Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed

People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed

Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed”

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In this article, I want to take stock and reflect on the first two phases of my journey: two years in Peace Corps Ecuador, and fifteen great years with Plan.  As I looked back, a lot had changed for me, times were indeed strange… and the world had been utterly transformed.

But, unlike Bob Dylan, I still cared.

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

Last time I wrote about the design, creation, and abrupt and destructive closure of an innovative approach to funding and implementing large grant projects in Plan Viet Nam.  In October, 2002, I would step down as Country Director for Plan, resigning from Plan.  A major milestone for me: after 15 great years with Plan, I was ready for something new.  And I was pretty clear about what that would look like …

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On September 13, 2016, I climbed both Middle and South Carter Mountains.  First, I want to describe the hike up Middle Carter (4610ft, 1405m.)

It was another gorgeous day, just as clear and pleasant as the day before, when I had climbed Wildcat “D” and Wildcat Mountain.  I had stayed the night before at Dolly Copp Campground, so was able to get a much earlier start on this day as I saved the two hour drive from Durham.

Dolly Copp was (and is) under construction, necessary renovation.  I had a simple flat area, picnic table, and nearby (common) toilet in the area of the campground that was not being renovated.

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My plan was to head up on the northern branch of the Imp Trail, up to the lookout on Imp Face, take North Carter Trail up to the ridge, and then get to Middle Carter.  Then I would continue south to climb South Carter, and then retrace my steps to return via Imp’s southern branch.  This would leave me with a short road hike north to get back to my car.

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I parked on the side of Rt 16, at the northern entrance to the Imp Trail, at about 7:45am, and headed east.  It would be 3.1 miles up to the junction with the North Carter Trail:

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The hike up the northern branch of the Imp Trail was pleasant, a typical late-summer White-Mountain forest walk.

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I arrived at Imp Face at just after 9am, and (as promised) the views west and south towards the Presidential Range were fantastic:

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Not a cloud in the sky, dry and free from insects.  Heaven!

I arrived at the junction with North Carter Trail at 9:49am, and continued to climb.

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It was 10:45am when I arrived at the ridge-top, joining Carter-Moriah Trail, coincident here with the Appalachian Trail:

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From the junction, it was just over a half mile along the ridge to reach the top of Middle Carter.  Along the way, there were “five ledgy humps, with boggy depressions between” (from the White Mountain Guide.)  Some had convenient planks:

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What an amazing walk: nearing the top of Middle Carter, views to the west (the Presidentials) and east (towards the Atlantic Ocean) opened up again:

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And then the top, just before noon.  No views here, the top is forested.  But I stopped for lunch; a bit early, but I had been five hours climbing so far:

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The Summit Of Middle Carter

 

From the top, I continued south to reach South Carter, returning via the southern branch of Imp.  I’ll describe the rest of this clear, beautiful, insect-free day next time!

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Just as I was leaving Hanoi, I got an email from out of the blue, from a person I had never met: Daniel Wordsworth was Program Development Director at CCF in Richmond, Virginia, and he wanted to know if I knew anybody who could help them reinvent their program approach.  Though I didn’t know Daniel, I had met his manager, Michelle Poulton, when I was at Plan’s headquarters, liking her and respecting her abilities and passion.  And Daniel told me that Alan Fowler, one of the “aid sector’s” real thinkers, was working with them, which was impressive.  I thought I might know the perfect person for the job …

But before describing the two great years that followed, as we developed and tested what became CCF’s new approach, “Bright Futures,” I want to reflect a bit about what had changed – for me, but mostly in the world of development, poverty, and social justice – in the 15 years between my start in this work (beginning with two years in the Peace Corps, in Ecuador, 1984-86) and my departure from Plan after 15 years (Viet Nam, 2002).

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What an amazing 18 1/2 years!  Today, as I write this, nearly 15 years have passed since I left Viet Nam… but I still feel incredibly lucky:

  • lucky to have been sent to Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and to have been assigned to Cañar, where I was given big responsibilities, and located far from other Volunteers!;
  • lucky that Annuska Heldring arrived in Cañar while I was a Volunteer, because she helped fund my most innovative project (San Rafael), taught me a lot about how to manage a big international NGO … and later opened the door for me at Plan International;
  • lucky to have worked for Monique van’t Hek during my first posting in Plan, in Tuluá, Colombia – I learned a great deal from her about how to run an NGO, how to manage people, how to speak Colombian Spanish!  And lucky that I later worked for Leticia Escobar when I became Field Director there, a smart and very dedicated professional;
  • lucky to have worked for Andy Rubi, Plan’s first Regional Director, once I moved to Quito;
  • lucky to have joined Plan during a period of rapid expansion, which gave me many, many opportunities to learn at a rapid pace during a phase of professionalization of that, and most other, international NGOs;
  • lucky to have had the opportunity to succeed Andy Rubi as Regional Director for South America for Plan; and lucky to move to become Plan’s Program Director at International Headquarters; where I was
  • lucky to work with Max van der Schalk, Plan’s CEO of the time;
  • lucky to have had support from Max and Plan’s board to decide to tackle some fundamental changes in Plan;
  • lucky to finish my time in Plan in Viet Nam, such a special place, with such special people (Thu Ba, Duat, Minh Thu, Ary, etc.)

Over those years, I had evolved and grown, and changed, and the context of the work I was doing had changed deeply.

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I want to share some thoughts about how the context for the work I was doing had changed.  This will provide the context, also, for what I would do after leaving Viet Nam: helping CCF (now ChildFund) create, test, and roll-out their new program approach, globally; and then becoming Executive Director for the UU Service Committee, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I will describe both of those experiences in future blog posts; my intention here is to describe how things had changed, externally, in the world.  Because those changes led to the work I did at CCF and the UU Service Committee…

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Human deprivation, at least as traditionally considered (as the “lack” of basic human needs), had dropped, and in 2002 deprivation was still dropping fast.  Things were getting better, at least in simple terms.  On average.  For the majority.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) MDG Statistics database helps illustrate how things were evolving: using those data, here are nine graphs illustrating how the world was getting better, fast – at least in terms of basic human needs) – during those years:

  • Economic Poverty was declining very quickly.  While I was working in Tuluá, nearly half of the population living in developing regions in the world were living on less than a dollar a day (adjusted to $1.25 to retain comparability).  By 2011, that proportion was down to less than 20%, an incredible improvement.  And while this change was heavily driven by changes in eastern Asia (poverty dropping from 60.7% to 6.3% in that region!), big improvements were being seen across the world:

 

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  • Child deaths, measured by the Under-Five Mortality Rate, were also dropping quickly.  Between when I moved to Quito to work at Plan’s South America Regional Office (1991) and the mid-point in my service in Viet Nam (2000), the global average U5MR dropped from 100 (per 1000), down to 83; and by 2015, it was at 50.  Down by half in just 24 years; perhaps a dry statistic, but this actually means that many millions of children were alive that would not have survived otherwise:

 

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  • Malnutrition had been a huge problem in Viet Nam, affecting well over half of children in the country.  Across the world, the prevalence of underweight children under age 5 was on track to drop by nearly half between 1990 (25%) and 2015 (14%).  Incredible progress, mirrored in Viet Nam:

 

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  • Maternal mortality in the developing world was also dropping fast, from 430 per 100,000 live births in 1990, down to 230 in 2013.  Still way too high, but progress was fast and, seemingly, accelerating:

 

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  • Enrollment in primary school was trending up, steadily, growing from 80% in 1991 to over 90% by 2015, as was the ratio of girls to boys in primary education (which was nearing 100%):

 

 

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  • Since I had begun my career (in Azogues) working on water and sanitation, I want to share two final trends.  The proportion of people (in developing regions) using improved drinking water had moved from 70% in 1990, to nearly 90% in 2015:

 

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and the proportion of people (in developing regions) using imported sanitation had risen just as quickly, from 43% to 62%:

 

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Incredible progress, something that the entire human race should be proud of.

Credit for these shifts must go, first and foremost, to those people who were living in poverty.  Their hard work and dedication was the primary force behind the astonishing changes illustrated here.  Also, in many (but not all) places, local governments were major drivers of improvement.  And certainly the rapid increases in monetary income, driven to a large extent by economic globalization, in turn were translated into other, related material gains in well-being, especially in eastern Asia.

And credit is also clearly due to the way that so many people (including the public in the Global North), governments, and institutions joined the fight to tackle poverty.  Agencies such as Plan International, CCF, Save the Children, Oxfam, etc.; bilateral agencies such as USAID, AusAID, CIDA, SIDA, DFID, etc.; and foundations such as Gates, Rockefeller, etc.  And movements like Live Aid, Live 8, etc.

(It’s notoriously hard to prove causality in social science, hard to know which stakeholder had contributed to what part of this positive change.  Later, when I was working with ChildFund Australia, we would design a way of helping communities understand how conditions were changing, and to understand which stakeholders were contributing to those changes – more on that, later!)

So, huge progress in tackling material deprivation.  But other, more negative trends were also becoming evident, trends would greatly influence the next phase of my career:

  • While economic globalization was having huge positive effects in eastern Asia (and elsewhere), distortions were building.  In particular, the benefits of globalization increasingly were being concentrated at the top of the economic ladder; the rules of economic liberalization seemed to be rigged in favor of the richest.  Inequality was growing fast:

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  • Populations were becoming much more diverse.  Demographic diversification, which can be seen in the figure below, in one particular country, was taking place alongside the progress illustrated above.  For me, this diversification was a great thing but, sadly, it seemed also to be fuelling forces of intolerance, oppression and exclusion in many places:

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  • And the world situation, as Jean and I moved from Hanoi to New Hampshire in October, 2002, seemed increasingly full of injustice.  The Bush administration was gearing up to invade Iraq, inventing a series of transparent lies (connection to the attacks of September, 2001; weapons of mass destruction; freedom and democracy) as justification.

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So, great material progress, certainly, but also signs of growing injustice.  I began to think a lot about how to integrate these new (to me, anyway!) manifestations of poverty into the work our international NGOs were doing to address material poverty.

Unfortunately, the conditions for that kind of integration were not very promising.

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This seemed ironic, because the NGO movement had really emerged from specific injustices, and many of them had been vehicles for social activism by their “membership.”  But by the time I left Plan, most if not all of the major INGOs had grown to be so large, so corporate, and so focused on institutional survival, that they had become very averse to challenging the ways that existing power structures perpetuated injustice.  They were, indeed, deeply embedded in those very power structures, part of them at the highest levels.

INGOs had adopted corporate, private-sector ways of working and being (see my “Trojan Horse” paper – McPeak – Trojan Horse – Submission to Deakin – Final), which enabled them to prosper in the elite world of the United Nations, the large bilaterals, and professional foundations.  These stakeholders were mostly interested in the kinds of material progress that had been made, illustrated in the first set of figures presented here.  Leaders seemed uninterested in working in the more-challenging, harder-to-measure, contested space of justice, exclusion and vulnerability; indeed, they were unable to work in that space, having lost the activist capabilities they had been born with.

To the extent that good INGOs were evolving, they were moving towards working with more-excluded populations – for example, ethnic minorities in mountainous areas of Viet Nam – and doing advocacy work to prod governments to address inequality and exclusion.  ActionAid and Oxfam seemed most interested in moving into these spaces, but the problem was that donors weren’t as interested in funding advocacy work, because it seemed less “tangible.”  And even those agencies that worked more with “excluded” groups were still working on “basic needs” for excluded people – necessary, no doubt, but perhaps not addressing the causes of exclusion.

Overall, in those years, the “aid sector” was aligned to the MDGs, and great work had been done; but the task seemed to be changing, and the ways that the “sector” had evolved was, I feared, not going to enable them to work on the new problems of justice, exclusion and vulnerability.

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Arriving back in the US after many years abroad, then, my own thoughts were focused on how poverty was shifting, the upcoming war in Iraq, the political situation in the US… exclusion, vulnerability, people’s power.  It seemed to me that the international NGOs that had helped make such great progress in reducing human deprivation, the organizations that I had been working with, like Plan International, were not fit for working on the emerging issues of unaccountable government, growing inequality, exclusion, and vulnerability.  They even seemed uninterested in these trends, perhaps because they had been built to work in stable, predominantly-rural settings – that was their niche.

It all seemed to come together for me when Daniel Wordsworth and I spoke, just before I left Hanoi.  He and Michelle wanted to move CCF’s program approach towards something much more relevant to the times we lived in, and were investing time and energy in a real voyage of reflection and innovation – what was CCF’s institutional context?  What was child poverty?  What did children think?  Therefore, how must their program approach evolve?  Exciting stuff.

Soon after arriving in New Hampshire, I flew to Richmond, Virginia, and sat down with Daniel, Michelle, and John Schultz (CCF’s then-President) to discuss how I might be a part of the change they were leading.

So, once again, I was lucky.  I was able to work with Daniel and Michelle to study the new context of poverty, consider the institutional reality that CCF faced, and design and pilot test a new program approach.  A program approach that would incorporate building the power of excluded people to influence injustice.  And, later, I was able to move to the UU Service Committee, to work on human-rights activism and political advocacy in the context of the Bush-era invasion of Iraq, denial of civil liberties, the use of torture, refusal to address climate change, etc.

Stay tuned for my next blog article, as I begin two great years as a consultant to CCF!

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mount Washington From Wildcat “C”

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Looking East, the Atlantic Ocean (Right Side Background)

 

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

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

 

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

What is a ‘cycle’?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Stay tuned for descriptions of those climbs!

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Plan Struggles To Increase Grants

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

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

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

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

A Regional Meeting in Plan Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Large Grants Implementation Unit” – Conceptual Drafts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My response was three-fold:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foresight, hindsight and the LGIU becoming the new norm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many thanks to Ary for his recollections!

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

So, stay tuned!

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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The Summit Of Wildcat “D”

 

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Population Below $1 (PPP)

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

U5MR

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

Improved Drinking Water

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

*

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

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

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

 

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Then we summarized the CSP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Cairn Marks the Summit Of Mt Pierce

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

 

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

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

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

*

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

What went well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What went badly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

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

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

Those three carefully-chosen major projects would be:

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

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

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

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

But first…

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

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

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

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The Summit of South Kinsman

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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Harrington Pond

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Measuring Need

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

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

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

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

Measuring Potential for Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Qualitative Factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more!

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

 

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

North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International

In my previous entry of this series, I wrote about my arrival at the International Headquarters (“IH”) of Plan International, in 1991, as Program Director.  I had proposed to the then-new International Executive Director, Max van der Schalk, that I would stay in that role for just three years, accomplish some specific goals, and then I would return to the field.

I hoped to advance three carefully-chosen major projects in what I planned would be a relatively-brief time at IH:

  1. We would articulate a set of program goals for the organization, high-level enough to be suitable across our six Regions, yet specific enough to build unity, align our work with best practices, and enable accountability;
  2. We would create a growth plan for the organization, so that resource allocations would be more rational, less political, less dependent on the force of character of a particular management presentation;
  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.

Each of these efforts would contribute to addressing the disunity and lack of accountability that had grown as the agency regionalised and as staff had rebelled against Max’s predecessor, Alberto Neri.  I felt that the centrifugal forces unleashed by regionalization needed to be balanced with stronger centripetal forces – building unity across regions.

Centrifugal force is a way of describing the way that an object following a curved path will fly outwards, away from the center of the curve.  Centrifugal force isn’t really a force, it describes how an object resists any change in its state of rest or motion, so any object moving in a curved path must be subject to some force to make it deviate from a straight line.  Centripetal force is a real force, counteracting the centrifugal “force” and preventing the object from flying away from the center of the circular path.1  

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

In this post I want to describe the first of those three projects – the preparation and approval of a new set of program goals and cross-cutting principles for Plan.

