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 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 Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts

January, 2019

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

Since then, in 43 posts (so far), I’ve described climbing some amazing 4000-foot mountains. And I’ve reflected on two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador; my 15 years with Plan International; the deep, disruptive changes in the development sector over that time; the two years I spent consulting with CCF, developing a new program approach for that agency that we called “Bright Futures,” and most recently my tenure as International Program Director at ChildFund Australia.

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Late in our years in Sydney, I took 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!

As I described last time, after having completed those two courses, Dr Rosemary Howell (who I was lucky to study Principled Negotiation with) suggested that I consider pursuing a Masters Degree in Dispute Resolution. I’m glad that I followed her advice, because I thoroughly enjoyed doing the degree, which I finished just after we left Australia, in 2015.

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The eight classes that comprised my degree were informative and interesting, useful in my work and in life. And several of the professors I studied with were world-class, including Rosemary herself, for sure.

One of those, amongst the best, was Dr Bernie Mayer, one of the world’s foremost thinkers, researchers, practitioners, and teachers in the area of conflict. It was my good fortune that Bernie undertook a sabbatical in late 2015, and taught “Skills in Dispute Resolution” at UNSW. Rosemary suggested that, if at all possible, I enroll; I leaped at the opportunity… and I’m very glad I did!

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One focus of that course was “conflict analysis.” Bernie had developed a framework that could be used to understand any conflict, as a prelude to addressing it. In this blog entry, I want to try to summarize that approach: how can we understand specific, particular conflicts?

But first… this time I want to describe my climb of Mt Washington (6288ft, 1917m), my 43rd 4000-footer!

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To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Washington, and go directly to my exploration of culture and conflict, click here.

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I climbed both Mt Washington and Mt Monroe on a spectacular day in late October 2017 – they would be my last climbs that year.  The day was clear and cool, ideal conditions for climbing two of the highest mountains in New Hampshire.

Mt Washington is the highest of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and is in fact the highest mountain in the eastern United States.  The highest wind speed ever recorded, on earth, was measured at the top of Mt Washington, and stories of extreme weather at the summit are common. As are, tragically, fatalities, so one does not approach climbing Mt Washington lightly, in any season.

My hope was to climb both mountains that day, doing a long loop, but I was a little bit concerned about the time this would take, because the days were getting shorter in late October.  So Eric and I left Durham at about 7:15am, hoping to get an early start.

On the way up Rt 16 we stopped to have breakfast at the Miss Wakefield diner, and to pick up a Subway sandwich for me – that’s because Eric was going to skip the climb this time, as he was recovering from shoulder surgery.  He would spend most of the day working from a Starbucks in North Conway.

My plan was to hike up to the top of Mt Washington from Pinkham Notch via Tuckerman Ravine, and then loop over to Mt Monroe on the Crawford Path, and then down Davis Path to Glen Boulder Trail to the Glen Ellis parking area:

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My Ascent Of Mt Washington

Another challenge was that I was somewhat out of shape.  I had just returned from a great month in India, travelling with my old friend Ricardo Gómez to eight places that are especially significant in the life of the historical Buddha, and had gotten very little exercise during that time.  A fascinating and illuminating and exhausting month, but upon my return I wasn’t sure I was ready to climb two of New Hampshire’s tallest mountains.

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I left Pinkham Notch just before 10am, heading up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail:

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It was a beautiful day, clear and cool, perfect for hiking.  After about a 1/2 hour I passed the turnoff for Huntington Ravine, which is about 1.2m from Pinkham Notch.  To that point the trail had been pretty steadily and moderately upward, not too steep yet.   The barren summit area of Mt Washington was just beginning to appear:

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Fifteen minutes later I passed the junction with the Raymond Path, which was unmarked, and soon after that I passed the turnoff for the Lion Head Trail:

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Just after 11am I arrived at the Hermit Lake Shelters, at the eastern end of Tuckerman Ravine.  This area is spectacular, and the day was perfect:

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The Main Shelter At Hermit Lake
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Looking Up Tuckerman Ravine

I walked up into Tuckerman Ravine; soon some light snow was on the trail:

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It was only 1.8m from there to the top of Mt Washington, but it looked like it would be a grueling 1.8 miles!

At about 11:30am I reached the beginning of Tuckerman Ravine, in the bowl, and began to climb up very steeply, surrounded by many small waterfalls.  This is a dangerous area in the winter and spring, when avalanches are common:

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Steeply Upward…
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It Was Getting Colder and Windier. Much More Cold and Much More Wind Awaited!
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I arrived at the top of the Ravine at around noon.  There was a surprising amount of water at the top of the Ravine, testimony to the recent rains we’ve had I guess.

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Here is a video taken near the top of the Ravine:

I remember climbing up this trail, years ago, and nearing the top, and several young men began to throw rocks down into the ravine.  I don’t think they could see me, down below the edge; one rock came so close to my head that I could hear it fly past.  I scolded them severely!

On this day there were no rock-throwers, and it was simply amazing at the top of the ravine: I could see the large, fairly-flat area between Washington and Monroe, and the mountains off in the distance to the southwest:

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But Washington itself loomed above me now, about 0.6m away in terms of distance, but way above me in elevation!  Here the antennas at the top of Mt Washington can just be seen up above:

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That final climb up to the summit of the highest mountain in the eastern United States was brutal.  The wind started blowing, and the temperature dropped steadily; the walking was a challenge in the wind; just trying to stay on two feet while dodging around and on top of granite rocks of all sizes was hard enough, but with the wind blowing so strongly I did lose my balance a few times!

I got to the summit area at around 12:45pm, where I found a small crowd – a few hikers like me, along with a bunch of tourists who had taken the Cogg Railway up the mountain.

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Mostly Tourists, Queuing Up To Take Photos At The Summit Sign

So I had climbed 44 of the 48 4000-footers!  Now including the highest one, and though I had climbed Washington a half-dozen times over the years, it felt very good.

But it also felt very cold and windy: I had a quick lunch at the top, sheltering between rocks from the strong wind and cold.  I started shivering, so put on another layer of clothing.

Once I had finished my sandwich and carrot, I went back over to the summit marker, as most of the people who had been queuing to take pictures were now queuing to go back down on the railway.

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Arriving At The Top
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About To Start Down, Quite A Bit Colder!  And, Clearly, I Needed An Eyebrow Trim

OK: I figured I had time to climb Mt Monroe so, after hunting around in the cold, and starting to shiver mildly, I found the beginning of the Crawford Path, and started down.  I’ll describe the rest of the day – getting up Mt Monroe and arriving down at Rt 16 in the dark (!) – next time.

But first…

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Understanding Conflicts

So I had launched into a masters degree, studying conflict, and much of the coursework I undertook was focused on gaining the range of tools needed to address, transform, resolve conflict: “Principled Negotiation,” mediation, conflict coaching, etc.

Bernie Mayer’s class focused, in part, on what I soon realized was a missing, foundational piece for me: how can we understand a conflict? How can we gain insights about the roots of a specific, concrete conflict?

Because without gaining an understanding of a conflict, of course, it would be much harder to achieve a lasting and positive transformation, even using the tools I was learning. One of the texts we used for this course was Bernie’s book, “The Dynamics of Conflict.” Highly recommended:

This book goes well beyond understanding conflict, and is in fact a survey of the conceptual understandings and skills needed to engage with conflict productively.

In this article, I want to unpack Bernie’s “Wheel of Conflict,” which is included in “The Dynamics of Conflict.” The “Wheel” is a very helpful tool that can be used to understand specific conflicts:

The graphic illustrates, both in terms of content and form, the essential lenses through which we should look at any conflict as we seek to understand the situation more deeply. At the center are the deepest motivating forces (needs), surrounded by five domains in which conflicts develop and intensify. At the outside are general contextual factors that can contribute to the conflict.

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Let’s move through each component of Bernie’s Wheel: firstly, at the center of all conflicts are Needs – and the more fundamental the Needs involved, such as Identity or Survival, the more intense the conflict might be. Human needs are at the core of all conflicts, and people engage in conflict, situations become conflicts, either because people have needs that are fulfilled by the conflict itself, or because they have needs that they can only attain (or believe they can only attain) by engaging in conflict.

Then Mayer describes six domains that are directly determinant in understanding a conflict: the history of a conflict: how it has emerged and transformed; how parties to the conflict communicate; the emotions involved; the underlying values that are related to the situation; and the structure in which the conflict develops: the legal or organizational setting.

