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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Cairn Marks the Summit Of Mt Pierce

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

 

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

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

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

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

What went well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What went badly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

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

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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 earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International.

 

  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, Cannon Mountain (in the near distance) and, farther away, 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.

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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…

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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.”

 

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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 earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!

 

  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!

*

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.

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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:

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

 

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

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

*

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more!

*

Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International.

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

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

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

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

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Ferncroft, With Mt Whiteface Just Above

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

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

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

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

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The Summit Cairn, Mt Passaconoway

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

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*

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

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

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

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

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Andy Rubi, Plan’s First Regional Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is my recollection of that initial RO design:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here are earlier posts in this series – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta.

East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta

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

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

A few months ago I began a new journey here: writing about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall and, each time, reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

The seventh of the 48 peaks that I summited was Osceola East (4156 ft, 1267 m), which is slightly to the Northwest of Mt Osceola.  (The first part of this hike, up Mt Osceola, was described in my previous posting in this series.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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An Early Community Meeting

 

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

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

 

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Digging For The Water Network

 

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

 

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Digging For A Household Connection

 

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

 

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Bringing The Water Tubes To Cienegueta

 

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

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

 

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Gluing The PVC Tubing

 

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

 

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Laying The Tubes

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Covering The Tubes

 

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

 

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A Young Cieneguetan Woman

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Two Children In Cienegueta

 

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

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

 

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Excavating For The Treatment Plant

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

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

Plastering the outside of the water storage tank:

 

Plastering The Outside Of The Water Storage Tank

Plastering The Outside Of The Water Storage Tank

 

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

 

Plastering The Inside Of The Water Treatment Tank

Plastering The Inside Of The Slow Sand Filter Tank

 

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

 

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Plastering The Inside Of The Slow Sand Filter Tank

 

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

 

Filling The Water Storage Tank

Filling The Water Storage Tank

 

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

 

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

 

Yes, it held water!:

 

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The Water Storage Tank – Filled!

 

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

 

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Water arrives.

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Water arrives for the first time.

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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UPDATE, NOVEMBER 2016:

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

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

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

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The relevant section of this memo reads, in English:

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

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

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

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Here are earlier posts in this series – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá.

Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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Daniel Cedeño and Jean

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Here are earlier posts in this series – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá.