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!


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.


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.


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


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.



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:



Kelly, with Mt Eisenhower on the right.



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:


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.




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.




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:




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.


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:


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.


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:


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 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:


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:



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:


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):



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:


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:


(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:


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:


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.

East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta

(This post has been updated – a second time – to include an update of how the community of Cienegueta was faring, about six years later, in late 1994.)

(This post has been edited to include a couple of newspaper articles about the completion of the water system in Cienegueta.)

A few months ago I began a new journey here: writing about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall and, each time, 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 seventh of the 48 peaks that I summited was Osceola East (4156 ft, 1267 m), which is slightly to the Northwest of Mt Osceola.  (The first part of this hike, up Mt Osceola, was described in my previous posting in this series.)

I went up both Osceolas on 10 June 2016, a solo hike, leaving from Tripoli Road, just west of Waterville Valley:


The hike over to East Osceola from Mt Osceola was a bit harder than it looks, with a significant drop between the two peaks.  And once I got to the top of East Osceola, it was a bit late for lunch – but the only place to stop with a view was full of hikers and dogs.  So I continued a bit, going down towards Greeley Ponds.  It was a bit steep, so I had to go quite far to find a place for lunch…

The trip back to Tripoli Road was uneventful but it was good to be out in the woods on a nice June day.







I wrote earlier 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 work.  I learned a great deal during those years.

Last time, I described what it was like living in Tuluá in the late 1980’s – despite the rapidly-mounting conflicts there, and across the country, it was a great place to live.

After Jean and I had been in Colombia for two years, Monique left Plan and I was appointed to replace her as Field Director in Tuluá.  Then, a year later, we moved to Quito, where I worked in Plan’s Regional Office in Quito, first as Area Manager for Ecuador and Bolivia, and then as Regional Director for South America.  I’ll describe those years in upcoming blog postings.

But first, one more story needs to be told about my time in Tuluá: the water system we built in Cienegueta.


There were a number of informal settlements in and around Tuluá in those days.  One of them, Cienegueta, was an “invasion” of land Southeast of the center of town, along the road toward La Rivera.  This map is from Google Maps, and is present-day, so not completely representative of the situation in 1988:



Cienegueta’s location is indicated by the red circle here.  Here is a satellite view, again present-day – with the settlement shown by red arrows.  You can see the houses along the side of the road:




People had “invaded” land alongside the road sometime in the past.  They were sandwiched between the road and land belonging to the local landowner “Doña Fanny”, which seems today to be the site of an “antinarcoticos” base.  In the late 1980’s, the police academy “Simon Bolivar” existed where it’s shown on these maps, but the anti-narcotics base was not there – the area where the red arrows are placed in the image, above, where it also says “Antinarcoticos” – that was Doña Fanny’s land in those days…

Because Cienegueta was an informal settlement (an “invasion”), they lacked basic services – no electricity, no waste disposal, no water.  It was politically difficult to provide basic services as the people were “illegally” occupying part of a public roadway.  There was an agricultural canal that ran through the settlement, where residents washed their clothes.  People, mostly children, carried water from that canal to their homes for domestic use.

The situation in Cienegueta was complex.  Like Tuluá in general, there were high levels of conflict and violence.  I think that the situation was exacerbated in Cienegueta by their location so close to the police academy – perhaps counter-intuitively, being so close to the academy seemed to greatly increase levels of crime, use of alcohol and other substances, and social conflict in Cienegueta.

But there were many children living in Cienegueta, so our organization (Plan International) took an interest in the situation.


In this post, I mainly want to share photos of the work we did in Cienegueta.  Not much text, just what it looked like.

So, to start, here is an image of one of the early community meetings in Cienegueta, where we worked with the community to get organized for the project.  The woman in the blue and white stripes, on the right, was elected to lead the project for the community:



An Early Community Meeting


We always found that the most important factor in the success, or failure, of any water system was how well the community came together to make the project a reality.  In Cienegueta the community was quite united in its desire to build the water project, despite having some deep conflicts.  The fact that they were carrying water all the time was a big motivation!

