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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Summit of South Hancock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me describe how this worked.

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

I didn’t mess with it!

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

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

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

Country Office Managers

Tran Minh Thu          Pham Thu Ba                Mark                Le Quang Duat

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • “You’re not doing your job.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

My thanks to this great team.

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

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

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Cairn Marks the Summit Of Mt Pierce

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

 

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

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

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

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

What went well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What went badly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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Kelly, with Mt Eisenhower on the right.

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Raúl and Kelly

 

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

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

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The Summit of Mt Eisenhower

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

So, stay tuned!

*

Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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.

Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!

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

The eleventh of the 48 peaks that I summited was Middle Tripyramid (4140 ft,  1262m).  I did the whole loop over both North and Middle Tripyramids on 24 June 2016.  My last posting described the hike up North Tripyramid, so in this posting I will describe the climb up Middle Tripyramid, and my move from Plan’s South America Regional Office, to take up the position of Director, Planning and Program Support at International Headquarters.

 

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After the very steep slog up North Tripyramid, the hike over to Middle Tripyramid was pleasant; I arrived at the top of Middle Tripyramid at about 2pm.

 

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The summit of Middle Tripyramid

 

I mentioned last time that most hikers do the loop over North and Middle Tripyramids in a clock-wise fashion.  This is due to the large rockslide on the northwest side of North Tripyramid, better to climb up that steep (but stable) field of ledge.  And because on the southwest side of Middle Tripyramid, there is another slide, mostly unstable gravel, which would be frustrating to climb, so better to descend there.

As began the descent from Middle Tripyramid, I prepared myself for that gravel slide, happy that I would be going down it instead of slogging up (and sliding back down!)  Gravity would be my friend.

Just as I started down, I encountered a hiker coming up, so I asked him how he was doing.  He seemed very tired and sweaty, a bit out-of-shape perhaps, but certainly he had been battling the gravel.  He quickly launched into a lengthy description of how terrible the gravel slide was.  So I got even more worried, though thankful that I was going down.

“How long is the slide?”, I asked him.

“Around a half mile,” he replied, “maybe more.”

That seemed to be very long, so I moved ahead to get through it… imagine my surprise when the gravel slide was only about 100 meters long!  Maybe it would have seemed longer to me, as it did to him, if I had been ascending!

Here is a video of a small waterfall filmed on the way back to the Livermore trailhead, once I got down past the slide:

 

This photo was taken later, as I descended from Mt Tecumseh on 26 October 2016, on the west side of Waterville Valley.  I’m standing on the ski slope here, looking back at both North and Middle Tripyramid:

 

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The Tripyramid hike was great that day in late June, 2016: strenuous, but scenic and fun.  The rock slides added a bit of challenge to the day.

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Once Alberto Neri had left Plan, the board began to search for a new International Executive Director.  It took a while, and during that delay my old friend and mentor, Andy Rubi, took over as interim IED.  Andy had been appointed as Regional Director for Central America and the Caribbean, leaving his position as RD for South America a few months before.  So when he went to Plan’s headquarters as interim IED, he left his post as RD of Central America and the Caribbean.

Andy’s earlier move to Central America had, of course, left a vacancy in South America.  And although I was still pretty new to Plan, having served for three years in Colombia and a year as Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador from the Regional Office in Quito, I became Andy’s successor as RD for South America.

Looking back on it, I think there were a few reasons why I was given that senior position despite a relatively short tenure in the organization.  Certainly there were many staff members with more seniority, longer experience.

Perhaps the most important reason that I was appointed was that, even though I had worked with Plan for only four or five years, I had been in the right place in the right time throughout those years:

  • Plan in Tuluá had been a pilot office for the ambitious changes that Alberto Neri was introducing, so I participated in all the innovations that were getting such careful attention from across the organization.  I learned a lot, contributed some, and got a lot of exposure along the way;
  • I had great managers and mentors throughout that time.  From Monique van’t Hek, who was my Field Director in Tuluá; to Leticia Escobar, who supervised me from the Regional Office when I succeeded Monique as Tuluá Field Director; and then Andy himself, when I moved to the Regional Office as Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador.  Monique, Leticia, and Andy were all very strong managers and leaders, and they took the time to mentor me.  I was very lucky in that sense – they were supportive, experienced, kind, and expected a lot from me;
  • The strategic changes outlined in my last two postings – moving South America’s programs towards “Empowerment” and working through how program quality and Total Quality Management could strengthen the wider agency, gave me experience with senior management issues, and even more exposure across the organization.

But there was an element of luck to the move, also… being in the right place at the right time.  My favorite example of that serendipity came early in my time as Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador, when I spent a couple of weeks at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), which was  located in Rhode Island.  A sort of an Area Manager orientation period, which was very useful.

During that stay at IH, a large (meaning, expensive) project proposal was forwarded to me from the Plan office in Azogues, which I was supervising – loyal readers of this blog will remember that I had lived and worked in Azogues as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  It was a water project, a big one, with a budget of over a million dollars.  So after I reviewed it, and Andy signed off, it still needed Alberto Neri’s signature.  Luckily, as I was at IH, I would be able to take the proposal directly to him for quick review and, hopefully, approval.

When I made the appointment to see Alberto, my colleagues in the program department took me aside.  With very grave, serious tones in their voices, they let me know that I was in for very harsh treatment, that Alberto was famous for tearing project proposals apart and treating staff rudely.  They wanted me to not take it too personally, and assure me that they supported me no matter what.  I would be OK…

I had met Alberto, but never worked on something directly with him, so this was scary, ominous stuff.  So I was appropriately nervous when the time came for Alberto and I to meet.  I vividly remember going into his office, and sitting down with him.

Alberto was famous for getting in to the details in the most excruciating way, something that staff at IH thought was not appropriate – they felt that he wasn’t trusting them and didn’t he have better things to do?

Sure enough, he wanted to understand the project at depth: the location, numbers that would benefit, budget… Then he pointed to the list of materials included in the project, and asked me a very specific question:

“What does ‘RDE’ mean?” he asked.

The project document was in Spanish, but Alberto was Italian and I suppose that he knew that he had pointed to a list of PVC tubing that we were going to buy.  The tubes had a number after each one, with the designation “RDE” by each of them.

“It’s the tube-wall gauge specification,” I replied.

Imagine my luck: as I have described earlier, I had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the area of Ecuador that the project would be covering.  And I worked as a Project Engineer, designing and building water projects there.  So, by an enormous coincidence, I happened to know very well what ‘RDE’ referred to!

(To be more exact, it the ratio of the tube diameter to the tube-wall thickness.)

I can imagine how other staff, other Area Managers or other program people, would have answered Alberto: they would promise to find out what “RDE” meant, as soon as possible, and would feel embarrassed and perhaps slightly humiliated.  There is no reason that they would have known or could have known what “RDE” means, and it’s not reasonable to expect that they would know it.  But, by shear luck, I had a clear and confident, unhesitating answer at my fingertips.

From that moment forward, Alberto seemed to trust me completely.  I had passed the random test that he put me through, with flying colors!  (Not that knowing what ‘RDE’ means somehow qualified me to become SARO’s second Regional Director, but sometimes that’s how things go.)

So, later, when Andy moved to Central America and I applied to replace him as Regional Director for South America, even though I was relatively junior, and despite some mild grumbling from more senior staff, I got the job!  Knowing what “RDE” means wasn’t the reason, or perhaps even a significant factor, but I’m guessing that Alberto signed off on my appointment without a second thought!

*

Many months later, Plan’s board settled on a new, permanent IED – Max van der Schalk – and Andy Rubi returned to Central America after a challenging tenure as interim.  In the turbulent, post-Alberto months, that role would have been a huge task for anybody, and Andy did a great job in an impossible situation.

Max van der Schalk was Dutch, in his late 50’s, who had just finished a long career at Shell, finishing up as President of Shell Colombia.  After he had been appointed, but before taking up the job, the six Regional Directors met with him in Miami – an informal getting-to-know-you visit.  And after his appointment, but before he and his dynamic wife Isa moved to Rhode Island, I was able to visit him in Colombia.  After all, I was Regional Director for South America, including our work in Colombia, so off I went.

I found Max to be very easy to get along with.  He was a great listener, funny and curious, and very confident in his own skin.  Max had just as much business experience as Alberto (something that Plan’s board clearly wanted), but seemed to be a much more accessible, open, and emotionally-intelligent person.

In preparation for visiting Max and Isa in Colombia (they were living in Barranquilla, where my old friend Annuska Heldring was Field Director), I prepared a briefing on our work in the Region, on the people working for us (both at the Regional Office and in the Field Offices in Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia), and I organized a presentation on our regional strategy – something I’ve described in this series, in earlier postings.

I also prepared some thoughts about the role of International Headquarters (“IH”), which I planned to hold in reserve in case he asked me; I felt it might be a bit inappropriate to offer thoughts on such a sensitive topic without being asked… but if he asked, I wanted to have my thoughts together!

My sense was that, now that regionalization of Plan had been completed, with Regional Offices and Regional Directors in Quito, Guatemala City, Dakar, Nairobi, Colombo, and Manila, IH needed to change and change radically.  The role and structure of Plan’s headquarters needed to shift quickly, because – otherwise – there would be duplication of roles and, therefore, potential for conflict.  In fact, I planned to point out examples of where that exact kind of conflict was already appearing.

At that point, there were just over 100 people working at IH, in Rhode Island.  My sense was that, now that regionalization was complete, the number of people at the head office could, and should, be substantially reduced.  And since operational matters were handled, nearly 100%, by regional staff, we needed to think clearly about the role of the functions that would remain at IH – there were critical roles that should only be carried out at the organization’s center.  As I’ve described earlier, I felt that Plan’s successful regionalization had been, at least initially, more like a decentralization of IH departments.  That mistake had been corrected, and now that regionalization (not decentralization) had been completed, the center could and should start carrying out other, new and valuable duties that corresponded to the headquarters.

The visit to Barranquilla was very productive and positive.  I began to get a sense of Max, and found that he was paying very close attention to what he was seeing as we visited projects, and he was also listening closely to what I wanted to share.  I liked him.

And, as I had suspected, he did ask me about IH: what did I think IH’s role should be?; what should the structure of International Headquarters be?; what were the most important contributions that IH could and should make?  What should it stop doing?

We had a great discussion and perhaps I should not have been surprised when, at the end of my visit, he asked me to join him at IH as Program Director.  He liked what I was saying, and wanted to move in the direction that I was describing.  So, “put up or shut up!”

I was very excited, and a bit daunted at the prospect of moving to IH.  Quickly I wished I had been a bit less exuberant in my opinions, especially related to what Plan’s head office should be, and do; but, as I will describe in the next three blog postings, we achieved much of what Max and I had discussed over a beer or two in Barranquilla and Cartagena.

Here is a photo of the six Regional Directors at that time, with Max and me:

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Standing, from the left, are: Raymond Chevalier (RD for Southeast Asia), Richard Thwaites (RD for Eastern and Southern Africa), Hans Hoyer (RD for South Asia), Tim Allen (RD for South America), me.  Seated, from the left, are: Max, Heather Borquez (RD for West Africa), and Andy Rubi (RD for Central America and the Caribbean).

Max was also calculating that appointing a Regional Director to such a key role at IH would ensure smooth relations between head office and the other Regional Directors; sadly, we fell a bit short there, as I will describe later!

*

So Jean and I moved to Rhode Island in September of 1993, leaving lovely Quito, Ecuador for lovely Pawtuxet Village – both great places to live.  One illustration of Max’s warm nature came early in my time in Rhode Island.  He and Isa invited IH staff to their rented house, partly to welcome Jean and I.  They hired some local people to put together a traditional clam bake, which was set up in Max’s garden.

It was fascinating to see how Max spent so much time that afternoon with the people who were managing the clam bake.  He was friendly, curious, and utterly authentic in his interest in them, and spent as much time with them, and learning all he could about clam baking, as he did with us!  For all of his undoubted intelligence, it was hard to imagine Alberto Neri behaving that way!

*

Quickly it became apparent that Max, and the board, felt that Rhode Island might no longer be the most central location for our global organization.

Plan had been founded in the UK, during the Spanish Civil War, and moved to New York during World War II.  The subsequent move from New York to Rhode Island had been, I believe, for cost reasons, but in those days the bulk of the organization’s income was from the US, and much of its work was in Latin America.  So being based in North America made complete sense.

But in 1993, with most income coming from Europe (particularly from the Netherlands, which was contributing nearly half of all revenue at that point), and with Plan’s work focusing more on Africa and South Asia, it was time to consider the best location for the organization’s center.

We commissioned a specialized consulting firm to work with us to consider the question, and we looked carefully at (if I recall correctly) around a half dozen locations, including the idea of staying put in Rhode Island.  I think that we considered, also: Washington, DC; Atlanta; London; Harare; and Colombo.  Amsterdam was excluded because, with so much revenue generated there, putting IH in Holland would have made the agency essentially Dutch.  But also I heard that Plan Netherlands staff felt that we “development hippies” would surely create major public relations problems for them if we visited Amsterdam very often – apparently they feared finding us “drunk in the gutter.”

In the end we proposed moving Plan’s International Headquarters to Woking, in Surrey, just outside London, and the board agreed.  I arranged to stop off in London frequently in the months after the board approved the move, as I was traveling to Africa and South Asia a lot in those days, and could go through London.  I visited many possible locations, many buildings that our consultant company had short-listed.  In the end, we negotiated several years’ rent-free occupancy in a suitable building in Woking: Chobham House, on Christchurch Way.

The move was controversial, and looking back I can see positive and negative aspects.  Certainly the location was more central, both for program visits and from the perspective of being close to Plan’s fundraising sources.  And moving to another country, another continent, also meant that a redesign of the role and structure for International Headquarters would be far easier.  This was very valuable.  Woking itself, at the hub of outstanding transport linkages to London, Heathrow, and Gatwick, was convenient – even if it lacked the panache of neighboring Guildford, with its castle.

On the negative side, London was more expensive than Rhode Island.  And we lost a lot of institutional memory when we let go of nearly 100 of the 108 staff that were at IH.