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

But first…

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

On July 3, 2016, Eric and I climbed North and South Kinsman, two of the three 4000-footers in the Cannon-Kinsman range, just west of Franconia Notch.  I’ll describe the first part of that long, long day here – the ascent of North Kinsman (4293ft, 1309m).

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We left the parking area on NH 116 at around 11am, having driven up from Durham that morning.

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After a steady climb of around 3.7m, at around 1pm we arrived at the junction of several trails that are arrayed around Lonesome Lake Hut, which we could see below us down towards Franconia Notch.  Here we joined Kinsman Ridge Trail towards North Kinsman.

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Less than a half mile after passing this junction, we arrived at the summit of North Kinsman.  The view of Franconia Range from North Kinsman was spectacular that day.

Here you can see, from the left, Mt Lafayette, Mt Lincoln, Mt Liberty, and Mt Flume.  Obviously, it was a stunning day and, once we arrived onto Kinsman Ridge Trail, the views were gorgeous:

 

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As can be seen on the map, above, when we arrived at the top of North Kinsman we were barely a quarter of the way into our hike.  It was a great, but very long, day – the rest of which I will describe next time.

*

Third sector organizations, in particular, have fuzzy boundaries and countless opportunities to drift away from their primary purpose– Hudson (1995)

The kind of drift that Hudson describes was clearly occurring in Plan.  By 1994, Plan had three formal program goals (education, health, and economy); six program policies (HIV/AIDS, special-need children, family planning, women in development, the environment, and urban-rural work); a global program document, with nine policy themes and strategies; and an official Program Manual, including additional related statements.

These goals and policies had been developed over a number of years and became outdated, incomplete, and inconsistent in form.  They were a mixture of strategies, targets, and indicators, predating the development of Plans vision, mission, and strategic directions, the World Summit for Children, the World Conference on Education for All, and other important shifts in the development sector that had taken place.  Importantly, this hodgepodge of statements were not very child-centered.  From my own perspective, having worked as a Field Director in Tuluá, Area Manager for Ecuador and Bolivia, and Regional Director for South America, Plan’s program goals and policies were not as relevant to field practice as they should have been, and they did not enhance unity of purpose or accountability.  We weren’t using them; we had no shared language to describe our work.

But there was another reason for the drift: the new Regional Offices were asserting themselves in the vacuum that was being created by the reality that IH was very distracted by conflict between senior staff and the new CEO, Alberto Neri.  As I described earlier, for example, in the South America Region we had created our own strategy process, which was very successful in unifying our work in that part of the world, but I felt, even at the time, that there needed to be a mechanism for common, consistent accountability across the whole organization. Otherwise, regionalisation would pull Plan apart.

From my perspective, regionalisation was, in fact, pulling Plan apart.

Once Max brought me to IH, I prioritized reviewing Plans program goals and policies.  And having been a Regional Director, I was determined to undertake that review using a very different approach, consistent with a very new role for International Headquarters in general, and my new Department of Planning and Program Support (PPS) in particular.

What was that new role?  Previously, headquarters departments would decide what to do, and would carry out whatever was decided.  Of course, like good NGO people, headquarters staff consulted widely and deeply, and there was always lots of participation.  But IH ran things, developed things in a participatory way, rolled things out.

Now that regionalisation had been completed, my view was that the Regions would carry out many of the kinds of initiatives that were previously handled by IH.  They were closer to Plan’s work, better and more authentic innovations would come from Regions.

But, as I had been as Regional Director in South America, Regions would naturally tend to see things through their particular lens.  That was OK, as long as that kind of centrifugal force was balanced by the centripetal force of an agent that naturally saw things from the overall organizational perspective.  That was, almost by definition, International Headquarters.

So, the role of headquarters departments, at least my department, was to define parameters and objectives, and then – whenever possible – devolve development of corporate initiatives to decentralised operational units which were, after all, headed by senior managers (Regional Directors) who reported to the International Executive Director, just as I did.  I thought that this approach would be consistent with our regionalised structure, put my IH department into a necessary and proper centripetal role, and be effective in achieving the desired changes for Plan.

As I will describe here, and in my next two blog entries, I think it was mostly, but certainly not completely, successful…

*

So I proposed that PPS review and update Plan’s goals using the kind of approach outlined above and, once support was obtained from Senior Management, and the international board approved the initiative, we got going.

As a first step, a conference was organized using a “future search” methodology.2 Participants at this weeklong conference included senior staff from each Region, from IH, from Plan’s partner fundraising organizations, and from other international NGOs.

A complete set of “Domains” of child development were articulated as representing organizational goals, and another full set of cross-cutting “Principles” guiding Plans work in each domain were also proposed. These Domains and Principles were designed to replace the patchwork of existing goals and policies.

The basic framework that emerged included five Domains, or spheres of work:

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Growing up healthy: here we articulated a move beyond child physical survival to address the broader development and well-being of child age groups, incorporating Plan’s existing policies for child survival, family planning and HIV and AIDS;

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Learning: in this Domain we put emphasis upon learning rather than just schooling, recognising the importance of early childhood, preschool preparation, and youth and adult literacy and skills;

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Habitat: this recognised the interconnection of numerous habitat elements, social as well as physical, and their importance for children;

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Livelihood: here we rightly placed the focus of economic activities squarely upon their ultimate benefit for children;

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Building relationships: in this Domain we made explicit the inter-relation between child-sponsorship activities and program.

The Building-Relationship Domain, in particular, was seen as a breakthrough.  Plan, like many other “child-sponsorship” agencies, struggled to make sense of that particular mechanism: was it “just” a fundraising tool, or was there something more?

Our new formulation put Plan squarely in the “something more” camp – sponsorship was seen as a way of involving children in community development and  building the competence of children to communicate about their daily realities.  Plan also committed, in this Domain of our work, to calling for “sponsors” to support – and understand – the development priorities of children and their communities.  This was a big step forward for the organization.

Seven “Principles” were also proposed, which would be qualities characterising Plan’s work in each program Domain:

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Child Centredness (The Fundamental Principle): Plan’s programs would be child-
centered.  This was known as the Fundamental Principle because we wanted the child to be at the center of all of our work – our unchangeable, indisputable foundation;

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Learning: the organisation would strive to learn from its experience to support the achievement of its Mission;

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Integration:
program components would reinforce each other, so that activities in various Domains would become more powerful together, in integrated programs;

Gender Equity: Plan would emphasise women and img_7552girls, working to provide equal opportunities for all.  “Across its program interventions, Plan will actively work toward the eradication of gender-based inequities in opportunities, and the access to and control over resources.”  Here we sought to transcend the debate between gender equality and gender and development and move towards what I would characterize, today, as gender justice;

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Environmental Sustainability:
“across its program interventions, Plan will promote equitable and sustainable access to and use of natural resources by the people with whom it works, based on an understanding of their relationship with the environment”;

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Empowerment and Sustainability: Plan would seek to build the capabilities of local communities and local institutions and organisations with the aim of ensuring the long-term well-being of children;

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Cooperation: Later our sector would come to describe this as “partnership” – “to achieve its Mission, Plan will work through communities, and with community organisations, government bodies, NGOs and others.  Work with these partners will be based on mutual respect, with specific rights and obligations for all parties.”

 

*

Output from the conference served to mobilize the organization.  Several decentralized units, coordinated by PPS, managed the ensuing process of reflection and discussion. For example, the region of Central America and the Caribbean led development of the learning Domain, and an existing organizationwide network led in developing the Principle of gender equity.

In several cases, PPS handled Principle development directly, in the absence of a champion inside a decentralized organizational unit.  But to a great extent, decentralized units handled the development of these crucial organizational policies, working with other units and consultants and reporting results out to the wider organization for discussion.

What was the role of PPS?  We set up guidelines for Domain and Principle development; organized project timelines; and coordinated and monitored the overall process of review, discussion, and consensus building.  PPS also compiled draft documents into complete versions for review by the IED and senior management at critical stages in the development process.  Purposefully, the role of PPS was quite limited unless it was absolutely impossible for a decentralized unit to manage a particular part of this effort.