One of the tasks that the community took on – at least initially – was digging the trenches for the water distribution network.  We insisted that the trenches be at least a meter deep, just to protect the PVC tubing from damage from vehicles, the sun, etc.  But digging that deeply alongside a road was hard work in a hot climate:



Digging For The Water Network


Each family was responsible for digging a trench from the main distribution network to their own household.  Kids often helped out with this:



Digging For A Household Connection


Here we can see the PVC tubing being delivered to Cienegueta:



Bringing The Water Tubes To Cienegueta


And now we are gluing the tubes.  That’s me in the red shirt, the head of the water committee (smiling at the camera from inside the trench), and Oscar Arley Gómez in the white shirt with his back to the camera.  Oscar Arley was Plan’s health coordinator, a dynamic and smart man, and he wanted to learn how to glue PVC tubing!

You can see here, in the background, that a back-hoe was helping dig the trenches at this point.  The walls of the trenches are too straight to have been dug by hand!  The community was able to get the Municipality of Tuluá to assign the back-hoe to the Cienegueta project for a few days – thank you again, Mayor Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazabal!



Gluing The PVC Tubing


After we glued the tubing, it was placed at the bottom of the trenches, and covered:



Laying The Tubes


Covering The Tubes


As we worked down the hill, digging trenches, gluing tubes, and covering it all up again, the community participated and watched with interest:



A Young Cieneguetan Woman


Two Children In Cienegueta


There was already a water tank at the top of the hill, which was lucky for us.  But it wasn’t big enough.  And since were were taking water from an open canal, we needed to filter the water.

Here members of the community are excavating for the storage and treatment tanks.  The only place with room for these tanks was on Doña Fanny’s land, so we had to negotiate with her.  She was reluctant, because she feared that the people living in Cienegueta would start to occupy her land as well as the roadway, but in the end she agreed and we built the treatment plant:



Excavating For The Treatment Plant

We built the new water-storage tank, and the slow-sand filter, using the same “ferrocement” techniques that I had developed in Ecuador a few years earlier; for details, see my earlier blog in this series.

Here you can see the formwork being assembled, using locally-available bamboo instead of the roofing tins we used in Cañar:
Formwork For The Water Storage Tank

Plastering the outside of the water storage tank:


Plastering The Outside Of The Water Storage Tank

Plastering The Outside Of The Water Storage Tank


Plastering the inside of the slow-sand filter.  The formwork for the water storage tank can be seen to the right:


Plastering The Inside Of The Water Treatment Tank

Plastering The Inside Of The Slow Sand Filter Tank


Eccehomo was the Plan technician who supervised the tank construction, he’s the man in blue, with his hand raised:


Plastering The Inside Of The Water Treatment Tank

Plastering The Inside Of The Slow Sand Filter Tank


Here we are filling the new water storage tank.  Unlike in Cañar, I was pretty confident that the tank would hold water this time!:


Filling The Water Storage Tank

Filling The Water Storage Tank


Here is a view of the treatment plant, with the storage tank in the foreground and the slow sand filter just visible below.  Dwellings can be seen alongside the road:


The Water Storage Tank

The Water Storage Tank.  The slow-sand filter is just visible below the storage tank…


Yes, it held water!:


The Water Storage Tank - Filled!

The Water Storage Tank – Filled!


Here we are testing the water distribution network, and water is arriving at the house of the water committee chairperson:



Water arrives.


Water arrives for the first time.


Once the water system was done, we had a big party to celebrate.  Here are some images of the event, and you might notice a guy with dark sunglasses: he was playing me in a skit!


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Here are a couple of articles from the local Tuluá paper, “El Tabloide”, covering the completion of the water system in Cienegueta:



Perhaps by coincidence, Plan sent a photographer from headquarters to Tuluá those days, and I took her up to Cienegueta.  The photos she took were fantastic, and one was even chosen for Plan’s Annual Report that year.