Once the decision was made, but before we actually moved across the Atlantic, it was my task to inform those who would not be invited to the UK, from my department, of the date at which their employment would end after, in many cases, years of dedicated service.  Not an enjoyable series of meetings.

If I recall correctly, only Max, myself, David Goldenberg, Janet Dulohery, Mohan Thazhathu, Hernando Manrique, and Edward Rodriguez made the move from Rhode Island to Woking.  And, of that group, only Max and I were senior management.  So we lost a lot of history, knowledge, and commitment in that move, but we gained the chance to re-invent the center of the organization.  We took that opportunity.

Also, on the negative side, with Max and Isa owning a lovely home in Haslemere, a short 20-minute train ride to Woking, I heard mutters of criticism about the decision, especially from those who were losing their jobs.

The photo in the header of this blog post shows IH in Rhode Island, viewed from across the street.  The photographer, Jon Howard, saw the opportunity to include in the foreground of his image a construction sign in the parking lot across the road, and was able to make a strong statement with the image!

*

Our idea was that IH would only be around 30-40 people, at the most, focused on learning and compilation of results.  All operational matters would be left to Regional Directors, who would report directly to Max instead of to the Program Director, as formerly.  As a result, my title became “Director, Planning and Program Support,” to reflect the changed nature of the Program Director role.

uusc-executive-director-business-card

I was very happy with the change, as I would be freed up to focus on areas where I had felt that IH needed to play a stronger role, without being distracted by the daily operational decisions that I was quite familiar with, having been a Regional Director.

One of our earliest priorities was to re-staff IH, starting with the rest of senior management.  Bringing Catherine Webster (Audit), Nick Hall (Finance), and Richard Jones (HR) into Plan was something that would be a great learning experience for me, both because of their talents and personalities, but also because all three of them came from the UK private sector.  Like Max, they were new to the non-profit world and so I found myself the only program, NGO, sandal-wearing hippy in IH senior management.

Of the three, Catherine Webster seemed to fit in the best, without fuss or any apparent effort.  She did a great job as Audit Director, and later moved to head up a couple of major projects for Plan, and was very successful in each.  In one of those projects she worked to finish up Plan’s planning, monitoring, and evaluation system, something that was in my department.  She did a super job – uncomplicated, smart, and savvy.

Nick and Richard seemed to find the move into our non-profit sector to be a bit more challenging, and had to work hard to understand our context.  I think that Plan’s work, and size, had led them to assume that things would be simpler than they turned out to be.  It’s a great cause, and (at least compared to the conglomerates where they had been working) it’s very small, so how hard could it be?

Here is a photo of Plan’s Senior Management team at that point:

plan-senior-management

From left to right, standing: Nick Hall (Finance), Catherine Webster (Audit), Richard Jones (HR), Hans Hoyer (RD for South Asia), me, Tim Allen (RD for South America), Heather Borquez (RD for West Africa) and Richard Thwaites (RD for Eastern and Southern Africa).  Sitting, from left to right: Tony Dibella (a consultant who was working with me on our restructuring effort – described in a future post), Isa and Max, Raymond Chevalier (RD for Southeast Asia), and Andy Rubi (RD for Central America and the Caribbean).

 

Well, as I’ve written elsewhere, our sector is surprisingly complex to manage; our people consider themselves to be owners more than employees, so implementing change and exercising authority can be tricky.  Later I thought a lot about this; here’s a link to an article in which I reflect at a bit more length about bringing people, and systems and ideas, from the private sector into NGOs: mcpeak-trojan-horse.

Still, Nick and Richard did good jobs, and I enjoyed working with them. They were good, hard-working, committed people.  And I thrived on being the only program person in IH’s senior management, because advocating for the field was such a valuable and necessary role.  There was a lot of need for that advocacy!

*

I had proposed to Max that I would stay in the role for three years, only.  I wanted to show that people in NGOs should see authority and advancement as opportunities to contribute, not as pinnacle achievements to be held for as long as possible – I would serve at IH and then return to the field.  And I proposed that I would focus on three carefully-chosen major projects, each of which I felt had the potential of refocusing and reasserting IH’s proper authority and role after several years of drift:

  1. We would articulate a set of goals for the organization, high-level enough to be suitable across our six Regions, yet specific enough to build unity and enable accountability;
  2. We would create a growth plan for the organization, so that resource allocations would be somewhat more rational and less political;
  3. We would finish the restructuring of the agency.  Now that the Regions were functioning, and IH had been right-sized, we needed to finish the job and review how Plan worked at country level.

My next three blog posts in this series will describe those three projects – how we approached them, what we accomplished, and how well they turned out.  In the end, it took me four years to complete those three projects, and all three were completed more-or-less successfully…

Stay tuned for more!

*

Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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.

Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!

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

The ninth of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Whiteface (4020 ft, 1225 m), which is slightly to the Southwest of Mt Passaconoway.  I went up both of these peaks on 15 June 2016, just five days after having gone up Mt Osceola and East Osceola.

I hiked over to Whiteface from the top of Passaconoway along the Rollins Trail, reaching the top at around 2:30pm.  Whiteface’s summit is uninteresting, but there are some beautiful granite outcroppings just past the peak, which give the mountain its name:

 

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The Top Of Mt Whiteface

 

Here in the distance you can see “Ferncroft”, where I began and ended that day.  The photo is taken from the granite outcroppings just to the south of Whiteface’s peak:

 

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Ferndale, As Seen From Granite Outcroppings Just Past The Top Of Whiteface

 

Unusually, at least for the summer of 2016, there were massive numbers of black flies at those granite outcroppings, so I didn’t stay long.  Swarms, like other years.  It’s a lovely place with fantastic views, so it’s a pity that I had to leave so quickly…

Much of the way down was on the Blueberry Ledge Trail, which was very steep as I left the ledges, fleeing those black flies.  Many of the signs along the way were painted in appropriate colors:

 

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This was a great day – warm but not too hot, and enough of a challenge to be interesting.  Except for the black flies at the top of Mt Whiteface, it was a perfect day!

*

Last time I described Plan’s first Regional Office in South America in the early 1990’s.  The overall organization was still growing quickly, and regionalizing.  But morale at International Headquarters (IH) in Rhode Island was poor and, as a result, it seemed to becoming less effective.  So, less relevant to what we were doing… My sense was this was mostly because of the clash between Plan’s still-new International Executive Director, Alberto Neri, and the existing organisational culture.

As a result, in the early 1990’s, under the leadership of Andy Rubi, the South America Regional Office (SARO) began to fill the vacuum.  This was, to a great extent, a reaction to Alberto Neri’s strong emphasis on financial controls – most of us supported those changes, but wanted also to work on improving our programs.

I want to describe two of the ways that SARO moved ahead as IH seemed to drift a bit.  In this blog post, I will describe our efforts to pull the region together around a concept that was new to us, which we called “empowerment”.  This evolution became one component of a strategic planning exercise – which, itself, was another manifestation of how we were filling the vacuum left by IH.  A controversial action.

Next time I will describe how we adapted and implemented Total Quality Management, which was picked up by IH and considered by the overall organization.

