shared in that article, the fourth was that “all conflict has cultural aspects. Conflict is culturally defined – these are good starting points, but be careful!” I fore-shadowed then that I would be preparing an article focused entirely on this topic, so read on!
When you find yourself in conflict, and suspect that there is a cross-cultural element to it:
Analyze the conflict using Bernie Mayer’s “Circle of Conflict” that I described in an earlier article in this series. Culture is a key element in Bernie’s framework; so, next,
Carefully consider the culture or cultures involved. And remember: culture is ALWAYS involved! Use insights from Hofstede as starting points;
Develop and use your cultural fluency to put Hofstede’s insights to work in the particular situation you face;
Analyze how culture is influencing the dynamic of the conflict;
With these insights, determine how you will approach the conflict.
The rest of this article will focus on culture and on how culture influences conflict, and vice-versa.
First: culture. There are many frameworks for culture, which is a tricky concept, with different approaches and plenty of disagreement. And, as a consequence, there are also many different ways of looking at cross-cultural conflict. In this article, I will be sharing the important work of several authors and experts:
Geert Hofstede, whose culture-related research and frameworks have influenced many across several decades, while not being immune to controversy. Much more on Hofstede below…;
Kevin Avruch, whose thinking and writing on conflict and culture is some of the clearest and most complete that I have come across;
Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay, whose excellent book “Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Cultures” was the text for my final course in the UNSW degree in Dispute Resolution, which I actually took at James Cook University in Cairns, returning for the in-person workshop soon after having relocated to the US from Australia;
Finally, I’ll be drawing on outstanding presentations made by Steve Fisher and Maria Rodrigues, who led that final course in Cairns.
What is “culture”? I want to share three definitions here, all of which make sense to me.
For Avruch, culture is the “learned and shared ways of behaving appropriately in social settings. It’s things that people learn by virtue of belonging to a social group. These things are encoded in cognitive structures, schemas, paralinguistic structures like metaphors, and language. Then they’re also publicly encoded in symbols and values. Culture is learned; it’s shared, more or less. The degree of sharing that is always an empirical issue is a social setting, and it’s passed down from generation to generation, which gives it some kind of traditional force. But it is also created. It is also emergent because it represents people in ways in which people face the dilemmas, such as the problematics in everyday social life, including conflicts and disputes. What it is not, is it is not encoded in the human genome. It’s socially created”;
For Hofstede, culture is: “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others”. This definition appeals to me because the metaphor of an operating system helps me understand how culture manifests in human reality. Of course, I can understand how this definition would not be as appealing to others: I am an American white male, trained (long ago) as an engineer, so it’s perhaps not surprising that this kind of framing for culture would work for me! (In my defense, I’m at least somewhat aware of my bias!)
Finally, taking from a presentation given by Maria Rodriques as part of the cross-cultural conflict course I took in Cairns, culture is the lens that we look through when we view reality. Take for example a yellow flower: it appears to be orange if we look at it through the red lens, and green if we look through blue glasses. Just so, a particular set of events, or behavior, can appear quite different to us when viewed from our, or another’s, cultural point of view.
Of course, to emphasize here something I already have outlined above, as Avruch says, “… a conception of culture is inadequate, (a) if it fails to reflect the ‘thickness,’ or complexity, of the phenomenological world it seeks to represent, that is, if it oversimplifies; or (b) if it is connected, overtly or covertly, to a political or ideological agenda…”
Later I will argue that all conflict is cultural in nature; to a greater or lesser degree, culture is always there. But before we discuss conflict and culture, I want to introduce the important work of Geert Hofstede, one of the most significant researchers in the field of culture, and his six “dimensions” model has been widely influential, though somewhat controversial.
Hofstede’s research originated in his work at IBM International in Holland, in the 1970’s, where he was involved in employee surveys spanning many countries. Analyzing the data, Hofstede discerned patterns that seemed to cluster in what became his “dimensions.”
So Hofstede’s concept of culture was originally based on work with IBM employees, a population that certainly doesn’t represent the rich diversity of our world; but, over time, his research grew to cover many more countries and a much broader population, and has become one of the most common and widely-used ways of studying culture. I will be using his framework in this article.
There are two dangers here, traps that we must avoid. Firstly, Hofstede often seems to conflate culture with country; on his website, which we will explore in more detail below, we will find amazingly rich and useful detail for comparing cultures, listed by country. The problem is that all countries contain a rich mixture of cultures, so we must avoid the trap of assuming that Hofstede’s description of a culture in a country represents the particular situation we are analyzing. The danger is that we construe a majority culture as describing an entire national population.
Secondly, even assuming that a particular country can be described as one, homogeneous culture, which it certainly can’t, there still will be a wide spectrum of cultural traits across that theoretically-homogeneous population. For example, although, in general, Australians are much more individualistic than South Koreans, there are certainly some Australians who are less individualistic than some South Koreans.
So we must avoid the trap of assuming that the culture in any country, no matter how homogeneous, is uniform across the population. This means that it is imperative that any conflict professional, or anybody seeking to better understand a cross-cultural situation, must use Hofstede’s Dimensions, and his incredibly rich data set, as a starting point only! In other words, to benefit from Hofstede’s research and insights, we must use his framework as a starting point for our analysis, not as a true representation of the particular situation we are studying. Making a stereotypical generalization based on his findings could lead to great errors.
Use this very helpful tool with caution and discernment.
Keeping those caveats firmly in mind, let’s unpack Hofstede’s six “dimensions” of culture, which we will be using as starting points for analysis. During his career at IBM, collecting information on the personality preferences of company employees, Hofstede noticed six poles, across each of which people tended to cluster in national / cultural commonalities:
In other words, Hofstede asserts that people in particular cultures (which, again, he seems to conflate with countries) cluster in certain places in each of these six poles or dimensions. Some cultures (countries), on average, will typically express higher, or lower, rankings for “Power Distance,” and “Individualism versus Collectivism,” etc.
As I mentioned above, vast research underpins Hofstede’s Dimensions, from their origins in studies of IBM employees through to the much wider and deeper data now underlying the concepts today, and their relevance goes well beyond application to conflict. They are very useful in unpacking conflict behavior.
Space precludes me from fully describing Hofstede’s dimensions; for a complete explanation, consult the website noted in the figure. For now, I’m taking the liberty of adapting the following outline from Hofstede’s work:
Power Distance: This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power;
Individualism versus Collectivism: The high side of this dimension, called individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we”;
Masculinity versus Femininity: The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented. In the business context Masculinity versus Femininity is sometimes also related to as “tough versus tender” cultures;
Uncertainty Avoidance: The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviourand are intolerant of unorthodox behaviourand ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles;
Long-Term versus Short-Term Orientation: Every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future. Societies prioritize these two existential goals differently. Societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honouredtraditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion. Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future. In the business context this dimension is related to as “(short term) normative versus (long term) pragmatic” (PRA). In the academic environment the terminology Monumentalism versus Flexhumility is sometimes also used;
Indulgence versus Restraint: Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.
Comparison of the Dimensions between a wide range of cultures can be sourced on Hofstede’s website; but be careful to recall my caveats, above, about conflating country and culture!
For example, here I’ve compared Australia and South Korea, plotting them together across Hofstede’s six dimensions:
It’s easy to see how conflict could emerge, and intensify, in an interaction between these two cultures: one party might well be focusing on gains over the long term, while the other could be placing much more value on short-term benefits; and perhaps one side of a negotiation is looking at discussions from the point of view of their organization, while the other side is thinking about how various options might be good, or bad, from their personal, individual standpoint. The discussions could very easily become tense, and then “Power Distance” could come into play, leading one side to communicate very indirectly and to be offended by the other side speaking directly.
You can create similar plots across a vast range of countries on Hofstede’s website. Try it, it’s fascinating.
I’ve found that colleagues overseas are often very familiar with Hofstede, but that Americans are much less so. Highly recommended!
So how does culture relate to conflict? Here I want to acknowledge the text we used in the final course in my masters degree: “Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Cultures,” by Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay.
First time through, the book was a bit hard to grasp, partly because the concepts are complex but also because the authors take a very unusual approach of framing the presentation around how the, together, experienced their collaboration. Second time through, accompanied by the excellent lecturers at JCU, I found the book to be very impressive, deeply considered, and extremely useful.
Speaking of which, I want to recognize the lectures given by Steve Fisher and Maria Rodriques in that course. Steve conducted the course in-person, in Cairns, while Maria prepared lectures that were were presented via PowerPoint.
Three key concepts help us understand the relationships between culture and conflict: cultural fluency, culture-conflict dynamics, and cultural “carriers.” I have found that a thorough grasp of these concepts, together with a clear view of culture itself, really helps me to understand conflict in cross-cultural settings.
To understand how culture and a particular conflict are relating, we need to be fluent with the concept of culture itself. According to one of the co-authors of the LeBaron and Pillay volume, Arai Tatsushi, cultural fluency is defined as ‘our readiness to internalize, express, and help shape the process of meaning-making’ (p. 58). Tasushi uses the following figure to illustrate cultural fluency:
Tatsushi uses the metaphor of viewing a flower through different-colored lenses to illustrate how we gain cultural fluency:
We need to anticipate that others might see the flower differently from us;
We need to gain a better understanding of the nature of our own lenses, and those of others, and gradually reshape our perceptions to include other possibilities instinctively (embeddedness);
We must express how our lenses are shaping our perceptions and encourage others to do the same;
Finally, we have to navigate to take action and move forward in a constructive manner that builds on this enhanced and nuanced understanding of the situation.
This is not always a sequential process – sometimes we make mistakes and need to go back and alter our ways of anticipating, etc. As with many things in life, gaining cultural fluency is, fundamentally, about being self-aware and cultivating a non-judgmental sense of curiosity.
The next concept to grasp is culture-conflict dynamics. It turns out that there is a dynamic and intertwined relationship between culture and conflict:
culture shapes conflict by attaching meaning to it, prompting our response to conflict, how we view conflict. The lens we look through shapes how we interpret events, and strongly influences how we behave in a given situation, which can be viewed quite differently by people from other cultures. Culture defines who is “us” and who is “them” – and since many conflicts are strongly influenced by tribal identities, the history of ethnic loyalties or enmities, this is a very powerful way that culture shapes and expands conflict across long periods of time and expanses of geography. At the same time, culture can provide us with opportunities to transform conflict, can be a positive “lens” to view conflict;
And, over time, conflict has a deep impact on culture by changing the way we view a particular situation.
That’s how culture shapes conflict. But the influence goes both ways: over time, conflict influences and shapes culture also. Here the concept of “cultural carriers” is very helpful.
“Cultural carriers” are things like institutions, songs, symbols (such as flags), stories and histories, metaphors such as proverbs, and so forth. These are “containers” – concrete objects as well as abstract ideas – that carry our culture across social contexts. Conflict shapes and reshapes these cultural carriers, which then become embedded in our world view. (For an excellent article about how differing “worldviews” can create and exacerbate conflict, see this chapter of a great book about the Waco catastrophe.)
As Tatsushi says in the text, “conflict affects culture most deeply when it transforms the kind of cultural carriers that penetrate our identity.” And, looking at Mayer’s Wheel of Conflict, we can see that when values become involved in a conflict, enormous fuel is added to the fire.
Tatsushi mentions examples of four types of conflict-related phenomena that shape cultural carriers: protracted violence (war, or domestic violence); forced movement (such as mass migration or individual change of household); cultural mergers (such as when a new country is formed from smaller nations, or when a couple marries across two cultures), and new systems of thinking (in a national revolution or even as a human being moves from adolescence to adulthood.)
So culture influences how individuals or groups interpret behavior and engage in conflict. Conflict influences the “cultural carriers” that, over time, symbolize and define our culture, shaping who we are and how we see ourselves, thus influencing future conflicts.
All conflicts are cultural. I start with Mayer’s “Wheel of Conflict.” Then I dig deeper in terms of culture: when I face conflict working within my own culture, I start by reflecting on how my culture influences me. I review Hofstede’s analysis of US culture and use it to start to analyze my behavior and approach. Across cultures, I bring the cultural fluency I’ve gained over my career (and from Tatsushi!) to enhance my self-awareness and authentic curiosity: I ask, “what’s going on here?!”
It’s sometimes easier said than done, but adding in a dash of compassion and forgiveness always helps.
In a future article in this series I will describe a real conflict involving Western and Asian parties from an international NGO (which I will not name!). Looking at Hofstede’s analysis of Australia and South Korea, above, it’s easy to see how easily conflicts could emerge between people from these two cultures: just consider the vast differences shown in “Individualism,” “Long-Term Orientation,” and “Indulgence”!
Stay tuned for that!
A Second Climb, A Second Season
I climbed Mt Monroe again nearly two years later, on 1 July 2019, after having completed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers late in 2018. I was on my second round of the 48, trying to get up each one in a different season and on a different route (if possible).
This time I would climb Mt Monroe in the summer season, ascending from the west, from near where the Cog Railway begins:
In this map, I show my July 2019 hike in black, and part of the October 2017 route in red. That time, I came from the east, over Mt Washington, and then climbed Monroe. This time, I parked at the Ammonoosuc Ravine parking area, at around 10:30am, and walked east towards Monroe…
Walking up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail was pleasant, only a few bugs, but very humid. We had a rainy late spring, so there was plenty of mud, but not too bad. So I was sweaty almost from the beginning!
I walked up the ravine.
There were a couple of nice, small waterfalls along the way:
Around 12:15pm, I entered the alpine zone, and approached Lake of the Clouds hut, which had been closed for the season on my last ascent of Mt Monroe:
I stopped at the busy, crowded, joyful hut to have a quick lunch. Mt Monroe was very close, and visible, closer than I had recalled from two years before. But Mt Washington was in heavy cloud, as it had been thus far in my hike.
I left the hut at around 1:15pm, headed up Mt Monroe:
Before I knew it, I was at the top of Mt Monroe, and started down again.
From the hut, I took the Crawford Path, which is the Appalachian Trail here, with lots of company – the Lake of the Clouds Hut was full, and everybody wanted to get to the top of the highest mountain in the eastern United States. Sadly, at least most of the time, it was in the clouds…
But after getting most of the way up Mt Washington, walking with a group of young men in white short-sleeved shirts in the cold and windy afternoon, I diverged onto the Westside Trail, hiking north just underneath the summit of Mt Washington. There, I left the crowds behind.
I was in no hurry, so I stopped halfway along the Westside Trail, and sat for a while, all alone, on a gorgeous White Mountains day. It was a spectacular sight:
This was a very special place, full of a sense of well-being and peace. I hope you can get a feeling for how calming and peaceful it was by looking at this video. Unusually for me on these hikes, I stopped for quite a while just to watch the weather and the mountains around me, in the wonderful silence.
Continuing along to the north, soon I came to the Cog Railway. This being the 4th of July week, it was busy, so I was able to film a car going downward:
In the background you can see Mt Jefferson, which was the final 4000-footer I had climbed in June of 2018, just over a year before…
Crossing under the tracks, I came to a spot where I had a great view back towards Mt Jefferson and Mt Adams and Mt Madison. Looking the other way, I could see Mt Washington in the clouds:
I turned back towards the west here, onto the Jewell Trail, which was a pleasant and uneventful White-Mountains walk down to the parking area, where I arrived at about 5:15pm. It had been a wonderful climb.
