Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration

April, 2018

I began a new journey nearly two years ago (May, 2016), tracing two long arcs in my life:

  • Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
  • 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.

*

Picking up the story as I arrived in Sydney in July, 2009, to take up the newly-created position of “International Program Director” for ChildFund Australia, I was thinking a lot about how to build great programs for children and youth.  I wrote about that last time.

And I was also thinking about the other big part of my new job: building strong teams.  Next time I will introduce some of the people I worked with in those teams – in Sydney, Port Moresby, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Yangon.

This time I want to share thoughts about how to build teams, in particular in the context of international non-governmental organizations.  Through my career in the INGO sector, I was fortunate to work in, and lead, teams across the world, and learning a lot about how to build strong, high-performing teams.  Learning-by-doing, from watching others, and from my own mistakes.

I was determined to bring this learning to ChildFund Australia.  But before diving into that topic…

*

I climbed both Galehead Mountain and Mount Garfield on 19 July, 2017.  My plan that day was to walk up Gale River Trail to join the Garfield Ridge Trail, and then take the Frost Trail to reach the top of Galehead Mountain, which would be number 31 of the 48 4000-footers.  Then I would loop around Garfield Ridge to go up Mt Garfield, and return to meet up with Jean at the bottom of Garfield Trail.

Jean had driven up from Durham with me, and left me at the trailhead of the Gale River Trail.  She would spend the day with an old friend from high school, planning to pick me up at the end of the day.

I reached the top of Galehead Mountain at a little after noon.  When I had arrived at the Garfield Ridge Trail, going up, it seemed that I was making great time.  But by the time I dropped down from Galehead, and left Galehead Hut to head towards Mt Garfield, I was much less optimistic: to reach the trailhead by 5-6pm, as arranged with Jean, I thought I needed to leave Mt Garfield by 3pm, at the very latest.  I had less than three hours to get to the next peak.

So I headed down from Galehead and tried to keep up a good pace.

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I got back to the junction with Twinway and Garfield Ridge at about 1pm, and continued towards Garfield.  The walking was, at first, quite pleasant as I retraced my steps down to where I had come up Gale River:

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From there, it was pleasant walking along Garfield Ridge.  Continuing along the ridge in a westerly direction, I reached the junction with the Franconia Brook Trail (at the saddle of Garfield Ridge Trail, between Galehead and Garfield) at about 2:15pm.

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View Looking Down Franconia Brook

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Looking Back, Galehead Hut Is Just Visible In The Saddle, With South Twin Above It To The Left, And Galehead Mountain Above It To The Right

 

I was getting nervous: I had calculated that I needed to start descending from the summit of Mt Garfield by 3pm, in order to reach the trailhead, where Jean would be waiting, by 5-6pm.  But from the saddle, well below the summit, at 2:15pm, Mt Garfield towered over me, and the next section of the hike looked to be very steep.  VERY steep.

In all of these climbs, all 32 of them thus far, I don’t think I have ever been as tired as I was now.  The climb up from the saddle between Galehead Mountain and Mt Garfield felt unrelenting, up up up.  It was very hot, very humid, and I was down to one liter of water, of the 2.5 liters I had started with.  Luckily, I passed by Garfield Ridge campsite, and there is a wonderful spring there, so I drank a full liter of cool, clean mountain water – a great relief!  Fantastic!

But, even so, the climb was unrelenting.  It was very challenging, a really tough climb up 0.7 miles from the saddle to the top.

I reached the junction with the Garfield Trail at just after 3pm, and decided to drop my backpack there, and finish the climb to the summit with just a bottle of water and my walking stick:

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At least I had water.

Luckily, though the last section was very steep, I got there at about 3:15pm.  Though I was exhausted, the views from the top of Mt Garfield were stunning, with just enough clouds to produce a nice contrast as I looked around.  I could see Owl’s Head in front of me, and the peaks of Flume, Liberty, Lincoln and Lafayette to the west.

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Summit of Mt Garfield – Foundation of the Former Fire Lookout Tower

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From The Summit Of Mt Garfield: Galehead Mountain Is In The Foreground, South Twin In The Background

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Franconia Ridge, On The Right, and Owl’s Head Below, To The Left

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Looking Back Towards Galehead, and The Twins

 

Sadly, my camera seriously fogged up at the top of Mt Garfield, so the photos I took towards Franconia Ridge were spoiled.  This video panorama of the view is also fogged up, but perhaps the beauty of the day can be inferred here?

 

I couldn’t stay too long at the top, though it was beautiful, because I was worried about reaching the parking lot too late.  So I headed back down to the junction with Garfield Trail, picked up my backpack, and started down from there at 3:30pm, a half hour later than I had hoped.  Here I’m looking back up at the junction as I began the descent down Garfield Trail:

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Luckily, because I was so exhausted, the 4.8 miles down Garfield Trail were not challenging, just long long long.  By about 4pm, I hadn’t seen anybody at all, which was quite a change from the steady stream of hikers, and through-hikers, up on the ridge.  But, at a very awkward moment, a young hiker passed by me, walking quickly, just saying hello.  If she had been just a few moments earlier, it would have been quite embarrassing (probably for us both!)

 

The walking was fairly easy, gently downward, on a beautiful White-Mountains day:

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My feet were sore and I was very ready to finish the hike by the time I arrived at the end of Garfield Trail, at 5:30pm – nicely within the range I had predicted.  It had been two hours, and Jean was waiting there!  Happily, she had only been waiting a few minutes!

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5:33pm At The Trailhead!  I Look Fresher Than I Felt!

 

What a great day – two 4000-footers on a beautiful day.  But far more challenging that I had expected!

*

As I flew towards Sydney in mid-July, 2009 (Jean would join me there two months later), I was thinking a lot about two aspects of my new role.  On the one hand, my role was “International Program Director,” which meant that I was expected to lead the thinking and strategy related to ChildFund Australia’s development and humanitarian work.  In my last blog entry I outlined some of what I was thinking about when I was thinking about great INGO programming…

At the same time, I would lead several teams and be a member of others.  In Sydney, I would lead the “International Program Team” (“IPT” – I will write more about this team next time), and I would be a member of the two “Senior Management” teams that Nigel Spence, ChildFund Australia’s CEO, had recently established: first, there was the Sydney-based “Business Support Leadership Team” (“BSLT,” chaired by Nigel), which was comprised of Nigel and the five Department Directors based in Sydney.  The BSLT was focused on leading the functions that made our programs possible: fundraising, finance, IT, human resources, sponsor relations, governance support, etc.  The role of the BSLT was described in the team’s charter:

The Business Support Leadership Team is responsible and accountable for developing and implementing systems, policies, procedures, guidelines and controls that enable the organisation to meet strategic and business objectives. The Business Support Team is also responsible and accountable for securing resources and determining resource allocation. 

And then there was my relationship with ChildFund Australia’s overseas teams in Hanoi, Port Moresby, and Phnom Penh.  As Nigel and I had discussed my new role, we looked at two possibilities:

  • Nigel could continue to directly manage ChildFund’s three Country Directors (located in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam), as he had been doing.  This option would put me in a “staff” role in relation to overseas operations, “line” managing only IPT members in Sydney.  This would be similar in some ways to my role at Plan’s headquarters;
  • I could take over Nigel’s “line” management of the overseas CDs in addition to managing IPT members in Sydney.

Loyal readers of this blog will recall an earlier discussion of the tradeoffs involved here: as I moved from being Plan’s Regional Director for South America to the post of Program Director for the global organization, Max van der Schalk (Plan’s CEO at the time) and I had looked at two similar options.

In that case, we decided that I would not manage Plan’s Regional Directors, leaving him as their “line” manager; this left me in a “staff” role.  This would keep the organization’s structure a little bit flatter, but would burden Max with a broader span of control.  But that’s the way we went, and we made my new title reflect the difference: instead of following Marjorie Smit as “Program Director,” we decided my title would be “Director of Planning and Program Support.”  A rose by any other name…

So I was free to focus on strategy and structure, without being distracted by the daily dramas involved in line management – spending pressures, audit responses, personnel issues, etc.  It felt right at the time, and I certainly had more than enough power to get my job done; but later I did feel that the additional clout that line management would have given my role might have been helpful in making the transformational changes (in Plan’s goals, structure, and resource allocation) we achieved.  But I was happy with the choice we made, and we did make those changes.

I described the tradeoffs as I saw them to Nigel, and left the decision to him; I felt that I could go either way.  But I was delighted when he decided that I would become the line manager of ChildFund Australia’s three Country Directors … though, I quickly discovered that the CDs felt quite differently about what they felt was a loss of status.

So I would also lead and manage those three people, which became five as we expanded into Laos and Myanmar in the next few years.  The second “Senior Management” team that Nigel had recently formed was the “Program Operations Team,” (“POT”), which was comprised of him, me, and the three Country Directors; I would chair that team.  The role of the POT was described in its charter:

The Program Operations Team is responsible and accountable for operations: individually in their countries and head office; and collectively for the wider organization.  The Program Operations Team is focused on program strategy, managing the daily operations of the organization and furthering the achievement of ChildFund Australia’s programmatic goals.

This meant that I was going to be in three teams in my new role, leading two and joining the third as a member.  (I’d also co-chair the ChildFund Alliance Program Committee, but that’s a different story…)

*

Over the previous 25 years, I had learned a lot about working in, and leading, teams.  I had learned that people working in INGOs, generally speaking, are intrinsically motivated.  We join our agencies because we felt driven to help improve the world, with a passion for making a difference – not everybody was like that in my experience, but most were.  I saw this across all the organizations I had worked in, and all the locations where I had worked – we could almost take motivation for granted.  This was a luxury, something that many private-sector organizations work very hard to produce.

And that intrinsic motivation is a gift that could be spoiled if not handled correctly.  For example, my sense was that if a team leader managed as if motivation were a problem, and put in place mechanisms of control based (in part) on distrust, that kind of management culture would clash with the nature of our people, and would demotivate staff.  This accounted for some of the trouble that Alberto Neri got himself into in Plan

As I have discussed in an earlier blog post in this series, I had also learned that leading teams of INGO people did not mean that everything was going to be positive and nice.  Our organizations have plenty of internal complexities and might even have more-pervasive politics and ego than some for-profit environments.  There were dishonest people in our agencies.

In that earlier article I noted that:

… there is no inherent, inevitable contradiction between being clear and firm about roles, being fair but strict about adherence to procedures and performance, and the ideals of a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice.  

And, for me, 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.

*

Looking back, it seems to me that it boils down to four key domains that I would try to focus on during those years in Australia:

  • Teams, and team members, needed to be completely clear (1) about their task, their role, and the way that they were meant to carry out their duties;
  • They needed to work in an environment of trust (2), where they felt motivated, and
  • Inspired (3) to achieve their best in an important endeavor.  And, finally,
  • The whole effort needed to be founded on maintaining and restoring (4) relationships.  The most fundamental aspect of INGO management, in this model, is building and preserving authentic relationships in a context of clear accountability.

The rest of this blog post will describe how I tried to draw from what I had learned to make things clear, build trust, inspire, and restore relationships in the teams I worked with at ChildFund Australia.  It worked much (but certainly not all) of the time…

*

One aspect of team leadership that seemed to be essential when dealing with INGO people was establishing a clear aim, clear strategy, clear logic, and a clear way of measuring progress.

So the first element I thought about was clarity.  Clarity, in practical terms, meant building a shared understanding of what our teams were going to do, why we were going to do that, how we were going to do it, and how we would track what we accomplished to be accountable for our use of time and resources, and to learn from it.

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Building Strong INGO Teams: An Emerging Venn Diagram (1)

 

Building clarity was probably my biggest focus during my first year or two in Sydney.   I was lucky that I was able to build on the solid, existing statements of vision and mission for the overall organization:

ChildFund Australia’s vision is of a global community, free from poverty, where children are protected and have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

ChildFund Australia works in partnership with children and their communities to create lasting and meaningful change by supporting long-term community development and promoting children’s rights. 

 

These statements were great foundations, but they weren’t detailed enough to provide the clear, measurable foundation for our program work that I was looking for, the clarity that would be needed to foster high-performing program teams.

So we moved quickly, in the first few months of my tenure at ChildFund Australia, to develop a Theory of Change, outcome indicators, and a measurement framework.  In future blog posts in this series I will describe each of these elements of our program design in much more detail, because I think that they were state-of-the-art at the time; I mention them in passing here, because they created a clear and shared understanding of our program work.  The resulting “Theory of Change” (that I will unpack in a later blog entry in this series) was:

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This Theory of Change draws in particular from two sources: the CCF Child Poverty Study, and from my own learning from the development of the UUSC Strategic Plan.

The overall program framework (which, again, I will describe in detail later) looked like this:

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ChildFund Australia Development Effectiveness Framework (DEF)

 

 

Once programmatic clarity began to emerge, in those first months, I started to assemble another key element of clarity and accountability: the ChildFund Australia “Program Handbook.”  Here I built on the “UUSC Handbook” that I had created several years earlier.  The Program Handbook ended up being a very long, complex document, but to me it seemed vital – an unambiguous reference that I could point to whenever I felt that things were starting to diverge in an unnecessary way.

These, and other, elements of clarity were put in place fairly quickly, and we spent a lot of time over the next five years using that framework as a basis for planning, learning, and accountability.

*

Along with clarity, I was thinking a lot about trust.  Knowing the character of our INGO people, and the culture of our organizations, it seemed to me that once we had a strong sense of clarity, the next essential ingredient in making a high-performance team was trust.  If people were motivated (which, as I said above, was something we could count on, at least until we harmed it!), clear about their purpose, learning from their work, and accountable for their behavior, then I had learned that they would get on with the job and fly.

But trust was essential, because without trust then the old management tools of management-by-objective, tight job descriptions, payment for performance, etc., would be necessary, and culture would surely shift in the wrong direction.  Motivation would drop because those old management tools were developed, and are suitable only (in my view) in contexts where people fit in to simpler, more-linear processes such as manufacturing or bookkeeping.

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Building Strong INGO Teams: An Emerging Venn Diagram (2)

 

That’s a major lesson I had learned from watching Alberto Neri’s work in Plan long before: what he wanted to do was right and good, but the way that he put his initiatives in place destroyed motivation and led him to failure as Plan’s CEO.

How to build trust in a team?  It’s a truism that trust takes years to develop, but only an instant to destroy.  I had learned how to build trust, and how I had damaged trust, along the way:

  • Trust has two elements:
    • You know that the person you trust knows what they are talking about.  They are competent;
    • You know that the person you trust is honest with you, has your best interests at heart, and works to maintain an authentic, human relationship with you.

If either of those two elements are not in place, then trust will be very elusive.  If both are in place, over time, trust can build.

As I thought about my new position at ChildFund Australia, it seemed to me that my own competence was probably unquestioned.  I had worked in the field for over 20 years, in similar, larger, organizations, across the world, and I had done a very similar job (in Plan) before.  I had served as Executive Director of an INGO.  I was very familiar with working in globally-federated organizations (as ChildFund Australia was), and had even been very involved in creating the program approach used by a key member of the ChildFund Alliance.  So even though I would be new to ChildFund Australia, I felt confident that my own competence would be recognized.

So, to build trust, I had to build on that sense of competence by being honest and straight with people on my teams, in a way that demonstrated that I had their best interests at heart, while trying to build and maintain an authentic relationship with them.  This didn’t mean that I would always agree with them, or that I would never discipline people, but that I would strive to be clear and honest and authentic in my management actions.

*

I had a feeling, as I flew towards Sydney, that if I could build clarity and trust, anything would be possible.  But there was one element missing: inspiration.  Given the motivation that is intrinsic in our INGO people, even if they were clear about the test and worked in a culture with high levels of trust, as time went by I felt that they would still need to be inspired to do their very best.

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Building Strong INGO Teams: An Emerging Venn Diagram (3)

 

Inspiration would be necessary because much of our work in INGOs isn’t particularly exciting.  Yes, it’s an honor to visit the field and work alongside people fighting for justice, for better futures.  Real inspiration comes from those visits.  But we also have to compete for funding, deal with reports and other paperwork, participate in performance reviews, deal with difficult people, (often) cut budgets, change plans, etc.  And we spend most of our time on those mundane tasks, which can create a sense of alienation from the source of our motivation.

That means that we need refreshing of our motivation periodically.  When I worked with ChildFund Australia I tried to make that happen in various ways.  In the Sydney office I organized occasional, open reflection meetings at which we would consider a range of topics that related to our program work, in a freewheeling way.  For example, one time we discussed the notion of direct cash transfers, something that challenged our program approach.

Another way of keeping us connected with the source of our motivation involved using the “case studies” that were produced frequently as part of our Development Effectiveness Framework – see element 3 in the diagram included above.  At our regular, formal IPT meetings, and even (when possible) at board committee meetings, I started our work with a quick reflection on one of those “case studies” to ground our work in the real, lived experience of  people who faced poverty and injustice.  I will describe the DEF, and the “case studies” in much more detail in a future blog, but for now I think that these, and other elements of my approach helped to keep up our teams’ levels of motivation and inspiration.

*

Finally, even with clarity, trust, and inspiration, over time, harm is done.  That’s because the normal, natural interaction in any team produces friction, and that friction takes a toll on the human beings within the team.  Luckily there is a range of principles and practices that are designed to restore harm.

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Building Strong INGO Teams: An Emerging Venn Diagram (4)

 

Late in my time at ChildFund Australia, as I worked through my Masters in Dispute Resolution at the University of New South Wales, I would study restorative justice in detail, which would help gel this topic for me.  But at this point my intention was to model some of the practices that I had seen Atema Eclai use at UUSC: frequent checkins with the team, and with each member; considering not just how people on the team were doing in their work lives, but as human beings; working in circles instead of around square tables; rotating the chairing of meetings around the teams.  Atema had clearly achieved very high levels of morale and loyalty, motivation and trust, which in part seemed to come from having spent lots of time building real, caring relationships with her team.

(At UUSC this seemed to veer into a sense of disunity, of aloofness and separation of Atema’s team from the rest of the organization, which was not a positive result.  But, overall, her team was very high-performing and, in part, this was due to Atema’s management approach.)

So I tried to put some of those mechanisms in place, and they worked pretty well.  Some of them ended up clashing with the very straightforward culture that is common in Australia, and which I came to appreciated.  But I tried to adapt things.

*

That’s what I was thinking about as I began to plan for my new post.  It makes sense to me, and reflects lots of learning over the years: our INGO teams will perform strongly if:

  • their task is clear, accountability is clear, what we are supposed to do, and why, is clear, and if how to carry out our tasks is clear;
  • we operate in a context of high trust;
  • the inspiration that we bring to our work is refreshed periodically.  And:
  • the normal wear-and-tear on our human relationships, the harm done over time, is restored intentionally.

Yes, we needed formality and controls.  And firm management.  I had learned that too much control, too many private-sector management tools, would harm team performance in INGOs.  But if I could create a management culture of clarity, trust, inspiration, and authentic human relationships, we might achieve a lot.

I’m sure there’s more to it, but that’s what I was thinking about as I flew towards Sydney!

*

Here are some random images of teams I’ve worked with:

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Next time I will introduce the teams I worked with during my six years in Australia:

  • The Sydney-based International Program Team;
  • The Country Directors I worked with, in Papua New Guinea, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar;
  • The senior managers in Sydney, at ChildFund Australia’s head office.

Imperfectly, doing the best I could, I tried to live up to an ambition to make sure that these teams were clear, trusted, and inspired.  Stay tuned!

*

Here are links to other blogs in this series.  Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.

Trust

April, 2018

I’ve been reading about trust these days, partly as I prepare my next “4000-footer” blog.  I came across this quote, that I like very much:

“‘Management,’ in most of its incarnations, is an institutionalized form of distrust.”(1)

That’s not to say that ‘management’ isn’t necessary.  But that, in contexts of high trust, traditional ways of ‘managing’ (job descriptions, management by objectives, for example) aren’t appropriate or needed.  In fact, I think that in the context of our INGOs, a very different form of ‘management’ is called for.

This seems right to me.  If so, then the question of how to create contexts of high trust becomes very important.

Interesting food for thought!  Stay tuned for more on this topic in my next article.

 

(1) “Building Trust in Business, Politics, Relationships and Life,” Solomon and Flores, Oxford University Press, 2001, page 43.

Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997)

February, 2018

I began a new journey in May of 2016, tracing two long arcs in my life:

  • Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
  • 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.

But first…

*

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:

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Draco, Peppy And Energetic – As We Departed!

 

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.

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(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.

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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:

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The trail then became steeper, and at 11:57am we reached the junction of Carter Dome Trail and Carter-Moriah Trail:

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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:

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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:

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The Presidential Range Is Behind Me

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Mt Washington On The Left

 

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:

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We arrived at the junction of the Black Angel Trail, and continued towards Carter Dome:

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We reached the summit of Carter Dome at about 1:30pm:

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The Summit of Carter Dome

 

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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Arriving Back At The Car – Looking Slightly Less Energetic!

 

A glorious White-Mountains day, and peak number 30 had been climbed!

*

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 other blogs in this series.  Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.

Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach

August, 2017

I climbed Mt Jackson (4052ft, 1235m) on 2 June, 2017.  This was my first climb of 2017, having taken a rest over the long, cold winter of 2016-2017.  In 2016, I had been able to start hiking in early May, but this year we had much more snow, and longer and later cold spells.  So I gave May 2017 a miss, and began to tackle the 4000-footers in early June…

*

I began a new journey in May of 2016, tracing two long arcs in my life:

  • Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
  • 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.

*

Leaving Plan International after 15 years, the last 4 of which were spent as Country Director in Viet Nam, I was fortunate to join CCF as a consultant.  My task, over what became two great years, was to help develop a new program approach for the agency.  This was exciting and opportune for me: I had been reflecting a lot about how things had changed in the development sector, and at that point I had a lot of experience across five continents, in a wide variety of roles, under my belt.

So I was very ready for the challenge that CCF offered me – I felt I had a lot to offer.  Little did I know that I was also stepping into a great environment, where CCF’s senior programmatic leadership, and the CEO, were beginning a very exciting journey of reflection and discovery.

*

My first task had been to research current thinking, and best practices, across our sector.  Last time I described that research and the recommendations that had emerged.  To my delight, Daniel Wordsworth and Michelle Poulton embraced my findings enthusiastically, and senior management had endorsed them as well.

Our next step was to take the research that I had done, with its recommended themes of change, and create the specifics of CCF’s new program approach.  In this, Daniel took the lead, with me acting as a sounding board and advocate for the principles and themes of the prior research.  This was appropriate, as now we would be detailing concretely how the agency would implement programs, core stuff for CCF.  So I moved into more of an advisory role, for now.

In this blog post, I want to share the details of what we came up with, and how CCF ended up proceeding.

*

As I drove north from Durham, the weather forecast was problematic, with a strong chance of afternoon rain.  But I decided to take the chance.  This was #24 of my 48 climbs, and I hadn’t had any rain so far, on any of those climbs.  So I figured I was on a long run of good luck – couldn’t possibly rain this time, right?

I left Durham at around 7:45am, and arrived at the trailhead at just after 10am, parking just off of Rt 302 near Crawford Notch.

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Even though it was June, I could see some patches of snow above me in the mountains as I approached Crawford Notch, but all was clear on the road.

My plan was to walk up the Webster Cliff Trail to Mt Webster, on to Mt Jackson, and then take the Webster-Jackson Trial to loop back to Mt Webster.   I would retrace my steps from there, on Webster Cliff Trail, to the trailhead.

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As I began the hike, it was a nice day, cool and a bit cloudy.  I crossed Rt 302 and quickly reached a pedestrian bridge over the Saco River.  The Webster Cliff Trail forms part of the Appalachian Trail here:

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The first section of the Webster Cliff Trail was moderately steep.  Though the temperature was cool, I heated up as I ascended.  It was a beautiful day hiking, still sunny at this point:

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Clouds gathered as I ascended, and by 11am the sun was mostly gone.  The trail was consistently steep and became rockier as I ascended the Webster Cliff Trail, passing above the tree line.  Once I was onto the ridge, the views were great, looking north up into Crawford Notch:

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Looking Across Crawford Notch, Mt Tom

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That’s Mt Webster Up Ahead

 

Here are two views of the ridge, taken over a year later, from across the way on Mt Willey:

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Mt Webster is on the left.  I ascended steeply up the right side, then along the ridge

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The Ridge

 

I ran into some snow remnants along the path as I approached Mt Webster!  Just proves, once again, that you have to be prepared for snow  – even in June!

I was prepared this time… but the snow patches were not an issue this time!:

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The walking was good, but windy, and clouds were building from the west.  So far, I had not seen any other hikers…

I arrived at Mt Webster ( 3910ft, 1192m – not a 4000-footer) at 1:30pm.  The plan was to rejoin the trail here on my way back, via the Webster-Jackson Trail.

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To the west, I could look across Crawford Notch and see Mt Tom and Mt Field and Mt Willey.  The views north towards the Presidential Range were great, though Mt Washington was in the clouds.  There were patches of blue sky above me, but darker skies to the west.