*

South America’s embrace of “empowerment” came as we learned from several innovations that were taking place in Field Offices in the region, in particular what Annuska Heldring was doing in Cañar.  So in many ways this strategic evolution was a  good example of bottom-up change: a wider organisation recognising and embracing an innovation that was coming from the “coal face.”  This process led us to establishing a “vision” for Plan in South America, something that we were very proud of.

But, on reflection, I think that we might have been overstepping some boundaries – more on that later!

*

I’ve described how I met Annuska Heldring when she arrived in Azogues to set up a Field Office for Plan.  As she set up Plan Cañar, I remember hearing her describe how she would have very few staff.  At the time I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and had never heard of Plan, so I had no sense of the importance of what she was talking about, nor the implications for Plan.  But I do recall Annuska telling me about the problems she had faced as Field Director in The Philippines, before coming to Ecuador, in the Field Office in Iloilo.  Because of labor problems there, the Field Office had been closed; that experience had obviously had a very large impact on Annuska.

As a result, when she left the Philippines and began to set up the Plan Cañar Field Office, she was determined that it would be set up without the dozens (or hundreds) of staff that were typical for Plan offices in those days.  Plan Cañar would have just a few, mostly senior staff, plus a driver.  This meant that, because there were virtually no staff to manage projects, community members managed project implementation with, for example in the case of the water system in San Rafael, the support of government.  (In San Rafael, that was IEOS and me!)

So, I think that putting the community in the driver’s seat wasn’t necessarily the point.  It seemed that Annuska mainly was determined to avoid staff headaches, so created a “low-staff” model.  What we ended up calling “empowerment” – communities leading their own development, as was their human right – was a by-product of having low numbers of staff.  Not that simple, obviously, but that’s how it felt.

As a Peace-Corps Volunteer in Cañar, years before I arrived in SARO, what Annuska was doing seemed to work pretty well to me, but I had no sense of the audacity of this way of working, from Plan’s perspective.  It was only when I got to know Plan, in Tuluá, that I gained a clear perspective, and began to see what a revolution Annuska had begun.  Plan Tuluá was pretty typical, with around a hundred staff, including dozens of “Social Promoters” that did much of the project work.  With, of course, lots of involvement of local community members, and it worked very well, but it was quite different from what Annuska was doing.  At its best, Plan Tuluá was very empowering, but Plan Cañar was very, very different.

By the time I got to the South America Regional Office, Annuska’s office had been running for four or five years, and was performing well in terms of many of the things that we measured: unlike many Field Offices those days, Plan Cañar was spending its budget¹, complied fairly well with what we called “Sponsor Relations” – the elaborate system that Plan had put in place to specify communications between sponsored children and families with “Foster Parents” – and was extremely “efficient.”

This last point became very important.  Because of Plan Cañar’s low numbers of staff, Annuska was able to allocate a relatively very high proportion of her budget to project implementation.  Not only were staff salaries a low proportion of her budget (although her staff were highly paid, there were few of them), but associated staff-related costs such as office rent, vehicles, etc., were also low.  Again, perhaps this wasn’t Annuska’s intention, but Plan Cañar really stood out when we in the Regional Office, and IH, reviewed budget ratios.

And for Plan in those days, budget ratios were extremely important.  Alberto Neri had established a goal that Plan offices would spend at least 70% of funds on “tangible benefits”; no more than 20% on staff salaries; and no more than 10% on operating costs.

Like many of Alberto’s initiatives, to me this one made a lot of sense to me.  Many of our offices were spending even less than 50% on “tangible benefits” in those days, and encouraging all of us to become more efficient made sense to me.  I could certainly see ways that we could become more efficient.  But, also like many of his initiatives, it was handled clumsily, pushed too rigidly, and alienated the very people who were implementing it, and who would have been his best allies.  There was a backlash.

So Alberto liked what Annuska was doing, because it was low-cost.  And we in SARO and across South America began to like the model, too, because there seemed to be a big difference in the communities.  People from villages in Cañar managed projects themselves, learned a lot from that experience, and did good jobs – at least as well as our armies of “Social Promoters” seemed to be doing in other offices.  And when I commissioned a review of the Plan Cañar model, asking my old boss Monique van’t Hek from Tuluá to review things, the conclusions were very positive.

There were a couple other Field Offices where Plan was putting community members more centrally into the driver’s seat; for example, Mac Abbey in Plan Loja (Ecuador) was doing something quite similar.  These other initiatives were perhaps not quite as radical as Annuska’s approach in Cañar, but the difference was that they were approaching the change intentionally from the point of view of “empowering” the community, rather than having a “low-staff” model as such.

We at SARO began to pick up the importance of these initiatives, and started a process of strategic planning that incorporated the shift towards “empowerment” into a region-wide commitment.  Plan South America got excited at this strategic movement, partly because the overall organization seemed to be drifting, and it gave us a cause to rally around.  And, ironically, Alberto was very supportive, for his own reasons (as I described above, he liked the low-cost aspect of the model.)  The rest of the organisation – senior management at IH, staff in other regions – was much less enthusiastic!

Here is a page from a regional newsletter that I prepared.  You can see that Plan’s South America Region was committing to working in a quality way; to “empowerment”; and to focusing on children and our donors.

 

saro-strategic-directions-april-1992

 

These statements were developed through a careful process of reflection and discussion – you can see me being rather careful in the last two paragraphs here, noting that we hadn’t yet “fully debated and endorsed” the final two strategic directions.

What I think became a bit more controversial were the Vision and Mission statements for the South America Region.  Here perhaps we went a bit too far, because the wider organisation was developing Vision and Mission statements at the same time, and it probably would have been more appropriate for us in SARO to simply focus on strategies that fit within Plan’s overall Vision and Mission.  In fact, the four Strategic Directions that are shown here fit very well within the final Vision and Mission that were adopted by Plan, globally.  But we in South America had a lot of momentum, felt that IH wasn’t leading, and we were going to move ahead.

Here’s another page, from a presentation I prepared at the time:

 

saro-quality-framework

 

The presentation goes into lots of detail for each of these three elements of what we thought “Quality” should be in Plan.

This was good stuff.  Defining “Quality” as having those three pillars – unity of purpose, continuous improvement, and an empowering management culture – still makes sense to me, at least in an NGO setting.

*

And we paid a lot of attention to implementation, with the Regional Office providing support, funds, frameworks, guidance and accompaniment.  Mostly, we provided ways to share across Field Offices.  For example, here are four pages from workshop materials supporting an important event held in Cali, Colombia, in March of 1992:

 

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The purpose of this workshop was to help Field Directors from across the South America Region to prepare their transition to “Empowerment” – to “empowering” Field Offices, locally adapting what Annuska and Mac and others had pioneered.  There were few aspects of the end result that had been pre-defined; mostly, we learned together from what was happening out in the field.

*

I learned a lot from all of this.  As I look back on our regional focus on “empowerment,” a few things stand out to me:

  • I really like how we at the Regional Office were able to perceive that a key innovation was happening, how we paid attention to it, embraced it, without having to invent it ourselves, and that we sought to catalyze the spread of the innovation.  That was a good role for the Regional Office;
  • The documents I have, and my own memory of events, show a lot of enthusiasm, and mutual learning.  There was very little “top-down” feeling to SARO’s move towards “empowerment;”
  • The essence of the shift, that community members we were working with had the right to be in the driver’s seat, that the decisions they would make would be as good as, or better than, Plan staff’s decisions – that was a correct instinct.