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
During my six years at ChildFund Australia, the program approach that we developed early in my tenure meant that reducing vulnerability became one of our biggest priorities. This was new territory for us, with lots of learning and testing: what did reducing child vulnerability mean for ChildFund Australia? What kinds of vulnerability would we address? And where?
In this article I will focus on one aspect of vulnerability that we worked on: “disaster risk reduction” (DRR). And, in particular, I want to highlight our participation in the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which took place in March, 2015, in Sendai, Japan.
I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall. And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 34 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
To skip the description of my ascent of South Twin, and go directly to my discussion of Disaster Risk Reduction, click here.
The Climb – South Twin
Last time I described how our Granddaughter V and I had climbed North Twin Mountain on 2 September 2017. Since it was V’s first real mountain climb, we had agreed that we would decide about continuing to South Twin when we got to the top of North Twin.
We had arrived at the outlook near the top of North Twin at about 1:30pm and had lunch, getting to the top just after 2pm. V was enthusiastic about continuing, and she was certainly keeping up with me on the climb – no problems at all – so we decided to continue on towards the top of South Twin (4902ft, 1494m) – the 8th-highest 4000-footer, and my 41st on this round. It would be V’s second 4000-footer that day!
We took the North Twin Spur, leaving North Twin a bit after 2pm. We dropped down into a saddle between North and South Twin, and walked through pleasant forest for 1.3miles:
Here the top of South Twin is visible in the near distance, with a few people at the summit:
We arrived at the top of South Twin at 2:45pm, and spent some time there taking pictures. It was clear, and spectacular, not that many people. Probably the very best views of the White Mountains I’ve ever seen – towards the northeast and the Presidentials; to the south and Mt Bond and West Bond (Bondcliff was obscured by West Bond from this viewpoint) and Waterville Valley; over towards the west and Franconia Ridge and Garfield:
Here we turned around, leaving South Twin at around 3:15pm, heading back towards the trail-head. In this section, V developed a painful cramp in her knee, briefly, which she was able to shake off. So we kept going…
We arrived back at the top of North Twin about an hour after leaving South Twin:
And then we began the long walk back down North Twin trail, dropping down fairly steeply at first, then more gradually as we arrived at Little River. I filmed V crossing the river at about 6pm:
I had estimated that we’d be back at the trail-head, where the car was parked, by 6:30pm. It turned out to be 6:51pm by the time we got there – a long, 8-hour hike, around 11 miles total, but a spectacular day.
South Twin was number 41 for me, and V’s second 4000-footer in one day! She did a great job on her first 4000-footers.
Now I had only seven more to go.
Disaster Risk Reduction
Very early in my time at ChildFund Australia, we developed a program approach founded upon a comprehensive “theory of change.” I’ve written about that earlier in this series.
The development of that program approach was done through a great process of reflection and collaboration. In the end, our experience, learning, and reflection led us to understand that people are poor because:
they are deprived of assets (human, capital, natural, and social);
they are excluded from their societies, and are invisible (voice and agency);
of power differentials in their families, communities, societies, and across nations.
And we understood that (4) children and youth are particularly vulnerable to risks in their environment, which can result in dramatic increases in poverty; they therefore require protection from physical and psycho-social threats, and sexual abuse, natural and human-caused emergencies, slow-onset disasters, civil conflict, etc.
Because we understood that these are the four causes of child poverty, we set ourselves the collective challenge of improving children’s futures by:
building human, capital, natural and social assets around the child, including the caregiver;
building the voice and agency, and
power of poor people and poor children, while
working to ensure that children and youth are protected from risks in their environments.
Risk reduction was also new, though we had some experience with child protection.
We had designed outcome indicators which we would use, through our Development Effectiveness Framework, to measure the impact of all our work, and giving a sense of our priorities. There was one outcome indicator that corresponded to risk reduction:
Indicator 11: % of communities with a disaster preparedness plan based on a survey of risks, including those related to adaptation to anticipated climate change, relevant to local conditions, known to the community, and consistent with national standards.
I liked this outcome indicator. It would enable us to reflect the results of our DRR work in a broad sense. It showed connectivity with efforts related to climate-change, and linked nicely with the work of others at country level. Along with other areas of child protection, disaster risk reduction would become a priority for us.
Here’s an illustration of why this made sense: this graph shows the dramatic increase in the number of people affected by natural disasters from 1900 through to 2011.
No organization working to create better futures for children, or even human beings, can afford to ignore the fact that vulnerability is increasing very quickly, and dramatically.
And it was becoming very apparent that the Australian government was quite keen on both responding to disaster response and tackling climate change. AusAID had already set up a pre-approval mechanism for emergency-response work, through which a designated group of NGOs could respond very quickly to emergencies; ChildFund Australia wasn’t in the group.
But it all meant that, if we developed capacity, and a strong record of working in DRR and emergency response, there might be opportunities for collaboration with the Australian government, including the possibility of funding …
Our ChildFund Alliance partners in the US, ChildFund International, had been doing some good emergency response work back when I was doing my “Bright-Futures”-related consulting work, around 2003, but their leadership that came onboard later had (mistakenly, in my view) wound up that effort soon after.
(For me the decision to exit emergency-response work was a mistake for several reasons. Firstly, they were already doing good work in that space, which was helping children in very difficult situations. It was an area with great potential for fundraising, because of the urgency involved as well as the priority being put on this work by donors, particularly government bi-lateral donors. And because raising funds in this space was less costly than other revenue sources, overheads could be used to support program development in other areas. Finally, as general child-poverty levels dropped, and our climate changed, child poverty began to be much more related to vulnerability, as we in Australia had determined in the design of our program approach.
ChildFund International – the US Member of the ChildFund Alliance, would later get back into the emergency-response business, and we would begin to structure a formal collaboration with them, and with our Canadian partners, in the humanitarian space. But we all lost time – for example, perhaps if ChildFund International had stayed engaged in emergency response, we in Australia might have qualified for AusAID’s pre-approval pool …)
And, likewise, there was little DRR-related work going on across the Alliance, and certainly we at ChildFund Australia had no significant track record in that area. So if we were to build up our expertise, we needed to start by bringing it in from outside.
Happily, at around that time Nigel Spence (the ChildFund Australia CEO) and I were in a meeting in Canberra, talking about these issues. A very senior AusAID leader told us that if we sent her an ambitious plan to help communities in southeast Asia prepare for disasters, at scale, it would be funded. Especially if it involved a consortium.
So I went back to Sydney and got to work. In short order I recruited two other preeminent Australian INGOs (Plan International Australia, and Save the Children Australia) and wrote up an extremely-ambitious proposal: we would reduce climate- and disaster-related risks in 1000 communities in five countries across Asia, reaching approximately 362,500 children and adults directly, and over 1.5m people indirectly. Among the expected outcomes of the project, we would also seek to empower children and youth:
Children and youth will be recognised within communities as effective agents of positive change;
Children and youth will have increased knowledge and understanding, and thus capacity, to anticipate, plan and react appropriately to short-term risks and longer-term threats and trends.
However, given that we had gotten such a strong green light from Canberra, Nigel and I agreed that we’d go ahead and recruit a DRR expert to help us finalize the proposal and begin to prepare for the work.
We had a good response to our recruitment outreach and, in the end, I was lucky to recruit Sanwar Ali from Oxfam Australia to be our first “Senior Advisor for ER and DRR.” Sanwar had long experience in emergency response across Asia and parts of Africa, and was also deeply experienced with DRR. At the same time, I felt the Sydney International Program Team could benefit from Sanwar’s background – he would round out the team on several dimensions...
Soon after Sanwar joined, AusAID let us know that their “green light” was actually just encouragement to include DRR work in our normal project portfolio, so there would be no ambitious funding for scaling-up across Asia!
That was very frustrating.
No matter. Our program approach had committed us to working to help protect children from disasters, and Sanwar would be key to that program development effort. It was just unfortunate that the funding for his position evaporated!
Soon Sanwar led the development of policies for Emergency Response and Disaster Risk Reduction, which we would incorporate into the ChildFund Australia Program Handbook.
The ER Policy was an expanded update to previous policy, but the DRR policy was new. Like all our program policies, this one was rather brief. Its introduction and policy statement were succinct:
The frequency with which disasters are occurring is increasing dramatically, in part because of human-induced climate change. This trend represents a threat to children, youth, and caregivers, and has the potential to undermine progress made in improving wellbeing and reducing poverty.
At the same time, however, thanks to efforts of local communities, national governments, the international community, and INGOs such as ChildFund, the human impact of these disasters has been reduced over time.
Reducing risks for children, youth, and caregivers is central to ChildFund’s program approach, because communities which are resilient to risks are best positioned to provide security and ensure continued wellbeing of vulnerable children.
This policy provides an organisational framework for action related to disaster risk reduction.
ChildFund Australia will work to ensure that disaster risk reduction (DRR) plans, known as Community Action Plans – CAPs) are in place in all communities where we work. These CAPs will be developed in a participatory manner, consistent with the Hyogo Framework for Action, and according to relevant guidelines in each country.
DRR efforts will be mainstreamed in our development, humanitarian and advocacy activities whenever appropriate.
The rest of the policy document outlined “Key Actions” required by ChildFund Australia staff at various levels and locations, and outlined how work in this area was connected to our organizational Outcome Indicators.
Sanwar and I worked together on two ChildFund Alliance-wide projects. I had proposed that the operational Members of the Alliance (which, initially, meant Australia, Canada, and the US, with Japan and Korea observing) work together in Emergency Response and DRR, partly because we would be able to show global reach that way. So we planned to develop a set of common policies and procedures through which we would respond to humanitarian disasters jointly.
I want to describe the other project that Sanwar and I worked on in a bit more detail: I led the ChildFund Alliance delegation to the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction that took place in Japan in March, 2015; a delegation from ChildFund had a big presence at that conference. And, the week before the UN Conference, I visited areas of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan that had been affected by the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear explosion that had devastated that area exactly four years before. My visit was part of JCC2015 (Japan CSO Coalition for 2015 WCDRR) conference, which concluded the day after the field visit with an important program of sessions.
I will bring in some content from blogs I published here in 2015, just after my trip to Japan…
The visit to Fukushima was unforgettable. The impact of the horrific events of four years ago was still very apparent, as was the strong and continuing resilience of the local people, even those who (at that point) remained in “temporary” camps.
A good summary of the events of the events of 2011, along with some lessons we should learn, is contained in the publication“Ten Lessons from Fukushima.” In brief, a massive (magnitude 9) earthquake, at 2:46pm on March 11, 2011, caused extensive damage across northern Japan, and triggered an enormous tsunami. This tsunami struck coastal zones of northern Japan an hour after the earthquake, destroying vast areas and killing many. The Fukushima “Dai-Ichi” (number one) nuclear plant, located on the coast, was severely damaged by the tsunami. The next day at 3:36pm, core meltdown and a massive explosion destroyed reactor unit 1. Other reactors subsequently failed.
It has been estimated that the equivalent of 168 Hiroshima nuclear bomb’s worth of radiation was released when Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor unit 1 exploded.
Evacuation orders were slow to come, partly due to the loss of communications facilities, but also due to startling management and leadership errors. Eventually, after suffering serious exposure to radiation, some 300,000 people were evacuated from areas inside a 30km radius around the reactor complex.
This map shows the 30km evacuation zone, and the radiation plume.
We would visit areas well within the red area during our trip.
Radiation drifted with the wind, falling onto land and people and animals, leaving extremely high levels of iodine, cesium, and other radioactive elements. Radioactivity fell across inhabited, farmed, and forested areas according to the wind direction at the time, and radioactive water was released into the sea – even four years later, when I visited, something like 600 tons of radioactive water were being released into the ocean each and every day. “Safe” levels of radiation were repeatedly raised.
Investigations found that the nuclear disaster was preventable; appropriate safety mechanisms – existing at the time – were not incorporated into the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactors when they were built.
Another good document covering the disaster and its aftermath was created by the Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy.
I had not realised that vast areas of Fukushima Prefecture were still closed due to extremely high radiation levels, and that the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor complex was dangerously unstable, and events could have spun out of control again at any time. Wreckage littered a vast area, and radiation in many of the places we visited was startlingly higher than what is considered to be safe, if “safe” levels even exist. Radiation contamination seriously impeded recovery efforts, as workers could not stay in the area for very long. (I was struck by the contrast with Hurricane Katrina where, even with the bungled response, cleanup was far more advanced four years after the storm than what we saw in Fukushima… The difference? The radiation.)
We visited Iitate village, a place where some of the highest levels of radiation were found just after the meltdown – it’s right near the center of the darkest plume in the map above. We visited Namie town, where we met with local officials who are doing their best to deal with the situation, spending their days in highly-contaminated areas. We visited tsunami-affected areas of Namie, where we could see vast areas of wreckage, damaged housing, vehicles crushed by the power of the waves.
And we drove to within 4km of the Fukushima Dai-Itchi plant. We finished the day by visiting a group of evacuees from Namie town, at that point still in “temporary” housing in Kohri town. Their courage and resilience was powerful and inspiring.
Radiation levels on our bus were high. This reading, taken during our lunch break, is 0.82 micro Sieverts per hour, which is considered “safe” for short-term visits only.
Throughout the area, thousands of one-ton bags of soil, wood, debris, etc., were piling up. Topsoil, down 20cm, from farms was being removed; areas 20m around houses were similarly being cleaned. I was told that these bags, nearly a million of them now, would be taken to gigantic incinerators for processing. Nineteen hugely-expensive incinerators were being built, each with a short lifetime of just two years. Meanwhile, the residual ash was being stored, “temporarily”, at the Fukushima plant.
Radiation “hotspots” remained, however.
The catastrophe took place four years before our visit. The situation when we were there is described in the “Fukushima Lessons” publication noted above, and in a recent article in The Economist. There were still over 120,000 “nuclear refugees” who could not return to their communities, their homes, the areas we visited. They probably never will, despite financial incentives being offered, because levels of contamination were still so high.
We met with a group of displaced people, from Namie town, now living in Kohri town in “temporary” housing far from their homes, to which they will never return. They lived virtually on top of each other, able to hear the softest sounds from their neighbours (such as snoring!) – quite a change from Namie, where their ancestral homes and farms were.
We were lucky to be presented with a narrative, using a hand-made storyboard, of their experience in the days after the tragedy. It was a powerful and moving description of their suffering; and in the telling of the story, of their resilience and spirit.
Discussing Fukushima was sensitive in Japan. I found it interesting, the next week at the WCDRR Conference in Sendai, that the many references to the Fukushima disaster refer to it as the “Great East Japan Earthquake” or “Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami” disaster. No reference to the horrific and ongoing events at the nuclear power plant, which were somehow not relevant, or too sensitive to mention.
Some final reflections:
Several times during the day in Fukushima, we heard local people use a striking visual metaphor: “nuclear power is like a house without a toilet.” Until there is a safe and permanent place for nuclear waste, we should not be using this source of power;
In our increasingly-unstable world, the use of a technology with such potential for devastation and tragedy – Fukushima, Chernobyl – seems foolish. The precautionary principle should be followed;
Let’s try to remember that the impact of these mega-disasters still persists. Four years after the disaster, there were 120,000 people still displaced, even in Japan, such a rich country. And cleanup and stabilization in Chernobyl, even more than 30 years later, is still far from finished.
Ultimately, I took a sense of inspiration from the stories of the people affected, of those who responded and who are responding still, and those who are living lives of advocacy to ensure that the injustices that took place in Fukushima are corrected, and not repeated.
Reflecting on what we saw, those (government, TEPCO, etc.) who were saying that the area had recovered, or was on the road to recovery, were either not seeing what we saw, or not telling the truth.
I want to share links to two articles from The Guardian, describing the situation in 2017, two years after my visit to Fukushima: this article describes how radiation levels inside the collapsed reactor had risen to “extraordinary” levels, unexpectedly; and this article provides a lengthy update of what are described as “faltering” cleanup efforts. They make for depressing reading.
I want to share content from a summary article I published in DevEx soon after the conference ended:
After several sleepless nights of negotiations, representatives from 187 governments agreed theSendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. As one of more than 6,500 participants in the Sendai conference, I can attest to the exhausted sense of relief that many of us felt when the framework was finally announced.
The framework that emerged contains seven global targets — nonbinding and with funding left unspecified — focused on reducing disaster risk and loss of lives and livelihoods from disasters.
Sendai was a monumental effort, involving government representatives, senior-most leaders of the United Nations and several of its specialized agencies, staff from hundreds of civil society organizations and private sector businesses, and the media, with venues scattered across the city. The urgent need for international action to reduce disaster risks was thrown into stark relief when Cyclone Pam — one of the most intense storms ever to occur in the Pacific — tore across Vanuatu just as the conference began.
Why does what happened in Sendai matter? Because hazards — both man-made and natural — are growing, as our climate changes and growing inequality contributes to a sense of injustice in many populations. Doing nothing to prepare for these increased risks is not a viable option for our future.
Also, Sendai matters because the conference was the first of four crucial U.N. gatherings this year. What happened in Sendai will influence the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, coming in Ethiopia in July; the post-2015 sustainable development goals that will be discussed at the global U.N. summit in September; and the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.
ChildFund’s delegation, part of the “Children in a Changing Climate” coalition, had several objectives in Sendai. In particular, we worked to make the case that children and young people should be seen as agents of change in any new DRR framework.
Children and young people are normally seen as helpless, passive victims of disasters. During and after emergencies, the mainstream media, even many organizations in our own international NGO sector, portray children and young people as needing protection and rescue. Of course, children and young people do need protection. When disasters strike they need rescue and care. But what such images fail to show is that children also have the capacity — and the right — to participate, not only in preparing for disasters but in the recovery process.
Since the last U.N. agreement on DRR, in 2005, we have learned that children and young people must be actively engaged so that they understand the risks of disasters in their communities and can play a role in reducing those risks. Children’s participation in matters that concern them is their right — enshrined in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child — and strengthens their resilience and self-esteem.
And, crucially, we know that young people’s participation in DRR activities leads to better preparation within families and in communities.
The example we used to make our case came from ChildFund in the Philippines. In 2011, with support from local government and the Australian government, ChildFund worked with several youth groups to help them prepare for disasters, and to help them help their communities prepare. We engaged young people in Iloilo and Zamboanga del Norte provinces to identify hazards, to develop local DRR and disaster risk management plans, to train children and young people in disaster risk management, and to raise awareness of DRR in eight communities.
Little did we know that, just 18 months after the project concluded, this effort would really pay off. Many of us remember vividly the images of Typhoon Haiyan barreling across the Philippines in November 2013, just north of where our project was carried out. As local and national government in the Philippines began to respond to the typhoon, with massive support from the international community, we could see that the efforts of children and young people we had worked with were proving to be important elements in managing the impact of the storm.
Advocacy of children and young people during the project had led to the local government investing more in preparedness and mitigation, which was crucial as the storm hit. Young people trained in the project trained other groups of parents and youths, building the capacity of people who were affected by, and responded to, Haiyan. Local government units mobilized disaster risk reduction committees, including youth members, who were involved in evacuation of families living in high-risk areas. Youth volunteers helped prepare emergency supplies and facilitated sessions for children in child-centered spaces that were set up after the typhoon passed.
This experience led ChildFund to strongly support elements of the Sendai Framework that recognize the importance of the meaningful participation of children and youth in DRR activities. We are happy to see the text calling for governments to engage with children and youth and to promote their leadership, and recognizing children and young people as agents of change who should be given the space and modalities to contribute to disaster risk reduction.
But two major weaknesses can be seen in the Sendai Framework: Its targets are not binding and are not quantified; and no global commitments to funding DRR actions were made. Many observers feel that governments were keen to establish (or not establish!) precedents at Sendai that would bind them (or not bind them!) in the high-stakes conferences to come. These weaknesses are serious, and greatly undercut the urgency of our task and likely effectiveness of our response.
Still, on balance, the Sendai Framework is good for children and youth, certainly better than failure to agree would have been. Let’s hope for even stronger action in Addis Ababa, New York and Paris, with binding targets and clear financial commitments.
Then our children, and grandchildren, will look back at Sendai as a milestone in building a better, fairer and safer world.
After the success of Sendai, Felipe Cala (then working with the ChildFund Alliance secretariat) and I took a couple of days to visit Kyoto, a marvelous place full of culture and beautiful scenery. And we enjoyed the modern “bullet” trains, that made our countries look so backward.
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
Alongside descriptions of those climbs, I’ve been sharing what it was like working in international development during the MDG era: as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
In each article, I am writing about climbing each of those mountains and, each time, I reflect a bit on the journey since I began to work in social justice, nearly 34 years ago: on development, human rights, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
So, when I wrap things up in this series, there should be 48 articles…
Once the program approach was in place, as a strong foundation, we moved forward to build a structured approach to development effectiveness. I am very proud of what we achieved: the resulting ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” (“DEF”) was, I think, state-of-the-art for international NGOs at the time. Certainly few (if any) other INGOs in Australia had such a comprehensive, practical, useful system for ensuring the accountability and improvement of their work.
Since the DEF was so significant, I’m going to write three articles about it:
In this article I will describe the DEF – its components, some examples of products generated by the DEF, and how each part of the system worked with the other parts. I will also share results of external evaluations that we commissioned on the DEF itself;
Next time, I will highlight one particular component of the DEF, the qualitative “Case Studies” of the lived experience of human change. I was especially excited to see these Case Studies when they started arriving in Sydney from the field, so I want to take a deep dive into what these important documents looked like, and how we attempted to use them;
Finally, I will the last two DEF components that came online (Outcome Indicator Surveys and Statements of Impact), the culmination of the system, where we assessed the impact of our work.
So there will be, in total, three articles focused on the DEF. This is fitting, because I climbed three mountains on one day in August of 2017…
To skip the description of my ascent of Bondcliff, and go directly to my introduction of our DEF, click here.
The Climb – Bondcliff
On 10 August, 2017, I climbed three 4000-footers in one day: Bondcliff (4265ft, 1300m), Mt Bond (4698ft, 1432m), and West Bond (4540ft, 1384m). This was a very long, very tough day, covering 22 miles and climbing three mountains in one go. At the end of the hike, I felt like I was going to lose the toenails on both big toes… and, in fact, that’s what happened. As a result, for the rest of the season I would be unable to hike in boots and had to use hiking shoes instead!
Knowing that the day would be challenging, I drove up from Durham the afternoon before and camped, so I could get the earliest start possible the next morning. I got a spot at Hancock Campground, right near the trailhead where I would start the climb:
The East Branch of the Pemigewassit River runs alongside this campground, and I spent a pleasant late afternoon reading a book by Jean Paul Lederach there, and when it was dark I crawled into my sleeping bag and got a good night’s sleep.
Here is a map of the long ascent that awaited me the next morning, getting to the top of Bondcliff:
After Bondcliff, the plan was that I would continue on to climb Mt Bond and West Bond, and to then return to Lincoln Woods… more on that in the next two articles in this series. In this one I will describe climbing the first 4000-footer of that day, Bondcliff.
I got an early start on 10 August, packing up my tent-site and arriving at the trailhead at Lincoln Woods at about 6:30am:
It was just two weeks earlier that I had parked here to climb Owl’s Head, which I had enjoyed a lot. This time, I would begin the same way – walking up the old, abandoned forestry railway for about 2.6 miles on Lincoln Woods Trail, to where I had turned left up the Franconia Brook Trail towards Owl’s Head. I arrived at that junction at about 7:30am:
This time I would continue straight at that intersection, continuing onto the Wilderness Trail, which winds through forest for a short distance, before opening out again along another old logging railway, complete with abandoned hardware along the way, discarded over 130 years ago:
At the former (and now abandoned) Camp 16 (around 4.4 miles from the parking lot at Lincoln Woods), I took a sharp left and joined a more normal trail – no more old railway. I began to ascend moderately, going up alongside Black Brook: now I was on the Bondcliff Trail.
I crossed Black Brook twice on the way up after leaving the Wilderness Trail, and then crossed two dry beds of rock, which were either rock slides or upper reaches of Black Brook that were dry that day.
It’s a long climb up Black Brook; after the second dry crossing, Bondcliff Trail takes a sharp left turn and continues ascending steadily. Just before reaching the alpine area, and the summit of Bondcliff, there is a short steep section, where I had to scramble up some bigger boulders. Slow going…
But then came the reward: spectacular views to the west, across Owl’s Head to Franconia Ridge, up to Mt Garfield, and over to West Bond and Mt Bond. Here Mt Lincoln and Mt Lafayette are on the left, above Owl’s Head, with Mt Garfield to the right:
Here is a view looking to the southwest from the top of Bondcliff:
And this is the view towards Mt Bond, looking up from the top of Bondcliff:
I got to the top of Bondcliff at about 10:30am, just about four hours from the start of the hike. Feeling good … at this point! Here is a spectacular view back down towards Bondcliff, taken later in the day, from the top of West Bond:
I would soon continue the climb, with a short hop from Bondcliff up to the top of Mt Bond. Stay tuned!
ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness Framework (DEF)
Last time I wrote about how we built the foundations for ChildFund Australia’s new program approach: a comprehensive and robust “Theory of Change” that described what we were going to accomplish at a high level, and why; a small number of reliable, measurable, and meaningful “Outcome Indicators” that would enable us to demonstrate the impact of our work as related explicitly to our Outcome Indicators; and a set of “Output Indicators” that would allow us to track our activities in a consistent and comparable manner, across our work across all our programs: in Cambodia, Laos, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam. (Myanmar was a slightly different story, as I will explain later…)
Next, on that foundation, we needed a way of thinking holistically about the effectiveness of our development work: a framework for planning our work in each location, each year; for tracking whether we were doing what we had planned; for understanding how well we were performing; and improving the quality and impact of our work. And doing all this in partnership with local communities, organizations, and governments.
This meant being able to answer five basic questions:
In light of our organizational Theory of Change, what are we going to do in each location, each year?
how will we know that we are doing what we planned to do?
how will we know that our work makes a difference and gets results consistent with our Theory of Change?;
how will we learn from our experience, to improve the way we work?;
how can community members and local partners directly participate in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of the development projects that ChildFund Australia supports?
Looking back, I feel that what we built and implemented to answer those questions – the ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” (“DEF”) – was our agency’s most important system. Because what could be more important than the answers to those five questions?
I mentioned last time that twice, during my career with Plan International, we had tried to produce such a system, and failed (at great expense). We had fallen into several traps that I was determined to avoid repeating this time, in ChildFund Australia, as we developed and implemented the DEF:
We would build a system that could be used by our teams with the informed participation of local partners and staff, practically – that was “good enough” for its purpose, instead of a system that had to be managed by experts, as we had done in Plan;
We would include both quantitative and qualitative information, serving the needs of head and heart, instead of building a wholly-quantitative system for scientific or academic purposes, as we had done in Plan;
We would not let “the best be the enemy of the good,” and I would make sure that we moved to rapidly prototype, implement, and improve the system instead of tinkering endlessly, as we had done in Plan.
Here is a graphic that Caroline Pinney helped me create, which I used very frequently to explain how the DEF was designed, functioned, and performed:
In this article, I will describe each component of the DEF, outlining how each relates to each other and to the five questions outlined above.
However, I’m going to reserve discussion of three of those components for my next two articles:
Next time, I will cover #3 in Figure 1, the “Case Studies” that we produced. These documents helped us broaden our focus from the purely quantitative to include consideration of the lived experience of people touched by the programs supported by ChildFund Australia. In the same way, the Case Studies served as valuable tools for our staff, management, and board to retain a human connection to the spirit that motivated us to dedicate our careers to social justice;
And, after that, I will devote an article to our “Outcome Indicator Surveys” (#2 in Figure 1, above) and Statements of Impact (#12 in Figure 1). The approach we took to demonstrating impact was innovative and very participatory, and successful. So I want to go into a bit of depth describing the two DEF components involved.
Note: I prepared most of what follows. But I have included and adapted some descriptive material produced by the two DEF Managers that worked in the International Program Team: Richard Geeves and Rouena Getigan. Many thanks to them!
The DEF was based on two fundamental statements of organizational identity. As such, it was built to focus us on, and enable us to be accountable for, what we were telling the world we were:
On the bottom left of the DEF schematic (Figure 1, above) we reference the basic documents describing ChildFund’s identity: our Vision, Mission, Strategic Plan, Program Approach, and Policies – all agreed and approved by our CEO (Nigel Spence) and Board of Directors. The idea was that the logic underlying our approach to Development Effectiveness would therefore be grounded in our basic purpose as an organization, overall. I was determined that the DEF would serve to bring us together around that purpose, because I had seen Plan tend to atomize, with each field location working towards rather different aims. Sadly, Plan’s diversity seemed to be far greater than required if it were simply responding to the different conditions we worked in. For example, two Field Offices within 20 km of each other in the same country might have very different programs. This excessive diversity seemed to relate more to the personal preferences of Field Office leadership than to any difference in the conditions of child poverty or the local context. The DEF would help ChildFund Australia cohere, because our starting point was our organizational identity;
But each field location did need a degree flexibility to respond to their reality, within ChildFund’s global identity, so at the bottom of the diagram we placed the Country Strategy Paper (“CSP”), quite centrally. This meant that, in addition to building on ChildFund Australia’s overall purpose and identity globally, we would also build our approach to Development Effectiveness on how we chose to advance that basic purpose in each particular country where we worked, with that country’s particular characteristics.
Country Strategy Paper
The purpose and outline of the CSP was included in the ChildFund Australia Program Handbook:
To clarify, define, communicate and share the role, purpose and structure of ChildFund in-country – our approach, operations and focus. The CSP aims to build a unity of purpose and contribute to the effectiveness of our organisation.
When we develop the CSP we are making choices, about how we will work and what we will focus on as an organisation. We will be accountable for the commitments we make in the CSP – to communities, partners, donors and to ourselves.
While each CSP will be different and reflect the work and priorities of the country program, each CSP will use the same format and will be consistent with ChildFund Australia’s recent program development work.
During the development of the CSP it is important that we reflect on the purpose of the document. It should be a useful and practical resource that can inform our development work. It should be equally relevant to both our internal and external stakeholders. The CSP should be clear, concise and accessible while maintaining a strategic perspective. It should reflect clear thinking and communicate our work and our mission. It should reflect the voice of children. Our annual work plans and budgets will be drawn from the CSP and we will use it to reflect on and review our performance over the three year period.
Implementation of the DEF flowed from each country’s CSP.
More details are found in Chapter 5 of the Program Handbook, available here: Program Handbook – 3.3 DRAFT. Two examples of actual ChildFund Australia Country Strategy Papers from my time with the organization are attached here:
For me, these are clear, concise documents that demonstrate coherence with ChildFund’s overall purpose along with choices driven by the situation in each country.
Beginning from the Country Strategy Paper, the DEF branches in two inter-related (in fact, nested) streams, covering programs (on the left side) and projects (on the right side). Of course, projects form part of programs, consistent with our program framework:
But it was difficult to depict this embedding on the two dimensions of a graphic! So Figure 1 showed programs on one side and projects on the other.
Taking the “program” (left) side first:
Moving onto the left side of Figure 1, derived from the Country Strategy Paper, and summarized in the CSP, each Country Office defined a handful (some countries had 3, others ended up with 5) “Program Descriptions” (noted as #1 in Figure 1), each one describing how particular sets of projects would create impact, together, as measured using ChildFund Australia’s Outcome Indicators – in other words, a “Theory of Change,” detailing how the projects included in the program linked together to create particular positive change.
The purpose and outline of the Program Description was included in the ChildFund Australia Program Handbook:
ChildFund Australia programs are documented and approved through the use of “Program Descriptions”. All Program Descriptions must be submitted by the Country Director for review and approval by the Sydney International Program Director, via the International Program Coordinator.
For ChildFund Australia: a “program” is an integrated set of projects that, together, have direct or indirect impact on one or more of our agreed organisational outcome indicators. Programs normally span several geographical areas, but do not need to be implemented in all locations; this will depend on the geographical context. Programs are integrated and holistic. They are designed to achieve outcomes related to ChildFund Australia’s mission, over longer periods, while projects are meant to produce outputs over shorter timeframes.
Program Descriptions were summarized in the CSP, contained a listing of the types of projects (#5 in Figure 1) that would be implemented, and were reviewed every 3 or 4 years (Program Review, #4 in Figure 1).
To write a Program Description, ChildFund staff (usually program managers in a particular Country Office) were expected to review our program implementation to-date, carry out extensive situational analyses of government policies, plans and activities in the sector and of communities’ needs in terms of assets, aspirations and ability to work productively with local government officials responsible for service provision. The results of ChildFund’s own Outcome Indicator surveys and community engagement events obviously provided very useful evidence in this regard.
Staff then proposed a general approach for responding to the situation and specific strategies which could be delivered through a set of projects. They would also show that the approach and strategies proposed are consistent with evidence from good practice both globally and in-country, demonstrated that their choices were evidence-based.
Producing good, high-quality Program Descriptions was a surprising challenge for us, and I’m not sure we ever really got this component of the DEF right. Probably the reason that we struggled was that these documents were rather abstract, and our staff weren’t used to operating at this level of abstraction.
Most of the initial draft Program Descriptions were quite superficial, and were approved only as place-holders. Once we started to carry out “Program Reviews” (see below), however, where more rigor was meant to be injected into the documents, we struggled. It was a positive, productive struggle, but a struggle nonetheless!
We persisted, however, because I strongly believed that our teams should be able to articulate why they were doing what they were doing, and the Program Descriptions were the basic tool for that exact explanation. So we perservered, hoping that the effort would result in better programs, more sophisticated and holistic work, and more impact on children living in poverty.
For the same reasons outlined above, in my discussion of the “Program Descriptions” component of the DEF, we also struggled with the “Program Review” (#4 in Figure 1, above). In these workshops, our teams would consider an approved “Program Description” (#1 in Figure 1) every three or four years, subjecting the document to a formal process of peer review.
ChildFund staff from other countries visited the host country to participate in the review process and then wrote a report making recommendations for how the Program under review might be improved. The host country accepted (or debated and adjusted) the recommendations, acted on them and applied them to a revision of the Program Description: improving it, tightening up the logic, incorporating lessons learned from implementation, etc.
Program Reviews were therefore fundamentally about learning and improvement, so we made sure that, in addition to peers from other countries, the host Country Office invited in-country partners and relevant experts. And International Program Coordinators from Sydney were asked to always attend Program Reviews in the countries that they were supporting, again for learning and improvement purposes.
The Program Reviews that I attended were useful and constructive, but I certainly sensed a degree of frustration. In addition to struggling with the relatively-high levels of abstraction required, our teams were not used to having outsiders (even their peers other ChildFund offices) critique their efforts. So, overall, this was a good and very-important component of the DEF, designed correctly, but it needed more time for our teams to learn how to manage this process and to be open to such a public process of review.
Projects and Quarterly Reports
As shown on the right hand side of Figure 1, ChildFund’s field staff and partners carried out routine monitoring of projects (#6 in the Figure) to ensure that they were on track, and on which they based their reporting on activities and outputs. Project staff summarized their monitoring through formal Quarterly Reports (#7) on each project documenting progress against project plans, budgets, and targets to ensure projects are well managed. These Quarterly Reports were reviewed in each Country Office and most were also forwarded to ChildFund’s head office in Sydney (and, often, donors) for review.
When I arrived, ChildFund Australia’s Quarterly reporting was well-developed and of high quality, so I didn’t need to focus on this aspect of our work. We simply incorporated it into the more-comprehensive DEF.
Quarterly Output Tracking
As described last time, ChildFund developed and defined a set of Outputs which became standard across the organization in FY 2011-12. Outputs in each project were coded and tracked from Quarter to Quarter by project. Some of the organizational outputs were specific to a sector such as education, health and water sanitation or a particular target group such as children, youth or adults. Other Outputs were generic and might be found in any project, for example, training or awareness raising, materials production and consultation.
Organizational Outputs were summarized for all projects in each country each Quarter and country totals were aggregated in Sydney for submission to our Board of Directors (#8 in Figure 1, above). In March 2014 there were a total of 47 organizational Outputs – they were listed in my last article in this series.
One purpose of this tracking was to enhance our accountability, so a summary was reviewed every Quarter in Sydney by the International Program Team and our Program Review Committee.
Here is an example of how we tracked outputs: this is a section of a Quarterly Report produced by the International Program Team for our Board and Program Review Committee: Output Report – Q4FY15.
ChildFund also conducted reviews or evaluations of all projects (#9 in Figure 1, above) – in different ways. External evaluators were employed under detailed terms of reference to evaluate multi-year projects with more substantial budgets or which were significant for learning or to a particular donor. Smaller projects were generally evaluated internally. All evaluators were expected to gather evidence of results against output targets and performance indicators written against objectives.
All development effectiveness systems have, at their heart, mechanisms for translating operational experiences into learning and program improvement. In the representation of ChildFund’s DEF in Figure 1, this was represented by the central circle in the schematic which feeds back evidence from a variety of sources into our organizational and Country Strategy Papers, Program Descriptions and project planning and design.
Our program staff found that their most effective learning often occurred during routine monitoring through observation of project activities and conversations in communities with development partners. Through thoughtful questioning and attentive listening, staff could make the immediate decisions and quick adjustments which kept project activities relevant and efficient.
Staff also had more formal opportunities to document and reflect on learning. The tracking of outputs and aggregation each Quarter drew attention to progress and sometimes signaled the need to vary plans or redirect resources.
Project evaluations (#9 in Figure 1, above) provided major opportunities for learning, especially when external evaluators bring their different experiences to bear and offer fresh perspectives on a ChildFund project.
The reader can easily grasp that, for me, the DEF was a great success, a significant asset for ChildFund Australia that enabled us to be more accountable and effective. Some more-technically-focused agencies were busy carrying out sophisticated impact evaluations, using control groups and so forth, but that kind of effort didn’t suit the vast majority of INGOs. We could benefit from the learnings that came from those scientific evaluations, but we didn’t have the resources to introduce such methodologies ourselves. And so, though not perfect, I am not aware of any comparable organization that succeeded as we did with our DEF.
While the system built on what I had learned over nearly 30 years, and even though I felt that it was designed comprehensively and working very well, that was merely my opinion!
Given the importance of the system, relying on my opinion (no matter how sound!) wasn’t good enough. So we sought expert review, commissioning two independent, expert external reviews of the DEF.
The first review, which was concluded in November of 2012, took place before we had fully implemented the system. In particular, since Outcome Indicator Surveys and Statements of Impact (to be covered in an upcoming blog article) were implemented only after three years (and every three years thereafter), we had not yet reached that stage. But we certainly were quite advance in the implementation of most of the DEF, so it was a good time to reflect on how it was going.
In that light, this first external review of the DEF concluded the following:
The development of the DEF places ChildFund Australia in a sound position within the sector in the area of development effectiveness. The particular strength of ChildFund Australia’s framework is that it binds the whole organisation to a set of common indicators and outputs. This provides a basis for focussing the organisation’s efforts and ensuring that programming is strategically aligned to common objectives. The other particular strength that ChildFund Australia’s framework offers is that it provides a basis for aggregating its achievements across programs, thereby strengthening the organisation’s overall claims of effectiveness.
Within ChildFund Australia, there is strong support for the DEF and broad agreement among key DEF stakeholders and users that the DEF unites the agency on a performance agenda. This is in large part due to dedicated resources having been invested and the development of a data collection system has been integrated into the project management system (budgeting and planning, and reporting), thereby making DEF a living and breathing function throughout the organisation. Importantly, the definition of outcomes and outputs indicators provides clarity of expectations across ChildFund Australia.
One of the strengths of the DEF recognised by in-country staff particularly is that the DEF provides a basis for stakeholders to share their perspectives. Stakeholders are involved in identifying benefits and their perspectives are heard through case studies. This has already provided a rich source of information that has prompted reflection by in-country teams, the Sydney based programs team and the ChildFund Australia Board.
Significantly, the DEF signals a focus on effectiveness to donors and the sector. One of the benefits already felt by ChildFund Australia is that it is able to refer to its effectiveness framework in funding submissions and in communication with its major donors who have an increasing interest on performance information.
Overall, the review found that the pilot of the DEF has been implemented well, with lots of consultation and engagement with country offices, and lots of opportunity for refinement. Its features are strong, enabling ChildFund to both measure how much it is doing, and the changes that are experienced by communities over time. The first phase of the DEF has focused on integrating effectiveness measurement mechanisms within program management and broader work practices, while the second phase of the DEF will look at the analysis, reflection and learning aspects of effectiveness. This second phase is likely to assist various stakeholders involved in collecting effectiveness information better understand and appreciate the linkages between their work and broader organisational learning and development. This is an important second phase and will require ongoing investment to maximise the potential of the DEF. It place ChildFund Australia in a strong position within the Australian NGO sector to engage in the discourse around development effectiveness and demonstrate its achievements.
In early 2015 we carried out a second review. This time, we had implemented the entire DEF, carrying out (for example) Statement of Impact workshops in several locations. The whole system was now working.
At that point, we were very confident in the DEF – from our point of view, all components were working well, producing good and reliable information that was being used to improve our development work. Our board, program-review committee, and donors were all enthusiastic. More importantly, local staff and communities were positive.
The only major concern that remained related to the methodology we used in the Outcome Indicator Surveys. I will examine this issue in more detail in an upcoming blog article in this series; but the reader will notice that this second formal, external evaluation focuses very much on the use of the LQAS methodology in gathering information for our Outcome Indicator workshops and Statements of Impact.
That’s why the external evaluator we engaged to carry out this second review was an expert in survey methodologies (in general) and in the LQAS (in particular.)
In that light, this second external review of the DEF concluded the following:
ChildFund Australia is to be commended for its commitment to implementing a comprehensive and rigorous monitoring and evaluation framework with learning at its centre to support and demonstrate development effectiveness. Over the past five years, DEL managers in Cambodia, Laos, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, with support and assistance from ChildFund Australia, country directors and program managers and staff, have worked hard to pilot, refine and embed the DEF in the broader country programs. Implementing the DEF, in particular the Outcome Indicator Survey using LQAS, has presented several challenges. With time, many of the early issues have been resolved, tools improved and guidelines developed. Nevertheless, a few issues remain that must be addressed if the potential benefits are to be fully realised at the organisational, country and program levels.
Overall, the DEF is well suited for supporting long-term development activities in a defined geographic area. The methodologies, scope and tools employed to facilitate Outcome Indicator Surveys and to conduct Community Engagement and Attribution of Impact processes are mostly fit for purpose, although there is considerable room for improvement. Not all of the outcome indicators lend themselves to assessment via survey; those that are difficult to conceptualise and measure being most problematic. For some indicators in some places, a ceiling effect is apparent limiting their value for repeated assessment. While outcome indicators may be broadly similar across countries, both the indicators and the targets with which they are to be compared should be locally meaningful if the survey results are to be useful—and used—locally.
Used properly, LQAS is an effective and relatively inexpensive probability sampling method. Areas for improvement in its application by ChildFund include definition of the lots, identification of the sampling frame, sample selection, data analysis and interpretation, and setting targets for repeated surveys.
Community Engagement and the Attribution of Impact processes have clearly engaged the community and local stakeholders. Experience to date suggests that they can be streamlined to some extent, reducing the burden on staff as well as communities. These events are an important opportunity to bring local stakeholders together to discuss local development needs and set future directions and priorities. Their major weakness lies in the quality of the survey results that are presented for discussion, and their interpretation. This, in turn, affects the value of the Statement of Impact and other documents that are produced.
The DEF participatory processes have undoubtedly contributed to the empowerment of community members involved. Reporting survey results in an appropriate format, together with other relevant data, in a range of inviting and succinct documents that will meet the needs of program staff and partners is likely to increase their influence.
Great credit is due to ChildFund staff that contributed to the conceptualization, development, and implementation of the DEF. In particular, Richard Geeves and Rouena Getigan in the International Program Team in Sydney worked very hard to translate my sometimes overly-ambitious concepts into practical guidelines, and ably supported our Country Offices.
One of the keys to the success of the DEF was that we budgeted for dedicated in-country support, with each Country Office able to hire a DEL Manager (two in Viet Nam, given the scale of our program there.)
Many thanks to Solin in Cambodia, Marieke in Laos, Joe in Papua New Guinea, and Thuy and Dung in Viet Nam: they worked very hard to make the DEF function in their complex realities. I admire how that made it work so well.
In this article, I’ve outlined how ChildFund Australia designed a comprehensive and very robust Development Effectiveness System. Stay tuned next time, when I describe climbing Mt Bond, and then go into much more depth on one particular component (the Case Studies, #3 in Figure 1, above).
After that, in the following article, I plan to cover reaching the top of West Bond and descending back across Mt Bond and Bondcliff (and losing toenails on both big toes!) and go into some depth to describe how we carried out Outcome Indicator Surveys (#2 in Figure 1) and Statements of Impact (#12) – in many ways, the culmination of the DEF.
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it like in the sector as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
So far, I’ve described climbing 30 of those 48 mountains in New Hampshire, and I’ve moved across time, from the beginning as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador (1984), through to serving as Executive Director for UUSC Just Democracy (into mid-2009).
Last time I described a failed merger between three large international NGOs. Across the MDG era there was a constant theme, in senior management strategy sessions and board rooms, of consolidation: surely, we thought, the sector would go through a period of mergers and acquisitions like what we were seeing in the for-profit world. We imagined that, at the end of this process, that there would be many fewer, larger generalist INGOs, and a range of smaller, specialized agencies. Seemed inevitable.
That consolidation hasn’t really happened, even now, but we had tried one: I had led the due diligence effort from Plan International’s perspective in mid-1997, helping formulate a strong case that Plan International, Plan USA, and Save the Children USA could achieve much more if they combined forces. The process ended, as I described, because of glitches in the relationship between two CEOs and their boards. And because, in one case, the agency’s board saw their own roles being diluted should the merger go forward.
A real pity, because the combination of these three agencies back in 1997 would have really created very strong programmatic and funding synergies. And it would have jump-started a necessary and positive consolidation in our sector…
In this article, I want to reflect about how to build a great INGO program: to misquote Haruki Murakami: what we think about, when we think about a great program.
In early 2009, my work as Executive Director at UUSC Just Democracy was in transition, partly because of our success. Our political work in New Hampshire had contributed (in a small way) to the success of several progressive candidates in the 2008 federal election, and our donors were starting to relax. (Which is pretty sad because, as we all know now, the great results of 2008 would be rapid undermined by a virulent, anti-democratic, right-wing reaction from 2010 onwards.)
The consequence for UUSC Just Democracy was that I started to pick up some consulting work from my old life, in particular with old friends at ChildFund, organizing what became Bright Futures 101 in the Philippines, which I’ve blogged about earlier.
That consultancy led to a connection with ChildFund Australia, which was looking to put in place a new, international program department in Sydney. At first it seemed like I might be able to help out on a consultancy basis, because they were having trouble finding the right International Program Director, a new position. Maybe I could fill in for a while … so I had several Skype interviews with ChildFund’s CEO, Nigel Spence, which went well. So well that it felt like maybe I should consider doing the job!
We agreed that after my assignment in the Philippines I would travel to Sydney for face-to-face discussions with Nigel and members of his board of directors.
As I prepared for that visit, I spent time thinking about how I would approach creating a new program approach, and a new team, for ChildFund, should I be lucky enough to be given the opportunity.
To skip the description of my ascent of Galehead Mountain, and go directly to my discussion of great NGO programs, click here.
The Climb – Galehead Mountain
But first, back to the other arc of this journey: I climbed both Galehead Mountain and Mt Garfield, solo, on July 19, 2017. Here is a view of both peaks, from an image I had taken from Mt Lafayette a couple of weeks before:
North Twin and South Twin Mountains can be seen behind Galehead. The idea was that Jean would drop me off, I would loop up over Galehead, across to Garfield, and then finish up a few miles from where I started. If we planned things well, Jean would be waiting for me…
Jean and I drove up from Durham that morning, leaving home at about 7:15am. We stopped for refreshments in Tilton, and then to buy me a sandwich (for the hike) in Lincoln.
We drove up through Franconia Notch, and then east on Rt 3. Jean was going to drop me off at the start of the Gale River Trail, and then have a day with an old high-school friend in Littleton, and pick me up at the end of the Garfield Trail. I planned to hike up Gale River Trail, then make my way up past Galehead Hut on Garfield Ridge Trail, to the top of Galehead Mountain. Then I’d retrace my steps on Garfield Ridge Trail, to the top of Mt Garfield, and then drop down Garfield Trail.
First, the climb of Galehead Mountain:
Jean left me at the Gale River trailhead at 9:45am:
When I looked at the AMC White Mountain Guide, it seemed that the whole loop would take me over 9 hours, which seemed hard to believe. I figured it would take me between 7 and 8 hours, so asked Jean to meet me between 5pm and 6pm. In the meantime, she would visit with her friend from high school.
The walking was easy up the Gale River Trail, gently upward for several miles, mostly in the shade of a lovely clear blue sky. The first couple of miles were a bit unusual, because I wasn’t “rock-hopping” here, it was mostly on roots, “root-hopping,” dodging mud. But it was a gorgeous day:
The trail is north-facing, so would be covered with snow and ice for many months in an average year. Of course, I was walking in late July, so the path was clear, but evidence of winter walking, with poles, was clear along the way:
At around 11am, the trail became somewhat steeper, and rockier; by this point, I was completely drenched with sweat!:
I reached the Garfield Ridge Trail (coincident with the Appalachian Trail here) at about 11:30am, and became very optimistic about how long the hike would take me. I had read that this part of the hike would take 3 1/2 hours, so if I was already at the ridge, not even two hours after starting, this was going to be easy!? Was I making much better time than I expected?
Things definitely didn’t turn out that way! To begin with, even though I had reached the Garfield Ridge Trail, I still had plenty of climbing to do before I even reached Galehead Hut. As I looked ahead, the actual ridge seemed quite a bit higher than I was, and North Twin Mountain loomed over me to the east.
I took a left turn, and it took me 15 minutes to reach the actual ridge near Galehead Hut, the end of the Garfield Ridge Trail, the intersection with Frost Trail and the Twinway:
There were several Appalachian Trail through-hikers on the trail, mostly seeming to be heading south. I took the Frost Trail, and arrived at Galehead Hut just before noon:
From Galehead Hut, the Frost Trail continues a short distance to the summit of Galehead Mountain. I dropped my pack at the Hut, and headed up.
There is a great outlook half-way up the mountain, where there are views back down to the Hut, to South Twin Mountain, and down along the Bond ridge:
I arrived at the forested summit of Galehead Mountain at 12:19pm. Just a rock cairn surrounded by small pines, no view at all:
Peak number 31, done and dusted!
I got back to Galehead Hut at just past 12:30pm, and had a quick lunch. I started back on the Frost Trail to rejoin the Garfield Ridge Trail at just before 1pm, heading towards Mount Garfield!
What We Think About When We Think About Great NGO Programs
So what does it take to build a great INGO program? I was thinking a lot about this as I prepared for my interviews with ChildFund Australia, drawing from my career thus far. In the rest of this blog, I want to outline the elements of my thinking.
If I was lucky enough to be able to create a new program structure in Australia, I kept coming back to experiences I’ve described earlier in this blog series. They seemed to coalesce into five general themes:
It felt important to emphasize the commitment to closeness with people living in poverty that I had learned from colleagues in Tuluá, Colombia, as they explored and adapted PRA methods in the late 1980’s. As our sector had “professionalized” in the 1990’s, it really felt like we had gained a lot, but lost a lot, too. (I would describe both sides of that coin in an article I would write in Australia, which I have already blogged about earlier.) Later we would insist on incorporating this commitment into what became “Bright Futures”, in the early 2000’s;
To make sure we got things right, I thought about lessons from the Total Quality Management framework that I developed when I was Regional Director for Plan International in South America in the early 1990’s. Part of this would have to be a clear measurement system, so that we could learn and improve and be accountable;
To measure it, we needed to have a clear understanding of poverty (in general), and child poverty (in particular). I thought a lot about the framework that we had developed when I worked with CCF as a consultant in the early 2000’s, designing and testing what became “Bright Futures”;
I had learned a lot about how human-rights and social-justice frameworks could help us address the deeper causes of poverty, because these concepts had underlaid UUSC’s work, and the understanding of power that drove our activist work, in the mid-2000’s. To have real impact, these frameworks needed to be alive in our work;
And, finally, it felt like I might have a priceless opportunity, setting up a new team in Sydney and, later, in Laos and Myanmar, to approach my leadership and management role using the restorative principles and NGO values I had learned along the way. I wanted to focus my own contribution squarely on bringing out the best in our NGO people.
When I thought about putting all those pieces together, I began to get very excited at the prospect of joining ChildFund Australia, which I would do in July of 2009. Before this journey arrives in Sydney, however, I want to reflect a bit more on the five areas outlined above…
As I thought about creating the new department in Sydney, being close to the people we were meant to serve – people living in poverty – seemed to be of fundamental importance. How could we dream of helping improve their lives if we didn’t have a clear sense of their situations, at a human level?
They were a joyful group in Tuluá, and I learned a lot from them. For example, I vividly recall our program head (Lucyla Posso) and several program staff working to carry out a PRA exercise – I had no idea what that was, but they were excited by this new methodology. I was still caught up in my engineering approach – Gantt Charts, etc. – and didn’t pay enough attention to what Lucyla, Lijia, and Oscar Arley and others were doing. Later I would catch on to the power of PRA methods!
Later, we would incorporate this fundamental commitment – accompaniment of people living in poverty – into what became Bright Futures. In 2003 I summarized much of the research carried out as we designed Bright Futures in the Phase 1 Report (attached here: Phase 1 Report – Final):
For now, I just want to highlight the fourth dot-point included in the Box: “to be appropriate and relevant, (good development practice) is based on an immersion in each local environment, and the active participation of the poor themselves.” The use of PRA tools would be fundamental in enabling us to make this a reality, but as I thought about setting up a new department in Sydney I was determined to bring this into our work not only as a tool, but also as a key value. Accompaniment of people living in poverty would enable us to design effective development programs and to understand their impact, and it would also help create and reinforce a culture of respect and humility.
From my time at Plan International’s South America Regional Office, and in particular as we developed a framework for Total Quality Management in Plan, I had learned that a great organization must be united around a clear purpose, drive the continuous improvement of everything it does, and it must have a healthy and accountable management culture. Later I came to appreciated that this greatness can only be constructed on a strong platform of policies and procedures. Otherwise, people would tend to spend too much time reinventing ways of carrying out mundane tasks; for some reason, we are drawn to spend time on these kinds of housekeeping issues instead of grappling with the challenges of our program work. The graphic captures the overall idea:
Of course, my role at ChildFund Australia, if I ended up joining, was not to run the overall organization – that was Nigel’s job. But nevertheless the framework was in my mind as I thought about setting up a new department:
I would want to have our basic policies and procedures be crystal clear, mostly so that we wouldn’t have to think about them. The idea of creating something like the “UUSC Handbook” I’ve described earlier was in my mind, somehow;
The management culture that we would co-create in our team would be as full of trust and empowerment, accountability, and fun, as possible. I wanted to apply what I had learned from Atema Eclai at UUSC, what I would later learn to describe as “restorative principles,” in our teams;
We would establish a clear framework for assessing the effectiveness of our work, and we’d use that framework to improve our work on an agile basis. What would become the ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” came from this;
And we would strive to be very clear about our purpose, and how our program work linked explicitly to that purpose. Here I would end up building the first chapter of what became the ChildFund “Program Handbook” to include a theory of change and how we would measure its achievement.
I will share much more on all these topics in the near future!
As I’ve outlined in an earlier blog post in this series, one of the many exciting aspects of the work that Michelle Poulton and Daniel Wordsworth were doing in CCF in the early 2000’s was the study of child poverty. CCF had commissioned staff from Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford University to survey the literature, listen to children and youth around the world, and then reflect back their findings.
I’ve explored those findings in some detail earlier in this series. To summarize, we had formulated a clear framework that represented the lived experience of children who were living in poverty:
Part of their experience could be described as deprivation. Just as with adults, children and their caregivers experienced poverty as a lack of health, education, income, etc.
But children’s actual lived experience of poverty couldn’t be described entirely in terms of what is traditionally understood as “deprivation.” The CCF Poverty Study documented very clearly that:
in addition to deprivation, children experienced exclusion, even from the earliest ages;
And that children living in poverty felt a strong sense of vulnerability.
These two additional elements of child poverty, exclusion and vulnerability, represented areas that, generally speaking, we were not addressing in our programming. I wanted to see how we could build them into our work at ChildFund Australia, if I ended up joining the organization!
Later I had been lucky to join UUSC, where I served as Executive Director. One of the key elements of our work there had been the creation of the “UUSC Handbook”, which was my attempt to put in place the kind of clarity of policies and procedures mentioned above.
More importantly, UUSC was an organization focused on human rights, social justice, and activism. Our organizational theory of change, described in an earlier blog post in this series, spoke to the linkages involved for us:
Human rights and social justice have never advanced without struggle. It is increasingly clear that sustained, positive change is built through the work of organized, transparent and democratic civic actors, who courageously and steadfastly challenge and confront oppression.
As we explored the consequences of looking at our work at UUSC in this way, I began to deepen my own understanding of the importance of power, and collective action, in advancing human rights. I would want to incorporate this understanding, somehow, into our work in ChildFund Australia.
Finally, to some extent I would be setting up a new team in Sydney, if I ended up going there. I mentioned above that great international NGOs have a healthy and accountable management culture, so my intention was to build teams in Australia (and where we worked overseas, in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam) that were grounded in the values of our sector, clear about what we were doing and why, and driven to improve the impact of our work.
Just as important, I wanted to build teams that had high trust, listened well, were inspired, trusted each other, and were curious enough to discover the innovations that would help us break through. I had learned how this can be achieved, and how it can be undermined, in the preceding 25 years, so I felt ready for the challenge.
My visit to Sydney for the interview would be successful, and I would return to New Hampshire in mid-2009 to pack up for the move, rent our house, and get our cat Lois ready for the trans-Pacific trip.
It felt like a priceless opportunity. To help build a world-class program:
which was as close to people living in poverty as possible;
with clear policies and procedures, united around a clear purpose, driven to continuously improve what we did, and with a healthy and accountable management culture;
underpinned by an understanding that poverty was a shifting and dynamic mixture of deprivation, exclusion, and vulnerability;
informed by human-rights and social-justice frameworks, and by an understanding of power and collective action;
and, finally, that I would lead and manage in a way that brought out the best in our NGO people.
A big challenge, that I would do my best to achieve, imperfectly, over the next six years. In my next article, I will reflect about what I had learned about building strong NGO teams and then, in my 33rd posting in this series, my six years at ChildFund Australia begins with a description of the team we put together in Sydney…
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it like in the sector as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
So far, I’ve described climbing 29 of those 48 mountains in New Hampshire, and I’ve moved across time, from the beginning as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador (1984), through to serving as Executive Director for UUSC Just Democracy (into mid-2009).
In this blog post, I want to describe a short “project” that Max van der Schalk, then the CEO of Plan International, gave me as I was leaving Plan’s international headquarters for a year’s sabbatical. We were looking at a big merger, and Max asked me to head up the merger team on Plan International’s side.
To skip the description of my ascent of Carter Dome, and go directly to my description of the failure of a merger in the NGO sector, click here.
The Climb – Carter Dome
I climbed Carter Dome (4832ft, 1473m) on 9 July 2017, with Yingji Ma, a friend who is studying at UNH. He goes by the name of “Draco” here. Carter Dome is the eighth-highest of the 48 peaks
We left Durham at about 7:15am and drove up Rt 16 towards the White Mountains, stopping along the way for coffee and tea, and sandwiches to pack for lunch. We arrived at the trailhead of the 19-Mile Brook Trail at about 9:30am:
Our plan was to hike up 19-Mile Brook Trail, and then bear left to take the Carter Dome Trail up to Carter-Moriah Trail, on the ridge. Then we would turn south, taking the spur over to Mt Hight (4675ft, 1425m), and continue along Carter-Moriah to reach Carter Dome. Rejoining 19-Mile Brook Trail at Carter Notch, we’d finish the day dropping down directly back to the parking area.
(Note that Mt Hight does not qualify as an official “4000-footer.” The AMC criteria for being included as an official “4000-footer” is that a mountain must (1) be at least 4000 feet high while also (2) rising at least 200 ft above the low point of its connecting ridge with a higher neighbor. In this case, Mt Hight does not rise 200 feet above the ridge connecting it to Carter Dome, which is higher.)
I had climbed the southern and northern sections of this ridge over two very memorable days in September, 2016 – climbing Wildcat D, Wildcat Mountains, and then Middle Carter and South Carter. Once we finished the climb today, I would have only Mt Moriah left of the six 4000-footers on this long ridge that stretches along the east side of Mt Washington.
We walked up the 19-Mile brook, gently upward for some time. It was a very nice day, mostly sunny, perfect cool temperature. Draco said he felt good and fresh!
At 10:41am, we reached the start of the Carter Dome Trail, where we went left onto a less-developed path:
The trail then became steeper, and at 11:57am we reached the junction of Carter Dome Trail and Carter-Moriah Trail:
Here we turned south towards Carter Dome, our objective for the day, joining the Appalachian Trail. Soon we came to another junction where we had the option of going directly towards Carter Dome, or getting there via Mt Hight. It was about noon, and we had time, so we decided to take the slightly-longer route, and go via Mt Hight:
This was a good decision because, even though the ascent up to Mt Hight was very steep and rocky, the views from there were excellent. As we would see, the summit of Carter Dome is forested, without any view at all! We arrived at the summit of Mt Hight at 12:30pm, very windy, and a good time to have lunch.
There were really great views towards the east and the Presidential Range, and towards the west and the Atlantic Ocean:
After lunch at the cold and windy top of Mt Hight, we continued towards Carter Dome, at about 1pm. We were now up at elevation, so the trail was up-and-down along the ridge:
We arrived at the junction of the Black Angel Trail, and continued towards Carter Dome:
We reached the summit of Carter Dome at about 1:30pm:
It looks like there used to be a tower here at the summit, but we didn’t stay too long at Carter Dome, as there are no views. So we continued along the Carter-Moriah Trail and, as we approached Carter Notch, the view down into the notch was impressive. Here the Carter Notch Hut complex is visible below, and Wildcat Mountain rises above the Hut:
Back in September of 2016, I had sat on Wildcat Mountain and had lunch looking north into the notch. A guy with two new artificial knees had sat with me, and described his plan to do the “cycle” of the 48 4000-footers: every one of the 48 peaks, in each month of the year! Too much for me…
Here is the mirror-image view, taken last year from that spot at the top of Wildcat Mountain at lunchtime: I’m looking back towards Carter Dome here, in September of 2016:
Draco and I dropped down steeply toward the hut, hopping over and around typical White Mountains granite boulders, and arrived at the lake next to hut at 2:20pm:
After resting for a few minutes (Draco said he was getting tired!), here at the junction of the 19-Mile Brook and Carter-Moriah trails, we took a right turn, and headed north. It was about 2:30pm … the 19-Mile Brook Trail ascends briefly up to the Carter Notch saddle, and then drops steadily down to the trailhead.
Soon the trail rejoins the 19-Mile Brook, and we walked down alongside it, crossing occasionally:
We had seen an inviting swimming hole on the way up, and talked about taking a quick dip when we came back through. In the end, Draco took the chance and said it was “SUPER COLD”:
We arrived back at Rt 16 at about 4:20pm after a very nice day, beautiful views along the way, especially at Mt Hight.
A glorious White-Mountains day, and peak number 30 had been climbed!
A Failed Merger in the NGO Sector
Loyal readers of this blog will recall that Jean and I had left the UK in May of 1997. I had wrapped up four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), and was looking forward to spending a year in Durham, New Hampshire, on a “sabbatical.” This was a very generous policy that allowed Plan staff with tenure in the organization to take time to reflect, without pay but with a guarantee of a job at the end.
We flew from Heathrow airport to Boston that May, on the day that Tony Blair became Prime Minister, and then drove up to Durham, where Jean’s sister Joan had helped us rent a house outside of town. The plan was to take a year and reflect about my time at IH, maybe climb a few of the White Mountains, take some courses at the University of New Hampshire (which is based in Durham)…
It was a great year. The “reflection” part of that year led to two papers that were published in peer-reviewed journals, and which have informed several blog posts in this series:
Few operational staff in INGOs take the time to write for serious journals, so I was proud to have managed to publish these articles.
As for taking classes at UNH, that worked out well also. I took a course in African History, Intro to Architecture (with Jean), and bicycle maintenance. That winter, I spent a good amount of time learning to cross-country ski. And I did two small pieces of work for Plan, researching the potential for the organization to begin work in two new countries: Madagascar and Eritrea. This involved a few weeks of work, and a visit to each country.
During the year, I kept my eye on internal vacancies in Plan, thinking about reentry. My ideal next job would be back in the field, starting up a new country for Plan, as Country Director. The visit to Eritrea had been positive, and I had recommended that Plan consider establishing operations there. After that decision had been made, I applied for the job and was appointed as Country Director. The future looked bright for Eritrea, and for Jean and I there, but just as I was leaving the country from my research visit, tensions rose (again) with Ethiopia, which led to a long period of conflict. Soon, what had looked to be a possible model for an open society in Africa descended into repression and dictatorship. This included a rapid closing of space for civil society in the country, including for INGOs. So Plan deferred the opening of a Country Office in Asmara…
In the end, as readers know, Jean and I ended up flying to Hanoi in July of 1998, where I had been appointed as Country Director. This would be my favorite posting in Plan, which I’ve described extensively in earlier articles in this series: here and here and here and here.
But as left for that sabbatical year, in May of 1997, Max asked me to continue to look after a very important and rather sensitive project for a few more weeks, from New Hampshire. Now, 20 years later, I feel that I can write about it: we were moving towards merging three organizations together: Plan International, Plan USA, and Save the Children USA.
Over the years, our sector always seems to be on the cusp of consolidation. The logic is clear: many of our organizations do very similar work overseas, duplicating many functions. And we compete for funds domestically. So, at least in principle, mergers would seem to offer opportunities for massive cost savings. To my knowledge, if we had succeeded in merging Plan, Plan USA and Save USA, it would have been one of the first mega-mergers in the sector. The fact that the merger failed is, I think, a case study that illustrates why consolidation hasn’t really happened, despite the clear economic (and moral) case that can be made. Instead, what we’ve seen, mostly, is consolidation between unequal parties (a larger INGO absorbing a smaller agency) rather than the kind of merger we were examining (between three large organizations.)
The day after Jean and I arrived in New Hampshire, still with major jet lag, I drove south to Rhode Island. You may recall that Plan’s International Headquarters had been located in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, before we moved to the UK. But the US fundraising office, “Plan USA,” was still there in Rhode Island, in separate premises not far from where IH had been. It was a two hour drive for me: an hour to Boston, then another hour to Rhode Island.
The idea of merging Plan International, Plan USA, and Save USA had been on the table, quietly, for a few months. I think that the idea emerged from what we had called “The Gang Of Four,” which was an initiative that Max van der Schalk had prompted over coffee with three other CEOS (Dean Hirsch of World Vision International, the head of Save USA, and Paul McCleary of CCF) one afternoon in Geneva at a UNICEF meeting. Max thought that Plan, Save, World Vision, and CCF ought to be able to collaborate on something big, and the other three CEOs agreed. Maybe as a way of building towards something even bigger.
We four program directors (the Save International program director had joined us) were asked to figure out something that made sense, and I proposed that we work together to figure out how we could do a better job with girl education, together. My colleagues liked it, our CEOs embraced the idea, and off we went. (It’s quite interesting that Plan is now becoming quite focused on girls, overall. A good move into “exclusion” and away from “deprivation”, very appropriate for these times. More on that later…)
From the “Gang of Four” initiative came, among other things, closer relations at the programmatic level, with me, Gary Shaye of Save US, Steve Commins of World Vision, and Joy Carol of CCF getting to know each other. It was great working with the three of them – I certainly learned a lot. And, out of that very positive initiative came, I think, the idea of merging.
There were three CEOs directly involved in this possible merger: Max, of course, at Plan. Then there was Sam Worthington, who was the CEO of Plan USA (now the CEO of the US peak body for INGOs, Interaction.) And of course the CEO of Save USA.
The potential for efficiencies was really clear: Plan USA and Save USA competed for support in a very similar marketplace: individual donors, major donors, corporations, and the US government. Even more interesting was that Plan USA raised most of its funding from private sources, and Save USA got the majority of its money from the US government; this meant that the potential for leveraging Plan’s private income to “match” a big increase in government grants, seemed very large if the two agencies were merged. In fact, Save USA’s government funding was pretty much “matched out”: they they didn’t have any more “private” income to match government funding, so they couldn’t grow.
And Save USA and Plan International both had operations in a number of countries, doing very similar work in the same places. Duplication and inefficiencies across the three organizations seemed ripe for elimination. All in all, there seemed to be big financial, programmatic, and moral reasons to at least consider consolidation.
But structural relations were complex: Plan USA was, in theory, mostly, a fundraising office for the Plan alliance, tightly bound to the wider group. Plan International implemented programs for the whole Plan alliance. Save USA was, similarly, a key member of the Save the Children Alliance, raising funds and running their own programs around the world, and also remitting funds to other Save members. A merger would be very challenging.
But first we needed to figure out if the advantages we saw, in principle, really existed in fact. And we needed to do this very quietly, because a merger of this kind, with Save USA leaving the Save the Children alliance, would be a bombshell!
(As an aside, as I was leaving IH for my sabbatical, I had a strange conversation with the chairman of Plan’s international board of directors, Fred McElman. I thought he simply wanted to thank me for having spent four years at IH, which he did, but then he went on to express his sorrow that things hadn’t worked out… but perhaps something would come from the merger. Later I thought that he was assuming that I had been interested in the CEO job, Max’s job, and that perhaps something like it would emerge from the merger for me! It was kind of him, but of course he was looking at things from a private-sector point of view: I was DELIGHTED to be leaving IH and, after the year on sabbatical, going back to the field.)
As I mentioned above, Max asked me to lead the due diligence from Plan International’s perspective. Sam Worthington was, of course, based in Rhode Island, and Gary’s office was in Connecticut. There was a fourth player involved in the process: Dave Matheson, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group, was on the board of Plan USA and Plan International and he offered to provide expert assistance, in the form of a very savvy BCG analyst, with experience in our sector. I’ve forgotten this person’s name, sadly, but we all worked together very well in the process. New Hampshire, Boston, Rhode Island, and Connecticut – we were all in the same general area, which boded well for being able to get through the due diligence.
Gary and I were asked to look at the value proposition for the merger from the programmatic and government-funding sides, with that excellent BCG analyst helping us. We met a few times in Rhode Island and Boston, and worked out the details.
We saw how overhead costs could be lowered by eliminating duplication where both agencies had field operations in the same country. And, most importantly, Plan’s private income could be used to “match” a big increase in government funding. In both ways, the combined entities would be able to do more than the three separate organizations could do. Perhaps a lot more. From our perspective, as I recall, the business case for the merger was overwhelmingly strong and we realized that, if it went ahead, we would be in the vanguard of consolidation that so many had predicted for years.
The arguments for, and against, the merger were prepared and board meetings were scheduled to consider matters.
Sam Worthington had become seriously ill while visiting Plan’s work in Africa, and was still recovering during this time. I vividly remember a lengthy meeting of Save USA’s board which Sam and I both attended, where he had to retire to an adjoining room where a cot had been set up so he could rest a few times during the meeting. His courage, and commitment, were admirable.
Of course, the merger didn’t happen. In fact, things fell apart rather quickly after Gary and I concluded our due diligence.
Why did it all fall apart? From what I could observe, which admittedly was only part of the story, I think there were two main reasons that such an obvious good idea didn’t go forward.
First, in two of the three agencies the CEOs weren’t in strong positions. Max van der Schalk was transitioning out of Plan, and would leave within a few months. This kind of merger would need strong leadership from all sides, and while Max certainly was a strong leader, he was also leaving. What was worse was that Max’s successor, John Greensmith, had been named but had no idea that this huge merger was a distinct possibility!
It’s hard for me to understand why Plan’s board hadn’t briefed John about the discussions, but it is easy to understand why he was very opposed to the idea once he found out: there would be nothing attractive about the idea for him, which might even threaten his (very new) job! So while Max was on-board, and saw the compelling logic, John Greensmith was uninterested and skeptical.
The situation with Save USA was even stranger. The board meeting that Sam and I attended was surreal, to say the least, and not because Sam was so sick: despite clear evidence why it made lots of sense, the idea of the merger was basically put aside without significant discussion.
What was going on? Like Plan’s board, Save’s board was well aware of the discussions; and, in this case, their CEO was very involved and positive, and he wasn’t on the way out of his job. So it wasn’t like the situation in Plan, where the board was involved but a new CEO was uninterested.
My sense, from attending that one board meeting, was that the Save CEO had lots of great initiatives bubbling along, he was very creative … and his board had learned that many of them wouldn’t come to fruition. I got the feeling that the Save USA board tended to let a thousand flowers bloom, but when this one unexpectedly looked like it was turning into something serious they were very uninterested, to say the least. And they quashed it without hesitation.
So the first reason why the merger didn’t go ahead was that two of the three CEOs didn’t, or weren’t able to, push things ahead with their boards. The second reason is also related to the boards that were involved: ego.
The brief discussions at that Save USA board meeting were informative: they didn’t focus on the business case, but rather on their individual roles in a combined entity. In other words, sure, it makes sense from the perspective of doing more for children living in poverty, but what role will I, a Save board member, have in this merged organization? Since Save USA would be a large minority part of a a combined organization, the writing was on the wall. So: no!
From my perspective, the merger failed for those two reasons: Plan’s new CEO hadn’t been briefed on a huge development that affected his job, and Save USA’s board thought that merging the organizations would diminish their own roles in some way.
Once the merger failed, I focused on the things I had wanted to do in my sabbatical: skiing, studying, writing, hiking. In later years, of course, some mergers would happen in our sector and many more acquisitions would take place. But I still wonder about the impact that our merger would had in the sector – it would have been a big deal, I think, a very positive example of putting aside vested interests and ego in favor of the mission.
Stay tuned for the next blog in this series: before describing how Jean and I moved to Australia for six great years with ChildFund, I want to reflect a bit about how poverty, the sector, and my own thinking had changed since my time in the Peace Corps, 25 years before.
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it like in the sector as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
So far, I’ve described climbing 28 of those 48 mountains in New Hampshire, and I’ve moved across time, from the beginning as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador (1984), through to serving as Executive Director for UUSC (through 2008).
Last time I described one aspect of my work as Executive Director at the UU Service Committee (UUSC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts: managing relations with the staff union. In that post, I described how I tackled that particular part of my role, navigating between principle and pragmatism.
As I said there, my biggest lesson learned from those years of working with the UUSC Bargaining Unit was that there is no inherent, inevitable contradiction between (on the one hand) being clear and firm about roles, being fair but strict about adherence to procedures and performance, and (on the other hand) living up to the ideals of a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice – viewing things through the prism of right relationships. And, for me, I discovered that the way to successfully navigate the terrain between principle and pragmatism is to learn how to manage conflict while developing a deep sense of humility and self-awareness, mindfulness and equanimity, and engaged non-attachment.
One of our major priorities at UUSC was to build engaged activism focused on critical issues of human rights and social justice. In fact, making this happen was probably our most central focus, given our theory of change:
It is possible to build a better world, a world that is free from oppression and injustice, where all can realize their full human rights. This vision can be achieved only through the work of organized, transparent, and democratic civic actors who challenge and confront oppression.1
For me, the second sentence in that statement encapsulates UUSC’s “theory of change.” I still like it very much.