 

Just before reaching Mt Webster, I passed a through hiker: he was hiking north, doing the entire Appalachian Trail.  Impressive, since it was only early June, that he was this far north.  Maybe in his 60’s, with a grey beard.  He asked me what my “trail handle” was, assuming (I guess) that I was also a through hiker.  I just laughed and said: “well, my name is Mark”!

“These are some heavy hills” I said.

“Hills?!” he exclaimed.

So I guess he was feeling the ascent, as I was.  But, having just restocked his pack with food, he was carrying much more weight than I was…

Just past Mt Webster, I began the Webster-Jackson loop that planned to take; first, continuing on to Mt Jackson, then down and around to return to Mt Webster:

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Here I encountered the second hiker of the day.  Dan was hiking with the guy I had met earlier, and was waiting here for him.  Dan had joined the other guy a week ago, for part of the through hike.  Dan seemed tired and ready to get off the trail, asking me what was the fastest way to the road.  Seemed like he had had enough, describing lots of rain and snow and ice over the last days.

I told him how I had run into so much ice over that way, on Mt Tom and Mt Field the year before, and how I had fallen in May on Mt Liberty.

I left Dan there, and arrived at the top of Mt Jackson at about 1:45pm, and ate lunch – a tried-and-true “Veggie Delite” sandwich from Subway.  It began to sprinkle, light rain falling.

Here the views of the Presidential Range were great, though Mt Washington was still in the clouds.  Mispah Springs Hut can just be seen, a speck of light in the middle left of the photo:

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The Mt Washington Hotel, in Bretton Woods, can be seen here in the distance with distinctive red roofs, looking north through Crawford Notch:

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From the top of Mt Jackson, the Webster Cliff Trail continues on towards Mt Pierce (which I had climbed with Raúl and Kelly earlier in the year) and the rest of the Presidential Range.  I turned left here, taking the Webster-Jackson Trail, hoping to loop back up to Mt Webster.  My hunch was that Dan was going to wait for his friend, and then follow me down, since that would be the quickest way to “civilization” and he was ready for a shower!

I began to drop steadily down Webster-Jackson, a typical White-Mountains hike, rock-hopping.  But I was a bit surprised, and became increasingly concerned, at the amount of elevation I was losing, as I went down, and down, and down… I knew I’d have to make up this elevation drop, every step of it!

 

I passed five people coming up – two young men running the trail, a mother and daughter (probably going up to stay at the Mispah Hut), and one guy huffing and puffing.

I arrived at the bottom of the loop at just before 3pm, exhausted and now regretting having taken this detour.  Cursing every step down, which I would have to make up, soon: because, from here, it would be a long way back up to Mt Webster, and it was beginning to rain steadily.

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At the bottom of the Webster-Jackson loop, there is a beautiful waterfall, and the temperature was much lower than it had been at the top of the ridge:

It was a VERY LONG slog back up to the top of Mt Webster, where I arrived again at 3:45pm, very tired and very wet.  It had become much colder here since I had passed through earlier in the day, now windy and steadily raining.

Here I would walk back along the ridge.  And I began to feel quite nervous about the possibility of slipping on the slick rocks – from here it would be all downhill, and a fall on the now-slippery rocks could be trouble!

I didn’t really stop at the top of Mt Webster – too cold and rainy.  Conditions had changed a lot since I’d passed this peak that morning!

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Although it was raining steadily, some blue sky did roll by once in a while:

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From here I began the descent back to Rt 302, and soon the trees began to grow in size, and cover me.  I never slipped on the wet granite stones, though I came close a couple of times.  I had to take it very slowly, taking care as I went across every one of the many rocks…  But I got soaked through – for the first time in 24 climbs!

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Soaking Wet, But Happy

 

I was back at my car at about 6:15pm; it was raining hard and 49 degrees.

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The Mt Jackson climb was great, despite the unwelcome rain and cold.  It was longer and harder than expected – nothing technical or super-steep, just long, due mostly to my decision to do the loop down from the summit and back up, and because I had to take care on the slick rocks coming down.

*

Once CCF’s management had endorsed my recommendations for their new program approach, Daniel and I began the design process.  Along the way, CCF’s President John Schulz had baptized the new approach as “Bright Futures,”  which was very smart: branding the change with an inspirational, catchy name that also captured the essence of what we were proposing would help open people to the idea.

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Daniel Wordsworth, 2003

Here I will be quoting extensively from a document that Daniel and I worked on, but which was primarily his.  He boiled down the essence of Bright Futures into three fundamental objectives.  Bright Futures would:

  1. Broaden, deepen and bring about longer-lasting impact in children’s lives;
  2. Fortify sponsorship;
  3. Strengthen accountability.

Bright Futures would be based on the belief that people must be given the space to design and shape the programs that will be carried out in their communities and countries.  The fundamental principle that guided our thinking was that there was no universal strategy that CCF could apply across the complex and different contexts in which it worked.  Therefore, the emphasis was not on a framework that outlined what should be done – e.g. health, education, etc – but rather on a set of key processes that would set the tone of the agency’s work and provide coherence to its programming around the world.

There were five key work processes, qualities of work, that would characterize CCF’s Bright Futures programming.  Each of these was firmly linked to the transformational themes that my own research had identified, but Daniel managed to put things in clear and incisive terms, displaying the brilliant insights I had come to admire:

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Grounded and Connected: Bright Futures programs would be integrated into the surrounding social environment, contributing to and drawing from the assets and opportunities that this environment provides.

To accomplish this, programs would be based in well-defined, homogeneous “Areas”, matching the level of government service provision – often the “district” level.  Program planning would be based at the community level, and program implementation would be accountable to local communities, but programs would be integrated with relevant efforts of the government and other development agencies, at local and national levels. CCF staff would be decentralized, close to communities, to ensure on-the-spot follow-up, using participatory methods and strict project management discipline to ensure effective program implementation.  By partnering with other organizations, building the capacity of local people, and seizing opportunities to replicate program methods wherever possible, impact would be expanded into other communities within the Area and beyond.

These would be big changes for CCF, on many dimensions.  Current programming was exclusively at village or community level, but it was disconnected from efforts to overcome poverty that were taking place at other levels.  Staff visited programs rarely, typically only once per year.  And notions of replication or even sustainability were rarely addressed.  Making these changes a reality would be challenging.

Achieve Long-Term Change: Bright Futures programs would be grounded in an understanding of poverty and of the causes of poverty, and designed to make a long-lasting difference in the lives of poor children.

To accomplish this, program design would begin with immersion in communities and a thorough analysis of the deeper issues of poverty confronting children and communities.  Program interventions would then take place where the causes of child poverty were found, whether at child, family, community, or area (district) levels. Programs would be designed and implemented according to a series of three-year strategic plans, and would consist of a comprehensive set of integrated “Project Activities” that had specific objectives, implementation plans and budgets.  Financial flow would follow budget and implementation.

As we began to design Bright Futures, CCF’s programming was guided by an agency-wide set of outcomes that had been articulated some years before, called “AIMES.”  These “outcomes” were really more of a set of indicators, most of which were tightly focused on basic needs such as immunization, primary-school completion, etc.  Communities seemed to view these indicators as a menu, from which they selected each year.  And, as I mentioned above, interventions were exclusively at village or community level.

With the advent of Bright Futures, the findings of the CCF Poverty Study, and of my own research, we would fundamentally change these practices.  From now on, there would be no “menu” to draw from; rather, CCF would help local organizations to grapple with the causes of child poverty, viewing that poverty in a broader way, and consulting deeply with local people and children; staff would then create an “Area Strategic Plan” (“ASP”) that outlined how programming would address these causes across the “Area.”

(Details of how the ASP would be designed will be included in my next posting, stay tuned!)

Build People: Bright Futures programs seek to build a stronger society with the ability to cooperate for the good of children and families.

To accomplish this, programs would build Federations and Associations of poor children, youth and adults that represent the interests of excluded and deprived people.  These entities would manage program implementation (mostly) through and with partners. Programs would be implemented through local bodies such as district government, NGOs, or community-based organizations, building the capacity of these groups to effectively implement solutions to issues facing poor children.  A long-term, planned approach to capacity building would be adopted, that reinforced and strengthened local competencies and organizations so that communities could continue their efforts to build bright futures for their children long after CCF had phased out of their communities.  This approach would include clearly articulated and time-bound entry and exit conditions, and specific milestones to gauge progress towards exit.

This was another big and challenging change.  CCF would continue to work with parents’ associations at community level, as it had been doing, because this was a real strength of the agency.  However, these associations tended to lack capacity, were left to fend for themselves, and did not interact with other stakeholders and “duty-bearers” around them.

All of this would change with Bright Futures.  Parents’ associations would now be “federated” to district level, and the Parent’s Federations would be the primary bodies that CCF worked with and for.  These Federations, being located at the “district” level, would interact with local government service providers (“duty bearers”), serving as interest groups on behalf of poor and excluded people.  And the Parents’ Federations would, normally, not be seen as program implementors.  Rather, they would – at least in the first instance – locate local partners that could implement the kinds of projects that were identified in the ASP.

Here we had a challenge, as we moved the existing Parents’ Associations into very different roles, where they no longer controlled funds as they had previously.  There were many vested interests involved here, and we anticipated opposition from people who had learned to extract benefits informally, especially given that in the previous model CCF’s staff had been very hands-off and remote from program implementation.  And the very idea of “federating” and influencing local duty-bearers was completely new to CCF.

Show Impact: Bright Futures programs demonstrate the impact of our work in ways that matter to us and the children and communities we work with.

To accomplish this, using CCF’s poverty framework of Deprivation, Exclusion, and Vulnerability, the National Office would clearly articulate the organization’s niche, and demonstrate its particular contribution.   The outputs of each project would be rigorously monitored to ensure effective implementation, and programs would likewise be carefully monitored to ensure relevance to enrolled children.

Before Bright Futures, CCF’s National Offices had very little influence on programming.  If a local Parents’ Association was not breaking any rules, then funding went directly from CCF’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia to the Association, without intervention from the National Office.  Only when a serious, usually finance- or audit-related, issue was identified could the National Office intervene, and then they could only halt fund transmissions and await remedial action from Richmond.

Now, the National Office and local Area team would be monitoring project implementation on a regular basis, using techniques that ensured that the voices of local children were central to the process of monitoring and evaluation.  We would have to develop tools for this.

Recognize Each Child’s Gift: Bright Futures programs recognize and value each particular child as a unique and precious individual.

To accomplish this, programs would be designed to facilitate the development of each child in holistic ways, taking into account the different phases of development through which each child passes.  The voices of children would be heard and would shape the direction of programs.  CCF would promote children and youth as leaders in their own development, and in the development of their communities and societies.  This would now be central to program implementation.

While the local Parents’ Associations would be retained, and federated to district level, two new forms of Association and Federation would be introduced: of children, and of youth.  These new Associations and Federations would be given prominent roles in program design and project implementation, as appropriate to their age.

*

These were all big, fundamentally-disruptive changes, involving seismic shifts in every aspect of CCF’s program work.  I felt that we had incorporated much of the learning and reflection that I had done, beginning in my Peace Corps days and all the way through my 15 years with Plan – this was the best way to make a real, lasting difference!

Once Daniel and Michelle were happy with the way that we were articulating Bright Futures, our next step was to get senior-management and board approval.

I was very pleased that, in the end, CCF’s leaders were very supportive of what Daniel was proposing.  But, in a note of caution given the magnitude of the changes we were proposing, we were asked to pilot test the approach before rolling it out.

This cautious approach made sense to me, and I was delighted that Daniel asked me to continue as an outside consultant, to oversee and support the pilot National Offices, documenting their experience and our learning as the Bright Futures approach was tested.

*

We then began to consider where we should pilot test.  First, we asked for volunteers across CCF’s National Offices and then, after creating a short list of viable options, we reviewed the status of each of the National Offices remaining on the list.  We quickly came to the conclusion that we would select one National Office in each of the continents where the majority of CCF’s work took place:

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    Carlos Montúfar

    In the Americas, we chose Ecuador.  The office there was well-run, stable, and was regarded as a model in many ways.  The National Director (Carlos Montúfar) was a strong leader, and he and his team were enthusiastic about being Bright Futures “pilots”;

 

 

 

 

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    James Ameda

    In Africa, we chose Uganda.  Here things were a bit different than in Ecuador: the Uganda office was considered by many in CCF as needed a bit of a shakeup.  James Ameda was a senior National Director and was supportive of the pilot, but there were some tensions in his team and performance across CCF/Uganda in some areas was weak;

 

 

 

  • For Asia, we decided to choose the Philippines office.  The office in Manila was well-
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    Nini Hamili

    run, with high morale and strong leadership in the form of Nini Hamili, a charismatic and long-tenured National Director.  Nini was a very strong leader, who sidelined as a mediator in violent Mindanao – I came to see how courageous Nini was…

 

 

 

 

*

Soon I would begin regularly to visit the three pilot offices, training them on the methods and systems that were being developed for Bright Futures, accompanying them as they learned and adapted, documenting our experience.

It was a great privilege working with Carlos, James, and Nini and their teams – they had taken on a huge challenge: not only did Bright Futures represent a set of fundamental shifts in what they were accustomed to doing, but they were asked to continue to manage their programs the old way in the areas of their country where Bright Futures wasn’t being introduced.

And it was equally impressive working with Daniel and Michelle at CCF’s Richmond headquarters, along with staff like Victoria Adams, Mike Raikovitz, and many others, and fellow consultants Jon Kurtz and Andrew Couldridge.

Next time, I will go into much more detail on the pilot testing of Bright Futures, including how we designed and implemented perhaps the most fundamental program-related system, Area Strategic Planning.

*

Here are links to other blogs in this series.  Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.

 

Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach

August, 2017

Note: this blog post has been updated to include a video I prepared in 2003, and recently rediscovered.  It summarizes some of the consultations carried out as part of the research described here.

After I got home from climbing South Carter, I took a nasty fall and broke a rib and tore my rotator cuff.  This put me out of action for a month, and when I ventured north again to climb Mt Tecumseh (the lowest of the 48 4000-footers, at 4003ft, 1220m), I was careful: it was late October, and there was already plenty of ice and snow in the White Mountains.

*

I began a new journey in May of last year (2016), tracing two long arcs in my life:

  • Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
  • 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.

Last time I described some of the pioneering research that CCF was doing, as they sought to sharpen their programming: an organizational capacity assessment, carried out by Alan Fowler; and a groundbreaking effort, by Jo Boyden and her team from Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford University, to understand how children and youth across the world were experiencing poverty.

In this post, I continue to describe my two years working with CCF as a consultant, helping that organization develop, pilot test, and begin to implement a new program approach for their global operations.  Looking back, it was a very creative and exciting time for that organization, and it was a fantastic opportunity for me: I had been reflecting about how the development sector had changed, and I had learned a lot since my Peace Corps years, working with Plan International in South America, Plan’s headquarters, and with Plan in Viet Nam.  Now I had the opportunity to work with a major INGO, and a great group of people, to modernize their approach, putting those reflections and learnings to the test.  It’s worth telling the story.

*

I drove up from Durham on the morning of 24 October 2016, arriving at the trailhead a bit before 11am.  Mt Tecumseh is in Waterville Valley and, in fact, the Waterville Valley ski area runs alongside the trail I was going up.

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It was a clear and crisp New England morning, with the autumn colors all around, and a sprinkling of snow at the trailhead – there would be much more snow and ice higher up!  I left the trailhead at about 10:52am:

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(I’m writing this article in early August of 2017, and seeing these autumn colors again is a surprise: all is lush green now…)

The trail ascends gradually, steadily, alongside the ski area, up the Tecumseh Brook.  From about half-way up, much more snow and ice began to appear, and I became nervous:

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Autumn Light, Snow and Ice

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More Ice…

 

Going up, not so much of a problem, but I was nervous about what it was going to be like descending.  I felt very unprepared, and having broken that rib and injured my left rotator cuff just a month before, I was still very wary of using that arm.  If I slipped going down, it might be painful!  Mistake?

I was nearly at the top when I reached the junction with the Sosman Trail, at about 12:18pm.  There is a short loop around the summit of Tecumseh and, once I came to the loop, it also became very cold and windy, way below freezing, and I wasn’t dressed nearly warmly enough:

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Here is the cairn at the summit; I arrived there at about 12:45pm:

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At the summit, I put on my jacket and hat and gloves, had lunch, and tried to stop shivering so much!  Two small groups of climbers passed by while I was there, but I was too cold to interact with them very much – they were also moving pretty quickly to stay warm!

The top is mostly wooded, but there were some great views to the east:

 

On the way down it was bad, but not as bad as I had feared.  If I had slipped and grabbed onto a tree or fallen on my left arm, it would have been dangerous, but the difficult part was fairly short, and I took my time, getting down OK, just slowly.

Nearing the bottom, there is a great view from the ski area, looking across Waterville Valley directly at North and Middle Tripyramids:

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Nice autumn colors.

I reached the trailhead again at about 2:45pm.  The climb had taken just under 4 hours.  Putting aside how risky the descent felt, and how cold I got at the top, it was a very beautiful day with fantastic views.  I hadn’t hiked since the accident in mid-September, so it felt good to get back on the trails.

Since it was so cold and snowy and icy, in late October, and given that I was worried about the impact of any kind of fall, I decided that Tecumseh would be my last hike of the 2016 season.  Tecumseh was number 23, so I had 25 4000-footers left to do!

*

As I described last time, I had been engaged to help CCF prepare a “program practices guide” which, in effect, meant developing, testing, and documenting a new program approach.  It was a perfect step for me: after 15 years with Plan International, the development sector was changing rapidly, I had been fortunate to serve in a wide range of roles across the world, and was thinking a lot about what it all meant for our international organizations.  I felt lucky to be able to work with a great team of people (Michelle Poulton, Daniel Wordsworth, and Mike Raikovitz at CCF, and fellow consultants like Alan Fowler, Jo Boyden, and Jon Kurtz) with the opportunity to create a wholly new program approach.

How to proceed?  Great insights were coming from the CCF Poverty Study, and Alan’s “Organizational Capacity Assessment” had identified a number of CCF’s key strengths: unlike Plan International, CCF had developed a range of interventions that engaged directly with the development of children and youth as individuals: for example, Gilberto Mendez had created an impressive “child development” scale, which could be used to assess age-dependent cognitive, emotional, and social development.  This stuff was new to me, because Plan’s work was entirely community-focused: where we worked with children and youth, it was to integrate them into planning and implementing project activities that were community-wide in nature.  Most of CCF’s work was also community development – this was the best way to secure children’s futures – but they also had developed program expertise in child development.  I found this to be very interesting and appropriate, and began to wonder why we had focused only on community-level work at Plan.

And CCF’s existing program approach, which was called “Family Helper Project,” had some really good aspects.  In particular, parent groups were established in each community, and these groups received funding directly from CCF’s head office in Richmond, Virginia.  Even though the initial motivation for this model had come from a public-relations crisis in the 1970’s, it had the potential to be quite empowering.

But there were weaknesses.  Alan Fowler had pointed out that CCF’s development model was “insufficiently holistic and lacks a cause-based analysis of child poverty, vulnerability and deprivation. Consequently, symptoms receive more attention than causes.”  He also had noted that current the organizational approach meant that CCF worked in isolation from other development efforts; in particular, affiliated communities were not “capitalising on the decentralisation thrust in government reform and service delivery, with communities as legitimate claimants with rights, not supplicants.”  CCF was notdeveloping a capability to build the capacities of local organisations and associations beyond the confines and requirements of managing CCF and community inputs.”

Daniel told a good story that illustrated this.  He had visited a CCF-supported school in Brazil, where the parents and school staff had proudly boasted of their very-high enrollment rates, thanks to CCF.  Then he visited a nearby school, which had no support from CCF, and the enrollment rates were just as good, thanks to support from local government, support which was also available for the CCF-supported school!

As I began to work with CCF on a full-time, external basis, I also started to note the use of language that I felt pointed to deeper issues.  For example, the word “project” was universally used in CCF to refer to affiliated community groups, not as the rest of the development sector used the word: groups of activities producing a coherent set of outputs.  And when I looked a bit more closely at CCF’s work, it was no surprise that project management was very weak or entirely absent.

And the organization referred to the flow of funding to local community groups as “subsidy.”  Again, when I looked at this in detail, most funding to parent groups seemed to be going to “subsidize” ongoing expenditures (school fees or uniforms or supplies, for example), rather than being directed towards a clear theory of change, producing outcomes that would sustainably improve the lives of children living in poverty.

While these might seem to be minor, semantic differences, for me they seemed to reflect deeper, entrenched weaknesses that our renovation of CCF’s program approach would need to address.  Over my two years working with CCF as a consultant, we introduced approaches that would seek to correct these weaknesses and, along the way, I tried my best to encourage shifts in thinking and, consequently, shifts in language.

*

I proposed an approach to developing CCF’s new program model which, like the OCA and the Poverty Study before it, would be rigorous and evidence-based.  We would begin by benchmarking what other, well-regarded international NGOs considered to be their own best program practices.  I would do my own research, both from my own experience and from available evidence.  And we would convene reflection workshops across a selection of CCF’s own Country Offices to discover what they were proud of, and what they wanted to change.  Then, with this array of evidence and reflection, Daniel and I would propose the key attributes of CCF’s new program approach.

Daniel and Michelle heartily endorsed this approach, and we began our research.

*

Between October, 2002 and March, 2003, we carried out field visits to Plan and BRAC in Bangladesh, and benchmarking visits with ActionAid, Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK, UNDP, and World Vision in Viet Nam, and ActionAid’s head office in the UK.

At the same time, we organized six workshops designed to allow staff, partners, colleagues, and community members to reflect together on a future CCF program approach and structure.  Carried out in Angola, Brazil, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Richmond, these workshops were designed also to stimulate enthusiasm and momentum for change.

About half of the participants in each workshop came from the local CCF office.  Usually, two or three participants in the field workshops came from CCF headquarters in Virginia.  On two occasions, staff from the CCF regional office team attended, and CCF staff from Zambia were able to participate in the Angola workshop.  Additional participants varied by location, but typically included senior staff from colleague organizations (INGOs, NGOs, UN Agencies), members of local CCF boards, CCF project staff, and community members.

I designed, facilitated, and documented all of these workshops, which were designed to be participatory, collaborative experiences, during which participants co-created a vision of CCF’s refined program approach. All six workshops were structured in two sessions, lasted two days, and employed similar methodologies:

The morning session of the first day employed a guided visioning technique (known as the “affinity exercise”) to identify program processes and issues that will be central to the future CCF program approach. A vast quantity of data was collected, and grouped, by affinity, into around 20 key processes.

In the afternoon of day one a structured methodology was used to identify a small number of program-related work processes of particular importance for the evolution of CCF’s program. Workgroups were formed to analyze each of these processes in great detail, meeting through the end of day one and the morning of day two.  Session 1 closed with plenary presentations from each workgroup, and general discussion.

Session 2, during the afternoon of day two, was focused on how we should document the new program approach: what documentation should look like, who its users would be, their requirements, etc. In several cases, one or two groups used Session 2 to focus in more detail on a program process from Session 1.

I recently rediscovered several summary videos that I prepared during the creation and pilot testing of what became Bright Futures.  These videos were prepared in 2003, to help  senior management get a sense of what was happening in the field.

So, here is a short summary video of the consultation workshops described above:

*

We gathered an immense amount of information during these months, relating to what other well-respected INGOs were proud of, along with what CCF’s teams felt were their own best practices.  And, in parallel with these consultations, I was carrying out my own reflections: what had I learned along the way?  What were leading thinkers (Robert Chambers, Amartya Sen, Mike Edwards, our colleague Alan Fowler, and others) saying?

At the end of this phase of work, in March, 2003 I produced a summary document that described all of our benchmarking, and proposed the outlines of what I thought CCF’s new program approach should be.  The report is attached here: Phase 1 Report – Final.  Much of the content in the rest of this blog posting can be found, with more detail, in that document.

*

Putting it all together, I came up with an overall description of what I felt was the most updated thinking of good development practice.  Based on my nearly 20 years of experience at community, country, regional, and international levels on five continents, along with some good time to reflect and research; on an extensive benchmarking exercise with some of the best organizations in our sector; and taking into account the learning and aspirations of CCF’s own teams, as of early 2003, this was where I thought international NGOs should be aiming:

Development can be viewed as the expansion of the “capabilities that a person has, that is, the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she values.”(1) Poverty would then be seen as the deprivation of these capabilities, manifesting itself in general in forms such as: “a lack of income and assets to attain basic necessities – food, shelter, clothing, and acceptable levels of health and education; a sense of voicelessness and powerlessness in the state and society; and vulnerability to adverse shocks, linked with an inability to cope with them.”(2)

Poverty is also a highly contextualized phenomenon, with intermingled, inter-linked, and multi-dimensional causes and effects. The concrete manifestations of the domains of poverty are highly specific and particular to local contexts.(3)

In this light, good development practice:

To have lasting effect, is based on a clear understanding of the causes and dimensions of poverty at all relevant levels;

To make a difference, promotes economic opportunities for poor people, facilitates empowerment of the poor, and enhances security by reducing vulnerability(4);

To be sustainable, is based on catalyzing and building on the potential existing (though perhaps latent) in a local community or area, by supporting institutions delivering services to the poor, and by building institutions through which the poor can act(5);

To be appropriate and relevant, is based on an immersion in each local environment, and the active participation of the poor(6) themselves;

To have impact on the causes of poverty, is linked up and integrated at all levels: micro, meso, and macro.(7)

  1. Amartya Sen, “Development As Freedom,” 1999.
  2. World Bank, “World Development Report 2000/2001 – Attacking Poverty.”
  3. Deb Johnson, “Insights on Poverty, “ Development in Practice, May 2002.
  4. World Bank, “World Development Report 2000/2001 – Attacking Poverty.”
  5. Mike Edwards, “NGO Performance – What Breeds Success?,” World Development, February 1999.
  6. See Vierira da Cunha and Junho Pena, “The Limits and Merits of Participation,” undated.
  7. Mike Edwards, “NGO Performance – What Breeds Success?,” World Development, February 1999.