But also, looking back, I think that other elements of the wider organization – at International Headquarters, in other Regions – were beginning to perceive us in South America as wanting to be independent, operating autonomously.  Our own “Vision” and “Mission”… rapidly changing program models … “not asking permission…” and even not asking for forgiveness!

Their suspicions were somewhat justified.  We in South America were asserting ourselves as a response to the weakness of the agency’s center.  Perhaps this is common when organizations regionalize, a normal struggle between center and region, between “parent” and “child.”  But from our perspective, norale at the center of the organization was bad, South America was the first area to regionalize, so we had a strong sense of unity and energy, and much of the rest of the agency was preoccupied with resistance to Alberto Neri.  So we simply filled the vacuum.

A couple of years later, as Program Director at International Headquarters, I tried to take these lessons into account.  I tried to reassert the proper role of the center of the agency, ensuring unity of purpose, measuring results, and supporting organization-wide learning, while taking care that elements of the organization outside head office took the lead in important agency-wide initiatives whenever possible.

More on that later!

 

*

SARO’s focus on “Quality” led to a Plan-wide movement to adapt and adopt Total Quality Management for the entire organisation, an effort I was a key part of.

I’ll describe my involvement in that project – chairing Plan’s Quality Council – in my next blog post in this series!

*

Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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.

 

¹  In fact, Plan was building up a big surplus of funds, as Field Offices underspent, year after year.  This was, of course, a problem: firstly, we weren’t using funds that the public had entrusted us with for an important purpose, which was not to save it.  Second, it was also a potential public-relations issue – why give to an organizaiotn that didn’t seem to need it?
When I went to IH as Program Director, a few years later, we solved this problem in a very-effective way, I think.  Field Offices were, on average, underspending each year by 10%, year after year.  And Plan’s fundraising offices were overachieving their targets each year by around 5%, year after year.  So it was easy to understand the sources of the problem.
So Plan had tried asking Field Offices to budget better, and spend according to budgets, and asking the fundraising offices to be more accurate in their projections.  But it wasn’t working.
The approach we tried when I went to IH was different: recognise that the system was leading Field Offices and fundraising offices to behave in a specific way.  And plan for this.
So we simply asked Field Offices to plan to spend 15% more funds than we thought we’d raise.  Then their underspending, and the fundraising offices’ over-performance, would balance out.  In fact, to work down the “surplus” funds that had accumulated by the time I got to IH (which, if I remember correctly, was over $80m), we increased this to around 20%.
Over a few short years, that solved the problem, and we worked down the “surplus.”  A good lesson for me – think about the system, how it behaves, and manage it or change it.  Simply instructing people to behave differently was ineffective.

Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South American Regional Office (SARO)

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

The eighth of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Passaconaway (4043 ft, 1232 m), which is slightly to the Northeast of Mt Whiteface.  I went up both of these peaks on 15 June 2016, just five days after having gone up Mt Osceola and East Osceola.

It was a very beautiful day.  The hike started from “Ferncroft”, a very lovely farm settlement:

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Ferncroft, With Mt Whiteface Just Above

I left Ferncroft at around 10am, walking alongside the buildings that can be seen above, and quickly entering the Sandwich Wilderness:

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The hike up Mt Passaconoway was beautiful, climbing up Dicey’s Mill Trail on a cool, partly-cloudy day.  A near-perfect White Mountains climb… challenging enough to get me drenched with sweat, so there was a sense of accomplishment, but not ridiculously hard.  There were very few insects, at least until I got over to Mt Whiteface!

Near the top of Passaconoway, I passed the junction with the Rollins Trail, which I would take over to Mt Whiteface, after lunch.

I had lunch at the top at around 12:30pm: not a spectacular view, actually not a view at all!, but there had been plenty of vistas on the way up:

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The Summit Cairn, Mt Passaconoway

Here’s a view back towards Mt Passaconoway, looking from near the top of Mt Whiteface, later that day (around 2:30pm):

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I left off my narrative, last time, as Jean and I were leaving Tuluá, Colombia, and heading to Plan’s first Regional Office, in Quito, Ecuador.  Of course, I was very familiar with that city, having arrived there as a Peace Corps Volunteer-to-be in early 1984.  My two years as a PCV in Ecuador were described in earlier posts in this series (here, here, here, and here).

We moved to Quito from Tuluá in 1991.  The city hadn’t changed very much since I left Ecuador in 1986, which was (mostly) a good thing.  Living on 6 de Diciembre, near the Olympic Stadium “Atahualpa”, we were a short walk to the Plan office, close to Parque Carolina (where I jogged), and shopping was easy.  This was before the Ecuadorean government adopted use of the US dollar as currency, so the old “sucre” still circulated, but had devalued massively.  For us, the cost of living was low – not so for the bulk of Ecuadoreans, however, who suffered high levels of inflation.

Our house was at the top of the “Jockey Club” building – pretty nice views of the city, and of surrounding mountains (which were MUCH higher than little Passoconoway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire!):

My new boss, Plan’s first Regional Director, was Andy Rubi:

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Andy Rubi, Plan’s First Regional Director

Andy was a gifted leader, with many years of experience in Plan – he understood our work very deeply, and he understood the dynamics of the organization very deeply, too.  I learned a lot from Andy, and often find myself using advice he gave me.  For example, when in conflict, stepping back and remembering to ask “what is the issue.”  That’s a great question!

(In fact, much later on, when I was in Australia in the mid-2010’s, I reached out to Andy for advice on a personnel challenge I was facing.  Andy, now retired and living in Honduras, was of great help to me then, as always…)

Here is an image of the Regional Office team, and senior staff from across South America a couple of years later, with many of the same people:

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(Some names, from the left side of the photo: Luis Alfred Cevallos, Kevin Porter, Roger Braden, Hank Beder, Zach Macy, Washington Muñoz, Diane Carazas, Frank van den Hout, Durval Martinez, Martin Fanghaenel, Hernando Manrique, Beatriz Gonzales, Michael Taylor, Paul Bode, Prem Shukla, Palmiro Soria, Leticia Escobar, Hans van Oosten, Luis Paredes, Freddy Diaz-Albertini, Ron Seligman, Tony Nolan, Mac Abbey, Larry Culver, Yvette Lopez, and Alejandro Acosta.  Missing: Andy himself, Ricardo Gómez, Rezene Tesfamarian, Henk Franken, Jairo Rios, and others.  A great group of people.  Apologies to those whose names I’ve forgotten! – please write with additions and corrections!)

Under Andy’s leadership, Plan’s first Regional Office had been established in July of 1987; I wrote a bit about this in an earlier post, describing how I came to join the organization.

One feature of the Regional Office, when it was established in 1987, was that it was not really guided by a goal to regionalize; it was actually more of a decentralization of headquarters functions.  This soon became very problematic.