Much of this task would be carried out through our partners around the world, as we accompanied their work on economic and environmental justice, on civil liberties, and in crises. But another major part of our work building civic activism was spelled out in another section of our Strategic Plan:
UUSC builds a more engaged and activist community focused on issues of human rights and social justice. By becoming an accountable campaigning and movement-building organization, UUSC will achieve policy change results consistent with the goals of our program partners and constituencies.
To achieve this goal, together with our supporters and partners, UUSC will develop an effective advocacy agenda around the organization’s priority issue areas. We will mobilize supporters and collaborate with allies that share our interest in these issues; operate an advocacy office based in Washington, D.C.; provide the training necessary to allow local activists to exert maximum policy influence.
We will continue to expand our volunteer network and increase the involvement of that network in advocacy activities. To strengthen the voice of the UU community on important public policy issues in the United States, we will support six additional statewide UU advocacy networks by 2010, while maintaining support for the existing networks. In a related effort, we will establish a UUSC-related 501(c)(4) structure.
In addition, we will build relationships with leaders within the UU, activist, and inter-faith communities and increase opportunities for action. Finally, as the policies and practices of global corporations have increasingly influenced the fulfillment of human rights aims, UUSC will continue its shareholder advocacy efforts, aimed at corporations whose policies and practices violate human rights norms.2
The statement that I have emphasized, in bold, is the subject of this blog post.
Why did we decide to form a parallel 501(c)(4)? And, what is a 501(c)(4) anyway?!
Most “nonprofit” organizations like UUSC are set up consistent with section 501(c)(3) of the US tax code: donations to these agencies are tax-deductible for the donor, which is a big advantage for fundraising. In return, the organizations accept that they won’t work in the “political” space to any significant degree, meaning that they can’t really focus on legislative or electoral advocacy. They must focus on “charitable” activities.
Organizations established under section 501(c)(4) of the US tax code, on the other hand, can focus almost entirely on advocacy, as long as activities are consistent with their purpose. They can (for example) even endorse candidates for office. The disadvantage is, however, that donations to 501(c)(4) organizations are not tax-deductible to their donors.
This made sense to me. Certainly government shouldn’t get in the way of people, or organizations, expressing their opinions, influencing public policy, being active politically. And while I could see the reason why donors to organizations carrying out “charitable” (501(c)(3))activities should benefit from a tax subsidy, there seemed to be no reason why political expression (via 501(c)(4) organizations) should be subsidized. Don’t restrict it, but the government shouldn’t, in effect, take sides by freeing political donors from a tax obligation. Makes sense.
Given UUSC’s objectives and methods, including legislative and electoral advocacy in our toolbox, by forming a 501(c)(4) made enormous sense. In fact, when we looked around at other social-justice organizations in the US, the ones that were making the biggest impact had extended the tools they bring to their work by forming inter-linked 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations, enabling them to legally work on charitable and “political” aspects of their programs.
So the attraction of having “linked” 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) agencies was obvious: together, they can work on all aspects of their missions, as long as they maintain appropriate separation of their finances.
In summary, quoting from the “Concept Paper” produced shortly before we started our work:
To extend its ability to achieve its mission, in 2007 UUSC helped establish Just Democracy. The purpose of this 501(c)(4) issue advocacy organization is to strengthen the voice of Unitarian Universalists and other progressive faith-based activists in the political process at the local, state, and federal levels. Because Just Democracy has been established as a 501(c)(4) organization, it will be able to engage a broader range of advocacy activities than would be appropriate for UUSC.
Seeking to empower voters and to promote human rights and a progressive political agenda, it is anticipated that Just Democracy will:
Carry out legislative advocacy campaigns on priority human rights issues that will impact public policy;
Create and strengthen effective statewide networks of Unitarian Universalists focused on human-rights advocacy and voter engagement;
Facilitate interfaith coordination of advocacy and voter engagement work;
Train congregation-based activists in non-partisan voter engagement work and issue-based legislative advocacy techniques;
Facilitate appropriate coordination between statewide faith-based voter engagement work and other voter mobilization efforts;
Recruit faith- and values-based activists into Just Democracy to do hard-hitting issue advocacy and voter engagement in both legislative and electoral seasons.
The interplay of a national 501(c)(3) human rights organization (UUSC) with strong ties to a liberal religious denomination, independent state-based 501(c)(3) organizations (statewide networks), and a national 501(c)(4) (Just Democracy), will allow for a broad and complementary range of activities, like those listed above. Over time, it is foreseen that the impact of these three sets of organizations will be magnified by their productive interaction.
After doing the necessary legal and operational planning, registering UUSC Just Democracy as a 501(c)(4) corporation, preparing by-laws, and forming a board of directors linked with UUSC’s board, the new organization was ready to get going.
At that point, I had been with UUSC for three years, and was happy in my role running the organization under Charlie Clements’s leadership. I was working with Charlie and Maxine Hart (our HR Director), and a great set of Department Directors (Atema Eclai, Myrna Greenfield, Ki Kim, Maxine Neil, and Michael Zouzoua), and relations with the UUSC bargaining unit were quiet. Programs were rolling out well. Relations with the UUA were steadily building in a positive way.
But the opportunity to establish a new agency, especially one focused on building community activism, was too good to pass up, and so one day in early 2008 I made the pitch to Charlie: second me to UUSC Just Democracy through the upcoming federal election, and I would set it up and run it through a pilot phase.
I knew that this request represented a major disruption, a headache that Charlie didn’t need: things were going well at UUSC, and to have the agency’s Executive Director leave for an extensive secondment would be a big challenge. But, to Charlie’s everlasting credit, he saw the potential, and my enthusiasm, and he embraced the idea. I’m grateful that Charlie was so supportive.
So after finding an interim Executive Director, in early May of 2008 I left UUSC and became the Executive Director of UUSC Just Democracy. While I would have my own board, and would work directly with Charlie, my focal point at UUSC would be Myrna Greenfield, UUSC’s director of advocacy and mobilization.
Myrna had recently joined UUSC, and was a fantastic communicator and organizer – I looked forward to working with her. But she was a bit unhappy at my departure, which was understandable since I had hired her and now I was leaving. So things were a bit unsettled. At my farewell party, leaving UUSC, Myrna made a statement that I still remember vividly, a perfect combination of wishing me well and, since she was becoming my focal point, letting me know that now she could have her revenge for my departure!
But before describing the next exciting year …
To skip the description of my ascent of Cannon Mountain, and go directly to my description of UUSC Just Democracy, click here.
The Climb – Cannon Mountain
I climbed Cannon Mountain on 5 July 2017, a sunny, beautiful day for a hike in the White Mountains.
The plan was to climb Mt Willey on the Fourth of July and spend the night at Dry River Campground, after what I was guessing would be a relatively easy hike. Then I would take on one of the longer hikes in the 48 – up Owl’s Head.
But… last time I mentioned that I had forgotten a key piece of equipment when I left home the day before – my backpack! – and had improvised for the climb up Mt Willey, carrying a stuff sack slung over my shoulder. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it worked, and I got to the summit.
Climbing Owl’s Head without a backpack was another challenge entirely: compared to Willey, Owl’s Head is a long and complicated hike, so I needed to carry food and water, etc. So I improvised, and decided to abandon the idea of hiking Owl’s Head, and climb Cannon Mountain instead. Cannon was not far from my camping spot, and it would be shorter; since I was camping nearby I could get an early start. That way I would avoid carrying very much water, and could tackle the hike with only some snacks instead of carrying a full lunch.
The night before, at the campsite, I had worked out a way to carry the stuff sack in a more stable fashion, so it would flop around a bit less. I did get an early start, driving around from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch, on a beautiful morning.
I had looked at the map and planned two options: an up-and-back to the top of Cannon or; if things went well, a long loop hike, making the best of the unfortunate situation. I would walk up Kinsman Ridge Trail from the Cannon Mountain Ski Area parking lot, and then I had two choices: I could turn around, or I could continue for 0.4m, and then drop down Lonesome Lake Trail to Lonesome Lake. If I took that option, I’d then take the same trail down to the Pemi Trail at Lafayette Campground, and along the Pemigewasset River (and the highway, which was the disadvantage with this option) back to the car:
Cannon Mountain (4100ft, 1250m) is a ski slope, with a tram up to the top; of course, but I was going to hike up!
I arrived at the tram parking lot at about 7:45am, and started up the Kinsman Ridge Trail. It was a beautiful day, with clear blue skies.
About an hour later, walking steeply up Cannon Mountain, I got a good view of the ski-lift:
By this time I was sweating profusely in the unremitting uphill slog up the well-travelled trail. Many of the boulders on the path were wet, and the path itself was north-facing. It would be a very tricky walk in the spring, as the boulders would be icy in unexpected places, perhaps quite late in the season.
There were surprisingly few people, considering that this was the day after a big public holiday. During this early part of the hike, however, I did run into a family group with a hostile beagle. Loyal readers will have noted that this has become a minor theme of my 4000-footer series: I still wonder why people bring untrained dogs into the woods. The conditions are such – strange place, strangers walking past – that many dogs will be likely to be protective of their “pack.” But everybody says that their dog is “sweet”, and most of them are; but often the “sweet” dogs are on edge in the strange environment, and behave aggressively. Bring your dogs to the White Mountains, sure… but train them!
By 9am the pine trees around me were getting shorter, evidence that I was approaching the tree line:
And soon I was able to see the observation platform at the summit of Cannon Mountain:
Behind me, looking across Franconia Notch, was a spectacular view of the Franconia Ridge, which I had climbed just two weeks before. Sadly, the sun was behind the ridge, making it difficult to capture the beauty of the scene in a photo:
I got to the top of the observation platform at 9:45am, so it had been two hours from the parking lot. The terminus of the ski lift was clear, looking north from the summit:
There were a few people here that had taken the tram up to the top. I was the only hiker there, though I could hear a group, perhaps the ones with the untrained dog (?), nearing the summit.
At this point, I had a choice: I could retrace my steps back to the parking lot, which would make for a rather short day; or I could continue south to Lonesome Lake, and then drop down into the notch from there. That second option looked attractive; the only disadvantage seemed to be that I would have a couple of miles to walk close to the highway in Franconia Notch, back to where I had left the car.
I decided to continue on to Lonesome Lake, which turned out to be the right choice!
From the observation tower at the top of Cannon Mountain, the path drops down steeply into a saddle, scrambling down large boulders, and then reaches the junction with the Hi-Cannon Trail:
Just after 10am, along that saddle I came across a large boulder that seemed to have crushed a tree, recently. The tree that had been destroyed appeared to still have some leaves on it, so that very large boulder must have come down the hill in the recent past. Hard to get a sense of the impact in this photo, but it would have been a scary event, had I been nearby!
Several groups were coming up, mostly groups of young people. I suppose they were coming from the AMC Lonesome Lake Hut. I reached the Lonesome Lake trail about a half-hour later, at 10:30am, and took it to the right:
It was a pleasant and beautiful walk down to the lake, steadily dropping through a beautiful White-Mountains day, rock-hopping much of the time:
At 10:45am, as I continued downward to Lonesome Lake, I passed an older man coming up. He came up from Rhode Island for the hike, just to go up to the Hi-Cannon Trail (he said), and would go home that night! That’s 3 1/2 hours each way, more or less… he must have gotten an early start!
As I neared Lonesome Lake, I passed a few groups of young people working on trail maintenance. They had AMC uniforms on.
I arrived at Lonesome Lake at about 11am. For some reason, I immediately got a deep sense of calm and well-being sitting by Lonesome Lake. What a beautiful place, on a gorgeous day:
A duck came over as I quietly sat there:
After a nice rest and some gorp, at around noon I decided to walk down to Franconia Notch on the Lonesome Lake Trail, but it was closed for trail maintenance:
So I took the alternate route, the Hi-Cannon Trail, down, passing a nice small stream and what looked like a minature refugee from Angkor Wat along the way!
I rejoined the Lonesome Lake Trail, and continued on a very well-maintained path downward.
I arrived at the end of the Lonesome Lake Trail at 12:13pm. The Trail ends at Lafayette Place Campground, which is a larger version of the Dry River Campground I had stayed at the night before with hot showers! It had been around 4 1/2 hours walking, so far.
At the end of the campground, the Pemi Trail runs along the stream (and the Highway) up to the Cannon Mountain parking lot where I had left my car. I had been a bit wary of this trail, as it runs right alongside the highway, but in fact it turned out to be a pleasant walk, though longer than expected. Yes, I could hear the freeway, but the walk was nice and the 2.3 miles went quickly as I headed north towards the end of the hike.
For my readers who are not familiar with New Hampshire, the “Old Man In The Mountain” was a rock formation in Franconia Notch, forming the distinct profile of an old man. It was in many ways the most-destinctive and well-known symbol of the state. The “Old Man” collapsed in May of 2003:
I arrived back at my car at 1:15pm, having had a great climb. Since Cannon Mountain is a relatively easy climb, and I was walking it just after a major holiday, my expectations had been low. Plus, I was hiking without my backpack! But the walk was very pleasant, the views were outstanding, and Lonesome Lake gave me a strong sense of well-being.
And I made the best of a bad situation, having left my backpack at home!
UUSC Just Democracy
We were starting UUSC Just Democracy from scratch. So we needed a board of directors, a website, members, and a plan. And we needed funding! Luckily, Charlie had raised enough for us to get started, and so I was able to start my work with about $50k in the bank. Enough to move ahead.
But what were we going to focus on? In late 2007, we had prepared a “Concept Paper” describing the first months of UUSC Just Democracy. The summary of that paper reads as follows:
“Through this project, Just Democracy, a 501c4 organization affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (“UUSC”), seeks to build a progressive faith-based infrastructure for grassroots activism. The long-term success of a progressive political agenda in the United States will require the building of such an infrastructure, sustained beyond election cycles, rooted authentically in communities across the country, and standing on a firm values-based foundation.
Over the next 15 months Just Democracy will seek to create such a grassroots, progressive infrastructure in New Hampshire, as a first step in what will become a national effort. This proposal outlines Just Democracy’s project objectives for an initial phase of work in New Hampshire, along with the resources necessary to achieve these aims.”
Later in the paper, our focus on New Hampshire was explained:
Just Democracy seeks to launch its program of building a faith-based and sustainable progressive infrastructure in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has been chosen for three reasons.
Firstly, over the next 15 months, New Hampshire will be at the center of the political process in the United States. It retains its first-in-the-nation presidential primary and, despite a relatively small number of electoral votes, New Hampshire will remain a battleground state, since it was the only state to move from “red” in 2000, to “blue” in 2004. Furthermore, key federal races are highly competitive, with polls showing Senator John Sununu to be vulnerable, and two freshmen members of congress needing to work hard to win re-election. This electoral excitement will greatly enhance our efforts to recruit faith-based activists into both non-partisan voter engagement work and a politically active 501c4. In addition, there are stark differences between candidates on fundamental issues of human rights and justice. The outcome of these races will impact the prospects for future policy work.
Secondly, one of the first statewide voter-engagement and advocacy networks to be established was the UU Action Network in New Hampshire (”UUANNH”), which has been functioning strongly since 2004. Established as a 501c3 entity, and working initially in voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, UUANNH has engaged 24 UU congregations in voter pledge drives, issue education, phone banking, and campus organizing. UUANNH’s focus at present includes issues such as access to health care and cutting the federal defense budget and redirecting the money to human needs and energy independence.