I got an enlarged copy of that photo, which was of a boy enjoying having water in his home for the very first time.  It’s one of my favorites, and now has a special place on the wall here at home:





Recently I found a document related to our work in Cienegueta.

Many years later, in December of 1994, I was working at Plan’s headquarters in the UK, and I was about to make a presentation about the Cienegueta project to staff members there.  The idea was to give them a sense of how their work, even from headquarters far away from communities, was having a positive effect on poverty.

I reached out to the head of the Tuluá office at that point, Gladys Enid Hurtado, who wrote me back:


The relevant section of this memo reads, in English:

“The water system in Cienegueta has gone very well.  It’s one of the projects that the community most highlights, and on the day of our farewell they did so.  In Cienegueta (after the water system completion) various projects have been carried out: health post, toilets for the school, legalization of land tenure, literacy, electricity installation (this last project will be carried out this fiscal year).  These projects have been very successful.”

I was very happy to read this, especially that the people living in Cienegueta now had legal title to their land.


Next time, some reflections on working across South America from Plan’s Regional Office in Quito…


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.

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.


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.




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:




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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This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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.


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…




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.




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.




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.



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.


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:





(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…



Daniel Cedeño and Jean



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:



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 …


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.


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…


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.


Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2)

I’m writing about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that over 4000 feet tall.  A brief description of the hike and, each time, some reflections on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

The fourth of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Flume, a challenging climb because of the very steep scramble near the top.  Eric and I  continued from Flume to the top of Mt Liberty (which will be the subject of my next blog entry), so along with being a tough climb, it was also a long day.


From the parking lot, we headed north along the highway before turning east on Liberty Spring Trail.  Soon we came to the junction with Flume Slide Trail, which we took.

The hike was pleasant at first, a typical White Mountain forest walk, but the last section was very challenging – very steep granite face, quite wet and slippery.  Holding onto narrow, wet handholds with long drops below – quite nerve wracking.

Here are two photos from the climb: one at lunch, the other at the top (these two images courtesy of Eric Smith):



A Stop For Lunch, Before Summiting Flume Mountain

Flume Mountain

Top of Flume Mountain


That’s Mt Liberty on the right side of the photo – more about that in my next blog.

I was happy to have that walking stick, though an ice-axe would have been better!  Not that there was any ice or snow, but holding on to rock with the pick end of an ice-axe would have been very helpful and comforting!


I’m writing twice about the work we did in the community of San Rafael in 1985-86.  Last time I described the context of that indigenous, Cañari community, the origins of the potable-water system we built, focusing mainly on the design and construction of the  first ferrocement water-storage tank built in Ecuador.

I mentioned in that blog that our work in San Rafael was very important for me, because of the situation in that community, which was suffering an outbreak of typhoid* when I first visited: encountering small coffins being taken out of the community, through the fog, was an indication of the situation there.  Important because of what I learned in designing and working to help build an innovative water system.  And important because of where it led me, personally and professionally, connections I made during that time that led me into a career in international development and social justice.

When I returned to the US after completing my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Azogues, I spent some time writing and publishing two journal articles about the San Rafael water project – both articles are available by clicking below:

  • one article was an overview of the system in “Waterlines”, a journal devoted to appropriate technologies for water supply and sanitation.  I’ve uploaded a copy of that article, here: Waterlines;
  • and another article describing the design and construction of the ferrocement tank in some technical detail, in “Journal of Ferrocement” published by the International Ferrocement Information Center.  That article is here: Journal of Ferrocement – A 50m3 Water Reservoir for Cañar Ecuador – MCPEAK

My focus this time is on the windmill we built to pump water for San Rafael’s system.

As I mentioned last time, there were no sources of surface water above the community, so we couldn’t build a simple gravity-flow system.  But we did find water a few meters below ground, above the community.  That was lucky.

So we began construction in mid-1985, digging a well by hand, and lining it with simple concrete rings that we poured at the site.  Here are a few images of that process:


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(If you look closely, in one of the photos you can see the location of the water storage tank downhill from where we were pouring the reinforcement rings.)