(This outline of “good development practice” looks strong and holds up well, at least for its time.  If I were to create a similar statement now, from the perspective of 2017, however, I would include much more explicit references to building the power and collective action of people living in poverty, and to inequality and conflict.  And with the progress made across the world on the MDGs, which has correlated with improvements on average in indicators related to basic needs, I would put more emphasis on other non-material manifestations of poverty, such as those identified in CCF’s own Child Poverty Study – exclusion and vulnerability and resilience.  Finally, with the recent resurgence of populist nationalism and decline in support for globalization across the developed world, I would look to include much tighter connections with systems that reinforce and perpetuate poverty and injustice…

Later on I would put all of these concepts at the very center of my work and thinking… stay tuned!)

*

Returning to early 2003, I moved on to unpack these overarching principles into key themes that represented concrete areas for change in CCF’s program approach.  Each of these themes represented, I felt, fundamental shifts that needed to be incorporated in our redesign of how the agency conceptualized, planned, implemented, and learned from its programming.

There were six themes of change:

Theme 1: CCF programs will be based on an understanding of poverty, of how children experience poverty, and of the causes of child poverty at micro, meso, and macro levels.  

We had found that CCF’s programs were not based on a clear analysis of the manifestations and causes of child poverty in the particular local context, nor did they identify how interventions would link with other relevant efforts.  And we had documented that sustained impact came from this kind of joined-up approach.

This theme was important and represented a fundamental change from the output-oriented, “subsidy”-type approach that characterized the agency’s approach in 2003.

Theme 2: CCF will provide closer support to development processes.  

CCF was rightfully proud that local parents’ groups were in charge of program activities; this was a positive differentiator for them.  But it had led to a lack of interaction with, oversight of, or support to what was actually happening on the ground: in other words, CCF simply (and, often, naively) trusted parents’ groups to do the right thing.  This was leading to bad practice, and worse.  So I was suggesting the establishment of some sort of local CCF support staff function, close to program implementation, to provide support and oversight.  Of course, there were tradeoffs here, and local staff might well fall into the trap of marginalizing the parents’ groups, but I felt that could be mitigated.

This theme was also important and represented a fundamental change from the stand-offish approach that was currently in place.

Theme 3: The agency of parents, youths, and children will be central to CCF’s program approach.  

Here again, CCF had a strength, and I recommended that the agency continue, and reinforce, work with parents’ associations; their “agency” was a key institutional niche.  But existing parents’ groups were isolated from local civil society, and often lacked the capability to implement more robust programs.  In those cases, I was recommending that CCF train them to act as funders to relevant institutions, local NGOs for example, and to them move away from being implementors, project-management bodies.  This would enhance their stature in local civil society, reduce their isolation, and (in principle at least) improve project management.

I also recommended including youths as active protagonists in the development processes affecting them: this was not only consistent with the findings of the CCF Poverty Study, and with the principles of child rights, but was also a pragmatic choice: children, as with any other group of human beings, understand their situations from a unique and uniquely valuable perspective.

This theme was important and represented a fundamental change, building on one of the strengths of CCF’s current approach, but correcting some of the more-simplistic practices that had led to isolation, and questionable impact.  I recommended adjusting, and going much further.

Theme 4: CCF will strengthen programmatic linkages, both horizontal and vertical.  

Related to Theme 1, I was recommending that CCF link up and integrate its program at all levels: micro, meso, and macro.  This did not necessarily mean that CCF would operate at all levels; rather, building program design from extensive immersion and reflection with the poor and poor children, and focusing the National Office in-country on interactions with other development actors, CCF could link its programs and partners at various levels, seeing its grassroots interventions as illustrations of national programs and, importantly, offering learning from the grassroots to help the design of those national programs.

This theme was important and represented a fundamental change, connecting CCF with broader development efforts in each country and connecting its work with programs at other levels where this would increase sustainable impact.

Theme 5: Changes will be made to CCF’s corporate systems.

In particular, I advocated fundamental changes to CCF’s monitoring and evaluation, financial, planning and budgeting, performance appraisal, and donor-relations systems.  These changes would need to be made to support the fundamental programmatic changes implied by Themes 1 through 4.

The details of these changes are outlined in the Phase 1 Report (Phase 1 Report – Final).  Very deep reconsideration of, in particular, financial, HR and M&E-related systems, were recommended.

Theme 6:  Substantial support to frontline staff, partner institutions, and communities will be required. 

I felt that major efforts would be required to support staff, partners, and communities in the deep changes emerging from the recommendations I was making, if they were accepted.  These were major changes, which would require structural shifts (for example, putting CCF staff in support offices near project implementation), a whole new set of competencies (for example, project and partner management) and introducing wholesale changes in core systems (finance, M&E, etc.)  A comprehensive HR-development plan to support all stakeholders in the transition was required.

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Along the way, I was helping Daniel create updates to the organization, keeping people informed about the progress we were making.  The third of these updates, summarizing the themes of change, is attached here: Update 3 final

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These themes of change, outlined in much more detail in that Phase 1 Report, would, if approved by Daniel and the rest of CCF’s senior management, would represent very deep shifts for CCF.   But we had carried out the research and reflection processes in a professional and thorough fashion, and I was delighted that the report was received quite positively.

CCF’s senior management gave us a green light to craft a program approach that would be consistent with the recommendations I had made.  Which was very exciting, and challenging.  I was being asked to help this major INGO to build the best possible program approach – what a great opportunity.

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I will describe that new program approach, which CCF’s President John Schultz would baptize as “Bright Futures,” in my next blog post in this series.

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Tecumseh would be my last 4000-footer in 2016.  Winter was coming to the White Mountains, and it was time to take a break until the spring thaw.  The winter of 2016-2017 would be cold with a lot of snow, even in Durham, so it wasn’t until early June of 2017 that I was able to get up another 4000-footer.  On 2 June 2017 I would climb Mt Jackson; that would be number 24, and I would be halfway there!

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Here are links to other blogs in this series.  Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.

Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam

June, 2017

In this blog post, I want to describe an innovation that we introduced in Plan’s work in Viet Nam.  We wanted to boost our revenue from technical donors, and extend our work for children; but, across the agency, Plan had struggled for many years to achieve that goal, without notable success.  So we pilot tested a new structure inside the organisation in-country, creating a separate unit focused on grant-seeking and grant-implementation.

What became the “Large Grants Implementation Unit” (LGIU) was quite successful during its short life, partly because it was well-led and well-managed by Ary Laufer; partly because of the great team he worked with; and partly because the LGIU was carefully designed to address the deeper causes of Plan’s longstanding inability to attract significant levels of technical grants.

But the story of the LGIU is also a story of the organisational tensions and political behaviour that Plan suffered from during those days.  It was, and is, a great organisation, but with some significant weaknesses.  In this case, those weaknesses led to the abrupt and counter-productive closure of what had been shown to be a successful pilot test, soon after I completed my service as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam.  No coincidence in that timing, as I will describe!

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I began a new journey a year ago, tracing two long arcs in my life:

  • Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
  • 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.

From the top of Wildcat “D”, which is the southernmost 4000-footer of the Carter Range, it’s two short miles to the summit of Wildcat Mountain (4422ft, 1348m).  The trail heading northeast from Wildcat “D” drops fairly steeply at first, and then climbs back up to Wildcat “C” Peak.  Wildcat “C” (4298ft, 1310m) is over 4000-feet high, but does not qualify as a “4000-footer” because it’s too close to other, higher summits.   Then back down to “B” Peak (same story) before arriving at Wildcat Mountain.

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Along the way, I had fine views of Mount Washington to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.  A sharp, clear, spectacular day:

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Mount Washington From Wildcat “C”

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Looking East, the Atlantic Ocean (Right Side Background)

 

I arrived at the top of Wildcat Mountain at about 1:30pm, a gorgeous view down into Carter Notch, where there is an AMC Hut by that name.  In 1997 (I think!), I hiked this trail with Max van der Schalk, who had been Plan’s CEO during my time at headquarters, and we stayed  one night in that hut.  The blue roof of the hut can be seen just below the pond, at the bottom of this photo:

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That’s South Carter Mountain behind me;  I would get to the top of that 4000-footer the next day.

 

I had lunch at the top, and was joined by another climber.  We struck up a conversation, and he told me that he was climbing the 4000-footers with two knee replacements!  I asked him how it was going, and he said that the knees weren’t perfect, but better than they had been before the surgeries!  Even more amazing was hearing that he was on the way to completing a “cycle” of the 4000-footers.

What is a ‘cycle’?” I asked.

Every one of the 48 peaks, in every month” he replied.

Wow, so he was doing each of the 48 mountains in every month… over who knows how many years.  That’s 576 climbs!

Pretty incredible, but I’m not tempted – one climb of each of the 48 peaks is enough for me!

From the top of Wildcat Mountains, I could see north to the Carter Range, where I would hike the next day.  After lunch, packed up again and retraced my steps along the four “Wildcat” peaks, and arrived back down at the parking area at around 4:30pm.

 

That night I stayed at Dolly Copp Campground, planning to climb a couple of the Carter Mountains the next day.

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Stay tuned for descriptions of those climbs!

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Plan Struggles To Increase Grants

During my time working with Plan, the organisation continually struggled to diversify its funding.  Around 90% of our income in those days came from child sponsorship contributions, which provided a steady source of flexible, unrestricted income.  (I’ve written elsewhere about the sterile criticisms of child sponsorship.)

It seemed to many of us that this situation was a great blessing, as we didn’t have to spend lots of time preparing funding proposals and technical reports.  But, at the same time, it was clearly an opportunity: it seemed logical to try to leverage some of our unrestricted income as “match” funds for technical (bi-lateral, multi-lateral, foundation) grants.  Our private income would be a competitive advantage here, and technical grants might be useful in funding activities to work on child poverty that was unsuitable for child-sponsorship funding.

But to ensure that the agency remained non-governmental in nature, Plan’s fundraising offices had a formal limit on government income of 30%.  That was an obstacle in theory only: in fact, we struggled even to approach 10%.  Year after year, we did our best to increase our grant-related income, by setting targets, establishing new systems and procedures, reaching out to possible donors, but, overall, nothing seemed to work, as can be seen in the following figure, copied from my first draft LGIU proposal – see below.

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Our grants income was flat, and our underspending of overall revenue was surging.  We were stuck in a bad place.

A Regional Meeting in Plan Asia

When I arrived in Viet Nam, in July of 1998, the Regional Office was planning to convene a region-wide workshop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to discuss ways to increase our non-sponsorship income.  Regional staff encouraged us to bring some creative ideas… so I put my thinking hat on.

I reflected on what might be blocking Plan from increasing grant income.  Having thought a lot about this issue, worked hard on it when I was at Plan’s International Headquarters as Program Director, I thought I had an idea of what it would take to succeed.

In the end, after several days of discussion, two proposals emerged from the Chiang Mai workshop.  The first idea was simple: include non-sponsorship revenue targets in each Country Office Strategic Plan.  The benefits of this proposal were that it was simple, and measurable.  For me, the problem was that simply setting targets did nothing to address the underlying obstacles that had blocked the organisation from increasing grant income in the past.  We had tried setting targets.  And, without identifying and addressing the root causes of the problem, I felt that the proposal had little likelihood of succeeding.

The second proposal that was approved at Chiang Mai was one I had formulated.  My argument was that Plan was failing to increase non-sponsorship income not because of a lack of commitment or targets, or good intentions.  Rather, it was because Plan’s culture, structure, systems, and incentives all flowed from a reality in which child sponsorship was the explicit foundation of the organisation.  Perhaps that very reality – which was core to our success – was the obstacle.

I was reminded of my time at Tecogen, my last formal engineering job, where I worked to build a prototype coal-water slurry home-heating system.  What Tecogen produced, mainly, was co-generation equipment: machines that produced both electricity and hot water or steam.

Tecogen’s office, in those days, had two main wings: on one side, co-generation equipment was built for the private sector, and on the other side, virtually-identical machines were built, but for government customers.  The same machines, but the customers were so different, with such varying requirements and specifications, that an entirely-separate organisational setup was established to serve them.  And Tecogen wasn’t unique.  I had worked at Boeing Aerospace in Kent, Washington, in summer jobs when I was in college.  Boeing had two divisions making airplanes – one for commercial customers, and another for the military.

I wondered if Plan was facing a similar situation, where similar “products” (meaning, child-focused development) with different funding (from sponsors, or from technical donors) would require different organisational setups to succeed.  An approach that worked with child sponsorship revenue sources might not be fitting for technical donors.

When I made this argument in Chiang Mai, there was some skepticism.  How would it work?  Would there be two organisations in each country, with different Country Strategic Plans?  Two sets of staff, with different terms and conditions?

But the regional team recognised that the idea had merit, and felt that it might be worth piloting, at least in one Country Office.  So it was agreed that I would develop a concept paper for a “Large Grants Implementation Unit” to be pilot tested, if approved, in Viet Nam.

“Large Grants Implementation Unit” – Conceptual Drafts

After the Chiang Mai meetings, I prepared a series of drafts describing why the LGIU was worth testing, and how it would work.  Here is the summary of the earliest draft I still have on-file, dated 30 October, 1998:

The percentage of PLAN’s worldwide income derived from grants has not increased, in spite of a decade of good intentions, hard work, several generations of new systems and procedures, and strong organizational commitments. This is because PLAN has not recognized that grant-funded projects require different behaviors, a different organizational culture. Without recognizing the essential differences between grants and sponsorship projects, and the different cultures required for project implementation, PLAN’s desire to increase grant-related income will not be achieved.

To take a specific case, PLAN/Vietnam currently implements a substantial grant portfolio, but the potential exists to significantly expand grant funding. Both the need for programmatic expansion, and the interest from grantors, are strong. But, as in many PLAN programs, staff struggle to address grant requirements alongside sponsorship management, and grant-implementation quality suffers.

It is proposed that a parallel grants-delivery structure for large grants be established in Vietnam. A parallel grant implementation unit would allow PLAN to increase grants income from large institutional and governmental donors while ensuring that PLAN/Vietnam’s outstanding sponsorship performance remains the top priority. A parallel structure would recognize that PLAN deals with two different funding customers, while delivering similar products, and would thus address the real causes of poor grant-related performance.

Should the proposal be approved, the experience of PLAN/Vietnam with this parallel implementation structure would be studied and documented for institutional-learning purposes.

LGIU staff would be tied to grants, working under terms and conditions suitable for fixed-term employment.  Just as most staff at most other international NGOs, which commonly gained most of their revenue from technical donors.  The full first-draft proposal is available here: Grants Implementation Unit Draft Three.

Later in that first draft, I make a point about culture which attracted widespread criticism, and strong opposition, at Plan’s International Headquarters:

It is the thesis of this paper that the cause of the stagnation of PLAN’s corporate grants-income percentage is simple: the organizational behavior (culture) of major institutional and governmental donors is inconsistent with the behavior (culture) needed for superior sponsorship implementation.

PLAN has attempted to merge these two incompatible cultures, to manage and implement grants with the same behaviors learned through 61 years of successful sponsorship programming, and the result has been confusion and the poor performance shown in Figure 1 (copied here, above). In this light, the failure of our attempts to create better systems and procedures to increase grants income percentages is easy to understand, because the cause of the problem is unrelated to systems and procedures. And the unenthusiastic attitude of staff towards grants can be seen as a rational, logical response to incompatible cultures.

But PLAN’s sponsorship culture is our organizational foundation, and a strong and vibrant sponsorship culture is essential. Therefore, any increase in the percentage of income from grants sources will require the creation of a parallel, “grants-delivery culture.” This is the only way to safeguard our sponsorship foundation while increasing grants income.

Later in the paper I outlined, in more detail, the examples summarized here, above (Tecogen and Boeing), and indicate why implementing this separate grants unit would not only enable Plan in Viet Nam to grow our funding stream, but also how it would protect the quality of our sponsorship-funded programming.

Senior management at Plan’s headquarters reacted strongly, even emotionally, against the notion of a parallel culture, seeing this idea as undermining the unity of the agency.  It was said that implementation of my proposal would destroy Plan!

My response was three-fold:

  1. We would operate the LGIU under the same Country Strategic Plan, and the same leadership.  The organization, in Viet Nam, would remain unified;
  2. It was just a pilot, and we’d evaluate the performance of the LGIU, and the impact of the experiment on the broader organization, in due course;
  3. There were no other serious proposals that addressed the underlying causes of Plan’s failure to grow its grant income.

So why not try it?  After all, I was no longer Plan’s Program Director, just a simple Country Director with authority in one country only.  Once the pilot was evaluated, it would be for others to decide what happened next.

It’s worth noting that my supervisor, Plan’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia, was consistently understanding and supportive.  Donal Keane, who had participated in the “skunk works” process through which Plan restructured its field organization, was a wise and experienced professional, humble yet clear and decisive.  He was one of a long line of supervisors I had in Plan that I learned so much from.  He saw the potential in what became the LGIU.

In the end, to gain (grudging) acceptance at Plan’s headquarters, I removed all references to culture, to other organizations, to Plan’s historical experience – this was distracting Plan’s senior management from the actual proposal, making them think I had delusions of (continued) grandeur.  I simply focused on what would happen, operationally, in Viet Nam.  In other words, the proposal was “dumbed-down” to gain approval; which did not bode well for the future (as will be seen below!)

The final draft proposal, and the Regional Director’s approval to implement the pilot, are attached here – Grants Implementation Unit Draft Six 2RD Approval for LGIU.

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Once the pilot was approved, we developed a job description for a “LGIU Manager.”  My thinking was that we would locate the LGIUM in the central region of Viet Nam, either in Hue or Danang, and combine it with a “Decentralized Operations Support” office, providing financial, administrative, and communications support to the operational Program Units in that part of the country.  (The DOS concept was included in the restructuring of Plan’s operations that we had implemented when I served as Program Director at headquarters.)

After recruiting from across Plan, and interviewing several outstanding candidates, we appointed Ary Laufer, who had been working with Plan in Mali, as LGIU Manager.  Ary “got” the idea, and had the skills and experience needed for the challenge.  He and his family moved first to Hanoi, while we finalized the design of the LGIU and the DOS, and then they moved to Hue to set things up.

Ary managed the DOS and the LGIU with great energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism. We were lucky to have him take the position, because he kept things simple while also being very tolerant of the ambiguity involved in the LGIU pilot test.  Ary had to fill in many blank spaces in the design, learning by doing along the way!

I have asked Ary to write a description of the experience, and include his thoughts here, lightly edited:

Foresight, hindsight and the LGIU becoming the new norm.

William Blake said that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight is better. The opportunity to look back at Plan Viet Nam’s Large Grants Implementation Unit some 15 years later is a great opportunity. But in hindsight, the real foresight was (the) drive to establish this unit, on top of the organisation’s operational structure. This is an unspoken real credit in Plan’s history.

Plan International’s shift to the new country structure, along with its new 5 domains provided a great opportunity for uniform development and expansion benefiting many new communities. This foresight was long standing – but at the time it was being quickly realised that increasing opportunity to access large international funding and programs outside the standard Plan norm would be difficult. Thus the opportunity and potential for Plan evolution was realised and … my young family and I Ieft the established country operations in West Africa, to Viet Nam, to embrace new beginnings.

The timing in the development world, and more so in Viet Nam was perfect. Access to INGO’s to larger amounts of bilateral and multilateral funding had just commenced. A number of new Plan countries across Scandinavia had been established, which had brought new ways of thinking to development, partnerships, funding and working methodologies. These progressive ways were more in line with the future of aid thinking, than the older ways Plan had wanted to retain and continue.

The LGIU in Viet Nam sought to develop new relationships with donors, and in doing so it went about building new partnerships that allowed for the an expansion in programs. Not restricted in child sponsorship revenue ratios, nor in traditional program ideology, it allowed Plan Viet Nam to think beyond the norm to new goals that could be achieved. Both of which Plan ironically changed later.

The LGIU also attracted very bright and dedicated Vietnamese team members, many of whom went on to be leaders in the field, and some who still work for Plan today.  People and partnerships became the core of the work, much in line the Central Vietnamese culture that was being infused into the LGIU. While much of the donor relationships work occurred in the global capital cities, its heart was in Central Viet Nam leveraging partnerships for the common wealth of the community in an astute and humble manner

This foresight allowed Plan Viet Nam to focus on different types of ‘child focused development’. Two illustrative examples are:

  1. Plan’s LGIU was to be the first INGO to access and fully work with incarcerated adolescents in the juvenile justice system outside Ha Noi. Traditional forms of funding, and program management was not possible in a highly restricted environment. It required months of negotiation, trust building and partnerships with the Department of Justice authorities to achieve what we all recognised as being at the core of work for the most marginalised youth. Something the normal child sponsorship program could not fund. Our partners at Plan Norway and NORAD (Norway Government) also recognised this unique & restricted partnership opportunity, and became the required silent partner in this program. Quite revolutionary 15 years ago, more so for an organisation focused on child sponsorship – this would be the norm of a specialised INGO today.
  2. Plan’s LGIU saw the shift of INGO’s not just to wider partnerships, but to also to the implementation of what was traditionally bilateral aid programs. Working with the Quang Binh People’s Committee, it developed a fully integrated economic and social development District program. This was the first non-socialist INGO program in the District, the home of many famous Vietnamese Generals and Patriots. Plan partnered with MAG, who under the unique leadership of Nick Proudman also saw the ability to do something extra-ordinary, and more than what had been achieved jointly in Quang Tri. The design process was participatory across a number of sectors, with heavy community partnership engagement and two five year plans were development. Funding modules were broken up aimed at the bilateral funding sources. Still core to Plan’s mission, it took program design to the next bilateral level. Plan still works in Quang Binh to date.

Plan Viet Nam’s LGIU raised $4 Million in funding in its second and it seemed its final year. This was quite an achievement in hindsight. The foresight was not only the shift to more bilateral programs, or more marginalised programs or even the ability to access larger grant funding – all of which Plan would evolve to a decade later. The foresight was investing in leveraging in local and international partnerships, quite the norm 15 years later. The foresight was investing in an asset-based approach in staff and management members, allowing them to achieve more rather than follow the Plan cookie cutter approach. The foresight was a LGIU team that were always mobile, with a phone and laptop working across differing locations, not office bound; this is also seen as the norm some 15 years later. The foresight was also Mark and a few key stakeholders believing that the LGIU was possible – which 15 years later is the norm.

The establishment of such a Unit was received with mixed feelings across the Plan world. Indeed a popular and well known Plan Country Director in West Africa at that time informed me that the idea while ahead of its time, would never survive due to the ‘old Plan guard’ undermining it. Politically it would be discredited, in addition to the old Plan funding countries refusing to reduce the focus on child sponsorship revenue. And he ended up correct by the end of 2002… 

The lesson here is that hindsight is easy, foresight is difficult, and old ways in organisations are hard to change. But having foresight can change the way we work, and the communities we work with, making a difference to every child.

Many thanks to Ary for his recollections!

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So, as planned, at the end of three years an external, independent evaluation of the LGIU pilot test was commissioned.  It’s notable that Donal Keane had left his post as Regional Director for Southeast Asia, and I had also left Plan.  And Ary had also returned to Australia.  Basically all of the people involved in the conceptualisation of the LGIU, and the leadership of the unit during its pilot phase, were gone.  This left senior management outside of Viet Nam, who had opposed the pilot from the beginning, and the local staff who had prepared grant proposals and implemented projects which had been funded

But before I left, the evaluator visited the country, where interviews with staff and donors were carried out.  Similar interviews took place at Plan’s headquarters.

I received a draft evaluation report just before leaving Viet Nam, and leaving Plan.  The summary of the draft report, dated September 2003, contained the following conclusions:

During the course of the evaluation there was no indication to suggest that the LGIU concept was fundamentally flawed, or that it would not have eventually succeeded in its aims, once operational problems had been resolved, and had the LGIUM not resigned early … a major concern at the onset of the LGIU was that it would develop a separate program culture in Plan which would be elitist and measured by the funds it brought rather than program impact or integration. At the time of the evaluation the LGIU appeared to be a separate, rather isolated, part of Plan in Viet Nam trying to get the attention of the centre, much more than it appeared to be the beginning of a separate culture within Plan… there is no evidence to indicate that the LGIU was not going to be a success, once its portfolio had been streamlined and operational and communication problems had been resolved.

In part because of the vacancy existing at the top of the LGIU, the evaluator recommended replacing Ary with a “second PSM.”  This proposal essentially retained the LGIU as it was – a grants-seeking and -implementing unit within Plan Viet Nam – but renaming it.

I had no trouble fully agreeing with this analysis, conclusions, and the recommendation to continue – but adjust – the LGIU.  It was based on data, reflected the reality, and was logical and wise.

When the final evaluation report emerged, however, just one short month later, I was shocked to find that the recommendation had changed fundamentally:

The evaluation concludes that the LGIU concept was implemented in earnest, and to the best of their abilities, by the LGIU staff and the former CD, but was not able to overcome the contradictions inherent in its design in its first two and a half years of existence… Given the very stringent conditions that would have to be continuously maintained by key busy senior people in Plan in Viet Nam to make the LGIU function as intended; that for most of its existence the LGIU was largely embodied in the LGIUM who then resigned; and the evidence from the experiences of other Plan countries that it is possible to have a dedicated in-country grants capacity without needing a separate organizational unit, by recruiting a second PSM with expertise and specific responsibility for grants, we recommend stopping the LGIU pilot…

An astonishing change, in only a month.  Of course, the September document was a draft, and things can change when a draft is finalized.  But in conversation with the author of the evaluation, it was made clear to me that the fundamental change in recommendation emerged from a desire to please senior management.  Not based on the objective findings of an independent evaluation, but instead on the subjective preferences of Plan’s leadership.

From the beginning, senior management at Plan’s headquarters had only grudgingly gone along with the pilot.  Now that the originator of the concept (me), the Regional Director (Donal), and the LGIU manager were all gone, closure of the LGIU, despite its success, could be accomplished without fuss.  Plan’s fundamental weakness – when people changed, things started anew, initiatives weren’t followed through, and everything done by earlier generations was bad – had come into play once again.

But good ideas can’t be suppressed for ever.  As Ary puts it in his note for this blog: by 2017, the operational governance underpinning the LGIU – of partnerships, funding leverage, and non-child sponsorship programs are very much the mainstream, even at Plan.

But the cost – to people involved in the LGIU, to the children who could have had support provided via increased grants revenue – was high.

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As I foreshadowed above, by late 2002 I was ready for another challenge.  I’d made this decision before the LGIU evaluation was complete.  I had been with Plan since just after leaving the Peace Corps, in 1987, and it had been a fantastic 15 years.  So I resigned from Plan, and Jean and I returned to Durham, New Hampshire, where we had made a home during our sabbatical year, before moving to Viet Nam.

I am still very grateful to Plan: ever since I first came into contact with the organization while I was still a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, I had learned and grown.  Plan gave me so many priceless opportunities, which would serve me well in the following phases of my career.

*

Just as I was leaving Hanoi, I got an email from out of the blue, from a person I had never met.  Daniel Wordsworth was Program Development Director at CCF in Richmond, Virginia, and he wanted to know if I knew anybody who could help them reinvent their program approach.  I thought I knew of the perfect person…

But before describing the three great years that followed, as we developed and tested what became CCF’s new approach, “Bright Futures,” I want to reflect a bit about what had changed – for me, and in the world of development, poverty, and social justice – in the 15 years between my start in this work (Ecuador, 1987) and my departure from Plan (Viet Nam, 2002).

So, stay tuned!

*

Here are links to other blogs in this series.  Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.

 

Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam

June, 2017

I began a new journey a year ago, tracing two long arcs in my life:

  • Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
  • 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.

Last time, I described the amazing team that I was privileged to work with in my role as Plan’s Country Director for Viet Nam, between July of 1998 and October of 2002.  This time I want to describe the development context in Viet Nam in those years and beyond, and how Plan responded at the time.  During my time in Hanoi, I documented many of my field visits using a DV camera, and I will include some images from two field visits I made during that time, also.

*

I climbed four of the 48 4000-footers over two days in mid-September, 2016.  All four of those peaks can be seen on the map below: I got to the top of Wildcat “D” (which is the subject of this blog post) and Wildcat Mountain on 12 September; and I climbed South Carter and Middle Carter the next day.  (There are four “Wildcat” mountains: Wildcat Mountain, Wildcat “B,” Wildcat “C,” and Wildcat “D.”  Only two of these count as official 4000-footers!)

I camped at nearby Dolly Copp campground overnight on 12 September, before ascending Middle and South Carter on the 13th.

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I drove up from Durham on the morning of 12 September, and began that day’s climb from the Glenn Ellis Falls parking area at about 10:30am.  From the parking area, just south of Pinkham Notch, I crossed under Rt 16, and joined the Wildcat Ridge Trail, which is also the Appalachian Trail here.

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After crossing under Rt 16, I started to climb, and soon ran into two “end-to-end” hikers of the Appalachian Trail.  They weren’t “through hikers”; as I learned from them, some “end-to-end” hikers start at the south end of the AT in Georgia and walk north for a time, and then take a break, starting again from Mt Katahdin in Maine, going south.  “Through hikers,” on the other hand, walk from Georgia to Maine (or vice-versa) without stopping.

It was a spectacular day, cool and dry, no bugs; the summer of 2016 seemed to be quite bug-free, which was unusual and great.  That day I was lucky also to have some of the best views of Mt Washington (6288ft, 1917m), and much of the Presidential Range, that I’ve ever seen.  Here are a few images of those views – Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, from the Wildcat Ridge Trail:

 

 

 

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The walk up Wildcat Ridge Trail was quite steep in sections, but nothing out of the ordinary for the White Mountains.  There is a steep climb up rock steps and up a rock chimney before reaching some spectacular views towards the south, and of the Presidential Range.

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I reached the top of the Wildcat Ski Area ski-lift at about 12:15pm:

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The Top Of The Wildcat Ski-Lift, With Mt Washington In The Background

 

Here is the observation tower at the top of Wildcat “D” (4050ft, 1234m),  which I reached just a few minutes after reaching the ski-lift:

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The Summit Of Wildcat “D”

 

So the climb up Wildcat “D” was just under two hours.  From the top of Wildcat “D,” I would continue on to Wildcat Mountain (4422ft, 1348m), with amazing views to the west (Mt Washington and the Presidential Range) and, then, to the east (all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.)  Stay tuned for more about that next time.

All in all, September 12, 2016 was one of the best days walking I’ve ever had in the White Mountains, over more than 40 years since I first visited in the late 1970’s.  Definitely a day to remember…

*

During the years I worked in Viet Nam, I noticed that expatriates working for international NGOs seemed to fall into two groups: those who loved working there, and those who really disliked it, often with a visceral passion.  Those who hated working in Viet Nam seemed to feel that the restrictions put on our organisations, and on us, were unreasonable.  I’d hear them say things like: “if the government would just let us do our job…

Yes, the process for registering as a foreign organisation was burdensome, and foreigners working in Viet Nam were required to maintain legal status in the country, resulting in periodic visa applications.  Getting permission for people from other countries (even for those of us who were foreign staff living and working in Viet Nam) to visit field locations could be challenging and time-consuming.  And, yes, it was very difficult for foreign agencies to work through local NGOs, as many of us were accustomed to elsewhere.

But, despite all of these challenges, our work in Viet Nam took place in an environment with very positive and progressive socio-economic policies, just what was needed to facilitate human development.  The private sector (including agriculture) had been released from many of the restrictive policies that had been in place until the late 1980’s, and government priorities for women, children, and ethnic minorities were excellent, even given the widespread lack of capacity and instances of corruption.  Viet Nam was poor in 1998, when I arrived, but the policy context was pro-poor, pro-women, pro-ethnic-minority, and pro-children.

To illustrate this, I want to go back to the framework that we developed earlier, when I was at Plan’s International Headquarters.  Readers of this blog will recall that, during my tenure as Plan’s Program Director, I had set myself three major goals: build a programmatic framework for our development work; finish the restructuring of the organisation; and rationalise the growth of the agency consistent with strategic priorities.

The tool that I developed to rationalise our growth was based on board-defined priorities, which resulted from an extensive process of consultation and reflection.  The resulting framework indicated that Plan should grow where the need existed, and where the potential for  impact could be verified.  I had created a method to quantify these two criteria, to rank countries in terms of need, and potential for impact.

Measuring “need” was relatively easy: I decided to use the country’s under-five mortality rate (U5MR).  But, as I noted in an earlier blog posting:

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

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

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

How was Viet Nam rated in Plan’s growth plan in June, 1995?  Based on need, and potential for impact (as measured using the “performance gap” concept outlined above), Viet Nam was classified as a “super-grow” country, the highest priority for growth, together with Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan.  Plan’s analytical tool confirmed that something appeared to be going very right in Viet Nam – the country was achieving much more than would be expected at its level of economic wealth.

Another way of measuring the suitability of a country’s policies and political context for human development is to consider the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI), in particular how nation’s HDI compares with how other countries with similar wealth are doing.

On this basis, using data from the UNDP Human Development Report from 2000, Viet Nam ranks 24 places higher in terms of human development than it does when looking only at GDP per capita.  In other words, considering its GDP per capita, Viet Nam’s HDI would have been expected to be 24 places lower than it actually was.  This is a big achievement, indicating that the country likely had policies, budgetary allocations, and health and education systems that were relatively effective and efficient.  Again, this was clear evidence that things were going in the right direction in Viet Nam…

So while there were undeniable restrictions placed on us, on Vietnamese civil society, and on political participation and freedom of expression, we were working in a place where many things were going in the right direction, at least in terms of human development.  Remember that the American War had ended only just over 20 years before I arrived, and the legacy of that destructive conflict was still present.

For me, it was a very positive place to work, and I could see the different we were making in the lives of children and families living in poverty, partly because of the great team Plan had in Viet Nam in those days, partly because of the support we received from sponsors and other donors, but also partly because of the way that Viet Nam was structured and governed.

I also think that the root cause of some of the complaints by foreign NGO workers living in Viet Nam was, perhaps unconsciously, somewhat colonialist.  This is a negative thing to write, so let me explain: in many countries, at least in those days, international NGOs could operate pretty much as they pleased.  Many expatriates became accustomed to this situation, and appreciated the latitude to implement projects as they felt would be most effective.  At best, they brought “best practices” to their work; but, often, many brought large egos, a reluctance to cooperate and coordinate with others, and some sense of the “white-man’s burden.”

Viet Nam was different, because the government was not about to let INGOs run amok.  Over 1000 years of occupation by the Chinese, and long wars with the French and Americans, the Vietnamese people had achieved independence and the ability to manage their society the way that they, themselves, determined.  Their government was not about to let international NGOs, and their foreign staff like me, run amok and do whatever they wanted.

Those expatriates who accepted this, and saw it as an advantage, a good thing, loved working in Viet Nam.  I certainly felt that way!

*

Looking back from 2017, Viet Nam has now reached “medium-development” status.  A great achievement of the Vietnamese people.  Here are three graphs, using data from UNDP, that illustrate how things have evolved.  Looking first at economic poverty, the proportion of Viet Nam’s population living on less than $1 per day (at purchasing-power parity) dropped from around 50% when I arrived in Hanoi in 1998 to 40% by the time I left, in 2002, and to well under 20% in 2008.  An enormous reduction in economic poverty, at a pace that seems faster than all developing regions, and even faster than Eastern and South-Eastern Asia.  Remarkable.

Population Below $1 (PPP)

In terms of child poverty, which was Plan’s focus, the next figure shows how Viet Nam’s performance has been ahead of the achievements of the world on average, since the early 1990’s, with the average under-five mortality rate dropping from around 50 per 1000 live births in 1990, to just over 20 per 1000 live births in 2010.  Another remarkable achievement.

U5MR

Finally, looking at one particular indicator of community development, the proportion of Viet Nam’s population using an improved source of drinking water rose from around 65% in 1994 to 95% in 2010, moving from well below the world average to significantly above.

Improved Drinking Water

Of course, I can’t claim that Plan caused all, or even a significant proportion, of this progress!  Rapid socio-economic development of this kind is due to a wide range of factors, most especially good policy and hard work.  Plan was contributing in our own way, in places where the government couldn’t always reach without support.  Something was going right in Viet Nam, at least in terms of economic and human development, and the results are clear to see.

*

One particular challenge for Plan, and for all of the INGOs working there at the time (and since) was reconciling the nature of Vietnamese governance with our Western values of participation and democracy.  While government policies related to social justice (treatment of gender issues, ethnic minorities, etc.) were well-designed and consistent with the focus of most INGOs, and were in fact the best I’ve ever seen in any country, our focus on involving and empowering people was more challenging to implement, because our approaches were not consistent with the way that Viet Nam had structured itself.

One approach we took was to try to base our work involving and empowering people at village level on the words of Viet Nam’s leaders, and its laws.  I had this “propaganda poster” designed to use words of Ho Chi Minh in this effort:

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Dan Biet, Dan Ban, Dan Lam, Dan Kiem Tra = The People Know, The People Meet, The People Do, and The People Check

 

The words translate, roughly, as “the people know, the people meet, the people do, and the people check.”  This usually meant, in practice, that “the People’s Committee” did those things; but we tried to broaden it to reflect what we thought Ho Chi Minh actually intended, where the people themselves got involved and engaged in meaningful ways.  Which was what we intended!

And we tried to use various decrees of the central government, which established frameworks for “grassroots democracy,” as entry points towards participation and empowerment.  To some degree, it worked, but the top-down nature of Vietnamese society (“democratic centralism” was one term that was used to describe the political system!) represented, in many ways, boundaries for these efforts.

*

Part of our efforts to connect with the Vietnamese government involved me, as the representative of Plan in Viet Nam.  Field visits always included protocol meetings with the Provincial, District, and Commune People’s Committees.  In Hanoi, also, there were opportunities to connect at various levels.

By the time I had been in-country for two years, I was fairly well known, and knew my way around.  One perk that went with that kind of status was being invited to the yearly “Consultative Group” (CG) meetings, where the multi- and bi-lateral donors met formally with the government to review how the aid program was going.  The World Bank Country Director co-chaired these important meetings, along with a Deputy Prime Minister; several (I)NGO representatives were invited.

The WB Director in my time was Andrew Steer, a brilliant and charismatic leader who did a fantastic job, ably supported by Nisha Agrawal and Carrie Turk, both of whom had come from NGO backgrounds.  Here is a photo of the INGO representatives attending the 2001 CG Meeting, along with Andrew Steer:

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From the left: Mandy Woodhouse (Oxfam GB), me, Bill Tod (Save the Children), CD from (I think) Marie Stopes, and Andrew Steer

 

At the end of CG Meetings, unless things had gone very badly, participants were invited to a closing meeting with the Prime Minister.  The first time I attended, the closing meeting was quite strained; apparently there had been tensions within the government unrelated to the CG Meeting.  The second year, all was positive, so we walked over to the PM’s offices and reported to him.

After the meeting with the Prime Minister was over, he invited the group, maybe a hundred people, to move up to a stage for a group photo with him.

Once the photo had been taken, people began to move off and leave.  I had brought a camera with me, and held back.  Imagine my surprise when I found myself standing with the Prime Minister with nobody else around!

So I moved quickly, knowing that a photo of the two of us would be priceless evidence of Plan’s status in such a hierarchical country.

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With the Prime Minister of Viet Nam, Pham Van Khai

 

My only regret is that I was determined not to have my eyes closed, because I guessed that the PM would not hang around for long.  So my eyes are wide open!

My Vietnamese language skills were good enough for me to understand when, after the photo was taken, the PM asked his staff member: “who is this person?”  Luckily, the aid answered correctly, so all was well!

That photo hung in all of Plan’s offices across the country, until I left.

*

One way that we “fit in” to the way that the Vietnamese people had structured their society was the mechanism through which we implemented projects.  A set of procedures had been designed by my predecessor Supriyanto and our Operations Support Manager, Pham Thu Ba, which they called “Community Managed Projects,” or “CMP.”  As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, Supriyanto was originally from Indonesia, and the way that the Suharto government had structured that country was quite similar to Viet Nam’s approach; so, along with Thu Ba, Supriyanto was able to design a method for project implementation that fit into the Vietnamese way of working while also ensuring suitable levels of accountability and financial control.

Through the procedures spelled out in our CMP, projects were basically managed by committees based on government structure at the grassroots, commune level, linked with oversight committees at higher (district and province) levels.  These structures worked very well, pragmatically inserting Plan’s work into the realities of Viet Nam at that moment in its history.  It was interesting to watch our field leadership and Thu Ba negotiate the day-to-day tensions inherent in the different approaches of the Vietnamese government and our international non-governmental organisation.  For example, would contracting and purchasing related to project implementation follow government procedures, or Plan’s (sometimes more transparent) procedures?  Our CMP specified these matters, but when specific decisions came onto the table, the negotiation dance would often begin.

One strong advantage of Plan’s CMP was that, since project implementation was embedded in the government structure, when things went wrong we could elevate the discussion to district or province level.  And, since provincial leadership was extremely powerful, problems got resolved!   If Plan had tried to operate, somehow, apart from the government structure, things would have been much more difficult.  Perhaps we expatriates might have felt better, momentarily, more comfortable doing our own thing as we pleased; and project implementation would have felt more familiar; but in the end things would have fallen apart.

*

One of the people I learned the most from in Viet Nam, at least amongst the foreigners working there, was Lady Borton.  Lady had been in Quang Ngai during the American War, and for many years after the end of the war had been spending much of her time working for the American Friends Service Committee in Hanoi.  She and I were elected members of the Steering Committee of the VUFO-NGO Resource Center, a joint resource providing support for international NGOs working in, or wanting to work in, the country.

She had also played a key role in uncovering the My Lai massacre, in the late 1960’s.

So Lady had been in Viet Nam for a long time, and knew more about Viet Nam than anybody else I knew, at least any foreigner; she loved the country, and the Vietnamese, and had worked tirelessly in the cause of reconciliation.  I learned a great deal from her, and feel lucky to have gotten to work alongside her in those years.

One of the many ways that Lady was helpful to many of us when we arrived in-country, if were lucky enough, was to get our hands on a copy of “To Be Sure…“, her guide to .  Since Lady was always very happy to have her article circulated freely, I’m attaching it here – To Be Sure — Final.  This important document explains, to a foreign audience, how Viet Nam was structured, and how foreign INGO workers could best work.  Thank you, Lady!

*

I’ve talked about the context, and how we tried to fit in, but what did Plan actually do in Viet Nam during those years?  Perhaps the best way to describe it is by sharing our Country Strategic Plan, 2000-2005.  The document is relatively short, as was required, providing a summary of the situation in-country and our intended response.  The document can be downloaded here: Final CSP 2001 – Sent to RD on 3 August 2000.  Note that formatting of the document has been affected by software changes in the intervening 17 years, but it’s readable.

We started (and ended) the CSP by describing the lives of two (fictional) Vietnamese children:

Tran Thi Thuy lives in Quang Tri Province, with her parents and younger brother, and her father’s mother and father. For a ten-year-old girl, Thuy is very small, though she is bright and attentive, and seems happy. Her parents are rice farmers, working the small plot of land they have been allotted by the People’s Committee. Normally they have enough rice, even to sell a little, but last year Thuy’s parents lost their harvest when floods came in November. Their house flooded, and Thuy had to help find food; they hope for a better year this year, the Year of the Dragon. Thuy attends a local primary school that is in very poor condition; she reads and writes well, but she has some trouble with math. Students have to be careful because the fields around the school contain landmines from the American War. After class, Thuy takes care of the family’s water buffalo, helps her mother prepare lunch and dinner, and takes care of her brother and the pig (sometimes she cuts banana roots for the pig to eat.) Thuy would like to be a teacher someday.

 Pham Thi Nguyet is twelve, and lives in a house in Phuc Xa ward, in Ha Noi. Her mother sent Nguyet, and her 16-year-old brother, to Ha Noi from Hung Yen Province two years ago, to find work. They send money back to Hung Yen to help their family. Like many children of the street in Viet Nam, known as “children of the dust” in Vietnamese, Nguyet lives a precarious existence. Her work begins before dawn, preparing food for her landlady to sell. In exchange for this, Nguyet and her brother have a place to sleep. During the day, Nguyet’s brother shines shoes on the street in Ha Noi, while she sells newspapers. Some of Nguyet’s brother’s friends use drugs, and Nguyet herself has had some frightening encounters with people on the street. Like Thuy, Nguyet is very small for her age, though she is bright and has an open and positive attitude. She would like to become a seamstress.

Then we summarized the CSP:

Thuy and Nguyet represent the reality for many children in Viet Nam today. After decades of conflict and isolation, the economic transition of the last decade has undoubtedly improved the lives of the nation’s children, and the unique structure of Vietnamese society has enabled important achievements in health, education, and gender equity. But children now face greater risks and increased vulnerability; malnutrition levels remain very high; and the quality of education still lags. Underlying these trends, poverty persists, particularly in highland provinces, in the central region, and among marginalized groups.

Together with children such as Thuy and Nguyet and their families, with program partners and authorities, PLAN/Viet Nam has identified some of the most pressing issues affecting children, and has formulated integrated programs and methodologies to address these issues together with its partners and communities:

  • Because of a lack of access to adequate education, PLAN will carry out programs in preschool and basic education.
  • Due to poor access to adequate health care, PLAN will support nutrition, reproductive health and primary health care programs.
  • Livelihood and reforestation programs will address the causes of low employment and productivity among the poor.
  • The increasing vulnerability of children will be addressed through the implementation of an ambitious children-in-need-of-special-protection program, along with programs in disaster management and landmines.
  • Because children have limited access to good quality water, sanitation, and shelter, PLAN will implement programs in water and sanitation, and housing improvement.
  • To stimulate better participation in child-focused development, including children, PLAN will implement a wide-ranging leadership-training program.
  • And to build solidarity among PLAN families, sponsored communities, and donors, a building relationships program will be continued.

Underlying all of these programs will be an effort to scale up PLAN’s impact, and to influence broader child-related policy development in Viet Nam.

That’s what we did, or at least what we tried to do: in our provincial Program Units, we helped improve access to adequate education and health care; supported livelihood and reforestation programs; worked to build protective environments for children; supported water, sanitation, and housing improvement programs; trained leaders; and sought to build solidarity among families, communities, and donors.  From the Country Office, we worked to influence child-related policies.

Consistent with the CSP, once we set up the Large Grants Implementation Unit (LGUI – see below, and in my next blog post) Plan was able to go well beyond these fairly-standard projects, and begin to address a much wider range of manifestations of child poverty.  More on the LGIU, later!

*

One of the things that I was most proud of, during my four years serving as Plan’s Country Director in Viet Nam, was how often I was able to get to visit our work in the provinces.  In part, this was because our team at the Country Office was so strong (see my descriptions of Le Quang Duat, Tran Minh Thu, and Pham Thu Ba in my previous blog post), as were our managers at Program Unit level, in the provinces.

But it would have been easy to stay in Hanoi, there was plenty to do there and plenty of demands from Plan’s hierarchy in the Regional Office and donor offices.  But I managed to get to the field for (roughly) week-long visits nearly 50 times in my four years there, which allowed me to stay connected to the realities of our work, build relationships with Plan’s staff and our partners, and to simply be true to the best ethos of our non-profit sector – to accompany the people we were working with, and for.

I have hours of film of these visits, unedited records of the people, the setting, and our work.  Here is video of two visits, both of which took place in October, 2000.

First, here is a five-minute video of my visit to Bac Giang province, north of Hanoi.  Bac Giang had been Plan’s third provincial office (after Nam Ha and Hanoi itself), still an area with plenty of poverty, as can be seen:

 

Pham Van Chinh was Plan’s Program Unit Manager in Bac Giang when I visited; many thanks to him and his team, and to our local partners, for hosting my visit, and many others during those years.

And here is a longer (almost 29 minutes) video of a visit to a new province for Plan in those days, Thai Nguyen – a beautiful, poor place, much less developed than Bac Giang in those days:

 

 

Tran Dai Nghia was Plan’s Program Unit Manager in Thai Nguyen when I visited; many thanks to him and his team, and to our local partners, for hosting my visit.

(I might include more video in later edits of this blog post.  I have more!  They document, in a way, a part of the history of Viet Nam, of the history of Plan in Viet Nam, and of the people involved in that effort, that is unique.)

*

Next time, I want to share our experience pilot testing a new structure in Plan.  This was our attempt to solve a problem that had vexed the organisation for many years: how to increase the proportion of funding coming from non-sponsorship sources, in particular, in the form of “large grants” from bi- and multi-lateral aid agencies.  It’s a story of innovation, success and, ultimately, failure.

I’ve invited Ary Laufer, the person who contributed more than anybody to make the “Large Grants Implementation Unit” in Viet Nam the success it was, to share his thoughts on the experience.

So, stand by for the next chapter in the story!

*

Here are links to other blogs in this series.  Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.