Here is my recollection of that initial RO design:

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The International Executive Director, Alberto Neri, had his office at Plan’s “International Headquarters” (“IH”) in Rhode Island, in the US.  Reporting to Alberto were several Directors, a few of which are shown in the figure, above.

As you can see, in the initial iteration of the South America Regional Office (“SARO”), staff in Quito related to IH through four separate reporting lines:

  • Andy Rubi, Regional Director, reported to the Program Director at IH;
  • Hernando Manrique, Regional MIS Coordinator, reported to the Technical Service Director at IH;
  • Jairo Rios, Regional Administrator, reported to the Finance Director at IH;
  • Washington Muñoz, Regional Auditor, reported to the Board Audit Committee.

In addition, when SARO was created, the “Area Managers” had two “hats” – they managed a group of Field Directors, and they had a technical responsibility as well.  For example, Leticia Escobar, Area Manager for Colombia and part of Ecuador, supervised my boss in Tuluá (Monique van’t Hek) and also supported the implementation of new Human Resources systems across South America; in this, she related to the HR Director at IH.

Leticia’s colleagues, the two other Area Managers, handled, along with the rest of the Field Office Directors in Ecuador and Bolivia, the other areas of systems strengthening that Plan was piloting:

  • Impact evaluation, through the implementation of the new, pilot “Field Office Evaluation System” – FOES.  This was system was developed by the Technical Services Department at IH;
  • Planning and Budgeting, using the new, pilot “PB2” software.  This was developed by the Finance Department at IH.

So Regional Office staff were pulled in many directions, mostly towards headquarters (rather than towards serving and supporting the Field Offices).  These multiple reporting lines made life very challenging for the human beings involved… on both sides of the organization.

But SARO was meant to be a pilot, with lessons learned to be incorporated as the five other projected Regional Offices were rolled out (in Central America and the Caribbean, in West Africa, in Eastern and Southern Africa, in Southeast Asia, and in South Asia.

So the experience with SARO was studied very thoroughly, very professionally.  For example, when I was working in Tuluá, we hosted a couple of visits from Bill Kieffer, who was in charge of regionalization (reporting to Alberto Neri), and Fred Thomas, who was a Plan board member at the time, and a very experienced management consultant.  It was an excellent process, with Field Office staff (such as myself) listened to as important “customers” of  regionalization.  And, in fact, all of this attention led to major adjustments being made over time, in SARO and also as other Regional Offices were established.

But the initial pilot structure created plenty of conflict, which I could see and feel when I arrived in Quito, especially between Andy and the Regional Administrator: initially, Jairo Rios, and later Luis Paredes.  For example, I vividly recall Andy and Luis arguing over the relative sizes of their offices and, in the end, sending floorplans to International Headquarters for the issue to be arbitrated!  What a waste!

 

Early in my time in Quito, the structure was changed, and our Regional Office began to look much more like a Regional Office, with the entire regional team, except for the very-appropriate exception of Regional Audit, reporting to Andy:

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Around the same time, the “dual hat” for the Area Managers was simplified: we focused on supporting and supervising Field Directors, and a new position was created to support the implementation of the Field Office Evaluation System.

Now Andy was able to form a real team and create a sense of unity of purpose.

*

Several developments around the time when we arrived in Quito led, eventually, to dramatic changes in Plan.  In an earlier post in this series, I described the arrival of Alberto Neri, an Italian businessman, as Plan’s International Executive Director.  As I said there, it seemed (and seems) to me that Alberto’s initiatives were on target, and necessary, but his “approach to implementing them, and his interpersonal skills, however, let him down and created upheaval at headquarters.”

By the time I arrived in Quito, as Andy was consolidating a strong, creative, and united Regional Team, morale and effectiveness at International Headquarters was falling fast.  Many at Plan’s Rhode Island headquarters, including much of Senior Management, were extremely unhappy with Alberto’s leadership; as a result, the organizational center was becoming increasingly weak and inward-looking.

Meanwhile, across the world, people were showing signs of impatience with us in South America.  The establishment of other Regional Offices had been delayed, partly because changes in structure of our pilot Region were being made, and these changes needed to be assessed, too.  At the same time, headquarters was losing effectiveness, so staff outside of South America weren’t getting any more support than before – even less, since headquarters was focused on South America.  Alberto’s initiatives were getting a lot of attention, and they were only being implemented in South America, so understandably others got tired of hearing all about the work we were doing, and were skeptical about it – they wanted to get going, too.

Finally, alongside regionalization, and the HR, evaluation, and planning and budgeting initiatives that Alberto was pushing, he was very strongly focused on making Plan more “businesslike”.  This made a lot of sense to the finance and audit teams, but we development hippies grumbled as more financial systems, controls, and were put in place – didn’t Alberto trust us?

This was a potent mix, that only become more dangerous when Andy’s team decided to fill the vacuum that Plan’s headquarters was leaving.  We filled the vacuum with two big initiatives:

  • We rallied around an initiative, coming from several Field Offices but, most strongly, from my old friend Annuska, in Cañar.  Annuska had implemented a “low-staff” model which seemed to be effective and exciting.  We rebranded this as “empowerment” and ran with it;
  • Total Quality Management (“TQM”) was receiving lots of attention in the business world, and we at SARO decided to explore what this might mean for us.

These two initiatives gave us in South America a strong sense of momentum, that we were innovating and unifying, in an organization that seemed to be drifting.  For us, it was very exciting; for others, it seemed that SARO was going its own way, endangering the unity of the organization…

*

Stay tuned for more about “Empowerment” and TQM in Plan’s South America operations in upcoming blog posts in this series…

*

Here are earlier posts in this series – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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.

Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá

Today is International Day of Peace, the 21st of September.  To commemorate this day, this year the United Nations suggests that we reflect on how the new Social Development Goals contribute towards building a culture of peace:

“The Sustainable Development Goals are integral to achieving peace in our time, as development and peace are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.”screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-10-28-03-am

One of the SDGs, #16, calls on the world community to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

 

In this blog post, I want to reflect on “building a culture of peace” by describing what it was like living for three years in Tuluá, Colombia, during a period of great conflict in that part of the world.  It was a time when that society seemed neither peaceful nor inclusive, where justice seemed to be arbitrary and distant for many, and when the institutions of the state didn’t fully function across much of the nation’s territory.  And it was a time that, nonetheless, of course was joyful and fulfilling for the vast majority of Colombians, an incredibly strong and resilient people.

The people of Tuluá, and of Colombia more generally, have lived in a state of civil conflict for decades, and the three years that Jean and I lived there were some of the most challenging.  Thankfully, we can see prospects of a brighter future for Colombia these days.

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This blog post is sixth of a series I’m writing in which I combine a brief brief description of a climb up one of New Hampshire’s 48 4000-foot mountains with some reflections on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.  Over the next months, 48 posts.

I climbed Mt Osceola, which is 4340 ft tall (1323 m), on a solo hike, on 10 June 2016.

 

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As I did, most peak-baggers climb both Mt Osceola and East Osceola on a single day.  I’ll briefly describe the first part of that day – the climb up to Mt Osceola – in this blog, saving the rest of that day’s hiking for the next article in this series, which will describe the construction of a water system for the marginalised community of “Cienegueta”, on the outskirts of Tuluá.