This process worked well.  We formed the rings with the same tin sheets that we would soon use for the tank formwork.  Once the rings were cured, and the 6m-deep well dug by hand, we carefully lowered each ring into place.

We needed a pump to get the water out of that well, of course.  There was no electricity in San Rafael, and the community wouldn’t be able to afford fuel for a gasoline or diesel pump (but, see below for how that turned out!).

Amazingly, I was able to source 11 years of wind data from a nearby meteorological station, confirming that the use of wind power to pump water for San Rafael’s system was feasible.  So, I would design and we would build a windmill on top of the well…

How to design the windmill?  As I mentioned last time, Peace Corps had initially indicated that I wasn’t qualified for assignment to IEOS because I was a Mechanical, rather than a Civil, Engineer.  Thanks to the easy-going Peace Corps Country Director of the time, Ned Benner, in the end I was welcomed, and bureaucratic requirements were finessed.

Not being a Civil Engineer wasn’t a problem, and as I described earlier it even enabled me to think differently about how to build water-storage tanks.  But designing a windmill – that was a task for a Mechanical Engineer!  So I was well-prepared.

I no longer recall where I found it, but somehow I got my hands on “How to build a Cretan sail wind pump for use in low-speed wind conditions,” from IT Publications in London (1979).  Maybe there was a copy in the Peace Corps office in Quito?

Given the wind records, and my estimate of the required water flow for the community, I chose a diameter of 6m for the windmill; the metal tubing we used for the spokes of the wind wheel were 3m long, so that was convenient.  To simplify the design, I chose to have the turbine operate downwind of the tower, which meant that no tail would be required: rather, I designed a counterweight to balance moments across the bearing assembly, so the wind would push the structure around and orient it correctly.

Here are some images of the construction and installation of the Cretan Sail windmill:


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We welded the tower in sections, enabling easy transport.  And we assembled the 6m-diameter wind wheel at a nearby shop in Biblian, close to Azogues.  There was a factory near Azogues that manufactured heavy canvas covers for truck beds, and I arranged for them to prepare the sails for the windmill – a set of large sails for low-wind conditions, and a set of smaller sails for higher-wind days.

Transporting the wind wheel to San Rafael, along the Pan-American Highway, was tricky – as can be seen in one of the images in the slideshow, above, it was large!  And, unlike the tower, we couldn’t build it in sections.  So we had to sneak it under many electrical and telephone wires along the way, and even a few water pipes that had been hung informally across the road.  Luckily there were no underpasses between Azogues and Cañar!

We built a small hut for the chlorination plant, and trained a couple members of the community to manage that, and to maintain the windmill.

Once the windmill was installed, we tested it over several weeks.  When the windmill caught the wind, it was a dramatic sight.  The wind wheel turned downwind of the tower and caught the wind, accelerating quickly and impressively.  It pumped a lot of water and took your breath away when it accelerated!

Fitting the sails was fairly simple: the caretaker simply tied the wind wheel to the tower, and then swapped to sails that were suitable for the wind conditions – small sails for high-wind conditions, and larger ones when the wind was light.

But, in contrast to the ferrocement tank, the Cretan Sail windmill we built for San Rafael wasn’t so successful.  There were two main problems.  Firstly, my design was not really robust enough.  It pumped water very well in a range of conditions, but there were some very severe wind gusts in the area.  A few days after installation, a couple of welds in the wind wheel broke in heavy wind, and we had to bring welding equipment up to the site to repair it.

And although climbing up the tower to change sails was simple, it was a bit scary; like climbing up Mt Flume, it was steep and nerve-wracking!  When the wind wheel was turning, especially, even though there was no danger of being struck by the wind wheel, climbing up the tower was still a daunting task.  I think that the community caretakers we had trained to maintain the system, including the windmill, were understandably nervous about changing sails when the wind was up.

A few weeks after the San Rafael system was inaugurated, I finished my Peace Corps service.  We built two more ferrocement tanks in those weeks, using the manual I had written.  I don’t think that the windmill lasted very long after I left; a weld or two probably broke, and that was that.

A couple of years later, when Jean and I were living in Colombia and I was working for Plan International (more on that in upcoming blogs!), we visited Plan Cañar, and I made sure we went to San Rafael.  The ferrocement tank was in great shape, working perfectly.  The windmill, however, was abandoned, and the community had bought a diesel pump with support from Plan.  So, in fact, the water system was working well, supplying water.

We could see that construction of a large irrigation canal was nearing the area where we had built the windmill and water-storage tank.  Local community members told me that they had gotten permission to take water from that canal for their water system.  So, in the end, the potable water system for San Rafael was successful!


I certainly learned a lot from that community.  Introducing innovations into a community like that was tricky and, in particular, issues of maintenance needed to be thought through very carefully.  There were cultural aspects of the process of introducing new technology that I learned about – the windmill, for example, was a challenge from that point of view.  Who knows what the Cañari people living in San Rafael made of it!

So the Cretan Sail windmill failed.  The ferrocement tank was a big success, and in the future I would come across many water-storage tanks built from that design in many parts of South America, even in Albania (where Annuska Heldring would serve as Country Director for Plan.)  The particular section of a sphere that I chose for the cupola was very recognizable!

Most importantly, the community of San Rafael had water.  Some day I would love to visit, now a bit over 30 years later, to see how they have progressed.


Next time, I’ll describe how Eric and I continued our climb that day, hiking across to Mt Liberty from Mt Flume, and then down Liberty Spring Trail.

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

  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).
  • * I got it wrong in my last blog – it was typhoid, not cholera.   Still…

Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1)

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

The third of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Moosilauke, which was a gorgeous climb.


From the parking lot at the start of Beaver Brook Trail – which is also the Appalachian Trail for the section that I walked – the trail ascends rapidly.  I passed this sign, which warns hikers: in the winter, or in the rain, climbing up past the Black Brook Cascades could be tricky (or, as the sign says, even “tragic”) … on a sunny day in May, for me, it was merely steep.



Beaver Brook Cascades are beautiful – and, of course, easier going up than down:


Still, there were a couple of patches of snow on that sunny late May day, though nothing like I had seen going up Mt Tom and Mt Field!




And at the top, well above tree-line, there’s an extensive, fragile, alpine field with lots of granite rubble and some spectacular views of other White Mountains:


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This was one of my favorite climbs in the White Mountains – a strenuous ascent up through forest, featuring a long, early climb up next to rushing waterfalls, no bugs, and then a fabulous alpine area at the top.  Simply fantastic!


I will be writing twice about the work we did in the community of San Rafael in 1985-86.  It was a very important water project for me, because of the situation in that community, which was suffering an outbreak of cholera when I first visited.  Important because of what I learned in designing and working to help build an innovative water system.  And important because of where it led me, connections I made during that time that led me into a career in international development and social justice.

This first blog about San Rafael will describe the ferrocement water tank, unique for its time and the first of many that were built using the same design – in Ecuador, other parts of South America, even in Albania!  Next time, I’ll write about the other main innovation that we introduced in the San Rafael system: the Cretan Sail windmill…

When we had built the water system in El Tambo earlier, we had used a standard design for the water tank and filters – reinforced concrete, with walls about 20cm thick.  Here’s a photo of the filters at El Tambo: take a look at the thickness of the walls, same as the walls we built for the water tank:

El Tambo - 5

Treatment plant. I’m standing on the wall between two slow sand filters.


By comparison, here’s an image of the water tank we built in San Rafael, just 2cm thick!  In this photo, the wall had just been roughly plastered, and you can see how thin it was, in comparison:


San Rafael - 8a


But I’m getting ahead of myself here… let me start at the beginning:

When I joined Peace Corps, I was assigned to be Project Engineer at the Ecuadorean Institute of Sanitary Works (IEOS, the acronym in Spanish).  There had been a hiccup in my recruitment at the beginning: since I was trained as a Mechanical Engineer, not a Civil Engineer, I didn’t technically qualify for the assignment to IEOS.  They wanted people who could design and supervise construction of potable water systems; typical civil engineering stuff, according to the specifications.

Luckily, when I was on the phone with Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC, talking about this obstacle, the Ecuador Country Director (Ned Benner) happened to be in town, and he happened to walk past the person just as we were talking about the problem.  The recruiter put me on hold, and then casually leaned back and asked Benner about the issue.

I’m grateful to Benner, who apparently said something like “sure, send him along!”

Bless him.  Because the engineering involved in simple, gravity-flow water systems is pretty straightforward.  And not being a Civil Engineer made me see things a little bit differently, later.

For example, in my first year as a Peace Corps Volunteers I had built standard IEOS design reinforced-concrete water tanks with very thick walls, in Cochancay and El Tambo, like the one you can see in the photo, above.

Since water-storage tanks were the most expensive single item in these gravity-flow systems, and they seemed very over-designed – and unnecessarily expensive – to me (seeing things freshly, not being a Civil Engineer!), it all felt very wasteful.  Could we build a tank with thinner walls?  I had a suspicion that they might even be as much as 75% cheaper … which would mean that we could build more water systems with the same funding…

Sometime early in 1985, things came together.  First, a small delegation of indigenous Cañari villager leaders came to visit the IEOS office from San Rafael, a village near the town of Cañar, led by Manuel Cungachi.  They had obtained a small budget allocation from the Congress of Ecuador to build a potable-water system in their village, which was suffering from a cholera outbreak.  And they wanted to know when we could get started!  (Collective action works!)

My boss, the IEOS director for Cañar, sent me to visit San Rafael to see what we could do.  I vividly recall the first afternoon when I walked into that community through the thick fog that rose up from the coast almost every afternoon.  I came across a small group of villagers carrying two tiny coffins, walking towards me, out of the fog.  Children, they told me, that had died from cholera due to the bad water sources in the village.

Earlier that year, world oil prices had collapsed, and since Ecuador was an oil-exporter (in fact, an OPEC member state) and much of the governmental budget was dependent on robust oil revenues, IEOS’s budget had been cut.  And when I estimated the cost of a typical potable-water system, based on my rough surveying of the village that foggy day, the budget that San Rafael had obtained from the Congress wasn’t nearly enough.  IEOS had no spare funds.

So, despite the obvious need, and despite the community having obtained some budget from the Congress, we didn’t have enough  money to address the problem.

But, happily, an international NGO had just arrived in town!  Plan International was establishing a Field Office in Azogues and, since there were so few foreigners in town – just me and a newly-arrived Peace Corps Volunteer now working as a “water promoter” in the IEOS office (David Wright) – it was hard to miss the arrival of Plan’s new Field Director, Annuska Heldring.

A charismatic, dedicated, and hilarious Dutch woman, Annuska drove around town in a brand new, shiny white Toyota Land Cruiser, creating quite a buzz in the quiet provincial atmosphere in Azogues.  (More about Plan, and Annuska, will come in future posts in this series…)  She wanted to get a program going quickly, and had decided that potable water was going to be one of the focuses of Plan Cañar.  And I needed to find funding for San Rafael…

Things were coming together.

I arranged to visit San Rafael with Annuska one weekend, and she was struck by how the people there were organized and dynamic, and by the obvious need.  Under Annuska’s leadership, Plan became enthusiastic about putting some funding into the project.

But even with Plan’s support we still didn’t have enough money to make things happen in San Rafael.

So I came up with the idea of trying out some innovations to get the cost down.  I knew that US AID, in Quito, had a fund for innovative water projects, so I sent a proposal to Herb Caudill, who headed up the US AID water program.

There was no source of water above the village, which meant that water would have to be pumped – normally a very expensive proposition.  I had read about a simple water-turbine design called a “Cretan Sail” windmill, so I thought I could design and build one to pump water from a well above the village; building a windmill was a job for a Mechanical Engineer!  More on that part of the San Rafael project in the next blog!

The other major expense would be, of course, the water-storage tank.  As I mentioned earlier, the 20cm thick walls of the tanks in Cochancay and El Tambo seemed way over-designed to me, from a Mechanical Engineer’s point of view.  Wastefully so… and certainly not affordable for San Rafael.

Then I remembered that I had heard of boats had been build from concrete, using a technology called I vaguely recalled, “ferrocement.”  I began to sketch out what that kind of tank might look like.  But I had almost no access to technical information there in Azogues in those pre-internet days.  What to do?

So I asked my girlfriend, soon to be wife, Jean, who lived in Massachusetts, to buy me a copy of Roark’s stress tables (which I had used when I worked at Boeing a few years earlier – here’s a current version to give you an idea) so I could start to calculate how much reinforcement a water tank would need.  And Jean also paid a visit to the engineering library at my university and found a couple of articles about ferrocement (from the “Journal of Ferrocement” no less!)  Jean mailed the book and the articles to me, and I went to work.

The idea with ferrocement seemed to be that, instead of concentrating the steel reinforcement in thick rebar, requiring thick walls to cover it and distribute tensile loads to it, in ferrocement you distributed the reinforcement more evenly, using chicken-wire and steel wire instead of rebar.  You needed the same amount of steel in total to handle tensile loads in the concrete, but since the reinforcement was distributed more evenly, the concrete covering could be thinner.  Or so I hoped…

With Roark’s stress tables, and hints from the articles Jean had sent me, I came up with a basic idea for San Rafael’s water project:

  • We would dig a well by hand, and line it with simple concrete rings that we would pour at the site;
  • On top of the well, we would build a Cretan Sail windmill to pump the water.  By some incredible luck, there was a weather station in the town of Cañar, so I had records of the wind there: there was a lot of wind in that area, little doubt that a windmill would be feasible, if I could get one built.  More on that in the next post!;
  • Given the population of San Rafael, the water system needed a storage tank of at least 50m3.  We would build it of ferrocement.  And to keep costs down even further, we would reuse materials as much as possible.  For example, one article in the “Journal of Ferrocement” described how the author had used tubing around the tank formwork to create a ribbed surface, easy to plaster.  To keep costs down, I’d use the tubing that would later be used for the household connections for that purpose.  And, to cover the tank, I would use roofing tin, which we would first use for the tank’s formwork.

To my delight, Herb Caudill of US AID in Quito quickly approved an innovation grant, so we had enough money to build the system!

Looking back, it seems amazing that funding for the water system in San Rafael came together – from the Ecuadorean Congress (thanks to effective collective action by San Rafael’s leaders), from Plan International (thanks to Annuska), and finally from US AID (thanks to Herb Caudill).

One final stroke of luck was still to come: when I showed my initial design for the ferrocement water tank to the Provincial Head of IEOS, he told me it would never hold water.  I should forget about it!

Since I was a Mechanical Engineer, and he was an experienced Civil Engineer (and my boss!), this made me very nervous.  Who was I to say that the tank wouldn’t collapse, if an experienced Civil Engineer was so sure I was heading towards disaster?

So I spent many weekend days pouring over my calculations, and decided to go ahead; to give him credit, my boss didn’t stop me.  And then, just at the right time, IEOS employees nation-wide went on strike for several weeks, and the Provincial Head of IEOS had to stay home; I was in charge of the office, sort of!  During those weeks, in his absence, we built the tank!

The first step was to pour the floor.  We dug out an area near where the windmill would be placed, and placed rocks as a foundation, with a network of drainage pipes underneath.  After pouring an initial layer of concrete, we put chicken wire down, extending it well beyond where the walls would later be erected.  The idea was that the chicken wire for the walls would tie in to the wire in the floor, making the whole structure, essentially, one piece, one structure, one ferrocement shell.

Here are some images of the floor being prepared:


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Next we prepared the walls, and this is where things got tricky.  Because I was so nervous about the tank failing, I became fixated on the placement of its walls: any deviation from perfectly round would create tensile stresses that would break the tank when it filled with water.  The challenge was that the masons involved, very capable IEOS veterans, were used to  traditional construction methods, which were very forgiving.  That was an advantage of the thick-walled tanks – they were easy to build.  Costly, but with wide margins of safety for placing the steel reinforcement, the formwork, etc.

I hadn’t thought of that.  My insistence on the formwork being placed exactly as designed, and the chicken wire and reinforcing wire being located exactly where I had specified, was hard for the masons to comply with.

I was so nervous that, during the preparation and construction of the tank walls I visited San Rafael very frequently, and asked the masons to make many, minute adjustments.  I’m sure they grumbled when I wasn’t there!  Surely they viewed me with some resentment, a silly gringo obsessed with meaningless details.

Here are some images of the preparation of the walls:

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I vividly recall driving up to the construction site the day after we had begun to fill the tank for the first time.  Although all my many, many calculations had led me to believe that the tank would easily survive being filled with water, my head echoed with the doubts of every Civil Engineer I had spoken with.  So you can imagine my relief, and joy, when I arrived the next morning and saw this:


San Rafael - 901

It held water perfectly!

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It held water! (Note the IEOS truck above, with the windmill tower. More on that later)


Seeing that tank full of water, and holding firm, was a big moment for me.

I mentioned earlier that my plan was to reuse the tin roofing sheets we had used for the tank formwork, using them to cover the tank.  But I was so excited at how well the tank was holding water that I started thinking that I might be able to design a ferrocement top for the tank, too.

So as the walls cured, I spent a few weeks designing a cupola, which would sit on top of the tank walls.  This was risky, because the tank walls were not initially designed to hold the weight of a ferrocement cupola… but my calculations indicated that it was possible.  And we had enough money for this.

I chose a particular section of a sphere for the cupola, and later, when I saw tanks built from the same design, I could easily recognise my handiwork from that particular spherical section!

Placement of the formwork for the cupola was, if anything, even trickier than it had been for the walls.  That’s because, if the walls had failed, it would have destroyed the tank; but if the cupola fell and somebody was on top, or inside the tank, they could easily be killed.

Here are some images of the cupola: during construction, and when it was completed:


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At the time I estimated that the water-storage tank in San Rafael saved about 2/3rds of the cost of a standard, IEOS-style reinforced concrete tank.  As the months passed, and as the tank continued to perform perfectly, IEOS Engineers came to visit it – including the head of construction for IEOS headquarters in Quito, Napoleon Duque.  Here is Ing Duque on top of the tank!:


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Napoleon Duque on top of the cupola


Duque later told me that he had build a ferrocement tank, using my design, near Quito, close to a similarly-sized standard tank.  A medium-sized earthquake had struck the area, destroying the traditional tank; the ferrocement tank, being light and resilient, merely floated along with the earthquake without the slightest problem.  And before I left Azogues, we built two more tanks of different capacities: 10m3 and 20m3, I think.

In my final weeks as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I wrote an instruction manual for constructing tanks of this type, of various capacities.  Later that manual was greatly improved by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Kenny Stevens, and many tanks were built using that document.

One was even built in Albania, in the early 1990’s, where Annuska Heldring became Plan’s Country Director there!

Years later, I visited Plan in Cañar when I was Regional Director for South America.  We were celebrating the five year anniversary of the establishment of Plan’s office in Azogues.

Of course, I paid a visit to San Rafael, and our water tank was functioning perfectly.  At the ceremony for Plan Cañar, my old boss from IEOS was in attendance.  He told me that he had left IEOS, and had now focused his work building ferrocement tanks!  I didn’t remind him of his initial scepticism.  Instead, I felt happy that our work in San Rafael was echoing into the future, helping make the limited resources available for building water projects in Ecuador go a bit further.