Cross-Culture Communication – Chaos Narrowly Averted!

July, 2019

Several of my articles in the “4000-footer” series touched on the work that I’ve done across cultures. Here I want to share an anecdote that illustrates how things can (nearly) go awry, even when the cultures involved aren’t that different.

The story involves two people who pop up several times in the series.

Jean and I were living in Tuluá, Colombia, in the late 1980s.  Monique van’t Hek was my manager, a gifted and dedicated Dutch Field Director; I was her Assistant Director.  I learned a huge amount from Monique during those years, and from Leticia Escobar, who was Monique’s manager.  Leticia was Area Manager for Colombia and Ecuador, working from the Regional Office in Ecuador.  Both Monique and I deeply respected Leticia, relying on her judgement and looking forward to her regular visits.

(As you may have seen, I wrapped up the “4000-footer” series thanking some of the many people who helped me, influenced me, taught me, over the decades described in those articles; Monique and Leticia figure prominently in that group. Thank you Monique, and thank you, Leticia!)

At one point during those years, Monique and I were struggling to deal with one problematic local staff member.  “Roberto” (not his actual name) held a key position, leading the implementation of an important initiative. He was a smart and experienced professional but, sadly, he also had a major drinking problem, which was really getting in the way of his work, alienating him from our staff and resulting in poor performance.   After discussing the situation several times, it seemed best that Monique speak with Leticia about the situation, at an upcoming visit, and get her advice.  

At the end of that visit, Leticia and Monique had a private meeting.  I knew that the situation with “Roberto” would be discussed at that meeting so, after Leticia returned to Quito, I dropped by Monique’s office to see what had been decided.

“I’m really confused,” she said.  “It turns out that if we want to dismiss ‘Roberto’ we have to pay him $64,000!” 

This was a real shock : “Roberto” earned less than $1000 per month, and his severance pay wouldn’t amount to anything near that much… 

“What did Leticia actually say?” I asked, with a puzzled look on my face.

“Well, when I asked what she thought we should do, she just said ‘that’s the 64 thousand dollar question.’

Of course, I immediately realized what was happening.  In the 1950s, there was a popular American television game show, in which contestants were asked increasingly difficult questions, winning increasing amounts of money if they answered correctly.  It all culminated with the most-difficult question; if the contestant answered that final, nearly impossible question correctly, they would win $64,000.  

In the 1950s, $64,000 was a lot of money!  Over time, an idiomatic expression entered American culture: when a difficult question was raised, one way of responding was to say “that’s the $64,000 question” – meaning, “that’s a very difficult one!”

Imagine if I hadn’t been there to translate! – “Roberto” might have received a huge windfall!  Unluckily for him, I clarified things with Monique, who was rather relieved that we wouldn’t have to spend so much money if we decided that “Roberto” had to leave.

So, even across cultures as similar as Dutch and American, cross-cultural communications can go awry!  Imagine the complexity when working across verydifferent cultures!  This wasn’t the last time in my career that I would experience the eye-opening mysteries of working across cultures, but it was a good early lesson-learned about how very different cultures can be.

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Check out my “4000-footer” series: 48 blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, reflections on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, and experiences along the way:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?;
  43. Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
  44. Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
  45. Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
  46. Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
  47. Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
  48. Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…

Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…

June, 2019

began a new journey in May of 2016, aiming to climb every one of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall, and to write a description of each ascent. And, each time, I wanted to write a reflection, sequentially, on my journey since joining Peace Corps just over 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

Last time I shared a few reflections that seemed to cut across these articles, a handful of themes that emerged for me as I prepared the previous 46 blogs. I hope you enjoyed it…

This is the 48th, and final article in the “4000-footer” series. It seems fitting to take time now to thank some of the many people who have helped me along the way.

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To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Jefferson, and go directly to my thanks to those amazing people, click here.

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The Climb – Mt Jefferson

I left Durham at 6:50am on June 22, 2018, on a beautiful, crisp, clear cool day. My plan was to walk up the Castle Ravine Trail to the top of Jefferson, and then drop down the Castle Trail.  I had read about both trails, and noted the warning that it was better to ascend Castle Ravine, on the Castle Ravine Trail, due to the steep and rocky section near the top; this would be much easier to ascend than to descend.  Then, descend the Castle Trail.

And so it was!

After stopping for coffee in Ossipee, and a sandwich in Gorham, I began the hike from a parking area just off Rt 2 in Bowman, New Hampshire, at 9:38am.  So it was over 2 1/2 hours from Durham.  The views of Mt Madison and Mt Adams, which I had climbed the week before, were spectacular as I passed through Pinkham Notch on the way north.

The sky was cloudless, and the temperature was perfect.  Perfect conditions for my final ascent of these 48 mountains!

I parked at Bowman.

The beginning of the walk is along a Rail-Trail, but the path soon takes a left turn onto the Castle Trail:

This sign grabbed my attention, as it had been designed to do!

There would be two more signs like this.  I wasn’t sure that I was in “top physical condition,” but I was going to give it a try!

Now the trail entered typical White-Mountain forest, and soon after entering the forest there was my first stream crossing.  Nothing difficult, but I did manage to fall into the water.  Luckily, the water didn’t reach my ankles, so my feet stayed dry!

From there I ascended gently up the Castle Trail until reaching the junction with the Israel Ridge Path at a bit after 10am:

Moose Droppings?

Here I took the left fork, and continued steadily up the Israel Ridge Path for 15 minutes, making the first of what would be 5 or 6 more stream crossings before taking the right-hand fork onto the Castle Ravine Trail:

At 10:25am I reached the junction of the Israel Ridge Path and the Castle Ravine Trail.  Here I took a right-hand turn, and began the long walk up the ravine, crossing the Castle Brook several times:

At 11:20am, I reached the junction with The Link Trail, which joined Castle Ravine from the left.  The trail was getting steeper:

Just 8 minutes later I arrived at the junction of the Emerald Trail and, a few moments after that, the Link Trail diverged to the right:

I was walking up Castle Ravine, the sides of which were closing in on me!  It felt like the pleasant, moderately-steep forest walking was going to come to an end soon, as I reached the end of the ravine!

At 11:45am I emerged into an avalanche area (from 2010, according to the White Mountain Guide), where I could see up to the ridge above me.  Lovely blue sky; a few hours later I would look down from those boulders as I descended on the Castle Trail:

Just ten minutes later I came across a famous feature of the Castle Ravine Trail – this short “tunnel” where the path goes underneath an enormous boulder.  Literally underneath!

As I took that photo, I saw two legs appear at the other end, and a stream of swearing erupted.  The hiker on the other side hadn’t seen me, and (it turned out) had twisted his ankle and was frustrated.  When he saw me he was very apologetic!

The hiker was doing a reverse of what I had planned – going up Castle Trail, and down Castle Ravine.  He was walking with a nice black labrador dog, and part of his frustration was that they had just descended a large talus field, which had been very tricky for the dog.  Very few level areas, which made it hard for the dog to make its way through, so the owner had to carry it for much of the descent, which must have been very difficult.  As I would soon see, the rock field is very steep – the White Mountain Guide had strongly recommended ascending this way, and descending on Castle Trail, just to avoid going down those rocks.  Hard enough for a person, virtually impossible for a dog, I reckon!

“… parts of the trail are very rough especially where it crosses a great deal of unstable talus on the headwall, which makes footing extremely poor for descending or when the rocks are wet.”

Here’s what that talus looked like, when I was near the end of it nearly two hours later:

Clearly very challenging for a dog! They had taken a long time to drop down that section of the trail, and the owner had carried the dog for much of the way.  Plus, the hiker was wearing walking shoes, not boots, which explained why he had twisted his ankle (apparently several times on the way down.)

Underneath the boulder I came across my first ice of the hike – protected from the sun and buffered from the heat of the day, this ice was still here on the day after the summer solstice!

Just after noon I emerged into the alpine area, where I came across the second warning sign – here a bit more explicit than the sign near the parking area had been!

“The Worst Weather In America”!
Sweating, But Enjoying The Climb

Here I continued to walk up very steeply on loose rock.  Must have been very hard for the dog!  I took a wrong turn at one point, ascending steeply, and had to drop back down where I found the trail.  So I lost some time and energy there!

Spectacular views to the north here, looking down the ravine, the way I had come:

Here are two images of the trail I was walking slowly up:

At 1:15pm, the trail began to level off and I filmed a video of the view to the north:

I had reached a much flatter area here, which was a great relief after a long stretch slogging up the steep talus.  Five minutes later I reached the junction with the Cornice trail and the Randolph Path:

And then I was at Edmund’s Col, a saddle between Adams and Jefferson.  Now I had a spectacular view to the south and south-east, including Adams and looking to the east across Rt 16 and Pinkham Notch overt to the Carter and Wildcat ranges.  This panoramic video captures the scene from where I had lunch:

A gorgeous day! I was well above tree-line, in one of the world’s most beautiful alpine areas.

After lunch, I continued towards Mt Jefferson.  I took this photo as I began to climb, back towards Mt Adams; you can see Mt Adams at the top right, with Mt Sam Adams to the left, and the trail (the Gulfside Trail) clearly visible below.  I had eaten lunch at the saddle in the foreground:

As I climbed, at 1:55pm, I came to a snow field!  Believe it or not, there was still a small patch of snow left to walk across, on this, the day after the summer solstice!  Hard to believe:

I had seen this patch of snow from Mt Adams the week before.  Soon I arrived at the junction of the Loop Trail and took a right turn to get to the top of Jefferson.  At 2:15pm I reached the junction of Loop Trail and Six Husbands Trail:

And at 2:25pm I reached the top of Mt Jefferson!  So I had completed climbing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers – just two years and two months after I had started by ascending Mt Tom:

Mt Jefferson – My 48th 4000-Footer!

It felt great to have completed climbing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers.  I spent a bit of time thinking about the journey over the last two years and two months.  A great accomplishment, and a good way of using the time that I had after returning from Australia.

Now what?!

It was quite buggy at the top of Mt Jefferson, as can be seen in these videos.  But it was also spectacular, with views all the way around:

I put on some Bushman insect repellent and began to descend on the Castle Trail.

Looking Back At Mt Jefferson
The Start Of The Castle Trail – 5 Miles Back To Rt 2

At 3:10pm I arrived at the junction of Castle Trail and The Cornice, and continued downward.  The walking was difficult, a lot of talus, but not nearly as steep as the Castle Ravine Trail:

Now I started to get great views down towards the Castle Ravine, which I had climbed up that morning:

This video shows the full length of the Castle Ravine, with Mt Adams to the north, and Rt 2 down below:

At this point I left the alpine zone, with the third warning sign:

There was only one other person on this part of the Castle Trail, a middle-aged French Canadian who was going to take the Link Trail.  He had apparently climbed Jefferson and Adams that day, and wanted to avoid climbing Jefferson a second time!

I arrived at the junction of the Link Trail, where he took a left, at around 4:15pm.

Here the trail became more forested, small pines and ferns at first.  The going was very steep for some time, and my knees started to feel a bit of pain.  It was a relief when the trial became less steep, before becoming much steeper again as I got closer to the junction with Castle Ravine.  There were signs of trail maintenance here:

This Section Of The Castle Trail Was Not As Steep, And Very Pleasant.  I Made Good Time

At around 4:30pm I crossed the only other hikers I saw on this section of the Castle Trail, a father and son who were ascending.  I wondered about that, as it was getting late!

I continued walking moderately downward, and reached the end of the loop at 5:30pm.  Here I passed the turnoff I had taken that morning on the Israel Ridge Path, and continued downward, now not steep at all, to the end of the hike:

At 6pm I reached the stream that was near the parking area, where I had dipped my boots that morning:

And the final warning sign!

And here is a video of my last steps on the Castle Trail, walking to the parking area, after having completed the final ascent of the 48 4000-footers!

That last part of the Castle Trail is along an old railway bed, so is flat and easy.  But the day had been anything but flat and easy, as befitting a two-year journey up 48 challenging peaks.  It felt great to finish!

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Some Final Thanks!

I had a great feeling of accomplishment, a serious sense of achievement at having climbed these 48 majestic and formidable mountains, in just over two years. I was sore and exhausted, but left with deep respect and gratitude for this land and these mountains, for the opportunity I was given to experience them, and to learn from them.

In a very similar sense, as I wrap up this “4000-Footer” series, I want to take time to thank some of the people who I was lucky to work with, learn from, across these 35 years. They have been true “4000-Footers” in my life, and I am left with a deep sense of respect and gratitude to each of them… and so, in rough chronological order:

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As I wrote in the third article in this series, after my first year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Annuska Heldring arrived in Azogues, opening Plan International’s new Field Office for Cañar. In that earlier blog, I described Annuska (“Doctorita”) as charismatic, dedicated, and hilarious. But that only begins to describe her, and the influence she has had on me and my career since 1985.

Annuska Heldring at the Inauguration of the San Rafael Water System – See Here and Here

After I left Azogues, and the Peace Corps, it was Annuska who introduced me to Plan and who opened the door for me to join that organization. So in a very real sense I owe my career to her.

Along the way, I would end up working several times directly with Annuska, even becoming her manager at a couple of points as she worked in Colombia, Paraguay, and Albania. Along the years, her instincts were always right, and I learned a lot from her courage and her ability to sweeten difficult discussions with a huge dose of good humor.

Thank you Annuska!

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I joined the INGO world properly in 1987, when Jean and I moved to Tuluá, Colombia, and I took up the role of Assistant Director for Plan Tuluá. Monique van ‘t Hek was my first boss there, serving brilliantly as Field Director. Plan had an excellent induction program in those days, which helped a lot. But I was also lucky to have been assigned to Tuluá, because Monique was (and is) an inspiring leader and very effective manager. Not an easy combination, but she did it well, and made it look easy – it’s not!

I was lucky that Monique was my first INGO manager, because along with strong management and leadership skills, she had a very solid approach to building community ownership of the development process, as masterfully illustrated in her stewardship of the creation of a new community – Barrio Internacional – comprised of poor single mothers who would now have their own homes.

As I’ve mentioned earlier in this blog series, Plan Tuluá was a “pilot” office for Plan’s new directions, and Monique managed the sometimes tricky balancing of our local concerns and realities with the need to respond constructively to Plan’s regional and international priorities. Huge learning for me.

Monique has returned to Plan, this time in the huge job of National Director for the Netherlands. They are lucky to have her!

Thank you Monique!

Monique van ‘t Hek, On The Right

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When we arrived in Tuluá, Monique’s manager was Leticia Escobar, Area Manager for Colombia and Ecuador. Leticia worked from Plan’s new, pilot Regional Office, in Quito, Ecuador. She had served in field positions with Plan in Colombia and Bolivia, and was chosen as part of the first Regional Office team, which was established in 1987.

When I succeeded Monique as Field Director for Plan Tuluá, Leticia became my boss. Later, when I moved to the South America Regional Office (SARO), she was my colleague; and then, as these things go, when I became SARO’s second Regional Director, she worked for me!

I greatly enjoyed working for, and with, Leticia. She was a very kind, thoughtful, hardworking, committed professional, who overcame significant personal challenges to carry out her duties to a very high quality. She kept things simple, never put her own ego or personality into the mix, and didn’t complicate matters – a rare talent.

Thank you Leticia!

Leticia Escobar, Third From Left.

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SARO’s first Regional Director was Andy Rubi, a person who inspired me, and influences me still, to become the best I could be. Andy had served with Plan in a range of field positions and, when the organization decided to regionalize, and to pilot test a regional structure in South America, nobody better could have been chosen to lead things. So Andy became Plan’s first Regional Director.

It wasn’t an easy task. Regionalization of any large organization, as Plan was becoming, is very complicated and complex, fraught with political behavior and clumsy compromises. To some extent, Plan’s first regionalization was not accompanied by the level of decentralization needed to make things work. That was corrected later, but it is to Andy’s great credit that he navigated these tricky waters with grace, humor, and great success.

When Jean and I went to Tuluá in 1987, Andy had just set up the South America Regional Office, in Quito. He brought me to Quito as Area Manager for Ecuador and Bolivia, three years later, as several of the initial SARO managers moved to help staff the next Regional Office to be established, in Manila. When Andy himself moved to serve as acting International Executive Director at Plan’s headquarters, I was appointed to succeed him as SARO’s second RD.

It would be hard to overstate how much I learned from Andy. Just to note one, of many, lessons: when discussions got heated, Andy would bring us back to our senses with a simple question – “what is the issue?” I often use that approach, and find that it is enormously clarifying.

Even recently, nearly 30 years after I first met Andy, he has helped me with wise counsel in a particularly complicated personnel matter.

Thank you Andy!

Andy Rubi

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When I succeeded Andy as Plan’s second Regional Director for South America, in 1992, I inherited a great team: Leticia Escobar (see above), Hernando Manrique, Luis Alfredo Cevallos, Ivette Lopez, Washington Muñoz, Tony Nolan, Roger Braden, Norma Fierro, Maggie Bastidas, and many others.

Soon Ricardo Gómez would join the South America team as Regional Administrator. We worked together for a couple of years, and during that time Ricardo demonstrated the dedication, and intelligence that characterizes him to this day. Ricardo was transitioning from the private sector (an MBA graduate, he had been working for Exxon/Intercor in Colombia) to where he felt he could contribute and realize himself, in our nonprofit world.

I quickly came to admire Ricardo’s courage. We faced a very challenging, and risky, situation involving a very corrupt senior staff member, and Ricardo faced the situation squarely and with great clarity.

Later Ricardo would move to Colombia as Country Director, and then to Sri Lanka in the same role. Ricardo retired from Plan in Guatemala, where he took a poorly-performing, low-morale Country Office and, through his leadership and courage, molded the operation into an example of effectiveness and team spirit. Today Ricardo has returned to his home country, and serves as HR Director for his family’s business there. But we have remained the closest of friends. We travelled for a month together, in India, a couple of years ago, and will be trekking in Nepal later this year.

Thank you, Ricardo!

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When Alberto Neri left Plan, Andy Rubi became acting International Executive Director, the titled used for Plan’s CEO at that time. A new IED was appointed in 1992 – Max van der Schalk joined Plan from a career in Shell Oil.

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

I learned an enormous amount from Max. He managed the organization with great panache, little ego, and clarity. When Max began to think through how to approach his new job, he gave me the opportunity to join him in that journey, and supported me as I designed and implemented the priorities I thought needed to be accomplished at headquarters: new program goals to unite us; clarity on where the organization would invest our resources, and where we would phase out; and what our working organizational structure would be.

Max was kind enough to write a guest blog for this series, which is here. And here is a recent photo, from April 2018, of Max and Annuska, with Jean and me:

Clockwise From Bottom Left: Annuska Heldring, Me, Max van der Schalk, and Jean.

Thank you, Max!

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One of Plan’s superstars was Donal Keane. When I served as program director at Plan’s headquarters, under Max van der Schalk, I had asked Donal to participate in the “skunk works” through which we created Plan’s new operational structure. When I formed that group, I had two goals: to create the best possible draft structure, and to shine a light on what I thought would be the next generation of leaders for Plan.

In the left-hand image, Donal is to the right, with another Plan superstar, Catherine Webster. On the right, Donal is in the center, between Catherine and, I think, Winnie Tay.

Later, as these things go, Donal became my supervisor when I served as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam, and Donal was Plan’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia. He was an ideal manager, clear and calm and decisive. He was very supportive when I proposed an outlandish pilot test of a new way of organizing Plan’s work. I learned a lot from Donal, from his approach to managing and leading in the NGO world.

Thank you Donal!

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Working at any INGO headquarters is challenging. When Max had asked me to work with him at Plan’s head office, I proposed serving there for three years, just to make the point that hierarchical position shouldn’t be the goal inside our sector – get in, contribute and serve, and go back to the field to “face the mess you created” at headquarters.

So after serving as Plan’s program director, I took a year’s unpaid sabbatical and then was lucky to move to Viet Nam for four years, as Plan’s second Country Director in that country.

Those were amazing years. I was very fortunate to work with a stellar team, which I’ve written about extensively in an earlier article. A great team, great people.

There were many special people on that team, but one person really stands out: Pham Thu Ba, our “Operations Support Manager.” Or, as she often referred to her role, “Miscellaneous Support Manager.”

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Here I will quote from my earlier article.

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

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

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

  • “You’re not doing your job.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, Thu Ba trained in HR management and development at the University of London, and today she manages that side of Plan’s work in Viet Nam, which is a big job.  From Australia I would continue to visit Viet Nam several times a year, and was happy to get together with Thu Ba and her husband and two children on most of my visits.

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Many thanks to Thu Ba!

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After 15 years with Plan, and four great years in Viet Nam, it felt that it was time to lead another life. Plan had been a fantastic, generous place to work, and I would always be grateful to the organization for the opportunities it gave me to serve, to learn, and to realize myself.

But it was time to repot myself…

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As I’ve written in an earlier article, a great opportunity presented itself at exactly the right time. As I said in that article: just as I was leaving Hanoi, I got an email from out of the blue, from a person I had never met.  Daniel Wordsworth was Program Development Director at CCF in Richmond, Virginia, and he wanted to know if I knew anybody who could help them reinvent their program approach.  I thought I knew of the perfect person…

That call led to three incredible years, helping CCF conceptualize, pilot test, and refine a new program approach which we came to call “Bright Futures.” For me, that process was a super example of rigorous, evidence-based, and effective organizational change in a major INGO. So I took the time in this blog series to described it over five articles: here, here, here, here, and here.

Daniel was, and is, a brilliant and insightful person, the perfect person to partner with. Later he left CCF and is now the CEO of Alight (formerly American Refugee Committee), an INGO working in humanitarian aid and disaster relief. When you look at Alight’s website, you’ll come to appreciate Daniel’s gifts as I do.

Thank you Daniel!

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By 2005, we had finished developing Bright Futures, and the next phase beckoned. But what would that be?

At that point, Jean and I had been living back in the United States for three years, having left Hanoi in late 2002. Those years – Bush’s Iraq invasion, his post-9/11 assault on civil liberties and use of torture – were sad ones for my country. It felt urgent to face the situation and apply myself to my own country.

Again, I was very lucky. While I was still consulting with CCF, I noticed a posting for the program director position at a Cambridge-based NGO called the “Unitarian Universalist Service Committee” (“UUSC“). I looked into it, and I really liked what I saw: a human-rights organization, working inside the US and overseas to advance social justice. I decided to apply…

I didn’t get that job, but later the president and CEO of UUSC, Charlie Clements, approached me for another role: Executive Director!

At that point, UUSC had defined its program, focusing on three broad areas: civil liberties, economic justice, and environmental justice. As I wrote in an earlier article, we later added a fourth focus – rights in (humanitarian) crises.

Despite some challenges, it was a perfect place for me – I was able to help UUSC thrive as an organization, while learning from Charlie’s long and deep human-rights and advocacy experience and working on some of the key issues of those years, including a large-scale response to our government’s inept and unjust “response” to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

As I said in that earlier article, ††Charlie was, and is, a gifted and passionate communicator, who has lived his life in service of human rights.  He began his career in the US Air Force, and graduated from the US Air Force Academy.  While serving in Viet Nam, Charlie refused to fly missions into Cambodia in support of our illegal invasion of that neutral country, and was discharged.  Switching professions, Charlie went back to school to become a medical doctor and then practiced medicine behind rebel lines in El Salvador.  That experience resulted in a book and an Academy-Award-winning documentary (1986), both titled “Witness To War.”

Charlie was very generous to give me the opportunity at UUSC. I learned a great deal from him – after 20 years in the international development, poverty-focused sector, I was ready to tackle deeper issues of injustice and oppression. Charlie’s life, lived on the front-lines of social justice, and his deep expertise left big impressions on me and helped me grow.

Thank you Charlie!

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In 2009, Jean and I moved to Sydney, Australia, where I took up the newly-created post of International Program Director for ChildFund Australia. (CCF was rebranding to ChildFund, and the Australian member had been one of the first to adopt the new name.)

We spent six years in Australia, where I was very fortunate to work for Nigel Spence, the ChildFund Australia’s CEO. The whole ChildFund Australia team was fantastic – Di Mason, Lynne Joseph, Bandula Gonsalkorale, Jan Jackson, Xavier Hennekinne, Deb Leaver, Carol Mortenson, Prashant Verma, Manish Joshi, Chris Mastaglio, Keo Souvannaphoum, Win May Htwe, Nini Htwe, and so many others.

Nigel stands out, both because he was our leader and manager, but also because of his steady, calm, common-sense approach to our work. He delegated well, supported the people (like me) who worked for him, and kept the organization on a clear and accountable course.

It was a pleasure working for Nigel – he got the best from all of us, and navigated the sometimes nerve-wracking changes that I wanted to put in place (see these five articles: here, here, here, here, and here), tried to put in place, without any noticeable nervous breakdowns! Nearly always calm and clear, Nigel made it possible for us to do our best.

Thank you Nigel!

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Most of all, to Jean. We have made this journey our own, together, across the years.

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And many thanks to you, dear readers! Thanks for taking the time to read these articles. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I’ve loved writing them!

Onward!

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?;
  43. Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
  44. Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
  45. Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
  46. Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
  47. Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
  48. Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…

Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey.

May, 2019

began a new journey in May of 2016, aiming to climb every one of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall, and to write a description of each ascent. And, each time, I wanted to write a reflection, sequentially, on my journey since joining Peace Corps over 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

So far, I’ve written about 46 of those ascents, and traced my own journey, reaching nearly to the present day. Last time I shared a case study of cross-cultural conflict, involving two international NGOs. I tried to show how some of the tools and insights described in earlier articles (on conflict and culture) helped me understand the tricky and complex dynamics of that situation. And I described my climb of Mt Madison, my 46th 4000-footer, and one of the highest of the 48, on 12 June 2018.

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In this article, I want to start wrapping up the journey thus far, with some reflections. As I write this, it has been just over 35 years since I flew from Boston to Miami, headed towards two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. In the previous 46 articles in this series, I’ve described climbing the same number of 4000-footers, and I’ve written about those two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, and the fifteen years that followed, with Plan International, in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, headquarters (in the US and then in the UK), and Viet Nam. I wrote about two exciting years as a consultant with CCF, helping create their (then) new program approach (“Bright Futures”), and serving as acting VP for Africa, based in Addis Ababa. Blogs about four great years with UUSC in Cambridge followed, and several more covered the six fantastic years I served with ChildFund Australia, working in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam. Most recently I’ve described more recent study and work on conflict, culture, and cross-cultural conflict.

In this article I want to reflect on a few themes that emerged for me as I prepared those 46 blogs. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

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To jump directly to those reflections, skipping the description of my ascent of Mt Adams, click here.

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The 2018 climbing season began for me on 12 June, when I climbed both Mt Madison and Mt Adams (5774ft, 1760m).  Scaling both of these 5000-footers, including the second highest (Adams) was very challenging.  I was exhausted and a bit battered when I finished!

I described the first part of that long and tough day, getting to the top of Mt Madison, last time. Driving up from Durham at around 7am, I had started up the Great Gulf Trail at 9:15am, and after a tricky fall near the top, which left me a bit bruised and battered, I had reached the top of Mt Madison at about 1:30pm.  Now I would continue to the south-west, descending Madison, past the Madison Springs Hut and, hopefully, up Mt Adams.  All going well, I would then return to the Hut, and drop down Madison Gulf Trail and Great Gulf Trail to the parking lot:

Here is an image of Madison and Adams, taken on the way down from my second ascent of Mt Monroe, in July of 2019:

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The descent from Mt Madison was steep and a little bit tricky; and my right knee, which had really bothered me (the year before) when descending from Mt Monroe, began to hurt a bit.  The pounding I was giving the knee as I dropped down was taking a toll.

Descending, I crossed a steady stream of people who must have been staying at the hut, which I passed at 2pm:

Madison Springs Hut, With Mt Adams In The Background

Here I turned left, past the Hut, and joined the Star Lake Trail, which would take me to the summit of Mt Adams. Signage was a bit unclear, but I went on:

Star Lake is actually just a tiny and shallow pond, the water source for the Madison Springs Hut.  A beautiful spot, in the saddle between Madison and Adams.  Here is an image looking back at Mt Madison above Star Lake, as I began the climb up Mt Adams:

A lovely, alpine area.  The climb up Mt Adams was arduous, steep and rocky.  Here is a view back towards Mt Madison; Star Lake still visible.  Earlier that day I had ascended Madison along the ridge that can be seen to the right of the peak:

After some tricky climbing in high winds, I reached the top of Mt Adams at about 3:15pm.  It had been nearly six hours getting here, across Mt Madison, reaching the top of the second-highest of the 48 4000-footers.  I had now climbed 47 of the 48!

From The Top Of Mt Adams: Mt Washington And Mt Jefferson.  Jefferson Would Be My Last 4000-Footer!
The Summit Of Mt Adams

Look how far above Mt Madison I was!

Looking Down At Madison From The Summit Of Mt Adams

It was cold and very windy at the top of Adams, and I was feeling very knackered.  But I did stay at the top for a few minutes to savor the accomplishment.  And the views were fantastic!

But soon I began the long descent, now favoring my right knee in a major way.  It took me over an hour to drop most of the way down Mt Adams, carefully rock-hopping most of the way.  It was 4:15pm by the time I approached Star Lake again:

Here I took a right turn onto the Parapet Trail:

A Bit Sunburned?

And soon I reached the junction of Madison Gulf Trail.  Here I left Parapet, and began to descend steeply down Madison Gulf:

Here I Started My Descent; Wildcat Ridge Is In The Background

I felt quite tired, and my knee was in some pain, so I took a couple of pain relievers!

Soon I regretted not having come UP Madison Gulf instead of descending it: very steep, large boulders, so quite difficult to descend.  It seemed to go down very steeply for a very long time, which was not pleasant at all.  No choice now!

At 5pm I took a short video of a wet, mossy patch:

It was not until 5:30pm that Madison Gulf Trail flattened out significantly, so it was over an hour of steep descent.  Very slow going… torture!  Here is an image of a makeshift bridge, taken just after 5:30pm:

Muddy

Madison Gulf Trail was not well-maintained, so even when it got to be a bit less steep it was still slow-going.  Now I was into typical White-Mountains forest, with small waterfalls:

Even though it was getting a bit late in the day, since I was hiking in mid-June I had plenty of time before it would be dark, so I wasn’t too worried.  Even so, I was somewhat concerned that I had missed the turnoff for the Osgood Cutoff trail, relieved when I reached it at just after 7pm:

Here I would turn left briefly, and then continue downward to join the Great Gulf Trail.  This would take me down the West Branch of the Peabody River to reach the junction with Osgood Trail that I had taken at 10am that morning (seemingly decades earlier!)

A few moments later I passed a tree growing out of a boulder, slightly reminiscent of Angkor Wat!

Reaching that junction with Osgood Trail at 7:30pm, I continued downward through the pleasant evening light to reach the parking lot at 8:15pm.  A pleasant walk, soft path underfoot, with a few mosquitoes in the late evening:

Knackered

Arriving at the car, I was in pain and exhausted.  It had taken me 11 hours to reach the top of Madison and Adams, and return to the trail-head.  Although I enjoyed it a lot, and felt exhilarated by the day, this hike was beyond my capabilities, a bit too much.  I did recover a bit, got more energy after finishing up the steep descent down Madison Gulf Trail from Mt Adams.  And I had climbed to the top of two of the highest 5000-footers in one day, an accomplishment for sure.  Worth celebrating!

I reached Durham at 10:30pm, finishing a long and incredible day!  One more 4000-footer to go: Mt Jefferson, and the end of the journey (for now), awaits!

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Some Reflections

Since this is my penultimate article in the “4000-Footer” series, I want to share reflections on a few of the themes that have emerged for me as I looked back. It was a great, long ride from my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer to today, almost exactly 35 years later as I write this. So this article is in some ways a bit of a look back at the 46 articles that preceded it…

It’ll be a briefer article this time, just a few thoughts.

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I’ve been lucky to work across the globe, and in many different roles. I’ve learned that there is a big difference between leadership and management. Both are important in our sector, but I think that leadership is about being authentic as a human being, and management is about having the tools needed to run a business. Different things. I was lucky to learn a lot about both over these years.

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My career has been in the social-justice arena, and I’ve been very lucky to work with great people doing good work. So, are we “do-gooders”?

It always made me a bit uncomfortable when I would hear colleagues talking about helping “poor people.” To be fair, there weren’t very many who talked that way, and I often thought about why that kind of description didn’t work for me…

I’m reminded of the week we spent in Miami, in February 1984, as Omnibus 44 got ready to ship out to Ecuador to be trained as Peace Corps Volunteers. The Peace Corps Country Director, Ned Benner, and a couple of his staff, had flown up from Quito for the training, along with a couple of current Volunteers.

One day during our staging in Miami they put on a role play, with a PCV named Rita (I think) playing the part of a Volunteer who kept using the phrase “I’m here to help…” They were making an important point, of course, about humility and entitlement. “Don’t ever say that” was the message!

And, inadvertently, I think they were making the point I’m trying to make here: that those years of working in international development, overseas, and advancing social justice, domestically and internationally, were important for me and to me. I was learning, and I was realizing myself, and I was experiencing life across dozens of countries, and I was having a lot of fun. Yes, also, I was realizing myself and my potential through service, in a great cause, but I think it’s important to note that I benefitted enormously.

So when I hear people talk about having worked to help poor people, or when people praise us for our “sacrifices,” it makes me nervous about motivations. It seems to me that if our motivation is about others, a whiff of “white-man’s burden” or “mission civilisatrice” creeps into us, which can puff up our egos. Better, I think, to recognize that we are lucky to do the work we do, that we grow as people along the way, and that as we are accompanying people living in poverty and facing oppression, we learn as much as we give.

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Across the years described in this series, our understanding of the fundamental nature of human poverty changed pretty dramatically. From even before I went to Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and through my time with Plan International, until early in the 21st century, much of the “international development” sector was focused on “basic needs” – helping people increase income, achieve better education and health, etc.

As progress was made on the MDGs, however, it became clear that our thinking about poverty had to shift. Sure, progress was dramatic, on average, across the world, but many people were being left behind, not included in the general progress being made. For example, it should be no surprise that several of the MDG indicators that were lagging behind related to women and girls. Finally, we began to think about justice and equity, not just basic human needs, as we thought more deeply about why people – such as women and girls – were being left behind.

(Very important to note here that many, many people were thinking about social justice and human rights all through this time, and long before. The labor-rights movement, the civil-rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the abolitionists long before, of course they were fighting for justice. It’s just that the INGO world, and the bilateral and multilateral agencies, perhaps the public at large, and certainly I, myself, was still looking at poverty as the lack of things. Nothing wrong, for the time. And soon we would learn better…)

The work that I did as a consultant with CCF, and in particular with their Program Development Director Daniel Wordsworth, is a good example of how my own thinking was evolving. We put together, and tested, a new program approach for that organization, which we named “Bright Futures.” Bright Futures placed an emphasis on human dignity and stigma, not just basic needs, and we included a clear focus on building the collective action of marginalized people for children’s rights. Good stuff, and an example of the evolution that was happening.

This evolution took me, for a time, out of the “development” sector and to UUSC, an organization focused on activism, social justice, and human rights. At ChildFund Australia, I helped design a program approach that included building the power of people and children living in poverty. It led to a new formulation of international goals, the “Social Development Goals” that have more of a focus on “getting to zero,” peace and justice, and climate action.

What’s missing in the new formulation? Conflict, of course… more on that below.

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So as rapid progress was made on fulfilling “basic human needs” and the international community’s view of human poverty evolved to include more of a focus on social justice, many international NGOs struggled to adapt.

In a sense, they were victims of their own success: it was hard to let go of the tools and concepts that had been so useful. These large organizations were doing very good work and, by the turn of the century they had annual budgets of millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars, and thousands of employees – the stakes were very high, and institutional survival became a fundamental driver. Perhaps that drive for self-preservation, growth, dominance in the sector, distracted many of these organizations from their missions…

Today some of the INGOs that were prominent in the 1980s have adapted well to the new age, but others struggle to remain relevant. One big mistake that our sector made was our unthinking incorporation of private-sector culture into our organizations. As I argue in my “Trojan Horse” article mentioned in an earlier post in this series, “… the influx of private-sector culture into our organizations meant that:

  • We began increasingly to view the world as a linear, logical place;
  • We came to embrace the belief that bigger is always better;
  • “Accountability” to donors became so fundamental that sometimes it seemed to be our highest priority;
  • Our understanding of human nature, of human poverty, evolved towards the purely material, things that we could measure quantitatively.”

As we fell into those traps, my sense is that we began to lose some of the spirit that had motivated us from the beginnings of the sector. This was a significant mistake, one that, perhaps, undermined our confidence as a sector to some extent…

I will attach a copy of the article I published on this topic here:  mcpeak-trojan-horse. (For another take on this, see the insights of Daniel Wordsworth that I discussed in an earlier blog in this series.)

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I’ve been very lucky to work, over 35 years and across six continents, with many hundreds of highly-motivated, committed, passionate people. In some ways it wasn’t luck, because the nonprofit world, the NGO sector, attracts people who want to make a positive difference – these are overwhelmingly good, dedicated people.

(Of course, there were a few bad eggs along the way, but very few and, anyway, no matter…)

The advantages of working with such passionate, dedicated people are many, and obvious: I almost never had to work to motivate the teams I managed, commitment and dedication was nearly never lacking. What a pleasure, and an honor working with these people: once we were able to clarify the task, inspire and connect it with our mission, build a collaborative approach, and align efforts with people’s passion, we were able to move very quickly.

The only challenge – a big one – was that such committed, inspired, motivated people tend to associate themselves, their personal identity, very closely with their work. Again, the result of this association is, mostly, very positive, but when it became necessary to change things, to make sometimes-tricky management decisions, firmly, our people can take things very personally.

I wouldn’t change this characteristic of our people – it’s a huge asset, and trading our dedicated people for wage-earners would be catastrophic! But it does mean that leaders and managers in our sector have to lead and manage in a very consultative and empowering way, and we have to face great resistance when, for whatever reason, we have to make top-down, unpopular decisions.

Managing in consultative and empowering ways – that’s something that I think the for-profit sector can learn from us: see the Trojan horse article I’ve linked to above for more on this.

There are of course times when we as leaders and managers have to make unpopular decisions. The danger is that our commitment to participatory values makes us hesitate to make decisions which aren’t seen as being consistent with that ethos. I’ve described a couple of these situations in this series (for example), and it’s been a good learning for me: sometimes I had to do the right thing for the mission, for the organization, in ways that weren’t consultative or empowering. There were a few times when I should have moved in that way, and paid the price for hesitating. A good learning for me… I got a bit tougher across the years, in this respect.

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Thousands of international NGOs sprang during the years after the 1980’s crisis in the Horn of Africa, with many growing into very large organizations.

Back in the 1990’s, many of us thought there would be a shake-out in the sector: there were just too many INGOs. Most of us thought that the sector would likely split into two groups:

  • a few very large, generalist INGOs working on mass poverty, “basic needs”; and specialized. These agencies would gain economies of scale through growth, by merging with other agencies, and would occupy a market position characterized by efficiency. So we saw a consolidation coming;
  • a larger number of specialized, focused NGOs working on particular issues, with specific capabilities, presenting themselves to the market as issue “experts.” We thought that this kind of smaller, specialist organizations would emerge.

Some of that happened, but we missed two important developments. Firstly, as I pointed out above, poverty was changing, and “mass poverty,” “basic needs” poverty, was quickly disappearing, at least in the main, on average. But we also missed the emergence of “Southern” NGOs – that is, NGOs and INGOs formed in the Global South (the “developing world”.)

These two trends have had a big impact on our sector, in ways that we hadn’t foreseen when we predicted consolidation and the emergence of specialist NGOs. Yes, the larger, generalist INGOs have consolidated to some extent, and emphasize their efficiencies. But, responding to these additional trends, many of them have also tried to focus on particular issues, pivoting away from “basic needs.”

For example, I worked for 15 years for Plan International, and across those years we worked mostly on community development issues, even when we began to speak in the language of human rights. Today, Plan presents itself as an organization advancing the rights of girls – a laudable position that narrows their focus on a particular excluded population. (What this positioning means in practice is another question…)

And loyal readers of this series will recall that I worked for two years as a consultant with ChildFund US, and six years as International Program Director with ChildFund Australia. The wider ChildFund Alliance worked for years to reduce violence against children, and now presents itself as focused on child safety – another laudable position that seeks to address a particular issue of injustice.

Our earlier thinking was right, however, about the trend of specialization. In these articles I’ve mentioned my admiration for the work of Daniel Wordsworth and the American Refugee Committee – focused on the humanitarian crisis of our age.

And I’ve mentioned that I’ve recently finished six months as interim COO at the Disability Rights Fund (“DRF”), a participatory grantmaking organization that seeks to empower persons with disabilities, including internally inside the organization, and in their governance. As a participatory grantmaker, DRF illustrates another of the trends that I’m seeing – the emergence of capacity in the Global South. DRF is not operational in the Global South, it operates by supporting grassroots people’s organizations. In these ways – focusing on a particular issue of social-justice exclusion, and working to support local people’s organizations – I think DRF represents the way that our social-justice sector should be working now.

So the trend toward specialization is clear, driven by changes in poverty. And I think we’ll see more organizations begin to operate as grantmakers, like DRF, supporting NGOs in the Global South rather than being operational themselves. The big INGOs should watch out!

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Globalization and information technology helped the many advances in human development that I’ve described here. But these same trends are also contributing to the rapid increase in conflict that we are seeing across our societies and, inevitably, inside our organizations. (We can’t isolate our organizations from the societies they are part of…)

Conditions for widespread conflict are emerging in front of our eyes, all around us: economic inequality rises; the climate warms rapidly; people move in their millions escaping war and poverty; the public loses faith in government, the media, and post-War institutions; and populist political movements fan the flames of resentment and intolerance. It’s ironic that these trends are arising, given the massive improvements in human wellbeing that have taken place, but it’s our reality.

This means that conflict will be one of the most important characteristics of our age, becoming only more and more important in the future. We need urgently to address the causes of this trend, working to build fairer economic systems, more responsive democracies.

But – make no mistake – conflict in our societies will grow. So as we work on the causes of conflict, we also need to build resilience in our communities, learn to appreciate diversity, develop the ability to manage difference through dialog, and we need to equip ourselves with tools to manage conflict. To mitigate and to adapt. We’ll need to do this with urgency, because conflict creates a negative feedback loop: more conflict will exacerbate the causes of conflict.

It’s easy to see this happening in our societies, and equally easy to understand the urgency. But our organizations are not isolated from our societies and our communities, which means that we will need to manage, prevent, and resolve conflict inside our workplaces, too, as an urgent priority.

But we are not equipped for this challenge. Our educational systems don’t teach conflict resolution, and in our professional development these same skills are almost never prioritized. In my own case, late in my career I realized that a crucial key set of tools had been neglected: leaders and managers alike needed to be able to manage, resolve, and transform conflict inside our organizations. So, as I’ve described, I decided to take a deep dive into conflict, working to gain a second Masters degree, this time in Dispute Resolution at the Law School of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

So now I’m focused on helping organizations, in particular in our sector, navigate this new world of internal conflict. It’s going to be a key skill for their survival, and I think I can help.

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There are probably many other reflections to share, but … enough for now!

It’s been a great journey, sharing climbing the 4000-footers of the White Mountains of New Hampshire with you, and looking back at the last 35 years. One more blog article will complete the series: next time, I will described climbing my final 4000-footer, Mt Jefferson, and I will take the time to thank a few of the many people who I’ve learned from, and been inspired by, along those years.

So, stay tuned for one last article!

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?;
  43. Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
  44. Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
  45. Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
  46. Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
  47. Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
  48. Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…

Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study of Culture and Conflict

April, 2019

began a new journey in May of 2016: I aimed to climb every one of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall, writing a description of each ascent; and, each time, I wanted to write a reflection, sequentially, on my journey since joining Peace Corps over 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

So far, I’ve written about 45 of those ascents. Last time I continued describing a new phase, late in my career, related to conflict. I focused in particular on conflict and culture, a very important topic for our globalized time. And I described my climb of Mt Monroe, my 45th 4000-footer, and one of the highest of the 48, on 27 October 2017.  I had climbed Monroe after getting to the summit of Mt Washington earlier that day.

It was a real challenge, and very exhilarating, as I hope you have read. It was also my last climb of the 2017 season: the days were getting colder, and shorter, so I would take a break until the spring of 2018. In the meantime I spent the month of November, 2017 traveling in India with my old friend Ricardo Gòmez, retracing the steps of the historical Buddha…

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To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Madison, and go directly to the case study of culture and conflict, click here.

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The Climb – Mt Madison

The 2018 climbing season began for me on 12 June, when I climbed both Mt Madison (5366ft, 1636m) and Mt Adams.  Scaling both of these 5000-footers, including the second highest (Adams, which I will describe next time) was very challenging.  I was exhausted and a bit battered when I finished!

A fun way to start the season…

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I climbed Mt Madison going up Osgood Trail from the Great Gulf Trail.  Leaving Durham at 7am, I drove up Rt 16, through Pinkham Notch, arriving at the parking area for the Great Gulf trail at 9:15am.  It was a cool, bright day, high hazy clouds up above: a great day for climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Here is an image of Madison and Adams, taken on the way down from my second ascent of Mt Monroe, in July of 2019:

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I had waited a bit longer than normal to start hiking this year, into June, as there had been some late snow in the spring and I was concerned about conditions at elevation; I had no desire to fall on icy “monorails” as I had done two years earlier, descending from Mt Field!

As I drove past the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center, I could see patches of snow on the east side of Mt Washington, near the summit, which was worrisome, but the rest of the Presidential Range looked clear.  Even though I was hopeful that there would be no ice on my climb that day, I carried micro-spikes with me, just in case.

As usual I stopped at the Subway sandwich shop in Ossipee, which shares space with an Aroma Joe’s coffee shop.  So when I arrived at the trailhead I was ready to go!

The Great Gulf Trail begins at the parking lot, and soon turns left to cross over the Peabody River:

No Sign Of Snow At The Trail-Head!
Footbridge Over The Peabody River

15 minutes later I reached the junction with the Great Gulf Link Trail, which runs northwards to the Dolly Copp Campground, where I have stayed a few nights in this odyssey.  I went left, continuing on the Great Gulf Trail.

It was a nice day, but I was a little bit nervous about wearing new boots on what looked like such a long and arduous hike:

These New Boots Would Never Look This New Again!

Near here I would take what I thought was a wrong turn, at an unclear junction with a ski loop.  I ended up doubling back when it appeared that I was on the wrong trail, but it turned out that the two paths merged a bit farther up, so I wasted a bit of time, maybe 15 minutes.

Just after 10am, after walking pleasantly uphill for about 45 minutes and covering 1.8 miles, I arrived at the junction of the Osgood Trail.  Here I went to the right, taking the Osgood Trail towards Mt Madison:

This was the beginning of a long loop, which would take me (if successful) over Mt Madison and Mt Adams, and then back to this point.  The Osgood Trail became quite a bit steeper here, and I began to sweat through my shirt!

At 10:30am, I reached the junctions of Osgood Trail with the Osgood Cutoff Trail, where there is a tentsite:

I continued up Osgood Trail here, which is the Appalachian Trail in this section, with another 2.5 miles to go to reach the top of Mt Madison.  The trail continued to get steeper, and I started to feel like I was a bit out of shape, my legs felt heavy!  Up to this point I had not seen any other hikers, but at about 11:15am an older man and his daughter crossed by, heading down. They were quite curious about how far it was to the Osgood Cutoff, because a group ahead of me had told them it was two hours away, which was quite an exaggeration… it had taken me 45 minutes.

After passing another couple of hikers, and the larger group (with large packs, which explained it – they were moving slowly!) that had misinformed the first man-and-daughter, the forest began to thin out, as I gained elevation, emerging now above tree-line.

At 11:52am, the trail began to be less steep, as I entered the alpine zone, and the views were stunning!  Now I could see the snow on the slopes of both Mt Washington and Mt Jefferson, and had a view of the Auto Road that goes up to the summit of Washington (and I could hear the motorcycles ascending, echoing across the Mt Washington valleys!):

Mt Washington On The Left, Mt Jefferson On The Right.  The Auto Road Up Washington Just Visible

(A few weeks later I would get to the summit of Mt Jefferson, completing all 48! Stay tuned for that…)

Fantastic views to the north and east – over to Moriah and the Wildcat and Carter ranges.

And I could see both of the summits that I was hoping to reach that day: Adams on the left, and Madison on the right.  Adams looked far away and very high!

Mt Adams on the Left, Mt Madison on the Right

I like this view looking down Osgood Trail, looking back where I had ascended, starting up the rocky summit of Madison.  The Wildcat Range is on the right, and the Carter Range is on the left, with Carter Notch in the center:

It was fun remembering hiking those two ridges last year.  And I had another good view of Mt Washington:

Mt Washington On The Right, Wildcat On The Left, The Ski Area Clearly Visible

Above the tree-line the going was harder, hopping up what seemed to be small volcanic boulders.  Tricky to navigate, especially as it got VERY windy and quite chilly.  In fact, so windy that I was blown over at 12:45pm, before reaching the summit of Mt Madison.  I was slightly injured, just a few scrapes and bruises, a twist to a knee, but it was scary, because a smack on the head up here, by myself, could be a challenge… so I slowed down a bit, and decided to have lunch here.  That was a good decision.

I ate quickly; after lunch I put on my jacket, and soon (1pm) reached a major junction of trails just below the summit of Mt Madison.  Here the Daniel Webster-Scout Trail, the Parapet Trail, and the Osgood Trail cross:

Gorham and Berlin To The North, On The Right. Probably Canada In The Far Distance…

At about 1:20pm I crossed the Howker Ridge Trail, and felt like I was getting close to the summit.  Sure enough, at 1:30pm I reached the summit of Mt Madison – number 46 of the 48 4000-footers in New Hampshire had been climbed!  Here I took a photo from the summit, looking over at Mt Adams, which I HOPED to climb next!

As I began to descend from Mt Madison, I could now see the Madison Springs Hut below me in the saddle between Madison and Adams:

Madison Springs Hut Below Mt Adams

Stay tuned for a description of my ascent of Mt Adams, and the long and painful descent back to Rt 16!

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A Case Study of Culture and Conflict

In my last article in this series, I looked at culture and conflict, and shared a range of ways of understanding culture, and how culture and conflict interplay. Fundamentally, my thesis was that culture underlies all conflict: obviously, if several cultures are involved, the dynamics can be very tricky, and a good understanding of the differences a play is essential. But even if only one culture is involved, that culture has its own ways of dealing with culture, which we should take into account.

This time I want to share an analysis that I prepared for an international NGO, in which I tried to understand a serious cross-cultural conflict involving two members of a global NGO Federation.

The case study shared here involves a particular set of people in a particular time and setting; but the dynamics and complexities they faced are pretty common. Therefore, because I hope to use it to illustrate more general points about culture and conflict, I will generalize my description and avoid identifying the people (who mostly have moved on) or organizations involved.

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“An understanding of culture is central to an understanding of negotiation.”  

Dean G. Pruitt, ‘Foreword’ in Michele J. Gelfand and Jeanne M. Brett (eds), The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture (Stanford Business Books, 2004) xi, xii.

Some Background

In the late 1990’s, two members of a major international NGO federation were interested in working in Myanmar. One of these affiliate NGOs (“INGO A”) was from a developed Asian country, and the other was from a Western nation (“INGO W”). The international group (the “Federation”), to which both NGOs belonged, had a range of common policies, one of which covered how members would work together in third (developing) countries.

Despite having clear rules about this kind of situation, and despite having agreed on several occasions how things would work in Myanmar, the two affiliated NGOs found themselves in significant conflict. Years later, when studying Principled Negotiation at the University of New South Wales, I decided to use the Myanmar situation as the subject of my term paper, approaching it as a case study of cross-cultural negotiation: how should these two federated organizations have negotiated working together in Myanmar?

Policy

The policy that was relevant to the conflict between theSE two NGOs, related to their collaboration in Myanmar, included the following text:

The “Federation is committed to the principle that there will be one Affiliated Organisation registered in a territory. Whilst operations in a territory will be initiated and led by one Affiliated Organisation, all affiliates recognise the value of a collective, collaborative, transparent and strategic approach; the Lead Member will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory so as to maximise the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.”

The policy also envisioned that the President of the Federation would mediate disputes when the parties could not resolve differences.

Using a related procedure, it had been agreed formally that INGO W would be the “Lead Member” for Myanmar – this agreement was unanimous, including the assent of INGO A.

It is relevant here to point out that this particular INGO Federation was fairly “loose” in terms of how strongly the individual member organizations are bound by policies, join up their operations, etc. Other similar groupings are highly centralized, but this one allowed each member to operate fairly autonomously, gaining the benefits of being seen as very “local” in their market, yet at the same time realizing some of the advantages of working together globally. In addition, and perhaps partly as a result, this Federation was quite conflict averse, preferring to avoid conflict rather than confronting matters directly.

Soon after agreeing the “Lead Member” arrangements, in which INGO W would lead operations in Myanmar, INGO A expressed an interest in collaborating with the Western “lead” member. Public opinion in INGO A’s home country had become very focused on Myanmar, due to events there, and INGO A felt that there were big opportunities for fundraising at hand. On the other hand, it seemed that if they were not seen as working in Myanmar they would lose credibility at home. This situation rapidly became of the highest importance to INGO A’s CEO and Board of Directors, central to the long-term prosperity of the organization.

The Western member responded enthusiastically, and the two affiliated INGOs quickly reached a formal operational agreement, consistent with Federation policy, that INGO W would act as “Lead Member” for Myanmar, and would accommodate the Asian member’s interests as much as possible by providing support for marketing activities.

Importantly, INGO A seemed to view the situation as requiring them to work operationally, in Myanmar, themselves. Working through INGO W would not be good enough: they needed their own people there, on the ground, to be seen (at home) as credible. Since the Asian member wished to gain operational experience, the Western member agreed that INGO A would directly manage all aspects of programming with one (of eight) local partner.

The Problem

The operational reality in Myanmar, for the two agencies, soon became quite unsatisfactory, and relations became tense. When INGO A began sending staff to Myanmar, without informing INGO W, working directly with government and with local partners (beyond the one that they had agreed to manage), tension quickly evolved into conflict. Staff relations on the ground in Myanmar, and between the two home countries, were becoming very tense and stressful.

Through informal discussion, it appeared that the leadership of INGO A had a strong view that the “Lead Member” rule was unfair, as had been agreed before its “rise” as a nation; as a result, countries of interest to them have been “taken.”  This seemed to evoke a kind of “colonialist” dynamic, and was a new insight for INGO W, whose staff hadn’t considered this area of sensitivity. As a result, the Asian member sought to interpret the Federation policy cited above as allowing it broad autonomy to operate in Myanmar: other than not registering independently, it felt that it should be able to conduct operations as it saw fit, without any operational restriction.

The Asian member further seemed to feel that the specific operational agreements made with the Western member obstructed its ability to do more for people living in poverty in Myanmar, and (importantly) thwarted its need to build market share in its home country.  From their point of view, if agreements reached previously constrained these aims, any such agreements should be revisited and revised accordingly, for moral reasons.

INGO W, on the other hand, felt that the Asian member was in obvious and clear violation of Federation policy by operating in a separate and un-collaborative fashion in Myanmar, breaking key aspects of recent operational agreements. It further felt that the Asian member’s methods of working with the Western member in Myanmar were having detrimental effects on staff morale and operational effectiveness.

In retrospect, it seems possible that the two NGOs had rather different interpretations of the word “consider”, from the applicable Federation policy:

  • the Lead Member will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory …

For INGO W, as “Lead Member,” the key word here was “consider” – there was no obligation to agree that other Federation members could work in Myanmar. From the point of view of the Western member, Federation policy was applicable and the agreement between the two agencies was very clear. And INGO A was in equally clear violation! So, obviously, INGO A should desist from operating independently in Myanmar unless and until agreements were changed; this, obviously, would require open and direct bilateral negotiation and binding written agreements.

For INGO A, the phrase “proactively consider” seemed to imply a great deal of flexibility and, especially when considering how important it was that they work operationally in Myanmar, great flexibility was required, in the interests of children living in poverty in Myanmar. At any rate, what right did any “Western” country have to tell other countries what they could and could not do?

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A two-part problem-solving meeting was convened, with the Western member’s CEO, board chair, and the author meeting with the Asian member’s CEO and several of his senior staff members. 

In the first part, when the Western member’s CEO described the operational challenges that the NGO was facing in Myanmar as a result of the Asian member’s violations of the operational agreements, the Asian member’s CEO became angry and emotional, stating that if such agreements got in the way of helping poor children then the agreements should be changed… and that, in fact, he had reprimanded staff who had been involved in the negotiations.  He insisted that the “Lead Member” rule allowed the Asian member to operate autonomously in Myanmar, as long as it did not pursue separate registration with the government.  

At one point the Asian member’s CEO strongly and emotionally expressed his view that if the Western member continued to block their working directly in Myanmar, it would be evidence that the Western NGO’s team really didn’t care about children living in poverty. When I objected in equally strong and emotional terms, the Asian staff across the table from me burst out laughing. This certainly took me, and the Western CEO and board chair, by surprise!

In the second session, the Asian member’s CEO apologised for his emotional behaviour at the earlier gathering; the discussion itself, however, was no more productive.

Several months later a second problem-solving meeting was scheduled, this time between the two CEOs without staff. I decided to prepare a term paper for my “Principled Negotiation” class at UNSW, outlining how the CEO of INGO W could have approached the meeting.

Research Findings

All conflict is cultural, and this one was no exception. So it was very important to establish a clear understanding of how cultural differences were contributing to the conflict here.

Last time I shared a range of tools and insights related to culture and conflict, including a description of Hofstede’s six dimensions of culture:

  1. Power distance: “the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”;
  2. Individualism: “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members”;
  3. Masculinity: “the fundamental issue here is what motivates people, wanting to be the best (masculine) or liking what you do (feminine)”;
  4. Uncertainty avoidance: “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these”;
  5. Pragmatism: “how people in the past as well as today relate to the fact that so much that happens around us cannot be explained”;
  6. Indulgence: “the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses.”

Of course, as I repeatedly emphasized last time, we MUST keep in mind that analyses like Hofstede’s represent averages, and therefore even when they are founded upon good research we must use them as STARTING POINTS only, for analysis.

So with that in mind I used Hofstede’s framework to compare cultures of the two countries directly involved in the negotiation related to work in Myanmar. When looking at Power Distance, we see a large difference between the two cultures, a difference that had been quite apparent during the first problem-solving meeting, where the Asian member’s staff had deferred totally to their CEO and, in particular, where he dismissed all earlier agreements that had been made without him being present in the negotiations.

Country
Hofstede’s “Power Distance” Dimension
The Western MemberLow
The Asian MemberSlightly High

(In fact, in retrospect it is clear that when staff of INGO A laughed at my emotional outburst, which was much more subdued than the outburst from their CEO that had provoked me, they were not mocking me; they were, in fact, embarrassed that I would dare to speak to their CEO in such a way!)

One of the greatest cultural differences between the two members related to Individualism:

CountryHofstede’s “Individualism” Dimension
The Western MemberHighly Individualistic
The Asian MemberCollectivist

When we consider Masculinity / Femininity we find another of the greatest differences between these two cultures, with the Asian member’s culture typically displaying “feminine” qualities, seeking consensus where possible, with the Western member being highly competitive:

CountryHofstede’s “Masculinity” Dimension
The Western MemberMasculine
The Asian MemberFeminine

Large differences are also seen in Uncertainty Avoidance between the two cultures:

CountryHofstede’s “Uncertainty Avoidance” Dimension
The Western MemberIntermediate
The Asian MemberStrongly Avoid

Perhaps the most relevant cultural difference at play in the Myanmar situation related to Pragmatism, with the Western member’s culture exhibiting great respect for rules and traditions, and wanting quick results, whereas the Asian member’s society was one of the most pragmatic in the world, seeking long-term agreements and guided by virtues and practical good examples:

CountryHofstede’s “Pragmatism” Dimension
The Western MemberNormative
The Asian MemberVery Pragmatic

This difference seemed to explain much of the problem that the two agencies were experiencing: staff from INGO W felt that INGO A was violating agreements, and that abiding by such formalities was of great importance; INGO A felt that the INGO W was being rigid…

Finally, it could be seen that the Western member’s culture was quite indulgent, with a positive attitude and a tendency towards optimism, while the Asian culture was more restrained:

CountryHofstede’s “Indulgence” Dimension
The Western MemberIndulgence
The Asian MemberRestraint

Culture and Negotiations

I spent a bit of time in my term paper deepening my understanding of how culture and negotiations related, in general. The results were very interesting; for example:

Goh (1) asserts that “culture does play a significant role in a negotiation. Its role, particularly in a cross-cultural negotiation, cannot be ignored… A lack of cultural literacy really is not a case of ‘ignorance is bliss’; it is more a case of ‘ignorance is perilous’.”   Hendon (2) agrees, stating that “certainly in today’s (multi-cultural) business environment, managers must be able to negotiate successfully…”

Lee and Rogan (3) assert that “each culture defines what constitutes conflict and the appropriate behaviours for dealing with conflict.  In other words, while conflict itself may be an inevitable condition of human existence, the communication styles utilised to manage conflict could vary depending on one’s cultural heritage.”

Brett (4) indicates that several cultural values “… are relevant to norms and strategies for negotiation… includ(ing) individualism versus collectivism, egalitarianism versus hierarchy, and direct versus indirect communications.”  Hendon, Hendon, and Herbig (5) found that “collectivist societies tend to stress abstract, general agreements over concrete, specific issues.  Collectivist negotiators tend to assume that details can be worked out if the negotiators can agree on generalities.”

Herbig and Kramer (6) emphasize that “the way one succeeds in cross-cultural negotiations is by fully understanding others and using that understanding to one’s own advantage to realize what each party wants from the negotiations, and turn the negotiations into a win-win situation for both sides.”  “The proficient international negotiator understands the national negotiating style of those on the other side of the table, accepts and respects their cultural beliefs, and is conscious of his or her own mannerisms and how they may be viewed by the other side.”

Adair et al (7) “expect that, in general, negotiators from hierarchical cultures will use power strategies more than negotiators from egalitarian cultures.”  Citing Brett et al and Pruitt, it is found that “hierarchical cultures in comparison to egalitarian cultures were more likely to espouse norms for distributive tactics.  Distributive tactics (i.e. making threats or using arguments) are power strategies that are focused on individual, not joint, gains.”  On the other hand, Cai et al (8) find that the more that parties in a negotiation exhibit collectivist traits, the more that joint profit is increased.

Adair and Brett (9) conclude that “if people from Eastern cultures believe negotiation is more about relationships, the interplay between cooperative and competitive goals may represent an attempt to create a long-term relationship that is not too cooperative but has enough social distance to justify claiming value.”

Bangert and Pirzada (10) apply Hofstede’s work on culture to Fisher and Ury’s Principled Negotiation Approach.   They consider that Fisher and Ury’s approach “is the product of an Individualistic-low Power Distance-Masculine-low Uncertainty Avoidance society.  As such, its prescriptions may not lead to the desired results in a Collectivist society.”  One of their conclusions is that while cross-cultural negotiations may face significant process-related challenges, due to communications challenges manifest across cultures, results may tend to be more positive, because differences in values across cultures may lead to more opportunities for win-win outcomes. 

The Asian Member’s Business Culture

It was obvious that I needed to probe business culture in a bit more depth if I was going to understand what was happening, getting beyond the interesting but general insights about culture and negotiations. So, even though there were two NGOs negotiating, not businesses, I looked into the business culture of the Asian member’s culture. My findings were quite surprising, and very helpful!

One reference indicated that “in a Western sense, (the Asian member’s) morality is seen as irrational and unethical because it ignores the very foundation of Western thought: rational behavior based on universal rules of conduct that transcend personal feelings and personal relations”.   The society is “authoritarianistic and there exists a strict order or separation of power in relationships of superior-subordinate…everybody is expected to adhere to those who are ‘higher’ than they are in the given social structure.”  The author goes on to advise that “contracts, among a list of many things, are viewed differently.  Business culture in this country does not see anything as set in stone and they may change the terms of agreement. They believe that if the circumstances have changed, then it is only natural that the details of the contract between companies change as well.”

Another researcher depicts business negotiators from this Asian culture as “clever and forceful.  Their politeness masks a shrewd, never give up, and never lose business sense.”  Their “negotiators are aggressive, quick to express anger and frustration” and are “irritable and cannot stand a long time period negotiation.” 

A third research paper discusses values and business practices.  Although the country continues to evolve, the authors feel that its agrarian, collectivist past and the deep influence of Confucian ethics mean that “emotional and authoritarian attitudes of management are dominant rather than democratic and rational ways of behaviour.”  

Similarly, a fourth article links “an attitude of collectivism” with the country’s agricultural past, where “a good portion of the work, including planting and harvesting, was performed in groups.”  They cite studies that describe contemporary members of the society as “impatient and hot-headed,” traits that “stand in contradiction to the teachings of Confucianism, and are arguably undesirable traits for a chief business negotiator.”  “Chief among the criticisms voiced about their approach to negotiation was that negotiators can appear to be too aggressive at times… they do not learn how to debate when in school.  As a result ‘they are not rational.  They argue without evidence, facts, logic.  They do not listen to others… they rely on emotion.’

A fifth researcher describes the Asian member’s culture’s negotiation behaviour in detail.  “businesspeople are often shrewd and skilful negotiators who should never be underestimated.” “It is very important to emphasize frequently the long-term benefits and your commitment to the business relationship you are seeking to build.”  

“… they often employ distributive and contingency bargaining… Although the primary negotiation style is competitive, they nevertheless value long-term relationships and look for win-win solutions.”  “… they may get very emotional and show strong anger. Remaining constructive and professional usually helps refocus the negotiation… Foreigners may perceive a dichotomy in their negotiation style: on one hand, relationships matter a lot and must be maintained at all times, while on the other hand negotiations may become very emotional, aggressive, or outright adversarial.”

“It is important to realize that businessmen from this country have a very different view of written agreements and contracts from the one most Westerners have. In the traditional view, agreements are just snapshots in time and contracts are similar in role to historic documents: they reflect no more than the agreement that existed at the time they were written up and signed.”  “Signed contracts may not always be honored. Because of their view of the role that contracts play, people from this culture regularly continue to press for a better deal even after a contract has been signed. They may call ‘clarification meetings’ to re-discuss details. If you refuse to be flexible, allowing the relationship to deteriorate, contract terms may not be kept at all…”

Along those same lines, an article described “an important point to keep in mind concerns the nature of reaching an agreement with a firm from this culture. Westerners attach great importance to a written contract which specifies each detail of the business relationship. People from this culture, on the other hand, value a contract as a loosely-structured consensus statement that broadly defines what has been negotiated, but leaves sufficient room to permit flexibility and adjustment.”  

Meyer’s Wheel of Conflict

In an earlier blog article in this series, I describe how Meyer’s “Wheel of Conflict” could be used to understand particular situations. I think it’s helpful to use this tool to summarize background to this case study thus far:

Needs and Interests:

The interests of the two parties seemed to be as follows:

Interests of INGO A (the Asian member):

  • Raise profile and market share in country by working in Myanmar as it sees fit, without restriction;
  • Ensure that the “Lead Member” rule is interpreted so that INGO A can operate autonomously in locations of interest, including Myanmar;
  • Maintain positive relations in the Federation, and maintain the current loose arrangements;
  • Gain more direct program management experience, learning in particular from INGO W’s approach.

Interests of INGO W (the Western member):

  • Continue to lead program implementation in Myanmar;
  • Obtain increased financial support from INGO A for programs in Myanmar and elsewhere;
  • Ensure that the “Lead Member” rule is interpreted so that INGO W retains the management of operations in Myanmar;
  • Maintain positive relations in the Federation, and encourage the Federation to become more coherent and effective as a collaborative body;
  • Reduce the heavy management burden and stress involved in collaborating with INGO A in Myanmar.

The best negotiating strategy would take these varied interests into account, along with (fundamentally) the differing cultures of the two home countries.

History

History was very relevant here, in particular the recent “rise” of INGO A’s home country, and its feelings that it was being treated in a “colonialistic” manner.

Structure

The nature of the “Federation” that both organizations belonged to, in particular the ‘loose’ nature of the grouping, was very relevant.

Values

A range of differing values seemed to underlie this conflict, some of which were described in the cultural analysis carried out above.

Emotions

Lots of emotions were present in the negotiating room, some of which were used as bargaining tools; others were vivid and contributed to emotional flooding (certainly on my part!)

Communication

There were language differences, and some differences in culture impeded clear discussion until we recognized what was happening.

Power

INGO A was growing quickly, much faster than INGO W; and INGO A had a much bigger budget. This put INGO A in a stronger position in the Federation.

Culture

See above.

Data

Data didn’t seem to play a strong role in this conflict.

Personality

While the personalities of the people involved were very relevant in this conflict, my sense was that cultural differences outlined elsewhere in this article were more important

I found Meyer’s tool to be very useful as I thought about the conflict.

A Negotiation Strategy

Based on this insights described above, taking into account the interests of both parties, as I perceived them, the nature of the Federation and differences between the two cultures, in particular the significant differences in how business contracts and negotiations were viewed, I set out recommendations for how INGO W’s CEO should approach upcoming negotiations.

Firstly, preferred outcomes seemed to be quite different: the Asian member preferred to work autonomously in Myanmar, and beyond, while the Western member preferred that both sides respected a literal reading of the Federation “Lead Member” policy and that all support for work in Myanmar be channeled through INGO W.

But there were also some shared interests: both Members wanted to avoid damaging the Federation and resolve bilateral tensions, both wanted to raise their profile in their home markets by working in Myanmar and, most importantly, both wished to support progress for children there (and beyond).

Second, use of a principled-negotiation approach had not resolved the conflict in Myanmar.   Given the hierarchical nature of the Asian member’s society, it is possible that the lack of direct involvement of their CEO in designing the first agreements meant that his interests were not satisfied; at any rate, the strongly hierarchical nature of the Asian member’s culture meant that negotiations without him were not likely to be supported.  Also, as Bangert and Pirzada point out, the use of principled-negotiation approach may be less suitable to collectivist societies, and INGO A’s country was strongly collectivist; Katz finds that negotiators from the Asian member’s country “often employ distributive and contingency bargaining.”  Thus it is likely that an element of distributive bargaining would be useful in the upcoming meeting. 

Thirdly, I had found strong evidence that business culture in the Asian member’s society placed much less importance on contracts and rules than other cultures, much less that in the Western member’s culture. That finding needed to be taken into account in any next steps.

Finally, and positively, the fact that the culture in the Asian member’s country was strongly collectivist, which means that they were likely to hold a strong desire to remain an appreciated member of the Federation. 

These findings gave me some glimmers of what INGO W’s negotiating strategy should be. But first, what were the interests of the two parties?

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So my recommended negotiation strategy started with a few assumptions:

  1. Both organizations placed a high value on the Federation, and wanted to remain a part of it in good standing. This meant that the Federation as such, even if it was rather loose, could be a key element of any negotiation strategy;
  2. The Federation to which both INGOs belonged held autonomy as a strong value. This meant that the emphasis earlier placed on the “Lead Member” policy by INGO W, as binding on both parties, was probably misplaced. That policy needed either to be ratified and upheld by the Federation, even strengthened, or INGO W would have to assume that it would not be applied and thus abandon it as a key part of their strategy;
  3. As shown in my research, INGO W’s reliance on written agreements that would be respected by both parties was also probably mistaken. This meant that INGO W would need to prepare for frequent revisiting of the situation in Myanmar and in INGO A’s home market, and be willing to engage in periodic problem-solving, and ongoing negotiations. This way of working would have to replace some of INGO W’s earlier reliance on contracts and formal agreements;
  4. Given the cultural attributes found, direct involvement of INGO A’s CEO was imperative.

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Given the relatively loose nature of the Federation, and the obvious “loophole” in the “Lead Member” policy, it looked to me that INGO W was in a fairly weak position. INGO A was unlikely to change behavior, because their CEO was behaving consistently with some very fundamental values and cultural traits. And the Federation would be unlikely to discipline this seemingly-minor violation of policy, when even more serious policy clashes were not resulting in enforcement or willingness to engage in mediation.

Despite this, I recommended that, in light of the strongly collectivist nature of INGO A’s society, INGO W should reframe the discussion away from Myanmar and towards the Federation, emphasising the benefits to the collective group by the two members working together, and the harm to the group that an open split could cause.  

In particular, I recommended this should involve reviewing the “Lead Member” policy and formally proposing that it be strengthened and upheld. I suggested specific language changes, as illustrated below:

Existing LanguageProposed Stronger Language
the Lead Member will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory so as to maximise the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.operations in a territory will be initiated and led by one Affiliated Organization, which will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations so that work in that territory maximises the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.

I realized that such a significant strengthening of the policy was unlikely, and in fact it seemed much more likely that the policy would be further weakened as a result of the conflict over Myanmar. But pushing for it seemed to be only way to put INGO W in a stronger negotiating position.

After seeking to change the nature of the discussion in this fashion, two different Tracks could be considered by INGO W’s CEO, depending on results of the “Lead Member” discussion. (Note that here I am using terminology from Principled Negotiation techniques, such as – primarily – the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement” – “BATNA”)

Track 1: the policy is (at least) not weakened.  In this case, the Western NGO’s CEO should reassert the validity of the agreements made earlier.  Recognising that such agreements were not seen as binding in INGO A’s business culture, INGO W’s CEO should propose a high-level, ongoing joint problem-solving body.  He should make it easy for INGO A to say yes by outlining how this solution would bring more harmony to the relationship while enabling INGO A to satisfy its interests.  Wording could be used such as “we feel proud of our work and approach.  Can you tell me why supporting us as called for in the policy is not an option for you?”

He should make it hard to say no by emphasising the clear statement in the draft “Lead Member” policy that “operations in a territory will be initiated and led by one Affiliated Organisation”, proposing that if this option is not feasible for INGO A, then INGO W will pursue the mediation option contained in the policy, with the likely negative impact on relationships.  

If the “Lead Member” policy is not weakened, the option of continuing with the earlier operational agreements, with the addition of a joint problem-solving mechanism, will likely be seen as better than each organisation’s BATNA, and as complying with policy (thus, legitimate.)

Track 2: the policy is weakened.  The position of INGO W’s CEO in this case is not strong.  He should thus propose the creation of a formalised joint venture agreement, through which governance of operations in Myanmar is shared, and the establishment of an operational problem-solving mechanism.   This option might be meet the interests of INGO A, at least for some time, preserving much of INGO W’s role and position.  

This agreement could be seen as legitimate as it complies with the option contained in the “Lead Member” policy that the Lead Member “… proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory so as to maximise the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.”

If INGO A does not accept this option, or if experience with this option over time does not resolve conflict between the two agencies, then INGO W’s CEO should implement his BATNA: cancel the operational agreements made earlier, agree that INGO A operates autonomously in Myanmar, and begin to discuss funding arrangements for INGO A in other countries managed by INGO W.  In other words, to seek to extract financial support for INGO W’s work outside of Myanmar.

Experience and analysis indicate that this is the most likely outcome.  

Given the sensitivity of INGO A to belonging to the Federation, the likelihood of agreements (Track 1 or Track 2) being sustained would be increased by formalising matters during a future meeting of the CEOs of all members of the Federation.

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This case study seeks to illustrate how a comparative analysis of cultures can help lead to a deeper understanding of conflict. In this case, the insights gained were very useful, at least to the extent of gaining a clearly view of why the situation was so challenging.

My own experience with this situation certainly confirmed for me the centrality of culture in conflicts, and helped me see how useful certain tools (Hofstede’s Six Dimensions of Culture, Principled Negotiation, etc.) were when dealing with seemingly intractable conflicts.

The INGO Federation involved in this case study is one of several global groupings, most of which are less “loose” than this one. Despite this difference in degree, these Federations all face a range of very interesting challenges involving commonality and difference, culture, history, differing markets, etc.

  • Do they emphasize their scale and reach, their international and global aspect? The trends I’ve explored earlier in this blog series, of NGOs becoming more “business-like” would encourage this – seeking to dominate their “markets” by growth and acquisition…
  • Or do they market themselves as local organizations, in tune with their local market? This would mean forgoing some of the supposed benefits of having a global “brand” and some of the supposed efficiencies that might come from scale.

Since I’ve worked for a couple of these groupings, perhaps this would be a good subject for a future blog article!

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Next time I will begin to wrap up this series with some reflections about a recent experience as interim COO for a disability-focused organization. And I’ll describe the rest of the hike that day in June of 2018, climbing up my 47th mountain, the second-highest of the 48 peaks, Mt Adams!

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?;
  43. Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
  44. Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
  45. Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
  46. Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
  47. Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
  48. Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…

(1) Bee Chen Goh, ‘Culture: The Silent Negotiator’ (1999) 2 (2), ADR Bulletin.

(2) Donald W. Hendon, ‘Negotiation Concession Patterns: A Multi-Country, Multi-Period Study’ (2007) 6 (2), Journal of International Business Research.

(3) Hyun O. Lee and Randall G. Rogan, ‘A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Organizational Conflict Management Behaviors (1991) 2 (3), The International Journal of Conflict Management.

(4) Jeanne M. Brett, ‘Culture and Negotiation’ (2010) 35:2, International Journal of Psychology.

(5) Donald W. Hendon, Rebecca Angeles Hendon, and Paul Herbig, ‘Negotiating Across Cultures’ (1998) 42, Security Management.

(6) Paul A. Herbig and Hugh E. Kramer, ‘Do’s and Don’ts of Cross-Cultural Negotiations’ (1992) 21, Industrial Marketing Management.

(7) Wendi Adair, Jeanne Brett, Alain Lempereur, Tetsushi Okumura, Peter Shikhirev, Catherine Tinesley, and Anne Lytle, ‘Research Report: Culture and Negotiation Strategy’ (2004), Negotiation Journal.

(8) Deborah A. Cai, Steven R. Wilson, and Laura E. Drake, ‘Culture in the Context of Intercultural Negotiation: Individualism-Collectivism and Paths to Integrative Agreements’ (2000) 26 (4), Human Communication Research.

(9) Wendi Lyn Adair and Jeanne M. Brett, ‘Culture and Negotiation Processes’ in Michele J. Gelfand and Jeanne M. Brett (eds), The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture (Stanford Business Books, 2004) 158.

(10) David C. Bangert and Kahkashan Pirzada, ‘Culture and Negotiation’ (1992) 34 (1), The International Executive.

Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights

December, 2018

Last time I wrote about the “Golden Age” of International NGOs, and speculated about what’s next for these agencies: resurgence, gradual decline, or extinction?

This time I want to talk about conflict.  For me, conflict is one of the key themes of our world now, inside organizations, in the lives of people facing poverty and deprivation, and beyond. It’s a big topic, so there will be a few articles on this theme.

To begin, I want to share five key insights related to conflict.  These insights have helped me greatly as I’ve built my abilities to navigate, manage, and transform conflict. I’m hoping you find them useful, too…

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I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 34 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

But first…

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To skip the description of my ascent of Zealand Mountain, and go directly to five key insights related to conflict, click here.

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The Climb – Zealand Mountain

I had reached the summit of Mt Hale just over an hour after starting to hike, on 11 September 2017.  After a brief rest there, I continued on the “Lend-A-Hand” trail towards Zealand Mountain (4260ft, 1298m):

The hike along “Lend-A-Hand” was very pleasant, though I was a bit concerned about how far I was dropping down: inevitably, I would have to recover all of this elevation, and more, to reach Zealand!  But after some time descending, I entered a section that was rather unusual for this high elevation – open, flat, and a bit boggy.  The views were striking, especially to the south, as I passed by a smaller mountain on my right (shown as the unnamed 3700ft peak on the map, above.)  Some autumn foliage was beginning to emerge on this late summer day:

At 11:15am I reached the junction with the Twinway Trail, which I would take to the south towards Zeacliff and then west to reach Zealand Mountain.  I was actually quite near Zealand Hut at this point, but didn’t visit it until later in the day when I would return to this spot on my way down.

The walking was beautiful here; there are some pleasant waterfalls on the Whitewall Brook here near the junction, just a few moments up along Twinway:

The ascent of Zealand Mountain starts up steeply from Whitewall Brook, rock-hopping steadily upward.  I arrived at the top of Zeacliff at around noon, where the views were spectacular, as advertised.  Autumn colors were just starting to arrive in the area down below me, towards Thoreau Falls and Ethan Pond:

There were five or six people at the top of Zeacliff, taking in the view.  From there, I continued on the Appalachian Trail to the west, and the first section was high up, but with open views all around … a bit boggy here and there:

Appalachian Trail Blaze

The walk from Zeacliff to the top of Zealand Mountain isn’t too steep, mostly gently up and down through scrub pine, except for one section where there is a short ladder:

From near this ladder, I could see North and South Twin through the trees; I had climbed these the week before with our Granddaughter V:

I arrived at the spur that leads towards the top of Zealand Mountain at 1:02pm, and reached the wooded peak a few moments later:

Zealand Summit Cairn

Here I had a late lunch, by myself, until about 1:20pm.  Another hiker reached the summit just as I left, so I had a nice quiet time to eat and rest at the top.  No view, as advertised, but it still felt great to reach my 43rd 4000-footer!

When I had started this hike, taking into account the shorter days now that the summer was ending, I had calculated that I needed to leave Zealand Mountain at the latest by 3pm if I was going to arrive back at the car before dusk.  So since it was 1:20pm, I was making good time, well ahead of my worst-case scenario!  No hurry … 

So now I turned around, walking back towards Zeacliff along the ridge.  Going the other direction, I caught some nice views towards North and South Twin, and towards the presidential range:

Looking Towards Mt Washington
North and South Twin

Though without many views, this section of the Twinway is fairly open and not too steep, so it’s pleasant walking.  I arrived back at Zeacliff  just after 2pm, and the afternoon light was even better than it had been earlier: here is a photo looking towards the Willey Range, with Mt Tom (where I began this blog series in May of 2016), Mt Field and Mt Willey, and Mt Washington in the distance:

I continued from Zeacliff, down Twinway to the junction with Lend-A-Hand that I had come up, earlier… to reach Zealand Falls Hut at about 3pm.  I know I’ve been saying this a lot, but the views here were really fantastic – from the Hut itself, and from the ledges on Whitewall Brook, down towards Zealand Pond:

I left Zealand Hut at about 3:20pm, heading down towards Zealand Pond.  The initial descent is a bit steep; on this mid-September day, the trees were bursting into color:

I reached Zealand Pond at about 3:30pm, and took a few photos and a video:

At 3:49pm I took a left onto Zealand Trail, walking alongside Zealand Pond for a while:

Zealand Trail runs along an old forest railway down from the pond to Zealand Road, 2.2 miles of fairly straight and level, very well-maintained, path, passing the junction with the A-Z Trail at 4:45pm.   I reached the end of Zealand Trail, at the road, at around 4:45pm, where there were lots of car parked – a popular spot to start a longer hike, or to get to Zealand Hut.  I walked back down Zealand Road to reach my car at 5pm:

This was a fantastic day – clear, dry, cool, perfect for a long day climbing in the White Mountains.  A really, really great hike, reaching two 4000-footers (numbers 42 and 43) on one perfect day.  Unbeatable views from Zeacliff, and from the area around Zealand Hut.  I made a note to come back to stay a night or two at Zealand Hut, with Jean, a year from now.

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Conflict – Five Key Insights

I was lucky to spend six years as International Program Director for ChildFund Australia, a great organization with great leadership, doing important work.  Along with a terrific job and fantastic work environment, another highlight of those years was living in Sydney: a vibrant and welcoming place, with infinite opportunities and an exciting vibe.

Late in our years in Sydney, I ended up taking a couple of courses at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), first in Mediation and then on Principled Negotiation.  At first I looked at this coursework just as a way of acquiring skills that would be useful in my work.  Plus it had been over ten years since I had done any formal study, so it felt like it was time to wake up the side of my brain that might be a bit under-utilized!

Given my full-time work, I didn’t really consider doing a degree – this was skill-building.

But during this time I was fortunate to come into the orbit of a brilliant and gifted teacher and mentor, Dr Rosemary Howell.  Along with her work with executives at the highest levels of Australian industry and society, Rosemary teaches dispute resolution at UNSW, and I was very lucky to study Principled Negotiation with her and her husband Alan Limbury.  I’ve had the good fortune of studying with some renowned teachers (including Bernie Mayer, who we will meet later in this article and in my next posting), and Rosemary is at the very top.  She inspires and enlightens, and is a brilliant artist as well.

Near the end of that class, Rosemary suggested that since at that point I had done two of the eight requirements for a Masters Degree in Dispute Resolution, why not enroll in the degree program?  Enrollment wouldn’t cost anything, and if I decided to go on to the degree, I would be able to count these first two courses.  Otherwise, if I waited very much longer, I’d have to start fresh.

I’m glad that I followed Rosemary’s advice, because I thoroughly enjoyed doing the whole degree, which I finished just after we left Australia, in 2015. And, as it turned out, if I had delayed very much longer, I would have had to retake the Mediation course…

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In upcoming articles I will to share some examples – many of which will be from my own real experience – of how we can take advantage of the opportunities that conflict gives us: to improve, and see things differently, to restore harm. And I will dedicate articles on two topics that I think deserve the space: on conflict analysis, and cross-cultural conflict.

First, in this article, I want to share five insights that I gained as I progressed in my studies of conflict.  For many, certainly for conflict professionals, these insights will seem a bit elementary; but I’ve shared them in presentations since finishing my degree, I’ve found that others sometimes find them as interesting as I do.

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First Insight:  Conflict is a normal part of life.  Nobody likes conflict.  We usually try to avoid conflict, because its dangerous.  But conflict can be positive if managed well.

Like most people, I avoid conflict. Maybe I avoid it a bit less now that I have studied it so much, and have gained some tools that help me manage it productively.  But still, conflict makes me feel anxious and nervous. 

I’ve come to believe that if we can come to see conflict as a normal part of life, and stop striving to avoid it at all costs, we can unlock the great potential for positive change that is latent in most disputes.  To understand why this is the case, read on!

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We live in a time of great conflict, at many levels, and I would argue that conflict is one of the themes of our age, our zeitgiest.  There are many causes of this.  For example, just taking the United States as an example, inequality has risen hugely in recent decades:

As can be seen, this trend can also be seen in many, probably most, countries.  I would argue that this rise in inequality is leading increased social conflict, as some feel left behind, and (quite reasonably, sadly) feel that the rules are rigged against them.

Another relevant trend is that our populations are becoming much more diverse.  While this is positive in many ways, I would argue that if we don’t take intentional steps to learn to live together, to understand and appreciate the beauties of other cultures, this trend can contribute to conflict:

In my own lifetime, the proportion of the population that can be categorized as “white” has gone from over 80% to around 60%, and continues to drop. For me, this is a very positive trend, but we are witness to the backlash that has emerged in recent years, as some in formerly-dominant groups seek to maintain their privileged status.

A third example of trends, in the United States, that are leading to increased conflict, is political polarization:  

Whether this particular reality is a consequence, or a cause, of conflict doesn’t really matter here; to me, this trend is leading to a decline in civility and, then, to increased social conflict.

Other causes of increased conflict might include climate change, which has displaced millions, as has civil conflict; globalization, which has brought disparate cultures into close contact, and caused the economic inequality we can see above, within and between countries, with some economies and some populations stagnating while others thrive; the impact of information technology and artificial intelligence, which has dislocated so many areas of the economy, leading to a rising sense of dislocation and insecurity.

All of these trends, and others, have contributed to conflict, which has become one of the major themes of our age.  We see this in society, and in our organizations.  As I worked through my Masters degree, I became more and more convinced of the importance of this topic.

There are good reasons why we tend to avoid conflict, and why it’s hard to see it as a positive, generative phenomenon – I’ll get to that below.

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For now, to begin to unpack this insight, firstly, what is conflict?  Of course, there are many definitions but, for me, this one (from Lebaron and Pillay(1); references are provided below) is pretty useful:

  • Conflict is “a difference within a person or between two or more people that affects them in a significant way.”

( I would just add that conflict can between a person or people and human institutions.)

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As we unpack conflict, this would be a good place to introduce Bernie Mayer, who I mentioned in the introduction to this article. I was very lucky to study with him at UNSW, in a course he taught focused on building skills in conflict analysis.

But in the interest of space, instead of covering that important topic here, I’ll focus an entire article on conflict analysis in an upcoming article in this series; it merits that kind of attention!

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How does this kind of “difference within a person or between two or more people” emerge?  Typically there is a sequence like this (taken from Felstiner, Abel, and Sarat, 1981(2)):

  • In the first, pre-conflict stage, an “injurious” experience has taken place, but it is “unperceived.”  In other words, something harmful has happened, but it is not yet affecting the people involved in a significant way, and we don’t typically identify the problem with another person or people.  In this stage, we can have strong feelings, of anxiety or anger, or simple dissatisfaction, but perhaps without a particular focus for these feelings, and we haven’t yet identified specific harm;
  • When a transformation to the second stage occurs, we “Name” the problem and identify that it has been “injurious.”  Now we become conscious that we’ve been harmed in some way, injured.  But the transformation of the situation into conflict is not yet complete;
  • If the situation is to evolve into actual conflict, we must identify another person or people who we feel have caused the harm we have Named.  In other words, we must “Blame” somebody.  Still, however, no conflict has arisen;
  • For the situation to actually transform into conflict, we must take action to remedy the harm we have Named, which we feel has been caused by the person or people we have Blamed.  This means that we must “Claim” a remedy. Now the situation has been transformed into a conflict.

I’ve found this framework – Naming, Blaming, and Claiming – to be very helpful as I’ve approached conflicts in my own life, and when I’ve been working to help others manage conflict.  Without Naming, Blaming, and Claiming, there really isn’t a conflict to be managed!  There might be a problem, sure, or some sort of challenge to be overcome, but not a conflict as such.

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Once a social situation has transformed into conflict, the situation can evolve as shown in this figure:

In this model, after a conflict is Named, a person is Blamed, and a Claim is made, conflict is triggered by some sort of denial of the Claim. As the conflict escalates, we reach a point of agitation. Matters accelerate, and the intensity of the conflict peaks. After the peak, conflict de-escalates and we recover our initial calm.

We can probably all remember, vividly, events that proceeded like that…

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Another insightful way of depicting conflict escalation across groups or nations comes from Friedrich Glasl’s Cold-War work:

Glasl’s 9 stages offer a different way of seeing the escalation section of the figure above. It’s easy to imagine the nightmare of Cold-War devastation in the stark, bleak language used: “total war with all means, limitless violence.” The conflicts that affect us on a daily basis – at home, at work, in our neighborhoods – aren’t so dramatic; but the process of escalation described by Glasl is useful in placing ourselves in a sequence, and understanding what might come next, even if we don’t have access to thermonuclear devices!

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One article that influenced me deeply in this regard is entitled “Conflicts as Property,” by Nils Christie (3).  Published way back in 1977, this article gave me an insight into why conflict can be seen as a positive thing.

Here is an excerpt from the abstract:

“Conflicts are seen as important elements in society. Highly industrialised societies do not have too much internal conflict, they have too little. We have to organise social systems so that conflicts are both nurtured and made visible and also see to it that professionals do not monopolise the handling of them.”

Nowadays, with so much conflict here in the United States, and indeed around the world, I’m not so sure that we have too little conflict! But I still take Christie’s point that our legal systems have “stolen” our conflicts from us, denying us the opportunity to learn to resolve matters through dialogue, negotiation, mediation. He feels that we have lost something very basic in our humanity as we’ve “outsourced” the management of conflict to “professionals.” I think I agree.

How can something as threatening as conflict be seen as positive, or generative? Another reference helped me see this clearly: Bernie Mayer suggested that I read “The Functions of Social Conflict” by Lewis Coser (4). I’ve blogged about this book earlier, focusing on how I think it helps explain why INGOs are such complicated places to work. But his main focus is on how conflict brings the need for change to light, and how it can unify groups. A very helpful perspective, and highly recommended.

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Second Insight: Blame it on the amygdala!  

As events are transformed into conflicts, how do we experience this, as human beings?  Brain science tells us that the “amygdala,” an almond-shaped organ in our limbic brain, plays a key role here.

Simplifying things significantly, our brains have three regions: Reptilian, Limbic, and Neocortex.  These regions evolved in that order as human beings developed, with the Reptilian (instinctual, lizard) brain emerging first, followed by the Limbic, and then the Neocortex:

MRI studies have recently greatly advanced our understanding of human behavior. When we are in conflict, using MRI technology we can see that the “amygdala,” an almond-shaped organ in the Reptilian region of our brains, becomes very active.

When we are in conflict, the amygdala releases hormones such as adrenaline, which influence our behavior at the deepest level, in ways that help us, and in ways that are deeply dysfunctional. In particular, since the amygdala is in the Reptilian region, when it activates it tends to disable the Limbic and Neocortex, greatly reducing our emotional and rational abilities. We “deskill.”

All of us have experienced “emotional flooding” when we in conflict.  This is a feeling of high anxiety, even panic, that leads us into the familiar “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” syndrome.  In conflict, the Reptilian brain takes over, shutting down the Limbic and Neocortex regions of our brains; rational, thinking abilities fall to the side. Our thinking narrows, and we become deskilled.

Thousands of years ago, perhaps, this behavior of the amygdala might have been adaptive in a positive way: fighting or fleeing or freezing could have represented the best alternatives on the savanna when confronted with a dangerous animal, or in prehistory when encountering strangers from another tribe.

But in today’s globalized world, emotional flooding is no longer an adaptive trait when we come face-to-face with difference.

I’ve found it very helpful to understand how my brain is behaving when I’m immersed in conflict, and why it’s acting that way, why I’m behaving and feeling that way! In fact, when we emotionally flood, we are responding to chemicals that our brains are producing, we are designed that way. But we don’t have to be prisoners of evolution, with training and practice, we can manage our amygdalae!

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Third Insight:  We have preferences for handling conflict.  And there are tools we can learn to manage conflict productively.  Approaching conflict with authentic, paradoxical curiosity is key to peacemaking. 

Each of us has a preference for handling conflict. There are several models describing these different approaches; the model that I found the most useful is the “Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Instrument“:

On the “Y” axis, we look at how assertive we are in addressing conflict, while on the “X” axis we plot how cooperative we are:

  • An “avoiding” style combines low assertiveness with low cooperation. I think that this is a very common preference, certainly one that I can relate to!;
  • A preference that combines high assertiveness with low cooperativeness is a “competing” style;
  • On the other hand, a person who is highly cooperative but unassertive in a conflict situation can be described as “accommodating”;
  • A highly-assertive, highly-cooperative style is “collaborating”;
  • Finally, a “compromising” approach to conflict is typified by medium levels of assertiveness and cooperativeness.

I like this model, because it seems to describe preferences that we actually observe in the world: highly-assertive, uncooperative people who push too hard to get their way, damaging relationships unnecessarily; very cooperative people who are unassertive, and who are often taken advantage of; etc.

At the same time, there are a range of tools that we use to manage conflict, ranging in terms of the control that we have from avoidance (total control) to violence (completely out of control):

Between avoidance (as I’ve noted, a very common tool) and violence there is a range of conflict-management tools, progressing from more control to less:

  • When the issue at hand isn’t really that important, and there is no strong motivation to preserve the relationship that is involved in the conflict, avoiding can be the best tool. It’s certainly a common approach, and there’s nothing wrong with using it in the right circumstances. But I think that we overuse this tool, avoiding conflict when the stakes are actually high, when relationships are actually very important to us. In these cases, we should address the conflict, our lives will be the poorer for not addressing it. But we don’t, because, even though we should address the conflict, we don’t know how! As a result, when issues are significant and an important relationship is threatened, we don’t take action, we avoid, and the conflict festers and grows;
  • The other common tool we use is informal discussion and problem-solving. Here we give up a little bit of control, because we are seeking to reach agreement with the other party, who we cannot ultimately control. This tool is much better than avoidance, and can be used with issues are important or not, where relationships must be preserved, or not. Most of us have experience with this tool, but as Christie points out, the “outsourcing” of the management of our conflicts to legal “professionals” has led to our having much less experience with these kinds of situations, of dialogue with people we are in conflict with;
  • We can view negotiation as a formalized version of the previous tool. Here, again, a little bit more control is relinquished, because the process is directed into a defined process. But the two parties to the conflict work without the participation of any other participant, so they themselves have full, though shared, control of the process. The version of this tool that I learned from Rosemary Howell, “Principled Negotiation”, is presented in the seminal book “Getting to Yes,” a very well-known management treatise;
  • We give up more control when we use mediation as our conflict-management tool. Here a “neutral” facilitator, with no mandate to determine resolution of the conflict, manages the discussion, still seeking to reach a point at which problem-solving leads to a mutually-agreed plan of action. Mediation as such is voluntary: parties must not be compelled to use this tool. However, in many situations nowadays the use of mediation is a requirement before entering into certain kinds of litigation, as a cost-saving method;
  • Arbitration involves giving up control, almost entirely. Parties to the conflict agree that, after presenting their arguments, the arbitrator will decide how the conflict will be resolved; this decision is binding on the parties. An advantage of arbitration is that it has a well-developed legal framework, so is enforceable in most cases;
  • If the parties cannot agree to use any of the foregoing tools, they often resort to litigation, where they give up control entirely. This is Christies’ “theft” in action: professionals such as lawyers and judges now take over entirely, using impersonal mechanisms (the “law”) to decide who is right, who is wrong, and what must be done. I think that we significantly overuse this tool in our modern societies. Of course, there are many advantages of litigation, theoretically, in terms of protecting less-powerful parties, etc. The adversarial legal system has made a huge and positive difference in our societies, not least because it reduces the level of violence (the final tool, below) we experience. But we know that these advantages are often not fully realized in practice, and there are disadvantages as well, in addition to the compelling case that Christie makes: our legal system is enormously expensive, slow, and subject to abuse by the powerful and wealthy;
  • Finally, violence isn’t really a tool of conflict management, it seems actually to be the entire loss of control. But it is a tool we use in conflict situations, the tool we should seek to avoid at all costs.

These tools, especially the ones on the left-hand side of the diagram above, where we retain a degree of empowerment, are very helpful.

But, the most important approach that I’ve learned actually doesn’t appear in that diagram! I’m thinking of authenic curiosity, and I gained this insight from another important text, “The Moral Imagination,” by John Paul Lederach (5):

I can’t begin to summarize the profound lessons contained in this book but, for me, the notion that to build peace we must remain authentically curious has been fundamental.

I’ve learned that, for me, there is little chance of reaching any sort of resolution if I fall into “fundamental attribution error”: the mistake of concluding that, because the other person is doing things I don’t like, they are bad people. It’s quite hard to move from that place of judgement to a restoration of harm.

How to avoid fundamental attribution error? If I can keep being curious about why the other person is behaving they way they are, instead of simply concluding that they are mistaken or bad, I’ve learned that I avoid the trap. And this lets me begin to really understand what’s going on…

I’m a big admirer of John Paul Lederach.

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Fourth Insight:  All conflict has cultural aspects.  Conflict is culturally defined – these are good starting points, but be careful! 

Having worked most of my career across cultures, I found the study of cross-cultural conflict to be very relevant, useful, and interesting; in fact, a course on that topic was my eighth, and final, subject in my degree. Many conflicts that I had experienced during my career involved different cultures, with surprising twists and turns – I will be describing a few of these in future articles in this series, so stay tuned for that!

And I will be publishing an entire blog post in this series on the topic of cross-cultural conflict.

Just to introduce the topic here, I found the famous “Ladder of Inference” to be a great starting point to understand those strange cross-cultural twists and turns:

The Ladder of Inference

Of course, our consciousness is not so linear, but there is meaning in seeing the process as a ladder. And it’s in assigning meaning to data that we observe (in this case, the behavior of people we are in conflict with) where culture comes in. When another person, from a different culture, assigns different meaning to a situation we share, we can begin to have problems communicating about the situation, which can easily lead to conflict.

How can we understand differences in culture? Here again I was lucky to study a very useful resource: Hofstede’s Six Dimensions of Culture. Hofstede’s work is significant enough that I will be publishing a blog in this series dedicated to it in the near future.

So stay tuned for more on Hofstede…

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Fifth Insight:  We evolved in villages where we all knew each other and there were only small differences in culture.  Now, because of globalization, cross-cultural conflict is becoming more common. So managing conflict is a key skill in our globalized world.

This Fifth Insight is simple, but has nonetheless been very useful in my work. It synthesizes several of the other Insights presented here.

Culture is relevant to all conflicts, even within relatively-homogeneous settings, because culture strongly influences how we approach disputes. But things have changed: centuries ago, contact with different cultures was much rarer than it is today, in our globalized world. This means that we come across the unexpected “twists and turns” as we deal with conflicts more often, in our communities (which are much more diverse than before) and in our organizations (likewise, much more heterogeneous than earlier.)

This means that all of us, even if we don’t work in international non-profit organizations as I have done for 35 years, will benefit from learning about conflict, how to manage conflict to address differences and gain the positive, generative outcomes that are latent in many disputes.

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There you have my five key Insights on conflict. I plan to present Bernie Mayer’s “Wheel of Conflict” next time, a great tool for understanding and analyzing conflict. I’ll share the term paper I did in his class, on the conflict in Ferguson, Missouri.

After that, I hope to publish a paper on cross-cultural conflict, including a more-complete exposition of Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions.

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Here are the references I’ve used in this article.  I highly recommend each of them; they will each yield much deeper insights than I’ve been able to describe in this article:

  1. Lebaron and Pillay, “Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences”, Nicholas Brealey; 1st edition (November 2, 2006);
  2. Felstiner, Abel and Sarat, “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes: Naming, Blaming, Claiming…,” Law & Society Review, Volume 15, Number 3-4 (1980-81);
  3. Nils Christie, “Conflicts As Property,” The British Journal of Criminology,  Volume 17, Number 1 (January 1977);
  4. Lewis Coser, “The Functions of Social Conflict“, Free Press (November 1, 1964); 
  5. Jean Paul Lederach, “The Moral Imagination: The Art And Soul Of Building Peace”, Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (August 26, 2010). 

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?

Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed. What Next?

December, 2018

Apologies for the long silence since my last posting… I’ve recently taken up an interim position as COO for the Disability Rights Fund, which has left me a bit less time for writing…

Anyway, by the time I finished six great years at ChildFund Australia, I had been working in international non-governmental organizations (“INGOs”) for nearly 30 years.  Some have said that those were Golden Years for the sector…

In this post, I want to reflect a bit about those so-called Golden Years, and what comes next.

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I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 34 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

But first…

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To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Hale, and go directly to my reflections on the future of international NGOs, click here.

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I climbed Mt Hale and Zealand Mountain on 11 September, 2017, a beautiful, clear and cool day to be out and about in the White Mountains.  This time, I want to describe the (short) hike up Mt Hale (4054ft, 1236m).

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I thought that getting to the top of both Mt Hale and Mt Zealand in the same day might be a challenge or, at least, a very long walk, so I decided to leave Durham fairly early.  So I left town at 6am, and (after stopping for coffee and a sandwich, as usual) arrived at the Hale Brook Trail trailhead at 8:30am.  The trailhead is on Zealand Road, which I would have to walk down a fair distance at the end of the hike.

For the very first time in all of these (42) hikes, I think, my car was the only one parked at the trailhead as I prepared to depart.  This made me guess I wouldn’t see too many people, at least until I got up to the Appalachian Trail (which would be after summiting Mt Hale):

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Hale Brook Trail is immediately steep upon leaving the parking area, and pretty much keeps climbing steeply the whole (short) way up.  I crossed Hale Brook about 30 minutes after starting to climb.  Very beautiful place:

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After a series of switch-backs, the trail gradually became somewhat less steep as I neared the top.  At 9:45am the trees began to thin out, and become shorter, so it got lighter as more sunlight got through.  I arrived at the summit of Mt Hale at 9:51am, an hour and 20 minutes after leaving the parking area; as was typical, this was faster than what the White Mountain Guide indicated (2 hr 15 mins.)

This was summit number 42, of 48!

Even though the day was clear, there were no views from the summit of Mt Hale.  The top is marked by a large cairn of rocks, next to the fittings from what appears to have been an old fire-tower, long gone:

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Summit of Mt Hale

Despite the lack of any view, the top of Mt Hale is pleasant, with a nice feeling, perhaps due to the relatively spacious cleared area around the rock cairn.  So I stopped for a quick rest before continuing along the “Lend-A-Hand” trail, initially dropping down into a beautiful fern and moss area, hiking towards Mt Zealand (which I will write about next time!):

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It had been a very pleasant, though pretty relentlessly-steep, 2.2 miles from the car.

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The Climb – Mt Hale

I have described this series of blog posts, my “4000-footer” articles, to be the story of the rise of international non-governmental organizations in the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  That’s useful shorthand, because my story began in 1984 (when I joined Peace Corps), long before the MDGs came into effect (in 2000.)

During that period, international NGOs emerged into the mainstream of international development.  Our organizations grew rapidly as a result of the massive public response to the famine that struck the Horn of Africa in the mid-1980’s; I’ve used this figure in an earlier posting, showing the phenomenal growth of Plan International in those years:

(The article that I’m taking the Figure from is available here: how-should-an-international-ngo-allocate-growth.)

Plan International doubled (in terms of field expenditure) between 1987 (when I joined) and 1990!  And we then doubled, again, by 1995!

And Plan was changing in other ways, too, partly related to our growth.  For example, the number of countries where we worked, and places in those countries where we had operations, grew rapidly.  We grew in other dimensions, too: for example, moving more towards working to influence governments at national and local levels through advocacy and, too timidly, seeking to influence public opinion in countries where we raised funds.

(See my earlier posting in this series describing how we created a growth plan for Plan International.)

Finally, internally, as I have described in earlier articles in this series, Plan was professionalizing in my early years with the agency.  I think this was, in part, due to the financial growth illustrated in the figure: our board of directors began to pay much more attention to financial risk, and started to recruit senior staff with experience in the business world, including Alberto Neri.

As I’ve described in this series, I myself benefited enormously from this “professionalization”.  Joining Plan in Tuluá, our Field Office was a pilot for all of the changes that Alberto wanted to put in place.  We were implementing stronger financial and audit systems, along with stronger internal controls; much more extensive HR management and development practices; and a sophisticated Monitoring and Evaluation system.  I grew up in our sector learning about these improvements, benefiting from the attention and support that we had as a pilot office.

Other INGOs experienced very similar trends; so, in purely financial terms, these were clearly Golden Years for our sector.  In addition, and more importantly, given the later success of the MDGs (putting aside for now the very important question of causality – what caused the great progress made with the MDGs?!), this was arguably also a “Golden Age” for development…

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Several authors have reflected on this “Golden Age.”  In this blog entry, I want to share thoughts from a few authors, including me, and reflect a bit on where we stand today.

One good example of these “Golden Age” reflections comes from Paul Ronalds, the CEO of Save the Children Australia, in this fairly recent article (2017), : RONALDS – End Of The Golden Age.

For me, Paul portrays the situation accurately – “… this unprecedented increase in resources and influence is over: the golden age for INGOs has ended.”  But his analysis of why this is the case seems a bit simplistic, which leads him to propose what seems to me to be “more of the same”; for Ronalds:

  • we need to produce more evidence of effectiveness, and to
  • share this evidence with better communications;
  • we need to invest more in capturing and communicating evidence of impact; and
  • donors need to be willing to pay for that increased cost. 

He argues for mergers to gain efficiencies of scale, and the use of new technologies to “respond to the rise of nationalism and xenophobia.”  This somehow will lead to more support for the SDGS.

In other words, I’m sensing that underneath Paul Ronalds’ thinking there is a sense that there is nothing wrong with what we are doing, we simply need to consolidate the sector and demonstrate we are doing the right things.

Paul Ronalds is a great thinker, with long and successful experience in the sector.  In fact, I was delighted that he accepted my invitation to speak at a ChildFund program gathering a few years ago, in Sydney, when he was working in the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office, in Canberra.  His thoughts then were very helpful.

But we’ve been making the case for better demonstration of effectiveness, and for consolidations in the sector, for decades.  Despite this, and despite progress, the situation that Paul Ronalds portrays, accurately, has come into being.

So I think we need to go a bit deeper if we are to deal with the situation we find ourselves in.

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To be fair, my own views on the situation a few years ago were far from deep enough. For example, during the preparation of the ChildFund Australia Strategic Plan in 2014, I prepared a presentation about trends in our sector for our board: I pointed out four trends that we needed to grapple with.

I began by pointing out the enormous progress made over the last couple of decades, using MDG tracking data to prove the point. Then I outlined four trends that were creeping up on us.  Firstly, progress on the MDGs, along with demographic shifts, meant that 75% of the world’s poor were now living in middle-income countries:

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My second point back in 2014 was that continuing social conflict, fueled to a great extent by climate change and globalization, was leading to increased vulnerability and a concentration of poverty in fragile states:

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The third trend that I highlighted was that we were living in an era of major social transformations, involving: historically-high levels of income inequality; continuing urbanization; the collapse of the post-World-War-II institutional arrangements; and the rise of civil society (for good and ill).

And, finally, echoing what Paul Ronalds would point out later, it was clear that the previously-privileged role for INGOs was rapidly eroding, with the arrival of for-profit managing contractors, strong civil society in the Global South, and donor fatigue in the Global North.

(A version of this presentation is here: Mega-Trends for Blog.)

For me, in 2014, this meant that ChildFund Australia needed to grow our expertise in child protection and social inclusion, and protection; take the investments we had made in our Development Effectiveness Framework to demonstrate tangible results and “value for money”; and build our partnerships with other development actors upward, sideways, and downward.

A good analysis, and good recommendations, for that time in history.  Nothing very original, though: I echoed a lot of Paul Ronalds’ thinking and recommendations, which is not surprising, since there was a lot of this kind of thinking going on in 2014.

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Looking back, I can see that, in those days, there was a significant “cottage industry” of INGO thinkers who were pretty well aligned, making quite similar recommendations.  But there were people, even back then, who were ahead of the curve.  For example, my colleague Alan Fowler took me by surprise once when he told me he thought that INGOs would focus in the future only, or mostly, on service delivery!  The implication, for me, was that he thought that social-justice advances would only come from local organizations.  That took the wind from my sails for a while…

And Enrique Mendizabal had similarly taken me by surprise in an ACFID University Linkages conference in Sydney when he shared his sense that international development, as such, was no longer relevant… see an earlier post on this site.  His brave and convincing keynote made most of uncomfortable, but we did sit up and pay attention!

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Since then, of course, things have evolved.  Though progress has continued in many senses, and there have indeed been some mergers and consolidation in our sector, nationalism and populism have surged and support for the work of INGOs has continued to ebb.

So the third example I want to share here is from Penny Lawrence, who is a bit bleaker than Paul Ronalds or myself, perhaps aligned more with Alan Fowler and Enrique Mendizabal but not quite as radical.

Many of my readers will have paid close attention to the recent challenges faced by Oxfam (and, more to the point, people in Haiti who had been preyed upon by Oxfam’s staff there.)  Penny Lawrence left Oxfam, taking responsibility for the situation (she had served as Chief of Staff for Oxfam International), and later spent some time off to think about our sector.  For me, the resulting article is a bit more realistic about our prospects: LAWRENCE – Whither Large International NGOs?

Having interviewed many senior managers in INGOs about the profound changes we face, Lawrence ends up advocating fairly radical change, but seems to pull her punches at the end, perhaps simply trying not to forecast the end of our sector, hoping that bold action now will keep INGOs alive and relevant:

“Whilst each large INGO has to find its own way, each also needs to ensure they devote sufficient time and resources to exploring the next horizon whilst they are also under such pressure and when the current aid grant/contracting model is not yet so broken and can continue to be exploited. Is contracting really large INGOs’ niche? I am not sure it is and unless large INGOs diversify and divest quickly, the disadvantages of their size will increase their irrelevance to make them the dinosaurs of the golden age.

It will require courageous, connected leaders to make tough choices on functions and then rethink structures, financing models, and people strategies, in order to deliver an agile organisation capable of continued learning and change. They will need to inspire, listen to and engage change weary staff and volunteers to drive and support change and to overcome the considerable blockages that stop change within their organisation too.

Form must follow function, but it seems to matter less what structure you change to – what really matters is that you understand your role and do not just ‘sit there’ when all around you is changing…”

(Duncan Green from Oxfam GB analyses the Penny Lawrence paper here.)

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A final analysis of the prospects of our sector – actually a series of blog articles – comes from my colleague Daniel Wordsworth.  Daniel is exactly the kind of courageous, connected leaders” that Penny Lawrence is thinking of.

I like Daniel’s articles very much, because while he shares a grim view of our organizations’ likely future, he points out a way forward: a return to the values and principles that, long ago, underlay our sector:

Daniel doesn’t spend any time lamenting the situation that INGOs find themselves in.  In his usual forthright style, he welcomes “today’s era of populism” as a wake-up call that should lead us away from some big mistakes:

  • We have focused on basic, physical needs, ignoring higher-level aspirations that all people have;
  • We have embraced technocratic solutions, “divorces from human aspirations,” and thrown money at problems that, sometimes, are not amenable to project solutions;
  • We have professionalized and distanced ourselves from the people we attempt to serve (who have become us, ourselves, to a great extent);
  • We have become dependent on official donors, thinking that they have the answers or, at least, we have to accept their “answers.”

I have made very similar arguments in the past: see my “Trojan Horse” article mentioned in an earlier post in this series.  In that article I argue that:

“… the influx of private-sector culture into our organizations meant that:

  • We began increasingly to view the world as a linear, logical place;
  • We came to embrace the belief that bigger is always better;
  • “Accountability” to donors became so fundamental that sometimes it seemed to be our highest priority;
  • Our understanding of human nature, of human poverty, evolved towards the purely material, things that we could measure quantitatively.”

I will attach a copy of the article I wrote on this topic here:  mcpeak-trojan-horse.

In his fifth and final post in the series, Daniel Wordsworth calls for a return to what I would argue was our sector’s starting point: grounding our work in the actual situation and experience of the people we actually seek to serve, their expressed needs and opinions.  What I would call solidarity and accompanyment, human connection and respect, embracing human compassion and turning away from the sterile professionalism and technocratic mental models that took over our sector.

Wordsworth wants us to:

  1. Replace Largeness with Closeness;
  2. Replace Control with Collaboration;
  3. Replace Models with Empathetic Design;
  4. Put the Passion Back in Our Profession;
  5. Emphasize Vision, Not Money.

Daniel’s organization, the American Refugee Committee, has taken a bold path and is  embracing these inspiring ideas as a way of addressing the dire situation that Paul Ronalds, Penny Lawrance, and I have all pointed to.  His way forward is the only viable path I have seen.  It’s a frightening path, partly because as we reject the institutional arrangements that have funded our work, our organizations are likely to shrink (at least for a while.)

But going in this direction at least will allow us to stay true to ourselves.  Our work will be more relevant to the people we serve.  The current wave of nationalism and populism does not mean that human compassion has disappeared; most people still want to connect with others, to reach out to those who face the massive challenges (displacement, inequality, racism) of our time.  Which means that it might work…

And, anyway, the old structure is dying, so let’s celebrate its success and bury it.  And be part of a new wave, building on some of our sector’s values and that fundamental yearning for human compassion, that could take us forward, together.

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The great American writer, Wendell Berry wrote, in 1990, that “we are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period in the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable.”  In these Trumpian times, it’s hard to disagree with Berry’s assessment – we would probably all agree that things have gotten worse since 1990.

But then he goes on to say that “history simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use.” I think we all feel this way a lot of the time: how can we, as individuals, influence the enormous forces around us that form this “destructive and stupid” period of history.  And in the INGO sector, the technocratic, dehumanized way that we have evolved has led many of us to lose at least some of the original spirit that brought us to this work.

Berry continues, however, and saves the day by saying that “protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”

Here I think that Wendell Berry is really on to something. We realize the best qualities in our hearts and spirits when we take action to make things better, fairer, more just.

For me, there are only two choices:

  • We can try to resurrect our organizations by getting better at what we’ve been doing, professionalizing and scaling up, despite overwhelming evidence that the world around us has changed.  This will be, I believe, a blind alley;
  • Or we can take the path that people like Enrique Mendizabal, Daniel Wordsworth, and other pioneers are showing us, returning to the values of our sector, believing in people and putting aside our egos.  Our organizations may be smaller that way, at least for a time, but we will be able to make a real difference and our hearts and spirits will rise.

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?;
  43. Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
  44. Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
  45. Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
  46. Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
  47. Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
  48. Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…

North Twin (40) – Value for Money

September, 2018

During my years with ChildFund Australia, the overseas-development sector, and organizations like ours, were booming.  The subject of this brief article is one issue that became a focus of attention during those years: Value For Money.  What is it?  Is it just a “bumper sticker”?  If not, how can we measure it?  How can we assure that our organizations deliver it?

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

I’ve recently been writing about the six years I was honored to serve as International Program Director at ChildFund AustraliaIn an earlier post in this series, I introduced, and thanked, the team I worked with in Sydney, the “International Program Team.”  And last time I took time to thank the great teams that I worked with in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam.

Before digging into the what “Value For Money” meant for us…

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To skip the description of my ascent of North Twin, and go directly to my discussion of Value for Money, click here.

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The Climb – North Twin

I climbed North Twin (4761ft, 1451m) on 2 September, 2017, with our grand-daughter V.   This would be number 40 of the 48 4000-footers that I hoped to climb, and it would be V’s first hike of this length, first real mountain-top, so she seemed a little bit curious about how it would go … but, as always, enthusiastic about giving it a try!  Just in case, our plan was to get to the top of North Twin and then decide if we wanted to continue to South Twin.

It was a perfect, dry, cool, cloud-free day for a hike:

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(I have also highlighted ascents of six other 4000-footers on the map, all of which I had climbed earlier in this series: Lincoln, Lafayette, Garfield, Galehead, West Bond, and Bond.)

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We left Durham fairly early that morning, at around 7:45am.  I wanted to leave early, because it seemed like the hike might be a long one, which would normally mean that I’d camp up in the White Mountains the night before, to get an early start; 7:45am wasn’t really early enough, but we headed west on Rt 4 to Concord, and then north on I-93 to Lincoln, where we picked up some sandwiches for lunch.

It was nearly 10:45am when we arrived at the very crowded North Twin trail-head: this was Labor-Day weekend, and the parking area on Haystack Road had overflowed.

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The hike up to the top of North Twin was straightforward: at first, up a nearly-flat old railway grade along the Little River, gradually getting a bit steeper, and then crossing the stream once (at 11:41am):

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The trail got gradually steeper as we neared the top of North Twin:

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Steeper

We saw very few people on the trail, which was somewhat surprising, especially given the overflow of cars down at the trail-head.  As we began to get above tree-line, the views became spectacular, perhaps the clearest and sharpest views I’ve had on all of these climbs:

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We arrived at a ledge outlook very near the top of North Twin at around 1:30pm, and had lunch there:

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Mt Washington And The Presidential Range
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There was a small group of people here, and it got a bit crowded with hikers, mostly coming down from South Twin.  We outlasted them, and had lunch pretty much to ourselves.

This video of the view from that ledge outlook illustrates what a spectacular place it was, what a perfect day we had:

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We finished lunch and left that ledge at about 2pm, and arrived at the true top of North Twin a few minutes later.

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We had reached my 40th of the 48 4000-footers!

From here, the view was amazing.  To the west and south we could see six 4000-footers (Galehead, Mt Flume, Mt Liberty, Mt Lafayette, and Mt Garfield), and Galehead Hut below us:

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V did very well getting up to the top of North Twin, and she was keen to continue.  So there was no question in our minds – we would now continue on North Twin Spur towards the summit of South Twin, and then retrace our steps to Haystack Road.

Onward!  More on that next time

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Value for Money

I served as International Program Director for ChildFund Australia for over six years, from mid-2009 until October of 2015.  Those were exciting and rewarding years for Jean and I, living in Sydney; and they were great years for ChildFund Australia.  In fact, generally-speaking, the whole overseas-development sector prospered during those years, because of great support from the Australian public and, in particular, from the Government.

The Rudd Government had been elected in 2007, and one of their stated commitments was to raise the overseas-aid budget up to commitments made by previous governments, with a target of 0.7% of GNP.

As can be seen in this graph, Kevin Rudd delivered a dramatic increase:

In constant (2018) dollar terms, Australia’s ODA budget grew from A$ 3841m in 2008 to A$ 5479m in 2012, an increase of nearly 43%.  (To be fair, as can be seen, this increase was actually a continuation, an acceleration, of growth initiated by the Howard government from around 2001.)  After 2012, the aid budget stayed fairly constant until 2015, when the Abbott government made dramatic cuts, going to the extent of even closing the government agency responsible for managing the program, AusAID.  By then I was nearing the end of my time with ChildFund.

The big ODA increases after 2008 meant that we could do more, reach more people, have more impact.  Our programs grew in scale and sophistication – many of the innovations that I’ve described in this series of articles (for example, here and here) were made possible, at least in part, by generous funding from the Australia government.

But it turned out that this growth in official development assistance wasn’t politically sustainable.  As other areas of government budget were tightened, political pressure grew to reign in ODA spending.  The Rudd and Gillard governments addressed this pressure in several ways, one of which was to emphasize “value for money.”  Agencies such as ChildFund began to be asked to demonstrate that they were delivering good value for the taxpayer’s dollar.  (The Abbott government didn’t resist the pressure at all, which is another story.)

Fair enough: nobody can be against delivering value for money.  But it was never clear what, exactly, “value for money” really was.  In fact, one quite-senior AusAID official once referred to it in a meeting that I attended as a “bumper sticker”!  Despite this, all INGOs in Australia that received government funding came under pressure to demonstrate their approach…

I’ve written about this topic in an earlier article.  Here I want to extend that discussion and update it with later work we did in ChildFund Australia to respond to the (correct, but vague) pressure we began to receive from AusAID staff.

I began to think about the concept, and started circulating drafts to our staff in Sydney and overseas.  Here are some of the results of that process of reflection.

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All reputable organizations working to overcome poverty seek to ensure that they provide “value for money.” Because our work is of the highest importance to people living in poverty, we must make best use of all resource we have. And, at the same time, because we are entrusted with valuable resources, we must be careful stewards of this trust.

But it is challenging to articulate a definition of “value for money” for work in the development sector.  Some large agencies have taken an econometric approach, using concepts of social return on investment and cost-benefit analysis.  These tools are very suitable, and represent a rigorous approach to assessing “value for money,” but they are much too complex for most development agencies to consider, and are very costly to implement.  Other agencies use randomised control trial methods, adapted in part from the pharmaceutical industry, where an intervention is tested and compared with a carefully-selected control population where the intervention doesn’t take place.  While such methods are increasingly accepted in our sector, for most INGOs like ChildFund (generalists, that don’t have the funds to hire the specialised staff and undertake the extensive reviews required), these methods are not yet fit for purpose.

(I’ve written extensively elsewhere about how we at ChildFund Australia approached the measurement and improvement of the effectiveness of our work: here, and here.)

And yet, the notion of “value for money” was important to us.  So how would we approach it?

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A Definition of “Value For Money”

The first step we took was to clarify our definition of “value for money,” and to indicate the mechanisms through which we could ensure that we achieve good value for the resources we manage.

After extensive research and reflection, and many drafts, we settled on this simple definition: For ChildFund Australia, “value for money” had three elements:

  • Firstly, we use resources effectively;
  • Secondly, we use resources efficiently;
  • Thirdly, we are accountable about our use of resources to our stakeholders and ourselves.

Using resources effectively, efficiently, and accountably – that was how ChildFund Australia intended to ensure “value for money.”  But for this definition to be operational, we needed to define what those terms meant!

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For ChildFund Australia, when we worked on this issue, we decided that “effectiveness” meant working on the causes of child poverty, according to our understanding of child poverty.  And it meant having a systematic approach to achieving development effectiveness, embedded in our programmatic work processes.

In terms of causes, we had learned that children are poor because they lack assets such as health, education, and income.  Assets such as clean air and water and access to productive land.  Assets such as the bonds of trust and solidarity in their communities and across cultures.  They experience poverty as being excluded from having voice and agency in processes that affect them. They are poor also because they, and their families and communities (and even nations) are relatively less powerful than other (children, families, communities, nations…)  And they are poor because they face increasing risks – from other people, from civil conflict, from climate change, and so forth.

So our programs were designed to build human, financial, social assets; stimulate opportunities for people living in poverty to express their opinions and exercise their personal agency; enhance the power of poor people to take collective action in the interests of their children; and strengthen protective networks around children.

But to be effective, we also needed to establish and maintain systems and procedures that keep us focused on these causes of child poverty.  Our “Development Effectiveness Framework” (DEF) provided that operational focus, making sure that all our programmatic efforts were aligned towards a defined purpose that was clearly embedded in each particular context in which we worked.

The DEF also supported a learning, adaptive approach, because the work we did was complex and only rarely could external models be put into place in the range of contexts where we work without extensive adaptation. This means that a tolerance for the risk that comes with innovation was also required to ensure effectiveness.

For us, that was effectiveness in a nutshell – understanding and addressing the causes of the phenomenon we sought to change, striving to understand the mechanisms through which those causes act, and taking deliberate action aligned to achieve our purpose.

Using resources efficiently meant that we put in place appropriate systems and procedures to ensure that we allocated our human and financial resources explicitly, clearly, for the purposes that are agreed, and according to good business practices.  Not being wasteful.

So we had budgets which were reviewed and approved; our expenditures and activities were authorized and controlled and monitored according to agreed protocols and standards.  We supported and trained our staff so they had the tools and competencies they needed.  We reviewed the use of these resources frequently with an eye towards ensuring that our costs were in line with good practice. And we had clear procurement and tendering procedures, and robust policies and procedures (including independent audits) to deter fraud.

These systems and procedures were set out clearly in our finance and HR documentation.  All our team members were trained in their use as appropriate to their functions, and our management teams in Sydney and in our Country Offices rigorously followed up operations to ensure that these guidelines were followed and that they in fact resulted in “efficient” use of resources.

In addition, we carefully managed the use of foreign staff in our programs, because we firmly believed that local people had the knowledge, skills, and capacities that were needed.  Our local staff were central to our program approach, which relied on long-term, positive relationships with communities and local partners.  And external resources were always somewhat more expensive and should therefore be used judiciously.

Finally, we couldn’t deliver value for money unless our stakeholders knew what we were doing and were able to influence us.   So we strived to be accountable – transparent and responsive – by developing our programs together with local communities and partners; by reporting periodically and fully about what we do with, and accomplish with, funds to a wide range of publics; and by responding to concerns, questions, suggestions from our stakeholders and the public.

We had a range of processes and procedures to enhance our accountability, transparency, and responsiveness, but this was not a destination – it was a journey, through which we sought to continually be more accountable.

Operationalizing the approach

That all sounded good, and correct, so then we had to put these measure in place, working operationally in the different places we worked.

In terms of effectiveness, ChildFund’s “Development Effectiveness Framework” (the “DEF”) was contained in Chapter 3 of our Program Handbook, and was mandatory for all ChildFund Australia offices. The DEF established how ChildFund’s Vision, Mission, Program Approach, and program policies were implemented in each particular country context.

The DEF contained procedures, formats, and guidelines for:

  • designing and improving holistic, evidence-based programs;
  • preparing, assessing, approving, monitoring, and evaluating projects that contribute to the goals of each program;
  • learning from project implementation;
  • contributing to community planning of projects;
  • assessing the impact of our work on the causes of child poverty.

When thinking about how to make sure that our operations were efficient, we had policies, procedures, resources, and systems in place, from the collection of funds through to delivery of quality programs pursuant to our Mission.  There were financial systems to control funds, administration systems to ensure appropriate use of funds in procurement and day-to-day administration, and people and organisational systems to support the people who work for us.

We were committed to minimising the risk of funds being misappropriated, wasted or used to fund terrorism and had policies for fraud, procurement and counter-terrorism. Our staff and partners to whom we entrust funds were regularly trained on the importance of complying with these policies and how to apply them. Our financial reports were audited by an international audit firm annually and we conducted internal audits in the field on a regular basis. The learning gained from these exercises was used to improve our financial, administration, and human-resources systems.

These systems and policies were documented in the Sydney Finance Manual, HR Manual, and policies and procedures maintained centrally and mandatory for all ChildFund Australia offices, including policies on Fraud Awareness and Prevention, and Procurement.

In addition, Country Offices had their own local procedures, consistent with central, organisation-wide policies and procedures that, together, ensured that our operations were efficient.

Finally, in terms of accountability, our DEF mandated several moments in the project cycle where key stakeholders (children, youth, caregivers, local partners, local government) were informed and were given authentic opportunities to influence decisions, and to help reflect on our performance.

Consistent with legal requirements, accreditation with the Australia government, and the code of conduct that was agreed by nearly all Australian INGOs (the ACFID Code), ChildFund Australia put in place a range of communication systems to inform our stakeholders (such as the reporting of financial and programmatic results) and to enable them to provide comments about our work, including complaints.

We instituted regular monitoring and evaluation processes, yearly financial audits and Annual Reports, yearly reporting to sponsors, and annual Country Office Reports – all of which were available publically on the ChildFund Australia website. A range of programmatic results were also published on our website, in the “Development Practitioners” section.

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In summary, during those years we took up the challenge of ensuring “value for money” by creating and implementing a Development Effectiveness Framework that was based on our understanding of the causes of child poverty, and which gave us the tools to measure and improve the impact of our work.  We created and followed a set of good business practices to ensure that we worked efficiently.  And we took measures to communicate the results of our work, and reported on our financial results, to be accountable to donors and community partners.

“Value for money,” in those days, was a vague concept, which nevertheless was important to us and to the whole sector.  Our approach to defining and delivering “value for money” was relatively straightforward, befitting the nature of our agency, but at the same time it was internally consistent and complete.  Other than the two agencies that I know of that tried to implement “randomized control trials” in a few test projects, I am not aware of any other Australian INGO that had as comprehensive and complete approach to this issue as we did at ChildFund Australia.

I am proud of what we achieved, how we took up the challenge to ensure that we were providing “value for money.”

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
  33. Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
  34. Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
  35. Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  36. West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  37. Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
  38. Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
  39. Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
  40. North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
  41. South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
  42. Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed.  What Next?;
  43. Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
  44. Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
  45. Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
  46. Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
  47. Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
  48. Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…