This process worked well.  Ownership of the process and the result was strong across Plan. The role of PPS was clear and widely accepted; as a result a businesslike and harmonious atmosphere characterized the development of Plan’s goals. Headquarters staff felt that their role, though somewhat indirect, was still valuable.  At the same time, ownership of the process was strong in field units, as they directly managed policy development for the wider organization.

However, two difficulties were encountered. In several cases, decentralized organizational units found that they were simply not able to dedicate sufficient time to developing a domain. In these cases, PPS stepped in to support the process. Also, at one point in the development process, an interim draft of the complete document took a direction that was unacceptable to Plan’s senior management in some particular aspects. But even this was constructive, since it defined the outer limit of options acceptable to management.

(Let me just foreshadow here that the same degree of success would not be achieved with the other two major projects that PPS carried out when I was at IH, even though I tried to use the same approach; stay tuned for posts related to those processes…)

The International Board of Directors endorsed the final draft, and the resulting, and pleasingly-brief document (issued in July, 1996, and available here – program-directions-1996) had a healthy effect on Plan for a decade, contributing to the unity of purpose that

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Program Directions Booklet – July 1996

was its broader aim.

For example, a new corporate planning, monitoring, and evaluation system was soon under development and implementation, systematically supporting programmatic cycles centered on the Domains and Principles.  This, together with implementation of a new financial system in which all activities were framed in terms of Plan’s Domains, allowed for measurement of organizational progress related to the Program Directions.

The Domains and Principles were also the basis for much subsequent organisational development.  In particular, the Principles became increasingly central in program development across the agency as years went by.

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Principle & Domain Guidelines – December 1999

By the end of 1999, Country Strategic Plans, based on the framework of the Domains and Principles, were being finalized for all program countries. Guidelines for field implementation of the Domains and Principles had been developed and issued (the original document is available here – principle-domain-guidelines-1999), and Plan’s International Board of Directors had approved a further refinement of the Domains, termed the “core program,” identifying particular components of the Domains as mandatory in all locations.

This second document is perhaps a bit long (66 pages), as I read it now, but I do like the prominence given to the Principles in this revision.  Still, given that I had left IH by this point, and was serving as Plan’s Country Director in Viet Nam (more on that later!), I appreciate the way that my successors at IH sought to build on what had been achieved earlier – kudos to Martin McCann!

*

Around 2000, though, a new wave of change and innovation began to sweep through Plan: my old friend Mac Abbey, who featured in this blog series earlier as a pioneer of “empowerment” in South America, was once again pioneering change!  Mac was now Country Director (a new position, resulting from the third PPS initiative mentioned at the beginning of the post – restructuring at country level; I’ll describe that in due course!) in Bangladesh, and over the next few years he would lead an effort to frame Plan’s program work around a set of concepts known as “Child-Centered Community Development” – “CCCD.”  In some ways, CCCD built on the Principles that PPS had developed, but Mac and other Country Directors in Asia certainly moved things in a new direction, a direction which was later embraced across Plan.

One of Plan’s biggest weaknesses was, and is, that the results of major change initiatives such as the development of Domains and Principles would be swept away by new changes before the benefit of the previous change project could be realised.  I mentioned this effect when I described Plan’s TQM initiative.  But in this case, I think that the organisation did manage to benefit from the work we did to develop the Domains and Principles, even though the focus on CCCD began to move Plan forward fairly quickly.  That’s because, as I mentioned, CCCD did emerge in some ways from the Program Principles we had developed.

*

My next blog in this series will describe the development of a growth plan for the organization, perhaps the least successful of those three major centripetal projects.

Stay tuned for more!

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

 

  1. This description was adapted, in part, from http://www.diffen.com/difference/ Centrifugal_Force_vs_Centripetal_Force.
  2. Weisbord, M., and Janoff, S. Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1995.

Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!

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

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

 

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

 

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The summit of Middle Tripyramid

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does ‘RDE’ mean?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

uusc-executive-director-business-card

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

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

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

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

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

plan-senior-management

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

 

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

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

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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!

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.