These domains are in the middle of the Wheel:

  • History: conflict cannot be understood independent of its history.  The history of participants in a conflict, of the system in which the conflict is occurring, and of the issues themselves has a powerful influence on the conflict. The example that I focused on in my term paper, and described and included below, was the conflict then ongoing in Ferguson, Missouri, which emerged in full, violent form after the killing of Michael Brown. In this conflict, the tragic killing of a young man can easily be seen to be formed and strongly influenced, in part, by the long history of racism and oppression, and of violence by and against police officers. Clearly, societal conflicts have their histories, as do even the most individual, personal conflicts – so understanding events that led to the present situation can be very informative;
  • Communications. We are very imperfect communicators.  Sometimes this imperfection generates conflict, whether or not there is a significant incompatibility of interests, and it almost always makes conflict harder to deal with effectively. Several conflicts that I can recall in my own life were strongly influenced by (mis-) communications: for example, our use of the term “excluded” to refer to how a contract would not apply to a particular person, in a positive sense (as a positive exception, because the particular relationship predated the contract, she would not be bound by the agreement), but who interpreted the use of that word to be a reference to racist discrimination that was vivid in her past;
  • Emotions are the energy that fuels conflict.  If we could always stay perfectly rational and focused on how best to meet our needs and accommodate those of others, and if we could calmly work to establish effective communication, then many conflicts either would never arise or would quickly de-escalate.  But of course that is not human nature.  At times emotions seem to be in control of our behavior – as I mentioned last time, our “lizard brain” takes over and deskills us. The conflict mentioned above certainly resulted in very inflamed emotions, which significantly impeded our ability to deal with the situation;
  • Values are the beliefs we have about what is important, what distinguishes right from wrong and good from evil, and what principles should govern how we lead our lives.  When a conflict is defined or experienced as a struggle about values, it becomes much more difficult to manage. In an article I hope to publish here in a few weeks, I will describe a couple of real conflicts that I experienced over the years, in my career, and the most-intense of these disputes did indeed involve deeper beliefs about my own self-image, my values and self-worth;
  • Structure: the structure or framework within which an interaction takes place or an issue develops is another source of conflict. Structural components of conflict include available resources, decision-making procedures, time constraints, legal requirements, and locations. In other words, understanding the context of a conflict can help us understand how it is emerging and how it might develop and transform, or be resolved.

Finally, Mayer shows four wider, contextual factors on the outer rim of the Wheel, which will help us understand the broadest setting for the conflict:

  • Culture affects conflict because it is embedded in individuals’ communication styles, their history, their ways of dealing with emotions, their values, and the structure within which conflict occurs. I will focus on this topic, extensively, which is fundamental in the INGO work that I’ve described in this series, and indeed in our globalized world, in my next article. And the examples from my career that I will share in the near future will all have significant cross-cultural components. So stay tuned for that;
  • Power is a very elusive concept, one that can obscure the roots of a conflict but can also help us understand the interaction.  Power is partly embedded in the structure within which the conflict is occurring but it has to be understood as a product of personal styles and interpersonal interactions. Readers of this blog series will recall that an earlier article was focused on precisely this subject. Certainly feelings of relative powerlessness can be powerful drivers of conflict, and a power analysis can lead to a deeper understanding of conflict behavior;
  • Personality is a very broad concept, perhaps best understood in terms of styles of conflict engagement and avoidance, a topic I covered in my previous article in this series;
  • Data: how data are handled and communicated can exacerbate conflict.  In today’s United States, how we handle data, often now by dismissing science and objective facts – “Fake News” – is of fundamental importance in terms of understanding the conflicts that we are immersed in…

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I’ve found the use of Bernie Mayer’s Wheel of Conflict to be very helpful as I’ve addressed conflict in the years since I studied with him. It’s a great way to understand a conflict, as a prelude to addressing it, and I’ve used it in work contexts, and in life.

Perhaps my first in-depth use of the Wheel was in the class itself. Each of the eight classes that I took to complete my Masters in Dispute Resolution required the preparation of a research essay. For Bernie’s class, we were asked to analyze a particular, present-day conflict, and he encouraged us to be ambitious as we selected our subject.

I proposed analyzing the then-current conflict in Ferguson, Missouri, between the African-American community and local police. Of course, this tragic situation was one of the sources of the “Black Lives Matter” movement; emerging at around the same time as other movements gained momentum, part of a general push-back against long-standing domination and oppression in the US since then, in particular of women (via the #MeToo movement)…

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Bernie was keen for me to attempt an analysis of this conflict, though he cautioned me that it would be a very complex situation to unpack!

I will share my essay, below, and welcome your comments. The essay’s introduction reads as follows:

Just after noon on 9 August 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Civil unrest and protests, many of which became violent, erupted the next day in Ferguson, and beyond. Violence continued for 10 days. A further wave of violent protests was prompted by the announcement, three months later, that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

The conflict that took place in Ferguson in August 2014, and beyond, can be understood as a dynamic combination of the actions and backgrounds of two human beings, one black and one white, who encountered each other

  • in a town suffering deep “injustice … (and a) calcifying system of inequity — economic, educational, judicial — drawn largely along racial lines” (this was a reference to a 2014 article by Charles Blow in the New York Times);
  • deeply fearful, due to pervasive racial stereotypes and the ubiquity of guns in American society .

The purpose of this paper is not to explore how the conflict in Ferguson could be resolved, nor will it suggest how relations between African-American communities and the police could be improved. Rather, this paper seeks to describe and understand a particular, complex conflict in the specific context of Ferguson, Missouri, surrounding the killing of one black teenager by a white police officer. Given limitations of space, the paper will focus only on some aspects of the conflict.

Firstly, the events surrounding Michael Brown’s death are summarised, with a brief reference to other, similar events that took place in the months before and after his killing. A framework for analysing conflict is then presented, and the framework is used to deepen understanding of the situation in Ferguson. In conclusion, some final reflections and thoughts for further analysis are offered.

You can download the research essay using this link: mcpeak – laws8165 – research essay – final.  I welcome your comments!

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So that’s the “Wheel of Conflict,” as designed by Bernie Mayer, a very helpful tool for understanding conflict. Soon, in my next article, I will describe the rest of the hike, climbing Mt Monroe, and I will write about culture and cross-cultural conflict.

Stay tuned for that!

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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…

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?

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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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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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?

*

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.

*

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 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.

Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”

July, 2018

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.

So far, I’ve described climbing 37 of the 48 peaks, and I’ve covered my journey from Peace Corps in Ecuador (1984-86) through to my arrival in Sydney in 2009, where I joined ChildFund Australia as the first “International Program Director.”

Last time I described how we assessed the impact of our work, using two components of the comprehensive ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” (“DEF”).  We developed the DEF to help us make sure we were doing what we said we were going to do, and, crucially, so that we could verify that we were making a difference in the lives of children and young people living in poverty.  So we could learn and improve our work.  It was the “Holy Grail” of development work.

In other words, the DEF was built to measure if we were doing what we promised, if we were achieving what we aimed for.  At the highest level, what we promised was articulated in ChildFund Australia’s vision and mission:

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These are great statements, very clear, but we needed a bit more specificity if we were going to articulate a program approach describing “how” we would achieve that vision.  So we had built a “Theory of Change” that articulated a causal framework for how we would achieve the impact described in the vision and mission.  We summed up our Theory of Change in the ChildFund Australia Program Handbook:

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The ChildFund Australia “Theory of Change”

 

For ChildFund, the most innovative, and difficult, aspect of that “Theory of Change” was the notion of “power” – “building the power of poor people and poor children.”

Like most INGOs, ChildFund Australia was not used to thinking this way, we had little direct experience working to build collective action of people living in poverty.  And, I would suggest, even INGOs that talk a lot about power and collective action really end up not doing very much in that domain – they think through the issue, and frame their work that way, sometimes in very inspiring ways, but actual work building the power of excluded people is rare.  Because it’s hard.  And because local governments often don’t want us to work in this space.

So in this, my 38th post in the series, I want to go into more depth on on the topic of “Power” – what did we mean by it, what we actually ended up doing to advance the collective action for people facing poverty.  This is really a story of organizational development, of fairly deep change.  Like most such stories, it was a mixture of success and failure, of joys and sorrows.  But, in this case, we were mostly successful, at least for some time.

But first…

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I climbed Mt Waumbek (4006ft, 1221m) on 28 August, 2017; this was a solo hike.  Waumbek is the third shortest 4000-footer of the 48 in New Hampshire, taller only than Isolation and Tecumseh.  Climbing it involves a fairly simple and short hike, up-and-back, which I greatly enjoyed on this pleasant day:

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(The loop up Mt Cabot is also shown on the map, since I did that climb the next day – stay tuned for that!)

It was a beautiful, sunny and cool morning as I left Durham, in the low 50’s.  I got going just before 8am and arriving at the trail-head at 10:58am – a longer drive than usual, as Waumbek is at the northern end of the White Mountains.  My plan was to get to the top of Mt Waumbek, stay the night at the nearby Moose Brook Campground, and climb Mt Cabot the next day.

As I started up Starr-King Trail, the skies were blue and it was still quite cool and dry. There was only one other car in the parking lot, so it looked like I would have much of the hike to myself!

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A New, “Boy’s Regular” Haircut

 

It would be 3.6 miles to the top.  The first section is typical White-Mountains lower forest, with a fairly wide trail.  A few minutes up the trail from the parking lot, I came across the remains of an old well, which must have fed somebody’s water system long ago:

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I reached the top of Mt Starr-King just after noon; there’s a cairn there, and the remains of an old cabin just past the top, with fine views towards the Presidential Range.  This was the first time I could remember looking at Mt Washington from the north!

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Presidential Range, From The North!

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Fireplace From An Old Cabin, At The Top Of Mt Starr King

 

I continued on toward Mt Waumbek, now along a forested ridge – the walking was very pleasant, gently up and down:

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I reached the top of Mt Waumbek at 12:50pm, so it had taken me a bit less than two hours to reach the summit.  There’s a cairn marking the spot, along with a sign indicating the beginning of the Kilkenny Ridge Trail, which I would hike on for part of the next day, as I climbed Mt Cabot…

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Passing the summit, I continued a few meters to reach a blow-down, perfect for lunch, with views towards the Presidentials:

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After lunch, I retraced my steps back down to the parking area, uneventfully, which I reached at around 3pm.  Round-trip, four hours.

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I camped that night at Moose Brook Campground, staying in site 026 – highly recommended, as it’s a bit distant from other sites, fairly private and quiet.   It was nice to be able to have a hot shower a short walk away, and my other indulgence that night was the purchase of a few sticks of firewood, which gave a great ambiance for the evening.

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So I had climbed thirty-eight of the 48 New Hampshire 4000-footers, just ten to go!  I would reach number 39 the next day, stay tuned for that!

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Once we had articulated our “Theory of Change,” it became clear that, of the four pillars of ChildFund Australia’s emergent program approach, the notion of “power” would be the trickiest for us.  Partly this was because ChildFund Australia had not been working directly in this space, or even thinking about our work in terms of building the collective power of people in communities where we worked.  Until that point, we were implementing projects that helped make people’s lives better, working on the causes and manifestations of child poverty.

But now our Theory of Change had been approved and, if we were going to take it seriously, we needed to figure out how to work in all four areas we had identified: building assets, voice and agency; enhancing collective power; and child protection.

*

Initial reactions of my colleagues – in Sydney and overseas, on our Board of Directors and in Senior Management – to the notion of working to build the power of people facing poverty, tended to either be positive but cautious (“Sounds great, but what does it really mean in practice?  How do we do this?  We aren’t an advocacy organization…”) or wary (“Won’t local governments be hostile towards it if we organize people?  We have to have the permission of national government in Country X, and if we start to become political they will throw us out…”)

It didn’t help that I really couldn’t find many examples of Australian INGOs working to build collective action, except for efforts (for example, by World Vision Australia) to help set up “Scorecards” through which local communities could comment on and rate the provision of services by local government.  That kind of work was consistent with what we had in mind, and it was good work, but I wanted to go farther.

And it was a mixed blessing that I was really the only person on staff with significant experience in this domain –  from my time with UUSC.  Collective action, activism for social justice, was key to the identity of that agency, going back to the spiritual movement that led to its establishment, as well as to the heroic actions of two of UUSC’s founders, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, who had helped rescue children from Nazi Germany, at great personal risk.

Also, a commitment to building collective power had been an essential part of “Bright Futures,” the program approach I had helped develop for CCF.  In that case we had built on the parents’ associations that were already in place, and federated them at district level, so these representative bodies could interface with district-level service provision.  The idea was that the “Parents Federations” would serve as an interest group, advocating for the realization of human rights for the poor communities where CCF worked.

So I was able to draw upon those experiences to help clarify and articulate what power might mean for ChildFund Australia; and I could draw on resources that could help us, including two great consultants (Valerie Miller and Ricardo Gómez – see below.)

After all, I was the International Program Director – so leading the strategic thinking of our program was my job!  That’s what I had been hired to do.  All that was good.

But, on the other hand, even though program staff in Sydney and overseas were instinctively aligned with the notion and even passionate about collective action, as I was, and despite having been very clear in our Theory of Change that we would have to work to build power if we were going to advance our vision and mission, I felt that we would need a much broader foundation of support inside ChildFund if we were to overcome the (appropriate) caution that many felt about promoting collective action.  Especially if we began to get much push-back from local or national governments where we worked, as seemed likely.

So this is really a story of organizational change: how we were able, for the most part, to grow our organization’s abilities to work in a very different way.

*

So beginning in 2010, I thought through a process of program development and organizational change:

  • We would start by building a common understanding of “Power,” leading to a degree of shared understanding of what it would mean for ChildFund Australia.  I felt that I was well-placed to take this forward, as I mentioned above;
  • I would look for opportunities to get our feet wet, places where it seemed that we had some safe space for projects consistent with our common understanding, so we could try, and learn without fearing that local authorities would react negatively.  I will describe the first of those projects, which we implemented in Svay Rieng, Cambodia, in some detail below, along with our reflections on that project;
  • We would form a “Community of Practice,” with delegates from each of our Country Offices, to help with the process of program development and learning from initial experiences, building capabilities internally while keeping enthusiasm strong;
  • Finally, we probably needed support from people who had more experience, from outside ChildFund, that could be helpful.  In the end we were very fortunate to engage two gifted consultants that I knew from the past: Valerie Miller and Ricardo Gómez.  More on Valerie and Ricardo below.

*

We started with some definitions, to clarify things.  I found an extremely helpful set of materials for this effort on a great website “Powercube – Understanding Power for Social Change.”  I highly recommend the materials that (as of this writing) are still available on this website.

And, in a fortuitous coincidence, as I began to use the PowerCube website to help me develop a framework for ChildFund Australia, I noticed a familiar name: one of the leaders of the group that had created the PowerCube materials was Valerie Miller.

I had met Valerie when I was with UUSC.  When I moved from the 501(c)3 to set up UUSC Just Democracy, a 501(c)4 entity, I had met and worked with Valerie’s husband Ralph Fine.  At that time, Ralph was the advisor to one of our major donors, serving as my contact with that important resource.  And, just before I had joined UUSC, Valerie’s organization (Just Associates) had carried out review of our program, which had led to the establishment of our three program focuses there (economic justice, environmental justice, and civil liberties.  (A few years later we added a fourth plank – rights in crisis.)

Later, as I will describe below, Valerie accompanied us as we began to dip our toes into the water of collective action, which was of enormous help.

*

I ended up adapting and using the conceptual framework included in the PowerCube website to help clarify matters in ChildFund Australia.  A summary of their framework can be seen in “Power Pack, Understanding Power for Social Change,” a document that is still available on the PowerCube website.

Included in that document are two basic frameworks that I relied on frequently in this journey.  Firstly, it seemed to help people understand “power” if we added a modifier to the word, unpacking the notion that way.  In other words, power could be understood in four ways, the first of which is normally seen as negative:

  • Power Over.  “The ability of relatively powerful actors to affect the actions and thought of the relatively powerless.”  In other words, coercive, oppressive power, the negative sense of the word “power.”

But in addition to that negative sense of the word, there are at least three potentially positive ways of thinking about “power”:

  • Power To.  “The capacity to act, to exercise agency and to realize the potential of rights, citizenship or voice”;
  • Power Within “Gaining a sense of self-identity, confidence and awareness that is a pre-condition for action”;
  • Power With.  “The synergy which can emerge through partnerships and collaboration with others, or through processes of collective action and alliance-building.”

Over time I found that it was most helpful and accurate to define “Power” in ChildFund Australia as essentially equivalent to “Power With,” or (in the terminology I would use over those years) collective action for children.  Other domains of our work had the effect of building “Power To” (for example, building educational and health assets), and “Power Within” (in particular when we worked with groups of women and youth), so what was new here was “Power With.”   That’s what we had to learn more about…

And it helped us to think through how power is manifested in the world, in different forms, in different spaces, and at different levels.  Again, material in that PowerCube document was very helpful:

 

“Forms” of Power

“Visible forms of power are contests over interests which are visible in public spaces or formal decision making bodies. Often these refer to political bodies, such as legislatures, local government bodies, local assemblies, or consultative forums…

“Hidden forms of power are used by vested interests to maintain their power and privilege by creating barriers to participation, by excluding key issues from the public arena, or by controlling politics ̳backstage‘. They may occur not only within political processes, but in organizational and other group contexts as well, such as workplaces, NGOs or community based organizations…

“Invisible power goes a step further. It involves the ways in which awareness of one‘s rights and interests are hidden through the adoption of dominating ideologies, values and forms of behavior by relatively powerless groups themselves. Sometimes this is also referred to as the ̳internalisation of powerlessness‘ in a way that affects the awareness and consciousness of potential issues and conflicts, even by those directly affected.”

“Spaces” of Power

“Though we may value the democratic right of people to participate more fully in decisions that affect their lives, in practice in many settings decision-making spaces are closed.  Decisions are made by a set of actors behind closed doors, without any pretence of broadening the boundaries for inclusion. Closed spaces are where elites such as politicians, bureaucrats, experts, bosses, managers and leaders make decisions with little broad consultation or involvement.

“Closed spaces often involve issues like trade, macro economic and finance policies, military policies, etc. which have a great deal of impact on peoples‘ lives but which are considered off-limits for public participation. In some societies and countries, especially those with long histories of authoritarian rule, closed spaces can be quite dominant, yet they also exist in strongly in so-called democracies as well. Closed spaces also exist – and often predominate – in workplaces, organizations and social movements, as well in as political institutions.”

“In many societies and governments, demands for participation have created new opportunities for involvement and consultation, usually through ̳invitation‘ from various authorities, be they government, supranational agencies or non-governmental organizations. Invited spaces may be regularized, that is they are institutionalized and ongoing, such as we find in various legally constituted participatory fora, or more transient, through one-off consultations. Increasingly with the growth of new forms of ̳participatory governance‘, these spaces are seen at every level, from local, to national policy and even to global forums, and often within organizations and workplaces as well.”

“While much emphasis on citizen action and participation is on how to open up closed spaces, or to participate effectively with authorities in invited spaces, there are almost always examples in any society of spaces for participation which relatively powerless or excluded groups create for themselves.

“These (claimed) spaces range from ones created by social movements and community associations, to those simply involving natural places where people gather to debate, discuss and resist, outside of the institutionalised policy arenas.

“… these spaces … ‘organic‘ spaces … emerge ̳out of sets of common concerns or identifications‘ and ̳may come into being as a result of popular mobilisation, such as around identity or issue-based concerns, or may consist of spaces in which like-minded people join together in common pursuits…”

This last concept, claimed spaces in which like-minded people join together in common pursuits, would come very close to capture where ChildFund Australia was headed.

“Levels” of Power

Global: “Globalisation and new forms of global governance have created a wide array of formal and informal, state and non-state spaces for participation and influence at levels beyond the nation-state.  At the international level, this includes formal institutions such as those associated with the UN, the World Bank or the IMF, meetings associated with global agreements and treaties, such as those on climate, and a host of consultative spaces for participation…

National: “… many argue that national government is still the critical entry point for change. It is national governments that often officially represent citizens in global governmentalarenas, or who can decide whether or not to implement international treaties. While many activists and campaigners have focused in recent years on global forms of citizen action,increasingly various actors are recognising the importance of national level change as well,including focus on parliaments, executive bodies, national political parties, courts, and the like.

Local: “In the last two decades, programmes of decentralisation have also made the local level very important, both through local government programmes, as well as a host of other structures for participation in development projects, service delivery, or NGOs.  Strategies for participation in local governance have been very important for planning, allocating and monitoring budgets, and holding local institutions to account.”

For ChildFund Australia, quite embedded at local level, the notions of enhancing “participation in local governance” and for “holding local institutions to account” were to become central to our work to build the collective action of people living in poverty.

Later, as we worked through what this would mean in ChildFund Australia, I convened a “Community of Practice” so that staff from all of our program countries could, together, begin to formalize an “approach” to Power, and begin to share experiences so that our work in this domain would be demystified.  See below.

*

But first, we needed to put some of these ideas into practice, to get our boots muddy in the reality of this kind of social change.  Things came together pretty quickly, with a fortuitous visit I made to Guatemala.

I went on a field monitoring trip to Guatemala in mid-2010, and spent some time with Ricardo Gómez, an old friend who was Plan’s Country Director there.  He had really revolutionized Plan’s approach in Guatemala, moving decisively from what was a quite archaic, needs-based approach with lots of charity, to a rights-based program approach.  The results had been independently evaluated in glowing terms – much more positive impact on children, greatly-improved staff morale, better relations with local government and partners, etc.

Essentially, Ricardo was taking a “constitutional” approach, diving deeply into the commitments made in Guatemala’s founding documents and international human-rights commitments, helping excluded populations take collective action to claim their rights, and working with duty-bearers to help realize child rights in some of the country’s most marginalized populations.

As a result of our discussions, and my own reflections visiting ChildFund’s projects in Guatemala with another old friend, Jason Schwartzman, I was able to conceptualize a framework for our collective action work in a sketch that I created one evening in my hotel room:

RBA - Power - Guatemala Flipchart.jpg

 

I forwarded an elaboration of this sketch to my colleagues in Sydney, Richard Geeves and Caroline Pinney, because they were involved with our program in Cambodia, where I was beginning to sense an opportunity:Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 4.29.58 PM.pngScreen Shot 2018-06-21 at 4.35.34 PM.png

This proposed framework, which I was considering for discussion in ChildFund’s work in Cambodia (because of what I had sensed as opportunities there during initial field visits), was consistent with what Ricardo had been doing in Plan Guatemala, which I interpreted in this way:

  • The role of duty-bearers, mostly district-level government service providers, was to fulfill the human-rights obligations that their national governments had assumed by acceding to international covenants;
  • Rights-holders, on the other hand, needed to hold duty-bearers accountable through democratic or collective-action processes;
  • Other actors, such as international NGOs like Plan and ChildFund, needed to get off the playing field (and into supporting roles), because having three teams on the field was confusing to everybody!

So the diagram that I sent to Richard and Caroline showed ChildFund focused on:

  1. Helping citizens influence the planning and delivery of services related to their children (health, education, etc.) that are included in human-rights commitments assumed by their government;
  2. Helping citizens monitor these services;
  3. Building the capacity of local duty-bearers to deliver these services.

The first two of these focuses represented what I was beginning to label “Power,” if the processes took place through collective action.  Other than those three areas, at least in this framework, ChildFund had no business implementing projects, or even funding other NGOs to implement projects.  Our role was to support duty-bearers and rights-holders.

(By the way, many readers of this blog will know that there are many ways of defining a “rights-based” approach to development work.  For me, a “rights-based” approach is a program method consistent with the three focuses described here.)

If we moved in this direction, even as a pilot, it would be a very big deal.

*

Much later, I found an article in “Development in Practice” that echoed Ricardo’s thinking: “A Positive Notion of Power for Citizen Voice and State Accountability,” by Keren Winterford (1).  It is very consistent with ChildFund Australia’s thinking about power, and with what we ended up pilot testing in Cambodia.

Here are a few quotes from that article:

“Lack of state accountability is viewed as a cause of poverty. Linked to this is lack of citizen participation to influence state accountability and service delivery. The idea of increasing citizen power by ‘‘putting people at the center of service provision’,’ in order to increase state accountability and improve basic services and reduce poverty, has become a dominant theme within contemporary development discourse…

From the late 1990s onwards, development discourse shifted from a focus on how participation could influence the delivery of development interventions, confined
by boundaries of a project, to how participation could influence the state and the functioning of government within the public sphere. Within this discourse, the notion of participation was repositioned as citizenship, with an emphasis on citizen engagement and citizen influence on the state…  The notion of power is central to notions of citizen–state relations and the view that poverty is a result of lack of state accountability and poor citizen participation…

A “… positive notion of power affirms the power of the state in creating change. This is in contrast to viewing state power as domination which needs to be dismantled … As described above, Green (2) notes the need of ‘‘harnessing the state’s ‘power over’ not doing away with it’’.  Chambers (3) also suggests mutual benefit can be gained by using the power of the state to support citizen action, and collective action for development outcomes. He writes, ‘‘there is extensive unrealised potential for win-win solutions through uppers using their power over to empower’’. A positive notion of power seeks to affirm and utilise state power in creating change.”

“… a positive notion of power is also operationalised and enacted through emphasising and enabling relational dialogue between citizens and the state…”

“… it is important to recognise that this may not be applicable in all situations relevant to citizen–state relations. A positive perspective on power may be compromised especially where the state discounts citizen voices and denies opportunity for dialogue as a means of creating change. A social contract is necessary whereby an agreement exists between citizens and the state and the state takes on roles and responsibilities for its citizens, and by virtue of their citizenship, citizens have rights and entitlements. The social contract enables state power to be vested in citizens.”

(1)  Winterford, Keren 2016.  “A Positive Notion of Power for Citizen Voice and State Accountability,” Development in Practice 26 (6): 696-705;

(2)  Green, D. 2008. “From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World.”  Oxford: Oxfam International;

(3)  Chambers, R. 2006.  “Transforming Power: From Zero-Sum to Win-Win?” IDS Bulleting 37 (6): 99-110.

*

From Guatemala, I contacted Carol Mortensen, our Country Director in Cambodia.  Even though Cambodia did not have the most-advanced human-rights record, to be sure, from my early visits there I had sensed an opportunity in Svay Rieng province, where ChildFund’s first program areas were located.  It seemed as if the “social contract” mentioned by Keren Winterford, above, might exist there, despite the broader context of oppression existing in Cambodia at the time.

Carol had been very careful to work closely with local authorities in Svay Rieng province, and I knew that ChildFund had particularly good relations with a district governor in Svay Chrum district (Mr Uy Than).

*

Here I need to describe a little bit of “Decentralization and Deconcentration” – “D & D” in Cambodia.  Beginning in the late 1990’s, “encouraged” by donor governments, the Cambodian government had gradually been delegating some functions and financial resources to districts and communes. Along the way, commune council members began to be elected rather than appointed, with (during the time described here) district council members selected by the elected commune counselors instead of being directly elected.

Our opportunity seemed to rest on two auspicious conditions in Cambodia: firstly, Cambodian law required a huge majority of people in the district to be consulted during budget planning – something like 85%!  This seemed like a very valuable opportunity to adapt the framework I had adapted from Ricardo’s work in Guatemala to a real situation, where we could help people, collectively, influence government service delivery.  And, secondly, I was assured that Mr Uy Than seemed to really want to create his district plan according to the rules, including consultation…

So I worked with Carol and her program staff in Cambodia to design a first step: the concept that we agreed in mid-June 2010 is included here, below:

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In another document I prepared around the same time, I began to envision how this approach, if successful, might evolve:

“… in a second phase of this effort, ChildFund in Cambodia will consider interventions to help citizens influence service provision, and support District government in responding to this influence in a way which advances the human rights of marginalized populations, particularly of children and youth. The organization envisions a flexible, iterative approach – learning and consulting with local partners along the way, including feedback to national level regarding this experience of ‘rights holders and duty bearers working together’.”

The project that emerged after a period of design and consultation ended up being called “Community Voices.”

*

Throughout this process, as we designed and implemented the “Community Voices” project, reflected on its achievements, and expanded our work in the “power” domain, one small obstacle appeared occasionally, along the way: in some ways:

  • my direct involvement in this project was inconsistent with ChildFund’s organizational design.

In other words, in principle, our Country Director, Carol Mortensen, was meant to lead and manage all operations in Cambodia, reporting to me.  And, in turn, Carol had hired provincial staff in Svay Rieng (and Kratie) who had certain levels of autonomy and authority.  Having me so directly involved in a particular project was very unusual, to say the least!  And made things sometimes a bit confusing…

But there was no way around it.  Staff in ChildFund Cambodia, including Carol, were not at all used to working to promote collective action, and were in fact very wary of the entire notion because of the atmosphere in the country.  The space for activism around human rights in Cambodia then, and at least as much now, was very constrained, and the centerpiece of Carol’s approach was to work through local government.  This had worked well, and certainly made life easier for ChildFund; even though we were careful to work within the framework of Cambodia’s “decentralization and deconcentration” effort, and to coordinate carefully with Mr Uy Than, in some ways we were risking the stability of ChildFund’s work in our “Community Voices” work.

Despite this pressure, and despite the unusual role I was playing in this particular project, I never felt serious resistance from Carol.  A few times she seemed to be a bit uncomfortable, but we talked things through and we were always able to adjust aspects of project implementation that were making her nervous.  Probably our local staff in Svay Rieng were even more nervous at times, but somehow they were able to carve out a safe space for the project, and for themselves.  I paid careful attention to this, checking in with staff (through Carol and other Phnom Penh-based senior managers) along the way.

*

What was the “Community Voices” project?  There were two main components, and a third area that depended on how the initial work went:

  • We carried out thorough research to understand Cambodian law with respect to district planning, in the context of the overall “decentralization and deconcentration” process and, at Mr Uy Than’s invitation, we trained district government staff especially in areas related to community participation in district budgeting.  The consultant we hired to carry out this research, and to provide training in Svay Chrum district, had been a senior member of the Ministry team that was designing and overseeing the implementation of the process of “decentralization and deconcentration” – his report is attached here: End-of-Consultancy Report (ChildFund);
  • We helped mobilize youth, mothers, and other community members to gather information and provide input from their perspective to the district budgeting process.  I was able to observe some of the information-gathering events, led by youth and young mothers, and was very impressed.  Sadly, I can’t seem to locate photos of these events that I took at the time, in particular from consultations that took place at a local pagoda…

Once the consultations were completed, we supported Mr Uy Than and his district staff as they prepared their district investment plan, and we were delighted to be able to see the influence of local people, and children, in the budget.

We were also delighted when we were informed that the Svay Chrum district investment plan was approved by the national government, the first (and only, at that date) such plan (of over 150 districts in Cambodia) that fully complied with the commitment made to involve local people in its preparation.  A big success.

The third component of the “Community Voices” project was a tentative commitment to fund the district government to implement child-related projects that were included in the district investment plan due to input from the community consultations that ChildFund had supported.  We hoped to revisit this idea once we saw how the creation of the district investment plan went, ideally with very strong input from children, youth, mothers, fathers in poor communities where ChildFund worked.

*

Once we had gone through this process, with what seemed like great success, I wanted to make sure we documented what we had learned, and to begin to spread the word to our other program countries.  So we convened a week-long reflection workshop in Svay Rieng, with the participation of local district government, including (the recently-retired governor) Mr Uy Than (and his new successor); youth and families from a range of communities in Svay Chrum district; and ChildFund staff from Cambodia, but also from neighboring Laos, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam, as well as Sydney.  Uniquely, there was enough interest in the project across the ChildFund Alliance that we also were fortunate to have the participation of Martin Ostergaard from ChildFund Denmark.

And I was also fortunate that my old friend Ricardo Gómez, who had by that time left Plan International in Guatemala and returned to join his family firm in Colombia, as an external participant and facilitator.  This was very helpful, in part because of the lessons that Ricardo could share with us from his experience in Guatemala, but also because my own conceptualization of what became “Community Voices” emerged in part from discussions with him (as described above.)

Here are a few images from that workshop:

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ChildFund Staff And Consultants Gathering Before The Workshop (From Australia, Cambodia, Colombia, Denmark, Laos, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam,

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ChildFund Cambodia Country Director Carol Mortensen and Former District Governor Chairman Mr Uy Than

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ChildFund PNG Country Director Manish Joshi Presenting Thoughts About The Framework I Had Prepared In Guatemala

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From Left: Nguyen Ba Lieu (ChildFund Viet Nam), Ricardo Gómez (Program Consultant), Kristen Rasmussen (Documentation Consultant)

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Ricardo Gómez and Translator

 

A workshop report was produced, but (sadly) the report ended up being very focused on the role of the district government, shying away from any significant discussion of how the community had been mobilized.  In a positive sense, this was a reflection of the approach that ChildFund Cambodia had taken to ensure their ability to work smoothly in a challenging context: we needed to be very cautious about any sense that we were working in the “human rights” field.  And the document did help us summarize lessons that we were able to take forward.  But it did mean that the lessons learned related to collective action were not included.

*

A more balanced and complete representation of our work was included in Ricardo’s consultancy report, included here: ChildFund RR Workshop Final Document 120521.  After nearly a week of reflections, we agreed seven action steps, indicated here in bold with comments from me (in normal type) and from Ricardo (in italics):

  1. Expand ChildFund community (staff) knowledge, awareness and commitment.  We had agreed that the “Community Voices” project had great potential, but we recognized that working in this way required very different skills from our staff.  So this was a positive commitment to build the skills and then to extend the pilot project.  Place special emphasis developing and promoting ChildFund Cambodia staff and team work.  Develop ChildFund team’s social capital that will support this community to evolve as a model community, one that communities in the field will be stimulated to emulate, to learn from.  Provide the support for this community to be able to reach high levels of staff motivation and morale;
  2. Expand Village Development Committee skills and expertise.  Of course, as we built the skills of our staff, it was just as important that local communities learned how to influence district planning.  Promote active citizenship in a relation that will support local governments to gradually explore program phases of: participative local public policies, participate budget planning, monitoring and evaluation;
  3. Deepen district planning approach to commune level.  Our focus had been at district level, from which most government services-delivery was managed.  But some government services were also provided at the local level below the district (the commune).  And in 2010, when we were implementing the Community Voices project, commune council members were being elected democratically, while district councils were selected from commune representatives (so, not elected directly).  So the commune level was also important.  Consider reaching an agreement with provincial authorities to support improving local government’s capacity and services.  A first step could be agreeing on a set of indicators on good governance and establish a plan of action to expand and improve services, initially on those within the domain of the local government and later on services provided by the national government;
  4. Consult with provincial Decentralisation and De-concentration (D&D) persons to clearly understand sub-national management: including development planning, monitoring and evaluation, financial responsibilities.  Expand Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness to be applied at local levels;
  5. Identify a project out of the District Development Plan and provide funding directly to the government level to implement.  It would be appropriate to involve communities in this process and start rolling-out the scheme “right holder + duty bearers = exercise of rights.”  It would good to identify a successful existing government program that could be expanded and improved in the Svay Rieng Province -­‐ensure continuity and sustainability;
  6. Support the relevant Ministry of Interior D&D working group.  Good strategic move;
  7. Continue to support the Royal Government of Cambodia at national level.  Consider linking this work with the work being implemented at community and district levels, sharing relevant issues from local levels with national levels. Consider implementing a system of downwards accountability from Country Office to communities, further supporting communities’ empowerment.

The fifth recommendation was controversial inside ChildFund Cambodia.  Although (as mentioned above) we had always envisioned the possibility of funding government work in an area identified in the district investment plan, especially if some new ideas came from consultations with local people, for many staff, it felt quite risky to even consider providing funding directly to local government.  For me, however, while recognizing the risks, if we didn’t at least test this step, the whole point of supporting duty-bearers and rights-holders to work together to realize human (and child) rights would be incomplete.

*

As ChildFund Cambodia moved into a second phase, I turned my attention to expanding our work to more places where we worked, in other countries.  The most important venue for this effort was the formation of a “Community of Practice,” meeting periodically to formulate program recommendations and review implementation of our commitments to build power and collective action of people, and of children.  I chaired this Community of Practice (“COP”).

We were very lucky that Valerie Miller, my old friend from UUSC Just Democracy days, was willing to participate actively in the Power COP.  She had visited ChildFund Australia earlier, at my invitation, to carry out workshops with our teams and with the broader INGO community in Australia, including AusAID, where I discovered that a number of government staff had used a book Valerie had written in their university studies!  I think this visit and the workshops were very helpful in building enthusiasm for work promoting collective action, while also raising our profile in Australia.

One of the first tasks undertaken by the Power COP was to develop a short, succinct “Approach” to Power, which sought to clarify what we meant by the concept and how it fit into our program work.  I’m attaching here a final (but still incomplete) draft of the document: ChildFund Australia_s Approach To Power – 5.  The key message in that document is:

Our overarching Program Approach commits ChildFund Australia to build the power of people and children living in poverty. To accomplish this, ChildFund and our partners will work at community level, and with local government duty bearers. We will link these efforts with our campaigning work at national and international levels.

At community level, ChildFund and our partners will help build the awareness, skills and organising abilities necessary for children, youth, families, and local organisations to engage with duty bearers, so that they can – together – constructively influence local government policies and practices in favour of children and youth. We will work to ensure that those normally excluded from engagement are included.

Often we will seek to build awareness, skills and organising abilities through participation in projects focused on other development outcomes. For example, when implementing a water project, activities such as conducting and analysing the situation in the community (including a power analysis) in preparation for project design, can build awareness and analytical skills in youth in the community; this can lead to ChildFund or our partners helping community members to influence local government provision of water services, either collectively or via a local organisation, thus learning and practicing organising and influencing skills in a practical way. At other times ChildFund or our partners will build awareness, skills, and organising abilities as stand-alone, focused interventions with, for example, youth clubs.

ChildFund or our partners will help build the awareness and skills of local government to understand and implement their own planning processes, particularly related to consultation with local citizens – especially those members of the community often excluded from engagement, such as girls and women, ethnic minorities, the poorest, people with disability, people living with HIV, sex workers, etc. Our aim in doing this is to support inclusive service delivery that realises the rights of all children.

For example, when local government is preparing budget for a future financial period, ChildFund or our partners will help government staff include the voices of excluded children, youth, and their families. We will consider supporting government implementation of those priorities that emerge from consultative processes, particularly as related to issues put forward by children, youth, and their families. This will lead to better and more inclusive service delivery in areas related to the rights of children.

Over time, ChildFund’s work in communities, with partners, and with local government enable us to prepare and implement integrated campaigns. These campaigns will raise the voices of local people related to a particular child right or set of rights, and will include programming, advocacy, and activism in countries where we work, including Australia, and internationally, perhaps together with other like-minded groups such as the ChildFund Alliance.

For me, this is a very clear and inspiring statement.

*

By the time I left ChildFund Australia, it seemed that work in this very new domain of our program approach was underway in Cambodia and Viet Nam, and we were nearing clarity regarding what it might mean in Laos and Papua New Guinea.  Four very different contexts, but we were getting there!

*

Introducing elements of collective action for human rights in ChildFund Australia was a big challenge.  The organization was quite project-focused, and project work was going very well – so why change?!  Especially since working to build collective action could be interpreted as political in nature, something that would not be practical in places like Cambodia, Laos, and Cambodia in particular.  On top of all that, Australians are very pragmatic, common-sense people, averse to fancy language and concepts.  All in all, a difficult context for this particular innovation.

On the other hand, we had made the commitment in our Theory of Change, and I’m very happy with how our teams in Sydney and (especially) Cambodia put their heads down and tried it.

Thinking about this shift in terms of organizational change, the approach we took was smart, and successful:

  • We built the commitment to collective action into our fundamental organizational theory of change, so the mandate was clear;
  • We found resources internally (me!) and externally (Ricardo and Valerie) that could help us build our own capabilities;
  • We identified a place to learn and test where favorable conditions existed.  Failure in that early experience would have emboldened voices within ChildFund Australia that were cautious about collective action, so we wanted to succeed while also learning and then taking on the challenge in more difficult places;
  • We created a safe space for learning, a “Community of Practice,” in which ideas and experiences could be shared, debated, and trialed.

On the other hand: my own direct involvement in particular projects was unusual, which meant that I had to be a bit cautious about how hands-on I became.

By the time I left Australia, projects including significant elements of collective action for child rights were underway in Viet Nam, and planning was taking place in Papua New Guinea and Laos.

Overall, I’m very proud with what we achieved, and am grateful to our teams in Svay Rieng and our Cambodia Country Office in Phnom Penh, and to Ricardo Gómez and Valerie Miller for the excellent external support and accompaniment.

*

Next time, I will introduce the ChildFund Australia teams in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam.  Stay tuned to meet some great people!

*

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 Assessement in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System.

 

 

 

 

West Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness Framework

June, 2018

International NGOs do their best to demonstrate the impact of their work, to be accountable, to learn and improve.  But it’s very challenging and complicated to measure change in social-justice work, and even harder to prove attribution.  At least, to do these things in affordable and participatory ways…

Two times in Plan International, earlier in my career, I had worked to develop and implement systems that would demonstrate impact – and both times, we had failed.

In this article I want to describe how, in ChildFund Australia, we succeeded, and were able to build and implement a robust and participatory system for measuring and attributing impact in our work.

Call it the Holy Grail!

*

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.

So far, I’ve described climbing 36 of the 48 peaks, and covered my journey from Peace Corps in Ecuador (1984-86) through to my arrival in Sydney in 2009, where I joined ChildFund Australia as the first “International Program Director.”  This is my 37th post in the series.

In recent posts in this series I’ve been describing aspects of the ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” (“DEF”) the system that would help us make sure we were doing what we said we were going to do and, crucially, verify that we were making a difference in the lives of children and young people living in poverty.  So we could learn and improve our work…

There are three particular components of the overall DEF that I am detailing in more depth, because I think they were especially interesting and innovative.  In my previous blog I described how we used Case Studies to complement the more quantitative aspects of the system.  These Case Studies were qualitative narratives of the lived experience of people experiencing change related to ChildFund’s work, which we used to gain human insights, and to reconnect ourselves to the passions that brought us to the social-justice sector in the first place.

This time, I want to go into more depth on two final, interrelated components of the ChildFund Australia DEF: Outcome Indicator Surveys and Statements of Impact.  Together, these two components of the DEF enabled us to understand the impact that ChildFund Australia was making, consistent with our Theory of Change and organizational vision and mission.  Important stuff!

But first…

*

Last time I described climbing to the top of Mt Bond on 10 August 2017, after having gotten to the top of Bondcliff.  After Mt Bond, I continued on to West Bond (4540ft, 1384m), the last of three 4000-footers I would scale that day.  (But, since this was an up-and-back trip, I would climb Mt Bond and Bondcliff twice!  It would be a very long day.)

As I described last time, I had arrived at the top of Bondcliff at about 10:30am, having left the trail-head at Lincoln Woods Visitor Center just after 6:30am.  This early start was enabled by staying the night before at Hancock Campsite on the Kancamagus road, just outside of Lincoln, New Hampshire.  Then I had reached the top of Bondcliff at 10:30am, and the summit of Mt Bond at about 11:30am.

Now I would continue to the top of West Bond, and then retrace my steps to Lincoln Woods:

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So, picking up the story from the top of Mt Bond, the Bondcliff Trail drops down fairly quickly, entering high-altitude forest, mostly pine and ferns.

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After 20 minutes I reached the junction with the spur trail that would take me to the top of West Bond.  I took a left turn here.  The spur trail continues through forest for some distance:

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I reached the top of West Bond at 12:30pm, and had lunch there.  The views here were remarkable; it was time for lunch, and I was fortunate to be by myself, so I took my time at the summit.

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Bondcliff From West Bond

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At The Summit Of West Bond.  Franconia Ridge And Mt Garfield In The Background.  A Bit Tired!

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Mt Bond, On The Left, And Bondcliff On The Right

 

Here are two spectacular videos from the top of West Bond.  The first simply shows Bondcliff, with the southern White Mountains in the background:

 

And this second video is more of a full panorama, looking across to Owl’s Head, Franconia Ridge, Garfield, the Twins, Zealand, and back:

 

Isn’t that spectacular?!

After eating lunch at the top of West Bond, I left at a bit before 1pm, and began to retrace my steps towards Lincoln Woods.  To get there, I had to re-climb Mt Bond and Bondcliff.

I reached the top of Mt Bond, for the second time, at 1:20pm.  The view down towards Bondcliff was great!:

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Bondcliff From The Top Of Mt Bond, Now Descending…

 

Here is a view from near the saddle between Mt Bond and Bondcliff, looking up at the latter:

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Looking Up At Bondcliff

 

As I passed over Bondcliff, at 2:15pm, I was slowing down, and my feet were starting to be quite sore.  I was beginning to dread the descent down Bondcliff, Wilderness, and Lincoln Woods Trails… it would be a long slog.

Here’s a view from there back up towards Mt Bond:

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A Glorious White Mountain Day – Mt Bond And West Bond, From Bondcliff

 

But there were still 8 or 9 miles to go!  And since I had declined the kind offer I had received to ferry my car up to Zealand trail-head, which would have saved me 3 miles, I had no other option but to walk back to Lincoln Woods.

It was nearly 5pm by the time I reached the junction with Twinway and the Lincoln Woods Trail.  By that time, I was truly exhausted, and my feet were in great pain, but (as I said) I had no option but to continue to the car: no tent or sleeping bag, no phone service here.

The Lincoln Woods Trail, as I’ve described in more detail elsewhere, is long and flat and wide, following the remnants of an old forest railway:

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Sleepers From The Old Forestry Railway

 

Scratches from walking poles?

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It was around 5:30 when I got to the intersection with Franconia Notch Trail, which is the path up Owl’s Head.

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It was a very long slog down Lincoln Woods Trail – put one foot in front of the other, and repeat!  And repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat …

Finally I reached the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center, where I had parked my car at 6:30am that morning, at 6:40pm, having climbed three 4000-footers, walked 22 miles, and injured my feet in just over 12 hours.

Looking back, I had accomplished a great deal, and the views from the top of three of New Hampshire’s highest and most-beautiful were amazing.  But, at the time, I had little feeling of accomplishment!

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Knackered!

 

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Here is the diagram I’ve been using to describe the ChildFund Australia DEF:

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Figure 1: The ChildFund Australia Development Effectiveness Framework

 

In this article I want to describe two components of the DEF: #2, the Outcome Indicator Surveys; and #12, how we produced “Statements of Impact.”  Together, these two components enabled us to measure the impact of our work.

First, some terminology: as presented in an earlier blog article in this series, we had adopted fairly standard definitions of some related terms, consistent with the logical framework approach used in most mature INGOs:

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According to this way of defining things:

  • A Project is a set of Inputs (time, money, technology) producing a consistent set of Outputs (countable things delivered in a community);
  • A Program is a set of Projects producing a consistent set of Outcomes (measurable changes in human conditions related to the organization’s Theory of Change);
  • Impact is a set of Programs producing a consistent set of changes to Outcome Indicators as set forth in the organization’s Strategic Plan.

But that definition of “Impact,” though clear and correct, wasn’t nuanced enough for us to design a system to measure it.  More specifically, before figuring out how to measure “Impact,” we needed to grapple with two fundamental questions:

  • How “scientific” did we want to be in measuring impact?  In other words, were we going to build the infrastructure needed to run randomized control group trials, or would we simply measure change in our Outcome Indicators?  Or somewhere in between?;
  • How would we gather data about change in the communities where we worked?  A census, surveying everybody in a community, which would be relatively costly?  If not, what method for sampling would we use that would enable us to claim that our results were accurate (enough)?

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The question “how ‘scientific’ did we want to be” when we assessed our impact was a fascinating one, getting right to the heart of the purpose of the DEF.  The “gold standard” at that time, in technical INGOs and academic institutions, was to devise “randomized control group” trials, in which you would: implement your intervention in some places, with some populations; identify ahead of time a comparable population that would serve as a “control group” where you would not implement that intervention; and then compare the two groups after the intervention had concluded.

For ChildFund Australia, we needed to decide if we would invest in the capability to run randomized control group trials.  It seemed complex and expensive but, on the other hand, it  would have the virtue of being at the forefront of the sector and, therefore, appealing to technical donors.

When we looked at other comparable INGOs, in Australia and beyond, there were a couple that had gone that direction.  When I spoke with my peers in some of those organizations, they were generally quite cautious about the randomized control trial (“RCT”) approach: though appealing in principle, in practice it was complex, requiring sophisticated technical staff to design and oversee the measurements, and to interpret results.  So RCTs were very expensive.  Because of the cost, people with practical experience in the matter recommended using RCTs, if at all, only for particular interventions that were either expensive or were of special interest for other reasons.

For ChildFund Australia, this didn’t seem suitable, mainly because we were designing a comprehensive system that we hoped would allow us to improve the effectiveness of our development practice, while also involving our local partners, authorities, and people in communities where we worked.  Incorporating RCTs into such a comprehensive system would be very expensive, and would not be suitable for local people in any meaningful way.

The other option we considered, and ultimately adopted, hinged upon an operational definition of “Impact.”  Building on the general definition shown above (“Impact is a set of Programs producing a consistent set of changes to Outcome Indicators as set forth in the organization’s Strategic Plan”), operationally we decided that:

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In other words, we felt that ChildFund could claim that we had made an significant impact in the lives of children in a particular area if, and only if:

  1. There had been a significant, measured, positive change in a ChildFund Australia Outcome Indicator; and
  2. Local people (community members, organizations, and government staff) determined in a rigorous manner that ChildFund had contributed to a significant degree to that positive change.

In other words:

  • If there was no positive change in a ChildFund Australia Outcome Indicator over three years (see below for a discussion of why we chose three years), we would not be able to claim impact;
  • If there was a positive change in a ChildFund Australia Outcome Indicator over three years, and local people determined that we had contributed to that positive change, we would be able to claim impact.

(Of course, sometimes there might be a negative change in a ChildFund Australia Outcome Indicator, which would have been worse if we hadn’t been working in the community.  We were able to handle that situation in practice, in community  workshops.)

I felt that, if we approached measuring impact in this way it would be “good enough” for us – perhaps not as academically robust as using RCT methods, but (if we did it right) certainly good enough for us to work with local people to make informed decisions, together, about improving the effectiveness of our work, and to make public claims of the impact of our work.

So that’s what we did!

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As a reminder, soon after I had arrived in Sydney we had agreed a “Theory of Change” which enabled us to design a set of organization-wide Outcome Indicators.  These indicators, designed to measure the status of children related to our Theory of Change, were described in a previous article, and are listed here:

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These Outcome Indicators had been designed technically, and were therefore robust.  And they had been derived from the ChildFund Australia Vision, Mission, and Program Approach, so they measured changes that would be organically related to the claims we were making in the world.

So we needed to set up a system to measure these Outcome Indicators; this would become component #2 in the DEF (see Figure 1, above).  And we had to design a way for local partners, authorities, and (most importantly) people from the communities where we worked to assess changes to these Outcome Indicators and reach informed conclusions about who was responsible for causing the changes.

First, let me outline how we measured the ChildFund Australia Outcome Indicators.

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Outcome Indicator Surveys (Component #2 in Figure 1, Above)

Because impact comes rather slowly, an initial, baseline survey was carried out in each location and then, three years later, another measurement was carried out.  A three-year gap was somewhat arbitrary: one year was too short, but five years seemed a bit long.  So we settled on three years!

Even though we had decided not to attempt to measure impact using complex randomized control trials, these survey exercises were still quite complicated, and we wanted the measurements to be reliable.  This was why we ended up hiring a “Development Effectiveness and Learning Manager” in each Country Office – to support the overall implementation of the DEF and, in particular, to manage the Outcome Indicator Surveys.  And these surveys were expensive and tricky to carry out, so we usually hired students from local universities to do the actual surveying.

Then we needed to decide what kind of survey to carry out.  Given the number of people in the communities where we worked, we quickly determined that a “census,” that is, interviewing everybody, was not feasible.

So I contacted a colleague at the US Member of the ChildFund Alliance, who was an expert in this kind of statistical methodology.  She strongly advised me to use the survey method that they (the US ChildFund) were using, called “Lot Quality Assurance Sampling.”  LQAS seemed to be less expensive than other survey methodologies, and it was highly recommended by our expert colleague.

(In many cases, during this period, we relied on technical recommendations from ChildFund US.  They were much bigger than the Australia Member, with excellent technical staff, so this seemed logical and smart .  But, as with Plan International during my time there, the US ChildFund Member had very high turnover, which led to many changes in approach.  This meant, in practice for us, although ChildFund Australia had adopted several of the Outcome Indicators that ChildFund US was using, in the interests of commonality, and – as I said – we had begun to use LQAS for the same reason, soon the US Member was changing their Indicators and abandoning the use of LQAS because new  staff felt it wasn’t the right approach.  This led to the US Member expressing some disagreement with how we, in Australia, were measuring Impact – even though we were following their – previous – recommendations!  Sigh.)

Our next step was to carry out baseline LQAS surveys in each field location.  It took time to accomplish this, as even the relatively-simple LQAS was a complex exercise than we were typically used to.  Surveys were supervised by the DEL Managers, carried out usually by students from local universities.  Finally, the DEL Managers prepared baseline reports summarizing the status of each of the ChildFund Australia Outcome Indicators.

Then we waited three years and repeated the same survey in each location.

(In an earlier article I described how Plan International, where I had worked for 15 years, had failed twice to implement a DEF-like system, at great expense.  One of the several mistakes that Plan had made was that they never held their system constant enough to be comparable over time.  In other words, in the intervening years after measuring a baseline, they tinkered with [“improved”] the system so much that the second measurement couldn’t be compared to the first one!  So it was all for naught, useless.  I was determined to avoid this mistake, so I was very reluctant to change our Outcome Indicators after they were set, in 2010; we did add a few Indicators as we deepened our understanding of our Theory of Change, but that didn’t get in the way of re-surveying the Indicators that we had started with, which didn’t change.)

Once the second LQAS survey was done, three years after the baseline, the DEL Manager would analyze differences and prepare a report, along with a translation of the report that could be shared with local communities, partners, and government staff.  The DEL Manager, at this point, did not attempt to attribute changes to any particular development actor (local government, other NGOs, the community themselves, ChildFund, etc.), but did share the results with the communities for validation.

Rather, the final DEF component I want to describe was used to determine impact.

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Statements of Impact (Component #12 in Figure 1, Above)

The most exciting part of this process was how we used the changes measured over three years in the Outcome Indicators to assess Impact (defined, as described above, as change plus attribution.)

The heart of this process was a several-day-long workshop at which local people would review and discuss changes in the Outcome Indicators, and attribute the changes to different actors in the area.  In other words, if a particular indicator (say, the percentage of boys and girls between 12 and 16 years of age who had completed primary school) had changed significantly, people at the workshop would discuss why the change had occurred – had the local education department done something to cause the change?  Had ChildFund had an impact?  Other NGOs?  The local community members themselves?

Finally, people in the workshop would decide the level of ChildFund’s contribution to the change (“attribution”) on a five-point scale: none, little, some, a lot, completely.   This assessment, made by local people in an informed and considered way, would then serve as the basic content for a “Statement of Impact” that would be finalized by the DEL Manager together with his or her senior colleagues in-country, Sydney-based IPT staff and, finally, myself.

*

We carried out the very first of these “Impact” workshops in Svay Rieng, Cambodia, in February 2014.  Because this was the first of these important workshops, DEL Managers from Laos and Viet Nam attended, to learn, along with three of us from Sydney.

Here are some images of the ChildFund team as we gathered and prepared for the workshop in Svay Rieng:

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Here are images of the workshop.  First, I’m opening the session:

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Lots of group discussion:

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The DEL Manager in Cambodia, Chan Solin, prepared a summary booklet for each participant in the workshop.  These booklets were a challenge to prepare, because they would be used by local government, partners, and community members; but Solin did an outstanding job.  (He also prepared the overall workshop, with Richard Geeves, and managed proceedings very capably.)  The booklet presented the results of the re-survey of the Outcome Indicators as compared with the baseline:

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Here participants are discussing results, and attribution to different organizations that had worked in Svay Rieng District over the three years:

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Subgroups would then present their discussions and recommendations for attribution.  Note the headphones – since this was our first Impact Workshop, and ChildFund staff were attending from Laos, Viet Nam, and Australia in addition to Cambodia, we provided simultaneous translation:

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Here changes in several Outcome Indicators over the three years (in blue and red) can be seen.  The speaker is describing subgroup deliberations on attribution of impact to the plenary group:

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Finally, a vote was taken to agree the attribution of positive changes to Outcome Indicators.  Participants voted according to their sense of ChildFund’s contribution to the change: none, a little, some, a lot, or completely.  Here is a ballot and a tabulation sheet:

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Finally, here is an image of the participants in that first Statement of Impact Workshop: Local Community Members, Government Staff, ChildFund Staff (From The Local Area, Country Office, Sydney, and From Neighboring Viet Nam):

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Once the community workshops were finished, our local Senior Management would review the findings and propose adjustments to our work.  Then the DEL Managers would prepare a final report, which we described as “Statements of Impact.”

Generally speaking, these reports would include:

  • An introduction from the Country Director;
  • A description of the location where the Statement of Impact was produced, and a summary of work that ChildFund had done there;
  • An outline of how the report was produced, noting the three-year gap between baseline and repeat survey;
  • Findings agreed by the community regarding changes to each Outcome Indicator along with any attribution of positive change to ChildFund Australia;
  • Concluding comments and a plan of action for improvement, agreed by the local Country Office team and myself.

Examples of these reports are shared below.

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This process took some time to get going, because of the three-year delay to allow for re-surveying, but once it commenced it was very exciting.  Seeing the “Statement of Impact” reports come through to Sydney, in draft, from different program countries, was incredible.  They showed, conclusively, that ChildFund was really making a difference in the lives of children, in ways that were consistent with our Theory of Change.

Importantly, they were credible, at least to me, because they showed some areas where we were not making a difference, either because we had chosen not to work in a particular domain (to focus on higher priorities) or because we needed to improve our work.

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I’m able to share four ChildFund Australia Statements of Impact, downloaded recently from the organization’s website.  These were produced as described in this blog article:

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Here are a few of the findings from that first “Statement of Impact” in Svay Chrum:

  • ChildFund made a major contribution to the increase in primary-school completion in the district:

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  • Although the understanding of diarrhea management had improved dramatically, it was concluded that ChildFund had not contributed to this, because we hadn’t implemented any related projects.  “Many development actors contributed to the change”:

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  • ChildFund had a major responsibility for the improvement in access to hygienic toilets in the district:

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  • ChildFund made a significant contribution to the increase in access to improved, affordable water in the district:

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  • ChildFund had made a major contribution to large increases in the percentage of children and youth who reported having opportunities to voice their opinions:

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  • Although the percentage of women of child-bearing age in the district who were knowledgeable regarding how to prevent infection with HIV, it was determined the ChildFund had made only a minor contribution to this improvement.  And recommendations were made by the group regarding youth knowledge, which had actually declined:

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To me, this is fantastic stuff, especially given that the results emerged from deep and informed consultations with the community, local partners, and local authorities.  Really, this was the Holy Grail – accountability, and lots of opportunity for learning.  The results were credible to me, because they seemed to reflect the reality of what ChildFund had worked on, and pointed out areas where we needed to improve; the report wasn’t all positive!

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For me, the way that the Outcome Indicator Surveys and Statements of Impact worked was a big step forward, and a major accomplishment.  ChildFund Australia now had a robust and participatory way of assessing impact so that we could take steps to confidently improve our work.  With these last two components of the DEF coming online, we had managed to put in place a comprehensive development-effectiveness system, the kind of system that we had not been able to implement in Plan.

As I shared the DEF – its design, the documents and reports it produced – with our teams, partners, Australian government, donors – I began to get lots of positive feedback.   At least for its time, in Australia, the ChildFund Australia DEF was the most comprehensive, robust, participatory, useful system put into place that anybody had ever seen.  Not the most scientific, perhaps, but something much better: usable, useful, and empowering.

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My congratulations and thanks to the people who played central roles in creating, implementing, and supporting the DEF:

  • In Sydney: Richard Geeves and Rouena Getigan;
  • And the DEL Managers in our Country Offices: Chan Solin (Cambodia), Joe Pasen (PNG), Marieke Charlet (Laos), and Luu Ngoc Thuy and Bui Van Dung (Viet Nam).

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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. Mt Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System.