Here’s a view of both Osceolas from the Hancock Overlook parking area, east of Lincoln on the Kancamagus Highway.  (I parked there to climb Mt Hancock and South Hancock, in late August 2016, but that’s a story for another day.)  The climb up Osceola is from the other side of the ridge that can be seen in this image:

 

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Mt Osceola Trail starts on Tripoli Road, just west up from Waterville Valley.  The hike up Osceola was pleasant and uneventful.  A nice summer hike, not too hot, not too many flying insects:

 

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A few weeks ago, in my last article in this series, I wrote about joining Plan International and moving to Tuluá, Colombia as Assistant Field Director in Plan’s office there.  As I described, Plan was growing and changing very quickly, and the Tuluá Field Office was one of 13 offices that were piloting the changes that the organization was putting in place to handle that growth.  Because of that, and because of the leadership of the Tuluá Field Director, Monique van’t Hek, and her Colombian staff, it was an exciting place to be.  I learned a great deal during those years.

This time, I want to describe what Tuluá was like in those days.

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We arrived in Cali in early July, 1987, flying from Los Angeles where we had been quite startled by a minor earthquake that shook LAX while we waited to board our flight to Colombia and our new life.

Monique had sent one of Plan’s vehicles, an old Toyota Land Cruiser, to pick us up at the Cali airport.  The Cauca Valley was beautifully lush and green as we drove north, with tall sugar cane growing on the valley floor and high mountain ranges on each side.

Over the next hour and a half, as we admired the scenery around us along the road, I began to get a bit nervous, for a couple of reasons.  Despite having lived and worked for two years in Ecuador, just next door, and although I had been tested as fluent in Spanish in the Foreign Service Institute assessment in Quito just the year before, I was not understanding much of what our driver, Fernando, was saying!  His accent was strange, he was talking too quickly, and much of his vocabulary was new to me.  Also, Fernando’s habit of mixing the formal and familiar forms of the word “you”, even in the same sentence, really confused me: in highland Ecuador, where I had learned Spanish, you used one form, or the other, and never mixed them.  In fact, at least among men, the moment when you switched from formal (Usted) to informal (tu) was very specific… and usually took place when both parties were inebriated.  But I had just met Fernando, we weren’t drunk, and he was mixing tu and Usted, willey-nilley.  So I was having a very hard time understanding what he was saying, even which “you” he was talking about!  (This kind of informal use of the language was typical in the Valle.)

The other thing that made me nervous was, when I did understand what Fernando was saying, he was using words like asesinatohomocidiomasacre… (assassination, murder, massacre …)  as he pointed out various landmarks along the road as we drove.

Jean, who had not yet begun to learn Spanish, seemed content, happily looking at the beautiful landscape as we drove north, not listening to Fernando at all … while I was beginning to get nervous about what we had gotten ourselves into!  I couldn’t really understand the Spanish that a new colleague was speaking, and it seemed like we were going to live in a very violent place!

But then we arrived in Tuluá, and checked into the Juan Maria hotel – not before having the “Happy Bar” pointed out to us by Fernando.  The “Happy Bar” – called “La Happy” as can be seen below, in a photo of the place from our time there – was where much of Tuluá’s political violence, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, had been planned.  I guess Fernando thought we might have heard of it…

 

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*

Tuluá lies in the Cauca Valley, between two of Colombia’s three Andean ranges.  Just as Plan, in 1987, was an exciting NGO to work in, Tuluá, a large town in the Valle del Cauca Department, was a great place to live.  The climate was hot but, at 1000 meters above sea level, not too bad, not as humid as on the coast.  It was a medium-sized town (with some 200,000 inhabitants today, in 2016) so there were markets and an old theatre, even a decent ice-cream shop (Mimo’s).  And it was only an hour or hour and a half from Cali, Colombia’s third city, so we could go to Cali to shop or see a movie every month or so.  Beautiful Lake Calima wasn’t too far away, on the road towards Buenaventura, where Plan had another Field Office.

 

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And Tuluá seemed to be a joyful place, renowned for the quality of its salsa dancing and for the beauty of its women.  Tulueños knew how to have a good time.  In many ways, it was not a hardship posting for us…

So we had a number of visitors during those years.  Here is a photo of me and my mother, during a two-week visit she made to Tuluá.  This was a famous spot – the “Curva Del Violin” – a particularly sharp turn in the road towards Ibagué: “Go Slowly Or You Will Die” it says.

 

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But Tuluá was also famous in Colombia for political violence, having suffered particularly in the long and bloody conservative / liberal wars in the 1940’s and 1950’s (known as La Violencia).  And by the time we arrived, the situation in Tuluá was becoming very complicated.

In addition to a continuing level of political violence, armed rebel groups controlled areas in the mountain ranges on each side of the Cauca Valley: to the west, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (“FARC” – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and to the east, the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (“ELN” – the National Liberation Army).

With its origins in La Violencia, by 1987 the FARC had evolved, from being political revolutionaries with a social-justice platform, into bandits, extorting and kidnapping, in alliances of convenience with the drug cartels in some places.  (As I write this, nearly 30 years later, it seems possible that the long armed conflict with the FARC may finally be coming to an end, with the signing of a peace agreement to be ratified through a referendum.)

Meanwhile, the ELN seemed to be focused on extorting money from multinational oil companies by blowing up remote pipelines, causing enormous environmental damage.  Despite their Marxist rhetoric, neither the ELN nor the FARC seemed to have authentic political goals.

Low-level armed conflict simmered between the government and each of these two Marxist rebel groups, with occasional skirmishes around Tuluá (and other areas around the country.)  To complicate things even further, cocaine-processing labs were scattered in the foothills on each side of Tuluá, run by what came to be known as the “Cali Cartel.”  At least initially, from my perspective, there didn’t seem to be much conflict between the government and the Cali Cartel, who (at that time) were reputed to be businessmen who had merely diversified into narcotics.  In fact, they did own a chain of pharmacies in those days – Drogería La Rebaja (“Discount Drugstore”), even with a branch or two in Tuluá.

Of course, the rise of Pablo Escobar and the “Medellín Cartel”, and the massive conflict between the Medellín Cartel and the Colombian government would soon greatly complicate matters…

*

So Tuluá  in those years (and before, and since) was a complex place.  But more broadly, the legacy of La Violencia from the 1940’s and 1950’s had, to some extent, normalised violence in society – particularly in Tuluá, but also in Colombia more generally.  The long-standing presence of armed rebel groups in the area around Tuluá, controlling significant areas, made working in those zones quite tricky.  And, while the Cali Cartel’s operations around Tuluá were much lower-profile than their more-violent peers in Medellín, that would change soon.

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At a national level, things were becoming  very dangerous.  This graph, which I clipped from a newspaper article of the time, shows the murder rate between 1955 and 1988, rising inexorably to levels more typical of areas of declared war.

 

I remember visiting the local hospital, gathering data about child mortality for Plan’s program in health, and discovering that two-thirds of all deaths, from all causes, year-after-year, were from murder.  Two murders every day, on average, in this small town.  I’m not sure that there are very many places, outside of areas of declared war, with those kinds of statistics.

One night, early in our time in Tuluá, Jean and I were trying to get to sleep.  She leaned over and asked me why there were fireworks every night… I hesitated before correcting her: that was gunfire we were hearing.

The local newspaper, El Tabloide, like many of its kind around the world, seemed to delight in splashing photos of the victims across their front pages every week.  I kept notebooks with clippings from El Tabloide, some of which I’ll share here:

 

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These are terrible headlines, describing a very violent place.  But I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that our three years in Tuluá were a horror-show of violence and conflict – Jean and I hugely enjoyed our time there, and I learned a lot from the great Plan staff that I was lucky enough to work with.   They were smart, hard-working, great people, and we look back on those years very fondly…

At the time, and even now, I often felt that the view of Colombia, and Colombians, by my own country was terribly unfair.  While most of the causes of the terrible situation in Tuluá, and across Colombia, were to be found in the history of the country, actions by the United States certainly contributed and made things worse.

In particular, the so-called “War on Drugs” was destabilizing Colombia and contributing to increasing levels of violence.  Attempting to suppress the supply of narcotics into the US by military means greatly increased the already high levels of violence in Colombia (and elsewhere), affecting guilty and innocent alike.  And, of course, the only effective course of action would have been to suppress demand for narcotics, not the supply: as long as the demand exists, the supply will come, from somewhere.  Suppressing supply without dealing with demand, as any economist will tell you, only ends up increasing the price and, in this case, enriching a violent mafia.  But fighting the “War on Drugs” inside the United States was not politically acceptable, so the US chose to move the conflict to Colombia, and beyond.

One illustration of the immorality of this policy came in January of 1990, when the Mayor of Washington, DC, our capital city, was arrested after having been video-taped smoking crack cocaine:

 

 

Of course, we can’t blame the situation in Colombia entirely on Marion Barry, or on the US-sponsored “War on Drugs.”  But it seems clear that the demand for narcotics in the US, and Europe, was contributing to the rapidly-escalating levels of violence in Colombia.

It was the people in Tuluá, and Colombians nation-wide, who were suffering the trauma and loss of these events.  Their pain was immense in those days, and it’s a tribute to their resilience in such horrific times that their country has, to a great extent, emerged in much better shape today.

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The town’s mayor for much of our time was the charismatic, very smart, Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazábal.  One of Colombia’s premier authors, he had written a famous novel set during La Violencia in Tuluá – Condores No Entierran Todos Los Dias.  He was a very effective mayor, quite populist, and he got things done.

Plan was able to work well with him: here’s a photo of the two of us at the (apparently quite jolly) inauguration of a sewer project in La Marina:

 

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(Gustavo Alvarez went on to serve as Governor of the Valle Department, and later spent time in jail, convicted for having had financial dealings with the Cali Cartel.  More likely, I’m guessing, he was set up; it was a complex time.  These days he is a well-known radio personality and continues to write.)

The Condor referred to in the Mayor’s book was the bloodthirsty informal leader of Tuluá’s Conservative gangs in those days, a true story.  In one episode in the novel, the Condor is poisoned, and nears death.  Much of the Tuluá community gathers to celebrate, entertained by several members of the Cedeño family, Tuluá’s renowned musical clan.    The Condor recovers, however, and has the whole Cedeño family killed.

The Cedeño family was real, and young Daniel Cedeño, who played piano, is named in that episode; years later, Daniel became Jean’s Spanish teacher!  So, obviously, the novel was fictionalized in places…

 

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Daniel Cedeño and Jean

 

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Monique van’t Hek stepped down as Field Director in Tuluá, and I followed her in that role in July of 1989.  It was an easy transition, as the office was running very well and I’d been Assistant Field Director for two years, so the staff knew me.  I would serve as Field Director until late April of 1990, when we moved back to Ecuador where I would become Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador, working from Plan’s Regional Office in Quito.

In August, 1989, Luis Carlos Galán, the liberal candidate for President, was assassinated by the Medellín Cartel at an election rally.  He would have probably won the election of 1990, and would have become President.   The government of Colombia then declared war on the Medellín Cartel, leading to similar conflict with the Cali Cartel in the area around Tuluá.

The situation in Colombia then became even more unstable, with all-out war between the cocaine cartels and the government.  Armored helicopters began to fly from Tuluá to bomb  cocaine-processing laboratories in the foothills to the west of town; Jean and I could watch them fly overhead, and could see smoke rise from the attacks.  Three months after Galán’s assassination, on 27 November 1989, Avianca flight HK-1803 was destroyed by a bomb planted by the Medellín Cartel just after departing from Bogotá, bound for Cali.  107 people perished.

(During those days, with the situation growing increasingly dangerous and unstable in the country, Plan organized three days of security training for Field Directors in Colombia.  This was a good initiative.  We met in Cali.  On the first day, the trainer explained to us that there are three words, in Latin, that will calm any dog that is attacking us.  He moved on, without giving us the words, as I raised my eyebrows.  On the third day, as we wrapped up the workshop, I asked him to share the three Latin words with us, but he just ignored me… so I still don’t know those three important Latin words!)

And then, to top it all off, conflict between the Colombian Army and the FARC, in the mountainous areas around the town of Trujillo, to the west of Tuluá, erupted.  Tuluá itself was militarized, with tanks on the street and a nighttime curfew:

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My farewell party was planned for these days, but such events were banned during the emergency.  We asked for an exception, and permission was granted by the Mayor.  The party went on for most of the night, with the loud music, salsa dancing, and joy that typifies Tuluá.

 

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At some point in the early hours the next day, still dark, there was a loud knock on the garage door of our office, where we were celebrating, and in came an army patrol in camouflage, painted faces, machine guns, and a combat radio.  They relaxed when we explained that we had permission for the party …

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In the years after Jean and I left Tuluá, the Medellín Cartel was dismantled, with the killing of Pablo Escobar.  The Cali Cartel then rose to fill the vacuum created, of course, since the demand for cocaine had not been reduced, which again led to an escalation of violence.  Then, a few years later, shadowy right-wing paramilitary groups emerged across the country, fighting against the violence and kidnappings carried out by FARC and ELN and other rebel groups in rural areas… these same paramilitary groups in turn also became sources of violence and oppression in the population.

It was really only when the Colombian government established a degree of control, under President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), that the situation began to normalize.  While many, inside the country and overseas, strongly criticize President Uribe for human rights abuses, a majority of the Colombian people supported his actions, as they had had enough of the violence and terror that they had suffered, to various degrees, since the political violence of the 1940’s and beyond.

Returning to the theme of this year’s International Day of Peace, it was only when the institutions of the state began to function that peace could be imagined, even if only on the horizon.  And today, with the prospect of a permanent peace with the FARC (which, by the way, is fiercely opposed by former President Uribe) things seem brighter in Colombia, for the people of Colombia.

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Before beginning to describe my time at Plan’s Regional Office in Quito, working across the Andean Region and as a Senior Manager for Plan International, one more story needs to be told about my time in Tuluá: the water system we built for Cienegueta.  That’ll be the subject of my next post here…

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Here are earlier posts in this series – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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.