Finally, UUSC’s national headquarters is located within an hour of southern New Hampshire, and its Executive Director is a resident of the state. These existing resources will greatly streamline the cost of managing an effective pilot project.
Over the next 15 months in New Hampshire, Just Democracy proposes to:
Hire a full-time organizer to build membership in Just Democracy, reaching out actively to the members of Unitarian Universalist (UU) and other progressive congregations such as the United Church of Christ (UCC).
Link our efforts to allied secular groups such as AFSC, NH Peace Action, the Granite State Organizing Project, etc.
Participate actively in America Votes’ Table meetings.
In coordination with the Table, identify and carry out a number of election season activities to support the progressive agenda. These activities will include:
Polling and messaging
Membership communication concerning candidates’ position on our issues
Voter education and identification, and Get-Out-The-Vote efforts, through volunteer canvassing and phone-banking
Design and carrying out of issue and express advocacy mailings to the broader public concerning the positions of candidates and elected officials.
Build the power of UUANNH’s work on access to health care in the key New Hampshire cities of Manchester, Nashua, and Portsmouth by linking their efforts, as appropriate and legal, to local, state, and federal political processes.
Build the power of UUSC’s work on peace and human rights (ending the war in Iraq and the genocide in Darfur) on New Hampshire college campuses, starting in the key city of Keene, and, as appropriate and legal, linking these efforts to local, state, and federal political processes.
There was a lot to do. On the organizational side, I needed to establish the basic infrastructure of board governance and reporting, registration, logistical capabilities, membership development, and fundraising. So I quickly learned about nonprofit mailing permits, set up a rudimentary website, and created a simple registration process for membership and began to support these “members” with information and requests. And I worked with Charlie to make sure that our existing donors were happy and to reach out to more people who could support us.
We were able to form a fantastic board of directors, quite quickly, mostly because of the organic connection with UUSC. As I mentioned above, 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations need to be linked to have the greatest impact, but had to be scrupulously separate in terms of overall governance and (in particular) financial management. Joining the initial UUSC Just Democracy board were:
Kathy Hall, who served as UUSC Just Democracy’s board chairperson. Kathy was also serving on UUSC’s board of directors, so she was one formal link between the two organizations. Kathy was an outstanding board chair, dynamic and supportive yet holding me accountable;
Tom Andrews, former Congressman from Maine, who was heading the “Win Without War” coalition in Washington. Tom would later become UUSC’s president and CEO, following Charlie and Charlie’s successor, Bill Schulz;
Chuck Collins, co-founder of “United for a Fair Economy.” Chuck was, and is, a gifted activist, with a knack for combining a social-justice message with humor and panache. I learned a lot from Chuck, though he mostly attended board meetings by phone;
Kathy Partridge, who was then the Executive Director of “Interfaith Funders,” a network of secular and faith-based grantmakers working for social justice through support of congregation-based community organizing. Kathy was always very supportive and, since she was running a similar organization, I learned a lot from her, too;
Jack Spence, who also served on UUSC’s board, and who later became UUSC’s board chair. Jack had recently wrapped up a career as university chancellor in Florida;
Fasaha Traylor, another link to the UUSC board, came onto the UUSC Just Democracy board a bit later, adding a lot of spirit and activist bona-fides!
Perhaps my most important task was to establish relationships with key players in New Hampshire, where we were pilot testing our organization. There were two priority groups here: I needed quickly to connect with the progressive faith community in the state, including the UU Action Network, the NH 501(c)(3) group that UUSC had been supporting; and I had to gain entry to and acceptance by the progressive 501(c)(4) community, which was coordinated by “America Votes” out of our state capital, Concord.
In both areas, I was very lucky and, quickly, very successful.
I was running UUSC Just Democracy from home, in Durham, and I quickly confirmed that there was a vibrant UU movement in the area. I can’t say enough about Kendra Ford and Roberta Finkelstein, Ministers at the UU congregations in Exeter and Portsmouth, respectively. They both welcomed our work, seeing that it was consistent with the focuses of their congregations. And they welcomed me into their congregations, inviting me to speak at their services and (in Exeter) to work intimately with their social-justice committees.
For example, this is a photo of me speaking at the Manchester UU church in the summer of 2008.
Roberta was a featured participant and speaker at UUSC Just Democracy’s Candidate Forum on Climate Change – more on that event below.
My connection with the UU congregation in Exeter proved to be fundamental to the success of UUSC Just Democracy. Thanks to Kendra’s welcome, I found lots of energy there, and over time I ended up basing most of the electoral work we did from the Exeter congregation. More on the election below…
Finally, in terms of connecting with the UU movement in New Hampshire, I want to appreciate the outstanding work of Tess George, who at that time was leading the UU Action Network in the state. Even though the UU Action Network was a 501(c)(3), and there were many reasons why coordinating some aspects of their work with UUSC Just Democracy made sense, our arrival seemed to perturb the work that Tess had been doing. I regretted this. Tess and I had to work hard to clarify roles and complementarities, and though things never seemed to become 100% clear, we worked well together.
The most important connection we made, outside of the progressive faith community in New Hampshire, was with America Votes. America Votes performed (and still performs) a vital role, coordinating the “Table” of progressive 501(c)(4) organizations in many states, including New Hampshire.
UUSC Just Democracy had attended several “Table” meetings even before I transitioned from UUSC, and I made a point of attending every meeting I could, often with Shelley Moskowitz, UUSC’s able and experienced “Senior Leader for Public Policy and Advocacy.” Shelley knew her way around Washington from having worked there for a long time, and so she was a real source of advice and wisdom for me. And I liked her a lot.
I was lucky that Shelley could attend America Votes “table” meetings with me, because her passion and experience rubbed off on me and on the organization! We had instant credibility.
Josiette White was the head of America Votes in New Hampshire, a real dynamo with a very strong team including Melissa Bernardin and Zandra Rice Hawkins (in the linked organization, Granite State Progress). These were spectacular professionals, working tirelessly to help make New Hampshire a better place.
One of the most important benefits that UUSC Just Democracy got from being a part of the America Votes “Table,” was that we became the lead organization for Exeter. This meant that we had access to the consolidated voter database, and were responsible for voter mobilization for the November 2008 federal election.
That database was pretty amazing. When it came time to contact voters about our priorities (ending the war in Iraq, and stopping climate change), and to educate them about the positions of federal candidates on these issues, the database gave us details about who to contact, and even set up the most efficient walking trajectories we should take.
In practice, this meant that I could indicate an area around Exeter, specify characteristics of voters in that area, and then the algorithm would produce a Google Map with a walk and a list of people to contact.
My job was then to mobilize the growing UUSC Just Democracy membership, and the congregations in and around Exeter, train volunteers, and then send them out with materials and talking points.
It was 2008, and we wanted to help elect Jeanne Shaheen, our governor who was running for US Senate. And we were working to elect Barack Obama. Both of these candidates were progressive, and they held positions on our issues that we agreed with.
But before election day approached, we held several events related to our issues. For example, once the general election campaign began, we participated in a protest at an appearance by the Republican nominee for the presidency, John McCain, focused on our push to end the war in Iraq. Here are some images of that protest:
But the most important event we held that fall was our Climate Forum at the University of New Hampshire.
The Climate Forum was framed as an opportunity for federal candidates to speak about climate change. After a lot of outreach, Oxfam America, CARE International, and the University of New Hampshire signed on as co-hosts. And I was able to attract a strong panel of experts to introduce the candidate forum:
Scott Spradling, Emmy Award-Winning former reporter and anchor at the most influential NH television station, moderated the forum. This was a coup for me, both because Scott was very good at this kind of thing and he was easy to work with. But also because Scott was seen as fairly conservative in his political leanings, which helped – UUSC Just Democracy and its Executive Director, and all of the organizations that were co-sponsoring were probably perceived as somewhat left-leaning. And holding the event at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, probably just reinforced that impression. So having Scott moderate the forum balanced things in a good way;
Dr Cameron Wake, Research Associate Professor at UNH, whose research focus was climate change from a scientific perspective;
Nancy Hirshberg, VP of Natural Resources for Stonyfield Farm, one of New Hampshire’s biggest companies;
Rev. Roberta Finkelstein of the UU South Church in Portsmouth. It was great having Roberta there – she spoke movingly and from the faith perspective, which was very important for our organization;
Dr Stacy VanDeveer, Associate Professor of Political Science at UNH. Stacy spoke about climate change from the policy perspective.
Most importantly, representatives from the McCain, Obama and Shaheen campaigns attended, and spoke, and listened. Here is the advertisement we put in the student paper the day of the event:
Perhaps just as important, we had a full room of interested participants! I also put flyers up around Durham, and publicized the event through our growing membership.
The event was filmed, and the video of the forum is available on YouTube, in eleven parts (due to the length of the event). Here’s the first part:
Our Climate Forum was a big success, attracting lots of people as well as representatives from most of the federal campaigns in New Hampshire.
All along, I was working hard to build a membership for UUSC Just Democracy. This was for several reasons: it seemed to me that the more people that joined us, the more powerful our message would be. Also, members were asked to contribute a small amount: small, but every bit helped! Finally, as I grew our database, I was able to contact more people when we needed to education or mobilize.
To do this, I needed to master the fine arts of setting up tables to appeal for support, and to do the same thing via bulk mail:
The election came in early November, and we got into action in the Exeter area, door-knocking and getting-out-the-vote on the day itself. We ran our operation out of a building in the center of Exeter, where I trained (and accompanied) our volunteers as they moved around the area, talking to voters.
Here are some images of those events:
Before closing, I want to share the results of the external evaluation we commissioned in early 2009. We had included funding for an assessment as part of our initial planning, because we viewed the initial period of UUSC Just Democracy as a pilot. I’ll attach the resulting external evaluation here (Healey Report on UUSC JD), and copy one section of the report’s Executive Summary here:
“… let me begin by stating that overall reviews for Just Democracy’s work in 2008 were overwhelmingly favorable. There was consensus among the interviewees that Just Democracy represented an innovative approach to faith-based progressive action in 2008, added real value to the work progressive groups were doing in New Hampshire, and established itself as a potential player in that state going forward.
Furthermore, interviewees gave rave reviews to Executive Director Mark McPeak for the work he did over the course of the last year, in spite of numerous obstacles. His thoughtful and committed leadership was clearly the key to Just Democracy’s successes in 2008, and his relationships in New Hampshire are central to the organization’s ability to build on its 2008 pilot in that state.
In terms of objective measures, while the number of activists trained, members recruited, and grassroots electoral activities undertaken were all modest, they represent a significant foundation for further work. In an electoral context where the unprecedented Obama campaign made progressive 501(c)(4) volunteer recruitment difficult for even the most established organizations, the initial accomplishments of Just Democracy are worthy of real congratulation.
In the future, it is clear that there is an opportunity for Just Democracy to fill a unique, faithbased niche in New Hampshire’s progressive infrastructure, and it seems that that niche has three prongs – that of a consistent ally in legislative advocacy efforts; that of a candidate recruitment and training hub; and that of a communications operation focused on shaping media narratives through a progressive, values-oriented lens. These three prongs all represent separate challenges, but they also complement one another such that a strategic organization-building approach could utilize each of them to grow the organization’s power for the long-term.
However, despite this opportunity, there are two facts suggest that Just Democracy must undergo some organizational change regardless of whether the organization remains focused on growth in New Hampshire in the short term or attempts to expand into other states. Those two facts are 1) the lack of secure funding going forward, and 2) the ability of a 501(c)(3) organization to take on some – perhaps much – of the work that interviewees suggest Just Democracy should do in 2009 and beyond. This reality, especially when paired with the challenges faced by the state-based UU Action Networks, makes a closer working relationship with the UUSC almost a necessity.
Over the course of this report, I will seek to highlight anecdotes from interviews and other documents that point to some of Just Democracy’s strengths and weaknesses, within the context of an analytic political framework that I hope that the Board will find helpful in making decisions. My hope is not to be overly prescriptive, but instead to suggest key challenges and opportunities so that this document can serve as a useful aid to a team of people who are working together to birth an effective, sustainable and powerful progressive voice of faith onto the American political scene.”
For me, the experience was very formative. I learned a lot about political activism in the US context, and I felt like our organization contributed a little bit to advance our issues in New Hampshire. Personally, I felt that I was doing my part in my own country, to advance social justice with my own work, not just overseas (as in my career up to UUSC), or through others (as Executive Director at UUSC). This time, I was getting my hands dirty and mud on my boots … and it felt great!
Soon after the election, which (from our perspective) was very successful, we pivoted towards legislative advocacy. I testified twice on climate-change issues at our state capital, and organized letters to the editor on both of our focus issues.
Our membership grew to over 160 by the end of March, 2009. And we prepared a discussion paper for the expansion of UUSC Just Democracy past its initial pilot phase, which included a draft “theory of change” for our new organization:
“Human rights in the United States will only be advanced to the extent that the progressive political agenda in this country gains strength. Conservative, hierarchical, and patriarchal forces of intolerance have gained momentum over the last two decades, in part because they have learned how to utilize all tools at their disposal. They have skillfully used the media, formed a range of different but inter-linked organizations with distinct legal forms, established well-funded think-tanks, and rooted themselves in the fundamentalist faith community, all in a carefully thought-out and artfully-interlinked strategy to gain political power.
We have seen the result: increasing infringements in civil liberties, reductions in governmental efforts to build justice and equity, and an inability to expand our national framework of human rights to the changing circumstances in which we live.
Lessons learned throughout history have taught us that “human rights and social justice have never advanced without struggle. Sustained, positive change has always been built through the work of organized activists with the courage to challenge and confront oppression.”
Another lesson of history is that the faith community provides a sustained and values-based platform from which change can emerge. The American Civil-Rights struggle is a prime example of this phenomenon. The achievements of the right-wing evangelical movement in more recent times are another, though from our standpoint quite negative, example.
UUSC-JD believes that it is crucial for the future of our country, and of the world, that the power of progressive faith communities be built and directed towards positive progressive change. Our organization is well-placed to integrate itself into the political dynamic, on a state-by-state basis, playing a linking and empowering role across three spheres: we see our organization operating in the intersection of a state’s liberal faith communities, the array of 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(3) organizations operating there, and the work of UUSC.”
Our idea was to expand, carefully, from NH into Maine in the next couple of years, and add one more state in 2011.
But, sadly, funding for progressive advocacy tends to be very cyclical, and in 2008 it looked like the political landscape in the US had shifted permanently (not so!) So our donors, who had been loyal and steadfast thus far, lost a bit of interest. The job was done, why do we need to keep working?
We know how that’s turned out.
The consequence for UUSC Just Democracy was that I started to pick up some consulting work from my old life, in particular I worked with my old friends at ChildFund to organize what became Bright Futures 101 in the Philippines, which I’ve blogged about earlier.
That consultancy led to me being put in touch with ChildFund Australia, which was looking to stand up a new, international program department in Sydney. That’s a story, a new chapter, stay tuned!
As I departed, I was able to turn over the leadership of UUSC Just Democracy to a gifted and experienced organizer, who had worked with us as a consultant during much of 2008, Dick Mark. So I was able to move towards Australia knowing that UUSC Just Democracy was in good hands, though with an uncertain funding future…
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development: