I’ve begun to work through another group of mountains: New Hampshire’s “52 With A View.” Obviously, they are all supposed to have interesting summits. And, so far, with one exception, they do!
Compared to my “4000-footer” series, these posts will be briefer: sharing a couple of photos and a brief description of each climb, and a few miscellaneous thoughts on current events.
Hope you are enjoying these posts…
I’ve been writing on the theme of feeding the wrong wolf. The theme comes from that old Cherokee legend that describes how we all have two wolves inside us, one that is good and does no harm, and the other full of anger and hatred. The elder Cherokee tells his grandchild that we have to decide which one to feed.
This time I want to share some thoughts about inequality in our society, thinking which as been greatly influenced by the great work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.
But first, I climbed Middle Moat Mountain (2,805 ft) on 11 June 2020, with our friend Draco. Earlier that day we had reached the top of South Moat, which I described last time. Climbing both summits involved a long, up-and-back hike, on a lovely day.
Middle Moat lies north of the Kancamagus Highway (Rt 112), in the southern section of the White Mountains National Forest.
Draco and I had reached the top of South Moat at around noon, and had an early lunch there.
The hike to Middle Moat was easy, much of it through scrub pine – we got to the summit at around 2pm. There at the top, I filmed the spectacular view:
It was just after 4pm when we arrived back at the trailhead, where we had started our climbing that morning. Draco was filming that day, too!
Climbing both South and Middle Moat Mountains in one long day was exhausting, but the views from both peaks were fantastic and the weather favored us. So I had now completed six of the “52 with a view”!
(As I write this I’ve completed 25 of these peaks, so I’ve fallen a bit behind in my posting!)
I want to share a few thoughts about social inequality in the United States. You may have seen this video already, but it’s worth four minutes of your time… it’s a good take on the topic:
Looking at it again just now, it strikes me that, at the end, the young people who have serious advantages in the race seem still to run as hard as they can to win the $100. You can see it in their faces, even though it was obvious that the point of the exercise was to illustrate the advantages they had, gained through no effort of their own. You might call those advantages “unfair”…
It’s not that they didn’t work hard, or run hard. It’s that they had a head start compared to others, and none of them had done anything – themselves – to obtain that advantage. Still, they ran as hard as they could!
This brings up the example that Michael Sandel uses in his Harvard course on Justice, which is available to audit for free on EdX. He talks about Michael Jordan, somebody who worked as hard as anybody can, sacrificed hugely, and was endowed with immense natural gifts. None of that was due to luck, right?
But Sandel uses the example to illustrate a critique of libertarianism, which often sees taxation as enslavement. Their thinking is that, because society takes the fruits of a person’s labor without permission is equivalent to making somebody work without receiving compensation – slavery. We “own” ourselves.
Dr Sandel points out that, even in this example, Michael Jordan happened to be born into a society that hugely values (and rewards) his particular gifts. If our society didn’t place such high value on basketball played to such a level of artistry, would Michael Jordan’s talents and hard work been valued so much? Surely not. So perhaps it’s reasonable that Michael Jordan should be taxed to return some of that value to society?
This graph comes from a report published in 2015 by the Boston Federal Reserve Bank. It shows median financial assets (total, and net) of various ethnic groups in the Boston area:
Yes, you are reading that correctly: the median net financial worth of white people in the Boston area, in 2015, was just over $247k, and for Black people it was $8. Not $80k. Or even $8k – EIGHT DOLLARS.
How does this relate to the video? Much of the net worth of Boston-area whites is derived from their homes, whose value has boomed in recent decades. But, from the end of Reconstruction through to the 1960s, and beyond, Black people were systematically deprived of access to that source of wealth, among others, through the odious practice of “red-lining.”
By formal, explicit government policy. So that was a serious head start for people in that group, on average.
And it goes beyond housing. To, for example, aspects of policing in our country, as I (and wiser authors) have written about recently.
Sadly, the behavior of the young people in the video is pretty common. We try as hard as we can to win, even when we are already far ahead at the start; we’re probably unconscious of our good fortune. I don’t know how Michael Jordan feels about the taxes he pays, but I am pretty confident that, at least to some extent, he is aware that he was fortunate, as well as hugely talented and incredibly hard-working.
There are many such examples of positive deviance – people who benefit from the head starts that they didn’t entirely earn, recognizing their good fortune and taking action to correct the situation in some way.
In my career in social justice I learned that it’s often more effective to learn from positive examples and build on them, even if they may be rare “deviants.” Our default mode is to focus on a “problem” that we see, and then create “solutions” that make sense to us in our own framework. But that can blind us to solutions that might have emerged already and can be scaled up, if only we would look, if we would only see. To do that, we have to clear away some of the fog of ego that obscures our ability to see beyond our own frameworks.
Anyway, one way to feed the right wolf is to recognize how fortunate we’ve been to have the head starts we’ve benefited from, and then to try to pay it back.
All posts in this “52 With A View” series will be collected here.
There are three other collections of posts on this blog:
— I’ve been writing and recording a series of songs, with the general theme of the COVID-19 pandemic. As each is finished, you’ll find it here. Hope you enjoy them!
— Check out my “Everest Base Camp” series: four friends and I hiked from Lukla to the Everest Base Camp in November, 2019. It was incredible, spectacular, and very challenging.
— And don’t forget to visit my “New Hampshire 4000-Footer” series, for reflections on a career in international development and social justice, along with descriptions of climbing the 48 highest peaks in our state!
But, also, I’ve started working through another list: New Hampshire’s “52 With A View.” As readers may have noticed, while the 4000-footers are all interesting climbs, and usually quite challenging, some of their summits can be a bit disappointing. Many have obstructed views at the top.
So I’m tackling this second group, with the hopes that their summits will all be interesting. The two lists don’t overlap, so the 52 will be new here, and none will be over 4000 feet high. That doesn’t mean they will be easy…
In each of my 4000-footer posts, I combined a description of the climb with a discussion of some part of my (so-called) career in international development and social justice. In this series, I will take a similar approach, though the posts will typically be briefer: sharing a couple of photos and a brief description of each climb, and a few paragraphs on current events.
Hope you enjoy it!
Jennings Peak, the third of these 52 mountains that I tackled, is located in Waterville Valley. I climbed it on 8 June 2020, continuing on to reach the summit of Sandwich Dome on what was a lovely day.
The hike was a large lollypop, starting at the top of the “pop” and ascending counter-clockwise on the Sandwich Mountain Trail, and returning on Drakes Brook Trail:
Note that my later climb of Welch-Dickey is shown on the left. More on that later!
Jennings is slightly off the trail:
Here’s the view from the top of Jennings Peak, with the Tripyramid in the middle:
A lovely hike, a bit more challenging than my first two in this series had been. After lunch on Jennings Peak, I continued on towards Sandwich Dome…
As we face the novel corona virus, I’m sharing this new song, called “Pandemic Fever Dream.” I hope you enjoy it…
Here’s the audio file, slightly-better quality than in the video:
Stay tuned for my upcoming album, “Pandemic Songbook.”
All posts in this “52 With A View” series will be collected here.
I’ve been writing and recording a series of songs, with the general theme of the COVID-19 pandemic. As each is finished, you’ll find it here. Hope you enjoy them!
Check out my “Everest Base Camp” series: four friends and I hiked from Lukla to the Everest Base Camp in November, 2019. It was incredible, spectacular, and very challenging.
And don’t forget to visit my “New Hampshire 4000-Footer” series, for reflections on a career in international development and social justice, along with descriptions of climbing the 48 highest peaks in our state!
Last time I shared a few reflections that seemed to cut across these articles, a handful of themes that emerged for me as I prepared the previous 46 blogs. I hope you enjoyed it…
This is the 48th, and final article in the “4000-footer” series. It seems fitting to take time now to thank some of the many people who have helped me along the way.
To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Jefferson, and go directly to my thanks to those amazing people, click here.
The Climb – Mt Jefferson
I left Durham at 6:50am on June 22, 2018, on a beautiful, crisp, clear cool day. My plan was to walk up the Castle Ravine Trail to the top of Jefferson, and then drop down the Castle Trail. I had read about both trails, and noted the warning that it was better to ascend Castle Ravine, on the Castle Ravine Trail, due to the steep and rocky section near the top; this would be much easier to ascend than to descend. Then, descend the Castle Trail.
And so it was!
After stopping for coffee in Ossipee, and a sandwich in Gorham, I began the hike from a parking area just off Rt 2 in Bowman, New Hampshire, at 9:38am. So it was over 2 1/2 hours from Durham. The views of Mt Madison and Mt Adams, which I had climbed the week before, were spectacular as I passed through Pinkham Notch on the way north.
The sky was cloudless, and the temperature was perfect. Perfect conditions for my final ascent of these 48 mountains!
I parked at Bowman.
The beginning of the walk is along a Rail-Trail, but the path soon takes a left turn onto the Castle Trail:
This sign grabbed my attention, as it had been designed to do!
There would be two more signs like this. I wasn’t sure that I was in “top physical condition,” but I was going to give it a try!
Now the trail entered typical White-Mountain forest, and soon after entering the forest there was my first stream crossing. Nothing difficult, but I did manage to fall into the water. Luckily, the water didn’t reach my ankles, so my feet stayed dry!
From there I ascended gently up the Castle Trail until reaching the junction with the Israel Ridge Path at a bit after 10am:
Here I took the left fork, and continued steadily up the Israel Ridge Path for 15 minutes, making the first of what would be 5 or 6 more stream crossings before taking the right-hand fork onto the Castle Ravine Trail:
At 10:25am I reached the junction of the Israel Ridge Path and the Castle Ravine Trail. Here I took a right-hand turn, and began the long walk up the ravine, crossing the Castle Brook several times:
At 11:20am, I reached the junction with The Link Trail, which joined Castle Ravine from the left. The trail was getting steeper:
Just 8 minutes later I arrived at the junction of the Emerald Trail and, a few moments after that, the Link Trail diverged to the right:
I was walking up Castle Ravine, the sides of which were closing in on me! It felt like the pleasant, moderately-steep forest walking was going to come to an end soon, as I reached the end of the ravine!
At 11:45am I emerged into an avalanche area (from 2010, according to the White Mountain Guide), where I could see up to the ridge above me. Lovely blue sky; a few hours later I would look down from those boulders as I descended on the Castle Trail:
Just ten minutes later I came across a famous feature of the Castle Ravine Trail – this short “tunnel” where the path goes underneath an enormous boulder. Literally underneath!
As I took that photo, I saw two legs appear at the other end, and a stream of swearing erupted. The hiker on the other side hadn’t seen me, and (it turned out) had twisted his ankle and was frustrated. When he saw me he was very apologetic!
The hiker was doing a reverse of what I had planned – going up Castle Trail, and down Castle Ravine. He was walking with a nice black labrador dog, and part of his frustration was that they had just descended a large talus field, which had been very tricky for the dog. Very few level areas, which made it hard for the dog to make its way through, so the owner had to carry it for much of the descent, which must have been very difficult. As I would soon see, the rock field is very steep – the White Mountain Guide had strongly recommended ascending this way, and descending on Castle Trail, just to avoid going down those rocks. Hard enough for a person, virtually impossible for a dog, I reckon!
“… parts of the trail are very rough especially where it crosses a great deal of unstable talus on the headwall, which makes footing extremely poor for descending or when the rocks are wet.”
Here’s what that talus looked like, when I was near the end of it nearly two hours later:
Clearly very challenging for a dog! They had taken a long time to drop down that section of the trail, and the owner had carried the dog for much of the way. Plus, the hiker was wearing walking shoes, not boots, which explained why he had twisted his ankle (apparently several times on the way down.)
Underneath the boulder I came across my first ice of the hike – protected from the sun and buffered from the heat of the day, this ice was still here on the day after the summer solstice!
Just after noon I emerged into the alpine area, where I came across the second warning sign – here a bit more explicit than the sign near the parking area had been!
Here I continued to walk up very steeply on loose rock. Must have been very hard for the dog! I took a wrong turn at one point, ascending steeply, and had to drop back down where I found the trail. So I lost some time and energy there!
Spectacular views to the north here, looking down the ravine, the way I had come:
Here are two images of the trail I was walking slowly up:
At 1:15pm, the trail began to level off and I filmed a video of the view to the north:
I had reached a much flatter area here, which was a great relief after a long stretch slogging up the steep talus. Five minutes later I reached the junction with the Cornice trail and the Randolph Path:
And then I was at Edmund’s Col, a saddle between Adams and Jefferson. Now I had a spectacular view to the south and south-east, including Adams and looking to the east across Rt 16 and Pinkham Notch overt to the Carter and Wildcat ranges. This panoramic video captures the scene from where I had lunch:
A gorgeous day! I was well above tree-line, in one of the world’s most beautiful alpine areas.
After lunch, I continued towards Mt Jefferson. I took this photo as I began to climb, back towards Mt Adams; you can see Mt Adams at the top right, with Mt Sam Adams to the left, and the trail (the Gulfside Trail) clearly visible below. I had eaten lunch at the saddle in the foreground:
As I climbed, at 1:55pm, I came to a snow field! Believe it or not, there was still a small patch of snow left to walk across, on this, the day after the summer solstice! Hard to believe:
I had seen this patch of snow from Mt Adams the week before. Soon I arrived at the junction of the Loop Trail and took a right turn to get to the top of Jefferson. At 2:15pm I reached the junction of Loop Trail and Six Husbands Trail:
And at 2:25pm I reached the top of Mt Jefferson! So I had completed climbing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers – just two years and two months after I had started by ascending Mt Tom:
It felt great to have completed climbing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers. I spent a bit of time thinking about the journey over the last two years and two months. A great accomplishment, and a good way of using the time that I had after returning from Australia.
It was quite buggy at the top of Mt Jefferson, as can be seen in these videos. But it was also spectacular, with views all the way around:
I put on some Bushman insect repellent and began to descend on the Castle Trail.
At 3:10pm I arrived at the junction of Castle Trail and The Cornice, and continued downward. The walking was difficult, a lot of talus, but not nearly as steep as the Castle Ravine Trail:
Now I started to get great views down towards the Castle Ravine, which I had climbed up that morning:
This video shows the full length of the Castle Ravine, with Mt Adams to the north, and Rt 2 down below:
At this point I left the alpine zone, with the third warning sign:
There was only one other person on this part of the Castle Trail, a middle-aged French Canadian who was going to take the Link Trail. He had apparently climbed Jefferson and Adams that day, and wanted to avoid climbing Jefferson a second time!
I arrived at the junction of the Link Trail, where he took a left, at around 4:15pm.
Here the trail became more forested, small pines and ferns at first. The going was very steep for some time, and my knees started to feel a bit of pain. It was a relief when the trial became less steep, before becoming much steeper again as I got closer to the junction with Castle Ravine. There were signs of trail maintenance here:
At around 4:30pm I crossed the only other hikers I saw on this section of the Castle Trail, a father and son who were ascending. I wondered about that, as it was getting late!
I continued walking moderately downward, and reached the end of the loop at 5:30pm. Here I passed the turnoff I had taken that morning on the Israel Ridge Path, and continued downward, now not steep at all, to the end of the hike:
At 6pm I reached the stream that was near the parking area, where I had dipped my boots that morning:
And the final warning sign!
And here is a video of my last steps on the Castle Trail, walking to the parking area, after having completed the final ascent of the 48 4000-footers!
That last part of the Castle Trail is along an old railway bed, so is flat and easy. But the day had been anything but flat and easy, as befitting a two-year journey up 48 challenging peaks. It felt great to finish!
I climbed Mt Jefferson again, a little over a year later. For a short description of that climb, skipping my final thanks to some amazing people who walked with me on parts of this journey, click here.
Some Final Thanks!
I had a great feeling of accomplishment, a serious sense of achievement at having climbed these 48 majestic and formidable mountains, in just over two years. I was sore and exhausted, but left with deep respect and gratitude for this land and these mountains, for the opportunity I was given to experience them, and to learn from them.
In a similar sense, as I wrap up this “4000-Footer” series, I want to take time to thank some of the people who I was lucky to work with, learn from, across these 35 years. They have been “4000-Footers” in my life, and I am left with a deep sense of respect and gratitude to each of them… and so, in rough chronological order:
As I wrote in the third article in this series, after my first year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Annuska Heldring arrived in Azogues, opening Plan International’s new Field Office for Cañar. In that earlier blog, I described Annuska (“Doctorita”) as charismatic, dedicated, and hilarious. But that only begins to describe her, and the influence she has had on me and my career since 1985.
After I left Azogues, and the Peace Corps, it was Annuska who introduced me to Plan and who opened the door for me to join that organization. I owe my career to her.
Along the way, I would end up working several times directly with Annuska, even becoming her manager as she worked in Colombia, Paraguay, and Albania. Along the years, her instincts were always right, and I learned a lot from her courage and her ability to sweeten difficult discussions with a dose of good humor.
Thank you Annuska!
I joined the INGO world properly in 1987, when Jean and I moved to Tuluá, Colombia, and I took up the role of Assistant Director for Plan Tuluá. Monique van ‘t Hek was my first boss there, serving brilliantly as Field Director. Plan had an excellent induction program in those days, which helped a lot. But I was also lucky to have been assigned to Tuluá, because Monique was an inspiring leader and very effective manager. Not an easy combination, but she did it well, and made it look easy – it’s not!
I was lucky that Monique was my first INGO manager, because along with strong management and leadership skills, she had a very solid approach to building community ownership of the development process, as masterfully illustrated in her stewardship of the creation of a new community – Barrio Internacional – comprised of poor single mothers who would now have their own homes.
As I’ve mentioned earlier in this blog series, Plan Tuluá was a “pilot” office for Plan’s new directions, and Monique managed the sometimes tricky balancing of our local concerns and realities with the need to respond constructively to Plan’s regional and international priorities. Huge learning for me.
Monique has returned to Plan, this time in the huge job of National Director for the Netherlands. They are lucky to have her!
Thank you Monique!
When we arrived in Tuluá, Monique’s manager was Leticia Escobar, Area Manager for Colombia and Ecuador. Leticia worked from Plan’s new, pilot Regional Office, in Quito, Ecuador. She had served in field positions with Plan in Colombia and Bolivia, and was chosen as part of the first Regional Office team, which was established in 1987.
When I succeeded Monique as Field Director for Plan Tuluá, Leticia became my boss. Later, when I moved to the South America Regional Office (SARO), she was my colleague; and then, as these things go, when I became SARO’s second Regional Director, she worked for me!
I greatly enjoyed working for, and with, Leticia. She was a very kind, thoughtful, hardworking, committed professional, who overcame significant personal challenges to carry out her duties to a very high quality. She kept things simple, never put her own ego or personality into the mix, and didn’t complicate matters – a rare talent.
Thank you Leticia!
SARO’s first Regional Director was Andy Rubi, a person who inspired me, and influences me still, to become the best I could be. Andy had served with Plan in a range of field positions and, when the organization decided to regionalize, and to pilot test a regional structure in South America, the organization chose the best possible person to lead things. So Andy became Plan’s first Regional Director.
It wasn’t an easy task. Regionalization of any large organization, as Plan was becoming, is very complicated and complex, fraught with political behavior and clumsy compromises. To some extent, Plan’s first regionalization was not accompanied by the level of decentralization needed to make things work. That was corrected later, but it is to Andy’s great credit that he navigated these tricky waters with grace, humor, and great success.
When Jean and I went to Tuluá in 1987, Andy had just set up the South America Regional Office, in Quito. He brought me to Quito as Area Manager for Ecuador and Bolivia, three years later, as several of the initial SARO managers moved to help staff the next Regional Office to be established, in Manila. When Andy himself moved to serve as acting International Executive Director at Plan’s headquarters, I was appointed to succeed him as SARO’s second RD.
It would be hard to overstate how much I learned from Andy. Just to note one, of many, lessons: when discussions got heated, Andy would bring us back to our senses with a simple question – “what is the issue?” I often use that approach, and find that it is enormously clarifying.
Even recently, nearly 30 years after I first met Andy, he has helped me with wise counsel in a particularly complicated personnel matter.
Soon Ricardo Gómez would join the South America team as Regional Administrator. We worked together for a couple of years, and during that time Ricardo demonstrated the dedication, and intelligence that characterizes him to this day. Ricardo was transitioning from the private sector (an MBA graduate, he had been working for Exxon/Intercor in Colombia) to where he felt he could contribute and realize himself, in our nonprofit world.
I quickly came to admire Ricardo’s courage. We faced a very challenging, and risky, situation involving a very corrupt senior staff member, and Ricardo faced the situation squarely and with great clarity.
Later Ricardo would move to Colombia as Country Director, and then to Sri Lanka in the same role. Ricardo retired from Plan in Guatemala, where he took a poorly-performing, low-morale Country Office and, through his leadership and courage, molded the operation into an example of effectiveness and team spirit. Today Ricardo has returned to his home country, and serves as HR Director for his family’s business there. But we have remained the closest of friends. We travelled for a month together, in India, a couple of years ago, and will be trekking in Nepal later this year. Here he is enjoying a refreshment in Varanasi during that trip:
Thank you, Ricardo!
When Alberto Neri left Plan, Andy Rubi became acting International Executive Director, the titled used for Plan’s CEO at that time. A new IED was appointed in 1992 –Max van der Schalk joined Plan from a career in Shell Oil.
In an earlier blog in this series I described Max as “Dutch, in his late 50’s, who had just completed a long career at Shell, finishing up as President of Shell Colombia … I found Max to be very easy to get along with. He was a great listener, funny and curious, and very confident in his own skin. Max had just as much business experience as Alberto (something that Plan’s board clearly wanted), but seemed to be a much more accessible, open, and emotionally-intelligent person.”
Max was kind enough to write a guest blog for this series, which is here. And here is a recent photo, from April 2018, of Max and Annuska, with Jean and me:
Thank you, Max!
One of Plan’s superstars was Donal Keane. When I served as program director at Plan’s headquarters, under Max van der Schalk, I had asked Donal to participate in the “skunk works” through which we created Plan’s new operational structure. When I formed that group, I had two goals: to create the best possible draft structure, and to shine a light on what I thought would be the next generation of leaders for Plan.
In the first image, Donal is to the right, with another Plan superstar, Catherine Webster. In the second image, Donal is in the center, between Catherine and, I think, Winnie Tay.
Later, as these things go, Donal became my supervisor when I served as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam, and Donal was Plan’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia. He was an ideal manager, clear and calm and decisive. He was very supportive when I proposed an outlandish pilot test of a new way of organizing Plan’s work. I learned a lot from Donal, from his approach to managing and leading in the NGO world.
Thank you Donal!
Working at any INGO headquarters is challenging. When Max had asked me to work with him at Plan’s head office, I proposed serving there for three years, just to make the point that hierarchical position shouldn’t be the goal inside our sector – get in, contribute and serve, and go back to the field to “face the mess you created” at headquarters.
So after serving as Plan’s program director, I took a year’s unpaid sabbatical and then was lucky to move to Viet Nam for four years, as Plan’s second Country Director in that country.
Those were amazing years. I was very fortunate to work with a stellar team, which I’ve written about extensively in an earlier article. A great team, great people.
There were many special people on that team, but one person really stands out: Pham Thu Ba, our “Operations Support Manager.” Or, as she often referred to her role, “Miscellaneous Support Manager.”
Here I will quote from my earlier article.
Thu Ba became OSM when she was only 26 years old, and is one of the smartest, hardest-working and most effective professionals I’ve ever worked with – in Plan and beyond. Her dedication to Plan’s work was unrivaled, and her ability to supervise the complex financial, administrative, and operational side of our work was very impressive. Again, I can only imagine the pressures that Thu Ba faced in shepherding our financial and operational work, but she made it look easy.
I often tell an anecdote about Thu Ba, which I think describes what it was like working with these amazing people. At the end of my first year, I carried out the performance reviews of the people who reported to me, including her. Even more than most, Thu Ba’s work that year (and later) had been superb, so I had only positive comments to share with her.
Imagine my surprise when, after finishing providing lots of specific, positive feedback, Thu Ba’s response was:
— “You’re not doing your job.”
Wow, not the response I had expected. She went on to tell me that, as the only foreigner in the office, staff expected me to bring “international standards” to their work, and to guide them towards doing better jobs. So, if I couldn’t help her improve, I wasn’t doing my job! And, helpfully providing feedback to me (!), she described how people in the office were viewing my style:
— “You always start by saying something positive, something we are doing right, or well. Then you sometimes add suggestions for improvement. We don’t listen to the first part, only to the second part, because that’s where we can learn.”
What an amazing response. Since Thu Ba’s work was of such high quality, it wasn’t easy to identify specific areas where improvement was needed, or even possible, but I promised to give her that kind of feedback in the future. I did rise to that challenge, but it wasn’t easy!
That’s one aspect of what it was like working in Viet Nam in those years – the innate intelligence and hard work of the people, combined with the country’s relatively-recent opening to the world, meant that people like me were seen as very important resources that could be learned from. We were automatically looked up to as sources of “international standards.”
Often this status wasn’t really deserved (some of the foreigners I knew in Hanoi couldn’t add much value), and it’s changed now (Vietnamese people I know there now no longer look to foreigners automatically as fountains of wisdom), but I enjoyed it at the time!
My experience leading and managing the great Vietnamese staff in Plan has influenced my style ever since. We American managers take such a nurturing, affirmational approach (for example, we love using tools like “appreciative inquiry”), that we often neglect to indicate where staff can improve. This is what was happening that first year with Thu Ba. And we don’t spend enough time observing our staff. Working in Viet Nam helped me in this regard – I always make sure to complement positive, affirmational feedback with areas where the staff member could improve or develop.
Later, Thu Ba trained in HR management and development at the University of London, and today she manages that side of Plan’s work in Viet Nam, which is a big job. From Australia I would continue to visit Viet Nam several times a year, and was happy to get together with Thu Ba and her husband and two children on most of my visits.
Many thanks to Thu Ba!
After 15 years with Plan, and four great years in Viet Nam, it felt that it was time to lead another life. Plan had been a fantastic, generous place to work, and I would always be grateful to the organization for the opportunities it gave me to serve, to learn, and to realize myself.
But it was time to repot myself…
As I’ve written in an earlier article, a great opportunity presented itself at exactly the right time. As I said in that article: just as I was leaving Hanoi, I got an email from out of the blue, from a person I had never met. Daniel Wordsworth was Program Development Director at CCF in Richmond, Virginia, and he wanted to know if I knew anybody who could help them reinvent their program approach. I thought I knew of the perfect person…
That call led to three incredible years, helping CCF conceptualize, pilot test, and refine a new program approach which we came to call “Bright Futures.” For me, that process was a super example of rigorous, evidence-based, and effective organizational change in a major INGO. So I took the time in this blog series to describe it over five articles: here, here, here, here, and here.
Daniel was, and is, a brilliant and insightful person, the perfect person to partner with. Later he left CCF and is now the CEO of Alight (formerly American Refugee Committee), an INGO working in humanitarian aid and disaster relief. When you look at Alight’s website, you’ll come to appreciate Daniel’s gifts as I do.
Thank you Daniel!
By 2005, we had finished developing Bright Futures, and the next phase beckoned. But what would that be?
At that point, Jean and I had been living back in the United States for three years, having left Hanoi in late 2002. Those years – Bush’s Iraq invasion, his post-9/11 assault on civil liberties and use of torture – were sad ones for my country. It felt urgent to face the situation and apply myself to my own country.
Again, I was very lucky. While I was still consulting with CCF, I noticed a posting for the program director position at a Cambridge-based NGO called the “Unitarian Universalist Service Committee” (“UUSC“). I looked into it, and I really liked what I saw: a human-rights organization, working inside the US and overseas to advance social justice. I decided to apply…
I didn’t get that job, but later the president and CEO of UUSC, Charlie Clements, approached me for another role: Executive Director!
At that point, UUSC had defined its program, focusing on three broad areas: civil liberties, economic justice, and environmental justice. As I wrote in an earlier article, we later added a fourth focus – rights in (humanitarian) crises.
Despite some challenges, it was a perfect place for me – I was able to help UUSC thrive as an organization, while learning from Charlie’s long and deep human-rights and advocacy experience and working on some of the key issues of those years, including a large-scale response to our government’s inept and unjust “response” to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
As I said in that earlier article, Charlie was, and is, a gifted and passionate communicator, who has lived his life in service of human rights. He began his career in the US Air Force, and graduated from the US Air Force Academy. While serving in Viet Nam, Charlie refused to fly missions into Cambodia in support of our illegal invasion of that neutral country, and was discharged. Switching professions, Charlie went back to school to become a medical doctor and then practiced medicine behind rebel lines in El Salvador. That experience resulted in a book and an Academy-Award-winning documentary (1986), both titled “Witness To War.”
Charlie was very generous to give me the opportunity at UUSC. I learned a great deal from him – after 20 years in the international development, poverty-focused sector, I was ready to tackle deeper issues of injustice and oppression. Charlie’s life, lived on the front-lines of social justice, and his deep expertise left big impressions on me and helped me grow.
Thank you Charlie!
In 2009, Jean and I moved to Sydney, Australia, where I took up the newly-created post of International Program Director for ChildFund Australia. (CCF was rebranding to ChildFund, and the Australian member had been one of the first to adopt the new name.)
Nigel stands out, both because he was our leader and manager, but also because of his steady, calm, common-sense approach to our work. He delegated well, supported the people (like me) who worked for him, and kept the organization on a clear and accountable course.
It was a pleasure working for Nigel – he got the best from all of us, and navigated the sometimes nerve-wracking changes that I wanted to put in place (see these five articles: here, here, here, here, and here), tried to put in place, without any noticeable nervous breakdowns! Nearly always calm and clear, Nigel made it possible for us to do our best.
Thank you Nigel!
Most of all, to Jean. We have made this journey our own, together, across the years.
And many thanks to you, dear readers! Thanks for taking the time to read these articles. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I’ve loved writing them!
Second Season, Second Climb
I climbed Mt Jefferson again on 9 September 2019, after having completed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers late in 2018. This time I ascended from the west, up the Caps Ridge Trail. My plan was to ascend the Caps Ridge Trail to the top of Jefferson, and then loop around The Cornice Trail a bit, rejoining Caps Ridge a little bit below the summit:
This map shows my 2018 climb route in yellow, and the 2019 ascent in pink. The Caps Ridge Trail is one of the highest trail-heads in the White Mountains, so in some ways it’s a much easier way up Mt Jefferson than I had taken the year before. Plus, as can be seen, it’s much shorter!
I left Durham around 8:15am on a partly-cloudy morning, stopping in Ossipee as normal for coffee and a sandwich. Due to road repair along the way, I didn’t get onto the trail until nearly 10:45am…
The Caps Ridge Trail starts out in forest, at just below 3000ft, and the walking was gently upward for some time, until I emerged into the alpine zone at about 11:15am. So, a quick walk up above the tree-line.
The trail was a bit challenging in some places, up bare rock which would be tricky when wet or icy.
The weather forecast had been for partly to mostly-cloudy, but the cloud cover above me seemed pretty thick. As I ascended up the alpine zone, I started to get into the fog, with the top of Jefferson completely obscured above me, and decreasing views to the west.
I reached the top of Mt Jefferson at about 12:45pm, just two hours after starting the climb. It was completely in the clouds, which was a bit of a disappointment.
But quickly things started to change! Firstly the view to the east, towards Pinkham Notch, opened up, and then Mt Adams emerged in a glorious vista to my east. Having just climbed Mt Adams (again) the week before, I was very happy to see it from this angle.
I had lunch at the top, where it was quite cold for the season. But there were no bugs this time!
As can be seen in the video, the summit of Mt Washington never quite emerged, but I could see the Auto Road, and the Cog Railway. A spectacular view.
Dropping down to the The Cornice trail was tricky, rock-hopping; I was happy I had brought gloves, otherwise my hands would have gotten cut up a bit. The Cornice trail was great, with no other hikers and a great, peaceful feeling reminiscent of my walk along the Gulfside Trail after having climbed Mt Madison the second time (in this cycle).
Dropping down Caps Ridge Trail was fairly easy, just a bit complicated negotiating the steep, rocky patches on the way.
I arrived back at the parking area at about 3:30pm, so it took me just under five hours to get to the top of Mt Jefferson and back down.
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:
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.
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!
To jump directly to those reflections, skipping the description of my ascent of Mt Adams, click here.
The Climb – Mt Adams
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 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:
The descent from Mt Madison was steep and 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:
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!
Look how far above Mt Madison I was!
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:
And soon I reached the junction of Madison Gulf Trail. Here I left Parapet, and began to descend steeply down Madison Gulf:
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:
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:
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!
I climbed Mt Adams again, three years later. For a short description of that climb, skipping my final reflections on my journey, click here.
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.
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.
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…
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, the work that we were doing was aimed at supporting people who were fighting to overcome poverty and injustice, 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 only about others, or if we SAY it’s only 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.
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, persons with disabilities, etc. – 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 only 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. Parallel to my own evolution, the international community was formulating a new set of goals, the “Social Development Goals” that have more of a focus on “getting to zero,” peace and justice, and climate action. So, movement in the same, the right, direction.
What’s missing in the new formulation? Conflict, of course… more on that below.
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, some even many 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.)
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 in my experience…)
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 very often able to move very quickly.
The only challenge – but it was 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 clock-punching 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.
Thousands of international NGOs sprang during the years after the 1980’s crisis in the Horn of Africa, with a few 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!
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.
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.
I climbed Mt Adams again on 30 August 2019, in the summer season, after having completed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers late in 2018. This time I ascended from the north:
The route I had taken in 2018 is shown, in part, in blue. This time I began my hike at 10:20am, at the Appalachia trail head, on Rt 2. I had recently added an altimeter app to my phone, so was able to track my elevation. Here was the elevation at the parking area, trail-head:
My plan was to hike to the summit of Mt Adams, on the Airline Trail until I neared the summit. Appalachia is a warren of trails, and I got a bit lost at the beginning, but I did find the Airline Trail before too long.
It was a mostly-cloudy, cool day, perfect for hiking.
Soon the trail became steeper, and I emerged above tree-line. The cloud cover was building, and it was getting much colder as I passed the junction with the Chemin des Dammes Trail. In fact, Mt Adams was now covered in cloud:
I reached junction with the Gulfside Trail (the Appalachian Trail here) at just after 1pm – it was cold, very windy, and completely foggy – then to the top of Mt Adams at 1:45pm!
It had been completely clear last time – here is the comparable image, from my earlier description above! Very different season!
This was an unusual ascent for me – I think really the first time that I had been completely in the clouds at the top, except for Mt Washington. Still, a great hike, but a tough climb up those 4500 ft of elevation gain!
After a short break at the top of Mt Adams, I headed down towards Mt Madison...
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:
Since then, in 44 posts (so far), I’ve described climbing some amazing 4000-foot mountains. 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 time as International Program Director at ChildFund Australia.
Last time I continued to describe a new phase in my career, related to conflict. I focused in particular on conflict analysis, and I described climbing Mt Washington, my 43rd 4000-footer, and the highest of the 48, on 27 October 2017. Washington is the highest of the 4000-footers; in fact, it’s the highest mountain in the northeastern United States, a place where some of the harshest weather on earth has been recorded.
On that October day, after climbing Mt Washington, I also got to the top of Mt Monroe (5384ft, 1641m), which I will describe here. And I will expand on one important topic I highlighted in my first conflict-related article: the role of culture in conflict.
To skip the description of my first ascent of Mt Monroe, and go directly to exploration of culture and conflict, click here.
The Climb – Mt Monroe
I was quite out of shape that day, having spent the previous month (September, 2017) wandering around India with my old friend Ricardo Gómez. At this point, I wasn’t sure I was up to climbing two of the highest mountains in New Hampshire in one day, but the first part of the climb had been great: cool but not cold, bright blue skies. Getting to the top of Mt Washington was a challenge, and it got colder and steeper as I neared the summit.
But I had succeeded! Now the question was: did I have the energy, and the daylight, to climb Mt Monroe?
Eric had driven up from Durham with me, but had decided not to do the climb that day. Instead, he would drop me at Pinkham Notch, and then pick me up at Glen Ellis Falls parking area, saving me a mile hike on the Direttissima Trail.
I had a decision to make after I ate lunch at the top of Mt Washington. The days were getting much shorter now, as we got into autumn, so I hadn’t been sure if I would have time to climb both Washington and Mt Monroe. So I decided to make the call once I got to the top of Washington. I could see Mt Monroe from the top of Mt Washington, down below me. At least I wouldn’t have to climb much more, and it didn’t look too far off. I was making good time, and wasn’t feeling too exhausted…
So … I decided to tackle Mt Monroe.
I figured that, if all went well, I would take the Crawford Path down to the Lake of the Clouds Hut. From there I would climb Mt Monroe and double back to the Hut, and then take the Camel Trail over to the Davis Path and down to the Glen Boulder Trail.
This looked like a challenge, especially since I was leaving Mt Washington at a little after 1pm and the sun would set by 5:40pm. Would I have enough time?
I mentioned last time that there were a few late-season tourists with me at the top of Mt Washington. Most of them were now queuing to take the Cog Railway back down. They were bundled up and seemed very cold in the wind; likewise, I began to shiver as I finished lunch, so I put on another layer of clothing, my cap, and a pair of gloves.
Leaving the top of Mt Washington, at first I couldn’t actually find the trail – it was so windy and cold that I wasn’t really thinking clearly because of the cold. After wandering around the top for a while, stumbling about in confusion, looking for the Crawford Path in the snow and shivering, I returned to the Cog Railway queue, where I found a large relief map on the wall. It seemed that the Crawford Path began near the antennae that are clustered in one area of the summit. So I backtracked over there, but still couldn’t find any signs… but I could see rock cairns leading downward.
I started down from the summit. The wind was so strong that I was blown over several times; I was really depending on my walking pole for stability, and began to worry that I would damage it as I was tossed around by very strong gusts of cold wind. That would make things even trickier…
There was a heavy dusting of snow, that had blown into drifts in areas, and plenty of ice on the trail as I went downward, and I slipped quite a few times.
The hiker in red that can be seen in the photo above had stopped to talk with me; he was working at the Mt Washington observatory and was heading back up that way. I guess he could see that I was nervous at the weather conditions, because he took the time to assure me that those gale winds would end in about 1/4 mile, and from there it would be calmer.
Ahead of me, down the slopes of Mt Washington, I could see the rock cairns marking the trail and, beyond, Mt Monroe. Above the cairns and Mt Monroe were the White Mountains around Franconia Notch, and a blue sky beginning to cloud:
Light snow, to be sure, but there were plenty of drifts that were icy and quite slippery. It was scary, I can tell you!
After about 0.4 miles I came to the intersection of the Westside Trail. It was steep walking, as you can see from the angle!
I had descended a fair way; the antennae at the top of Mt Washington were visible far above me:
You can see that the gale winds had lessened, since my eyebrows had calmed! (And you can see that I had calmed down a bit, too!)
Soon after 2pm I arrived at the junction of the Crawford Path with the Crossover and Camel Trails; the Lake of the Clouds Hut was directly below me. I would return here after looping over the summit of Mt Monroe:
What a spectacular day!
From the Lake of the Clouds (the lake, and the Hut) I could look back up at Mt Washington:
I pressed on from the Hut towards Mt Monroe, with increasing doubts about when I would finish the hike. Despite some steep climbing, and some icy stretches, I got to the top of Mt Monroe at about 2:30pm. The views from there were spectacular:
So I had climbed 45 of the 48 peaks! Yippee!
But there was no time to waste celebrating, it was getting late… so I headed back down. The sun was starting to drop back behind Monroe as I descended:
The icy patches that I had encountered on the way up Mt Monroe were trickier on the way down, so I had to slow down to avoid slipping: a fall on the way down would be much more dangerous than on the way up! So I took my time, but that fed into my nervousness about making it down off the mountain before dark…
At 3pm I was back at the junction of the Camel Trail, which I took.
After a short, steep climb, I reached a long, fairly-flat section of the Camel Trail, and then of the Davis Path. On my left, to the north, the peak of Mt Washington accompanied me, always visible, as you can see in these photos, taken as I crossed the high plateau towards the descent down Glen Boulder Trail:
Some sections along here already had some moderate snow buildup:
The views were amazing, but I was beginning to be quite tired and my left knee was starting to give me some trouble, so I was paying less attention to my surroundings. It was beginning to be a slog, verging on being a “torture hike”!
I reached the junction with the Glen Boulder Trail at a little after 4pm, and I was very tired. But I remained optimistic, because I thought that it would be downhill all the way down to the road, which would be easy (unless the long, pounding descent made my knee hurt, which it did!):
Because Eric would be waiting for me down at Rt 16, I wouldn’t have to walk all the way to Pinkham Notch, so instead of having 3.2 miles to go, it was more like 2.8. Easy, right?!
But I was still worried about the sunset that was due to come at 5:40pm. I only had around 1 1/2 hours to get all the way down Glen Boulder Trail before sunset…
For a while I walked through some high-altitude scrub trees:
But soon I began to approach the steeper descent, and could see the road below. Wildcat Ridge (which I had climbed in 2017: getting to the top of Wildcat “D” and Wildcat Mountain, with the Carter range beyond) was across the way, now in direct sunlight from the west: the sun would be setting behind me as I descended Glen Boulder Trail:
I needed to get all the way down to the bottom of that valley, where Eric was waiting. At just past 5pm I passed Glen Boulder, a major milestone hereabouts:
Here the trail began to descend steeply, and I began to lose my enthusiasm completely. My left knee was really hurting, and the walking was on top of large granite boulders, which made things much worse: the rocks jarred my knee as I dropped down onto them, again and again.
By 6pm it was getting quite dark and, honestly, I was not enjoying the walk at all. I followed along behind two other hikers for a while, and finally passed them just before it got completely dark. I took one last photo before getting out my flashlight:
As you can see, I was at the junction of the Direttissima Trail, which is still nearly a half mile from the Glen Ellis parking area. The trail descended steeply nearly the entire way from the Glen Boulder, until perhaps 0.2 miles from the parking area. I delayed getting the flashlight out of my pack for too long; the moon was peaking from behind the clouds occasionally, so I was able to manage, carefully.
But once I did get the flashlight going I was able to move more confidently, and soon the trail leveled off and I could walk without too much worry that I would trip and slide down the hill!
I don’t think that I ever, ever, have finished a hike in the dark, at least since my very first backpacking trip way back in high school! So it was an interesting experience walking into the parking area at Glen Ellis using the flashlight, and finding Eric waiting for me. Not something I’d like to repeat too often, because even with a good light you can’t see around you very well, of course… but it went OK.
Eric saw my flashlight approaching, and he flashed his car lights. It was 6:30pm and I was completely exhausted and my left knee was in serious pain. But I had conquered two of the last, and two of the highest, of the over-4000-foot White Mountains! Just three more to go…
We stopped in North Conway for a good Mexican dinner before heading south, and I got home to Durham around 9:45pm. It had been a very long day!
So, at the end of October 2017, only three 4000-footers remained: Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. But the days were getting shorter, and temperatures were steadily dropping; as you have read, Washington and Monroe had been real challenges. My knee hurt, and I wanted to rest it.
So I decided to postpone finishing the 48 peaks until the next season. 2017 had been very productive: I had climbed 22 of the 48 4000-footers despite having been in India for an entire month right in the middle of the climbing season. Added to the 23 mountains I had climbed in 2016, I was very close to finishing – just three more to go for 2018…
But I had run out of time. And even though I had climbed 45 of the 48 peaks, I had only published 26 of the blogs. So I figured I would spend the next few winter months catching up on the blogging!
I climbed Mt Monroe again, this time in the summer season, nearly two years later. For a short description of that climb, skipping my reflections on culture and conflict, click here.
Culture and Conflict
As I mentioned last time, 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 a long time 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!
I ended up really enjoying that academic work, and learning about conflict and dispute management…
In my first blog posting about conflict, I shared five key insights that I had gained as I worked through my masters in dispute resolution at the University of New South Wales. Of the five insights I shared in that article, the fourth was that “all conflict has cultural aspects. Conflict is culturally defined – these are good starting points, but be careful!” I fore-shadowed then that I would be preparing an article focused entirely on this topic, so read on!
When you find yourself in conflict, and suspect that there is a cross-cultural element to it:
— Analyze the conflict using Bernie Mayer’s “Circle of Conflict” that I described in an earlier article in this series. Culture is a key element in Bernie’s framework; so, next,
— Carefully consider the culture or cultures involved. And remember: culture is ALWAYS involved! Use insights from Hofstede as starting points;
— Develop and use your cultural fluency to put Hofstede’s insights to work in the particular situation you face;
— Analyze how culture is influencing the dynamic of the conflict;
— With these insights, determine how you will approach the conflict.
The rest of this article will focus on culture and on how culture influences conflict, and vice-versa.
First: culture. There are many frameworks for culture, which is a tricky concept, with different approaches and plenty of disagreement. And, as a consequence, there are also many different ways of looking at cross-cultural conflict. In this article, I will be sharing the important work of several authors and experts:
— Geert Hofstede, whose culture-related research and frameworks have influenced many across several decades, while not being immune to controversy. Much more on Hofstede below…;
— Kevin Avruch, whose thinking and writing on conflict and culture is some of the clearest and most complete that I have come across;
— Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay, whose excellent book “Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Cultures” was the text for my final course in the UNSW degree in Dispute Resolution, which I actually took at James Cook University in Cairns, returning for the in-person workshop soon after having relocated to the US from Australia;
— Finally, I’ll be drawing on outstanding presentations made by Steve Fisher and Maria Rodrigues, who led that final course in Cairns.
What is “culture”? I want to share three definitions here, all of which make sense to me.
— For Avruch, culture is the “learned and shared ways of behaving appropriately in social settings. It’s things that people learn by virtue of belonging to a social group. These things are encoded in cognitive structures, schemas, paralinguistic structures like metaphors, and language. Then they’re also publicly encoded in symbols and values. Culture is learned; it’s shared, more or less. The degree of sharing that is always an empirical issue is a social setting, and it’s passed down from generation to generation, which gives it some kind of traditional force. But it is also created. It is also emergent because it represents people in ways in which people face the dilemmas, such as the problematics in everyday social life, including conflicts and disputes. What it is not, is it is not encoded in the human genome. It’s socially created”;
— For Hofstede, culture is: “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others”. This definition appeals to me because the metaphor of an operating system helps me understand how culture manifests in human reality. Of course, I can understand how this definition would not be as appealing to others: I am an American white male, trained (long ago) as an engineer, so it’s perhaps not surprising that this kind of framing for culture would work for me! (In my defense, I’m at least somewhat aware of my bias!)
— Finally, taking from a presentation given by Maria Rodriques as part of the cross-cultural conflict course I took in Cairns, culture is the lens that we look through when we view reality. Take for example a yellow flower: it appears to be orange if we look at it through the red lens, and green if we look through blue glasses. Just so, a particular set of events, or behavior, can appear quite different to us when viewed from our, or another’s, cultural point of view.
Of course, to emphasize here something I already have outlined above, as Avruch says, “… a conception of culture is inadequate, (a) if it fails to reflect the ‘thickness,’ or complexity, of the phenomenological world it seeks to represent, that is, if it oversimplifies; or (b) if it is connected, overtly or covertly, to a political or ideological agenda…”
Later I will argue that all conflict is cultural in nature; to a greater or lesser degree, culture is always there. But before we discuss conflict and culture, I want to introduce the important work of Geert Hofstede, one of the most significant researchers in the field of culture, and his six “dimensions” model has been widely influential, though somewhat controversial.
Hofstede’s research originated in his work at IBM International in Holland, in the 1970’s, where he was involved in employee surveys spanning many countries. Analyzing the data, Hofstede discerned patterns that seemed to cluster in what became his “dimensions.”
So Hofstede’s concept of culture was originally based on work with IBM employees, a population that certainly doesn’t represent the rich diversity of our world; but, over time, his research grew to cover many more countries and a much broader population, and has become one of the most common and widely-used ways of studying culture. I will be using his framework in this article.
There are two dangers here, traps that we must avoid. Firstly, Hofstede often seems to conflate culture with country; on his website, which we will explore in more detail below, we will find amazingly rich and useful detail for comparing cultures, listed by country. The problem is that all countries contain a rich mixture of cultures, so we must avoid the trap of assuming that Hofstede’s description of a culture in a country represents the particular situation we are analyzing. The danger is that we construe a majority culture as describing an entire national population.
Secondly, even assuming that a particular country can be described as one, homogeneous culture, which it certainly can’t, there still will be a wide spectrum of cultural traits across that theoretically-homogeneous population. For example, although, in general, Australians are much more individualistic than South Koreans, there are certainly some Australians who are less individualistic than some South Koreans.
So we must avoid the trap of assuming that the culture in any country, no matter how homogeneous, is uniform across the population. This means that it is imperative that any conflict professional, or anybody seeking to better understand a cross-cultural situation, must use Hofstede’s Dimensions, and his incredibly rich data set, as a starting point only! In other words, to benefit from Hofstede’s research and insights, we must use his framework as a starting point for our analysis, not as a true representation of the particular situation we are studying. Making a stereotypical generalization based on his findings could lead to great errors.
Use this very helpful tool with caution and discernment.
Keeping those caveats firmly in mind, let’s unpack Hofstede’s six “dimensions” of culture, which we will be using as starting points for analysis. During his career at IBM, collecting information on the personality preferences of company employees, Hofstede noticed six poles, across each of which people tended to cluster in national / cultural commonalities:
In other words, Hofstede asserts that people in particular cultures (which, again, he seems to conflate with countries) cluster in certain places in each of these six poles or dimensions. Some cultures (countries), on average, will typically express higher, or lower, rankings for “Power Distance,” and “Individualism versus Collectivism,” etc.
As I mentioned above, vast research underpins Hofstede’s Dimensions, from their origins in studies of IBM employees through to the much wider and deeper data now underlying the concepts today, and their relevance goes well beyond application to conflict. They are very useful in unpacking conflict behavior.
Space precludes me from fully describing Hofstede’s dimensions; for a complete explanation, consult the website noted in the figure. For now, I’m taking the liberty of adapting the following outline from Hofstede’s work:
— Power Distance: This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power;
— Individualism versus Collectivism: The high side of this dimension, called individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we”;
— Masculinity versus Femininity: The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented. In the business context Masculinity versus Femininity is sometimes also related to as “tough versus tender” cultures;
— Uncertainty Avoidance: The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviourand are intolerant of unorthodox behaviourand ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles;
— Long-Term versus Short-Term Orientation: Every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future. Societies prioritize these two existential goals differently. Societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honouredtraditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion. Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future. In the business context this dimension is related to as “(short term) normative versus (long term) pragmatic” (PRA). In the academic environment the terminology Monumentalism versus Flexhumility is sometimes also used;
— Indulgence versus Restraint: Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.
Comparison of the Dimensions between a wide range of cultures can be sourced on Hofstede’s website; but be careful to recall my caveats, above, about conflating country and culture!
For example, here I’ve compared Australia and South Korea, plotting them together across Hofstede’s six dimensions:
It’s easy to see how conflict could emerge, and intensify, in an interaction between these two cultures: one party might well be focusing on gains over the long term, while the other could be placing much more value on short-term benefits; and perhaps one side of a negotiation is looking at discussions from the point of view of their organization, while the other side is thinking about how various options might be good, or bad, from their personal, individual standpoint. The discussions could very easily become tense, and then “Power Distance” could come into play, leading one side to communicate very indirectly and to be offended by the other side speaking directly.
You can create similar plots across a vast range of countries on Hofstede’s website. Try it, it’s fascinating.
I’ve found that colleagues overseas are often very familiar with Hofstede, but that Americans are much less so. Highly recommended!
So how does culture relate to conflict? Here I want to acknowledge the text we used in the final course in my masters degree: “Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Cultures,” by Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay.
First time through, the book was a bit hard to grasp, partly because the concepts are complex but also because the authors take a very unusual approach of framing the presentation around how the, together, experienced their collaboration. Second time through, accompanied by the excellent lecturers at JCU, I found the book to be very impressive, deeply considered, and extremely useful.
Speaking of which, I want to recognize the lectures given by Steve Fisher and Maria Rodriques in that course. Steve conducted the course in-person, in Cairns, while Maria prepared lectures that were were presented via PowerPoint.
Three key concepts help us understand the relationships between culture and conflict: cultural fluency, culture-conflict dynamics, and cultural “carriers.” I have found that a thorough grasp of these concepts, together with a clear view of culture itself, really helps me to understand conflict in cross-cultural settings.
To understand how culture and a particular conflict are relating, we need to be fluent with the concept of culture itself. According to one of the co-authors of the LeBaron and Pillay volume, Arai Tatsushi, cultural fluency is defined as ‘our readiness to internalize, express, and help shape the process of meaning-making’ (p. 58). Tasushi uses the following figure to illustrate cultural fluency:
Tatsushi uses the metaphor of viewing a flower through different-colored lenses to illustrate how we gain cultural fluency:
— We need to anticipate that others might see the flower differently from us;
— We need to gain a better understanding of the nature of our own lenses, and those of others, and gradually reshape our perceptions to include other possibilities instinctively (embeddedness);
— We must express how our lenses are shaping our perceptions and encourage others to do the same;
— Finally, we have to navigate to take action and move forward in a constructive manner that builds on this enhanced and nuanced understanding of the situation.
This is not always a sequential process – sometimes we make mistakes and need to go back and alter our ways of anticipating, etc. As with many things in life, gaining cultural fluency is, fundamentally, about being self-aware and cultivating a non-judgmental sense of curiosity.
The next concept to grasp is culture-conflict dynamics. It turns out that there is a dynamic and intertwined relationship between culture and conflict:
— culture shapes conflict by attaching meaning to it, prompting our response to conflict, how we view conflict. The lens we look through shapes how we interpret events, and strongly influences how we behave in a given situation, which can be viewed quite differently by people from other cultures. Culture defines who is “us” and who is “them” – and since many conflicts are strongly influenced by tribal identities, the history of ethnic loyalties or enmities, this is a very powerful way that culture shapes and expands conflict across long periods of time and expanses of geography. At the same time, culture can provide us with opportunities to transform conflict, can be a positive “lens” to view conflict;
— And, over time, conflict has a deep impact on culture by changing the way we view a particular situation.
That’s how culture shapes conflict. But the influence goes both ways: over time, conflict influences and shapes culture also. Here the concept of “cultural carriers” is very helpful.
“Cultural carriers” are things like institutions, songs, symbols (such as flags), stories and histories, metaphors such as proverbs, and so forth. These are “containers” – concrete objects as well as abstract ideas – that carry our culture across social contexts. Conflict shapes and reshapes these cultural carriers, which then become embedded in our world view. (For an excellent article about how differing “worldviews” can create and exacerbate conflict, see this chapter of a great book about the Waco catastrophe.)
As Tatsushi says in the text, “conflict affects culture most deeply when it transforms the kind of cultural carriers that penetrate our identity.” And, looking at Mayer’s Wheel of Conflict, we can see that when values become involved in a conflict, enormous fuel is added to the fire.
Tatsushi mentions examples of four types of conflict-related phenomena that shape cultural carriers: protracted violence (war, or domestic violence); forced movement (such as mass migration or individual change of household); cultural mergers (such as when a new country is formed from smaller nations, or when a couple marries across two cultures), and new systems of thinking (in a national revolution or even as a human being moves from adolescence to adulthood.)
So culture influences how individuals or groups interpret behavior and engage in conflict. Conflict influences the “cultural carriers” that, over time, symbolize and define our culture, shaping who we are and how we see ourselves, thus influencing future conflicts.
All conflicts are cultural. I start with Mayer’s “Wheel of Conflict.” Then I dig deeper in terms of culture: when I face conflict working within my own culture, I start by reflecting on how my culture influences me. I review Hofstede’s analysis of US culture and use it to start to analyze my behavior and approach. Across cultures, I bring the cultural fluency I’ve gained over my career (and from Tatsushi!) to enhance my self-awareness and authentic curiosity: I ask, “what’s going on here?!”
It’s sometimes easier said than done, but adding in a dash of compassion and forgiveness always helps.
In a future article in this series I will describe a real conflict involving Western and Asian parties from an international NGO (which I will not name!). Looking at Hofstede’s analysis of Australia and South Korea, above, it’s easy to see how easily conflicts could emerge between people from these two cultures: just consider the vast differences shown in “Individualism,” “Long-Term Orientation,” and “Indulgence”!
Stay tuned for that!
A Second Climb, A Second Season
I climbed Mt Monroe again nearly two years later, on 1 July 2019, after having completed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers late in 2018. I was on my second round of the 48, trying to get up each one in a different season and on a different route (if possible).
This time I would climb Mt Monroe in the summer season, ascending from the west, from near where the Cog Railway begins:
In this map, I show my July 2019 hike in black, and part of the October 2017 route in red. That time, I came from the east, over Mt Washington, and then climbed Monroe. This time, I parked at the Ammonoosuc Ravine parking area, at around 10:30am, and walked east towards Monroe…
Walking up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail was pleasant, only a few bugs, but very humid. We had a rainy late spring, so there was plenty of mud, but not too bad. So I was sweaty almost from the beginning!
I walked up the ravine.
There were a couple of nice, small waterfalls along the way:
Around 12:15pm, I entered the alpine zone, and approached Lake of the Clouds hut, which had been closed for the season on my last ascent of Mt Monroe:
I stopped at the busy, crowded, joyful hut to have a quick lunch. Mt Monroe was very close, and visible, closer than I had recalled from two years before. But Mt Washington was in heavy cloud, as it had been thus far in my hike.
I left the hut at around 1:15pm, headed up Mt Monroe:
Before I knew it, I was at the top of Mt Monroe, and started down again.
From the hut, I took the Crawford Path, which is the Appalachian Trail here, with lots of company – the Lake of the Clouds Hut was full, and everybody wanted to get to the top of the highest mountain in the eastern United States. Sadly, at least most of the time, it was in the clouds…
But after getting most of the way up Mt Washington, walking with a group of young men in white short-sleeved shirts in the cold and windy afternoon, I diverged onto the Westside Trail, hiking north just underneath the summit of Mt Washington. There, I left the crowds behind.
I was in no hurry, so I stopped halfway along the Westside Trail, and sat for a while, all alone, on a gorgeous White Mountains day. It was a spectacular sight:
This was a very special place, full of a sense of well-being and peace. I hope you can get a feeling for how calming and peaceful it was by looking at this video. Unusually for me on these hikes, I stopped for quite a while just to watch the weather and the mountains around me, in the wonderful silence.
Continuing along to the north, soon I came to the Cog Railway. This being the 4th of July week, it was busy, so I was able to film a car going downward:
In the background you can see Mt Jefferson, which was the final 4000-footer I had climbed in June of 2018, just over a year before…
Crossing under the tracks, I came to a spot where I had a great view back towards Mt Jefferson and Mt Adams and Mt Madison. Looking the other way, I could see Mt Washington in the clouds:
I turned back towards the west here, onto the Jewell Trail, which was a pleasant and uneventful White-Mountains walk down to the parking area, where I arrived at about 5:15pm. It had been a wonderful climb.
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:
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…
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.
To skip the description of my ascent of Zealand Mountain, and go directly to five key insights related to conflict, click here.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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…
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!
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.
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!
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.
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:
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…
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.
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.
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:
Lebaron and Pillay, “Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences”, Nicholas Brealey; 1st edition (November 2, 2006);
Felstiner, Abel and Sarat, “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes: Naming, Blaming, Claiming…,” Law & Society Review, Volume 15, Number 3-4 (1980-81);
Nils Christie, “Conflicts As Property,” The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 17, Number 1 (January 1977);
Lewis Coser, “The Functions of Social Conflict“, Free Press (November 1, 1964);
Jean Paul Lederach, “The Moral Imagination: The Art And Soul Of Building Peace”, Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (August 26, 2010).
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:
(Note: I’ve updated this post in May 2020, after climbing South Twin once again. Now that I’ve completed ascending all 48 4000-footers, I’m going up a few again, in different seasons…)
During my six years at ChildFund Australia, the program approach that we developed early in my tenure meant that reducing vulnerability became one of our biggest priorities. This was new territory for us, with lots of learning and testing: what did reducing child vulnerability mean for ChildFund Australia? What kinds of vulnerability would we address? And where?
In this article I will focus on one aspect of vulnerability that we worked on: “disaster risk reduction” (DRR). And, in particular, I want to highlight our participation in the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which took place in March, 2015, in Sendai, Japan.
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.
To skip the description of my ascent of South Twin, and go directly to my discussion of Disaster Risk Reduction, click here.
The Climb – South Twin
Last time I described how our Granddaughter V and I had climbed North Twin Mountain on 2 September 2017. Since it was V’s first real mountain climb, we had agreed that we would decide about continuing to South Twin when we got to the top of North Twin.
We had arrived at the outlook near the top of North Twin at about 1:30pm and had lunch, getting to the top just after 2pm. V was enthusiastic about continuing, and she was certainly keeping up with me on the climb – no problems at all – so we decided to continue on towards the top of South Twin (4902ft, 1494m) – the 8th-highest 4000-footer, and my 41st on this round. It would be V’s second 4000-footer that day!
We took the North Twin Spur, leaving North Twin a bit after 2pm. We dropped down into a saddle between North and South Twin, and walked through pleasant forest for 1.3miles:
Here the top of South Twin is visible in the near distance, with a few people at the summit:
We arrived at the top of South Twin at 2:45pm, and spent some time there taking pictures. It was clear, and spectacular, not that many people. Probably the very best views of the White Mountains I’ve ever seen – towards the northeast and the Presidentials; to the south and Mt Bond and West Bond (Bondcliff was obscured by West Bond from this viewpoint) and Waterville Valley; over towards the west and Franconia Ridge and Garfield:
Here we turned around, leaving South Twin at around 3:15pm, heading back towards the trail-head. In this section, V developed a painful cramp in her knee, briefly, which she was able to shake off. So we kept going…
We arrived back at the top of North Twin about an hour after leaving South Twin:
And then we began the long walk back down North Twin trail, dropping down fairly steeply at first, then more gradually as we arrived at Little River. I filmed V crossing the river at about 6pm:
I had estimated that we’d be back at the trail-head, where the car was parked, by 6:30pm. It turned out to be 6:51pm by the time we got there – a long, 8-hour hike, around 11 miles total, but a spectacular day.
South Twin was number 41 for me, and V’s second 4000-footer in one day! She did a great job on her first 4000-footers.
Now I had only seven more to go.
I climbed South Twin (and Galehead Mountain) again, this time in the autumn season, a bit over three years later. For a short description of that second climb, with Eric this time, skipping my reflections on Disaster Risk Reduction, click here.
Disaster Risk Reduction
Very early in my time at ChildFund Australia, we developed a program approach founded upon a comprehensive “theory of change.” I’ve written about that earlier in this series.
The development of that program approach was done through a great process of reflection and collaboration. In the end, our experience, learning, and reflection led us to understand that people are poor because:
they are deprived of assets (human, capital, natural, and social);
they are excluded from their societies, and are invisible (voice and agency);
of power differentials in their families, communities, societies, and across nations.
And we understood that (4) children and youth are particularly vulnerable to risks in their environment, which can result in dramatic increases in poverty; they therefore require protection from physical and psycho-social threats, and sexual abuse, natural and human-caused emergencies, slow-onset disasters, civil conflict, etc.
Because we understood that these are the four causes of child poverty, we set ourselves the collective challenge of improving children’s futures by:
— building human, capital, natural and social assets around the child, including the caregiver;
— building the voice and agency, and
— power of poor people and poor children, while
— working to ensure that children and youth are protected from risks in their environments.
Risk reduction was also new, though we had some experience with child protection.
We had designed outcome indicators which we would use, through our Development Effectiveness Framework, to measure the impact of all our work, and giving a sense of our priorities. There was one outcome indicator that corresponded to risk reduction:
Indicator 11: % of communities with a disaster preparedness plan based on a survey of risks, including those related to adaptation to anticipated climate change, relevant to local conditions, known to the community, and consistent with national standards.
I liked this outcome indicator. It would enable us to reflect the results of our DRR work in a broad sense. It showed connectivity with efforts related to climate-change, and linked nicely with the work of others at country level. Along with other areas of child protection, disaster risk reduction would become a priority for us.
Here’s an illustration of why this made sense: this graph shows the dramatic increase in the number of people affected by natural disasters from 1900 through to 2011.
No organization working to create better futures for children, or even human beings, can afford to ignore the fact that vulnerability is increasing very quickly, and dramatically.
And it was becoming very apparent that the Australian government was quite keen on both responding to disaster response and tackling climate change. AusAID had already set up a pre-approval mechanism for emergency-response work, through which a designated group of NGOs could respond very quickly to emergencies; ChildFund Australia wasn’t in the group.
But it all meant that, if we developed capacity, and a strong record of working in DRR and emergency response, there might be opportunities for collaboration with the Australian government, including the possibility of funding …
Our ChildFund Alliance partners in the US, ChildFund International, had been doing some good emergency response work back when I was doing my “Bright-Futures”-related consulting work, around 2003, but their leadership that came onboard later had (mistakenly, in my view) wound up that effort soon after.
(For me the decision to exit emergency-response work was a mistake for several reasons. Firstly, they were already doing good work in that space, which was helping children in very difficult situations. It was an area with great potential for fundraising, because of the urgency involved as well as the priority being put on this work by donors, particularly government bi-lateral donors. And because raising funds in this space was less costly than other revenue sources, overheads could be used to support program development in other areas. Finally, as general child-poverty levels dropped, and our climate changed, child poverty began to be much more related to vulnerability, as we in Australia had determined in the design of our program approach.
ChildFund International – the US Member of the ChildFund Alliance, would later get back into the emergency-response business, and we would begin to structure a formal collaboration with them, and with our Canadian partners, in the humanitarian space. But we all lost time – for example, perhaps if ChildFund International had stayed engaged in emergency response, we in Australia might have qualified for AusAID’s pre-approval pool …)
And, likewise, there was little DRR-related work going on across the Alliance, and certainly we at ChildFund Australia had no significant track record in that area. So if we were to build up our expertise, we needed to start by bringing it in from outside.
Happily, at around that time Nigel Spence (the ChildFund Australia CEO) and I were in a meeting in Canberra, talking about these issues. A very senior AusAID leader told us that if we sent her an ambitious plan to help communities in southeast Asia prepare for disasters, at scale, it would be funded. Especially if it involved a consortium.
So I went back to Sydney and got to work. In short order I recruited two other preeminent Australian INGOs (Plan International Australia, and Save the Children Australia) and wrote up an extremely-ambitious proposal: we would reduce climate- and disaster-related risks in 1000 communities in five countries across Asia, reaching approximately 362,500 children and adults directly, and over 1.5m people indirectly. Among the expected outcomes of the project, we would also seek to empower children and youth:
— Children and youth will be recognised within communities as effective agents of positive change;
— Children and youth will have increased knowledge and understanding, and thus capacity, to anticipate, plan and react appropriately to short-term risks and longer-term threats and trends.
However, given that we had gotten such a strong green light from Canberra, Nigel and I agreed that we’d go ahead and recruit a DRR expert to help us finalize the proposal and begin to prepare for the work.
We had a good response to our recruitment outreach and, in the end, I was lucky to recruit Sanwar Ali from Oxfam Australia to be our first “Senior Advisor for ER and DRR.” Sanwar had long experience in emergency response across Asia and parts of Africa, and was also deeply experienced with DRR. At the same time, I felt the Sydney International Program Team could benefit from Sanwar’s background – he would round out the team on several dimensions...
Soon after Sanwar joined, AusAID let us know that their “green light” was actually just encouragement to include DRR work in our normal project portfolio, so there would be no ambitious funding for scaling-up across Asia!
That was very frustrating.
No matter. Our program approach had committed us to working to help protect children from disasters, and Sanwar would be key to that program development effort. It was just unfortunate that the funding for his position evaporated!
Soon Sanwar led the development of policies for Emergency Response and Disaster Risk Reduction, which we would incorporate into the ChildFund Australia Program Handbook.
The ER Policy was an expanded update to previous policy, but the DRR policy was new. Like all our program policies, this one was rather brief. Its introduction and policy statement were succinct:
The frequency with which disasters are occurring is increasing dramatically, in part because of human-induced climate change. This trend represents a threat to children, youth, and caregivers, and has the potential to undermine progress made in improving wellbeing and reducing poverty.
At the same time, however, thanks to efforts of local communities, national governments, the international community, and INGOs such as ChildFund, the human impact of these disasters has been reduced over time.
Reducing risks for children, youth, and caregivers is central to ChildFund’s program approach, because communities which are resilient to risks are best positioned to provide security and ensure continued wellbeing of vulnerable children.
This policy provides an organisational framework for action related to disaster risk reduction.
ChildFund Australia will work to ensure that disaster risk reduction (DRR) plans, known as Community Action Plans – CAPs) are in place in all communities where we work. These CAPs will be developed in a participatory manner, consistent with the Hyogo Framework for Action, and according to relevant guidelines in each country.
DRR efforts will be mainstreamed in our development, humanitarian and advocacy activities whenever appropriate.
The rest of the policy document outlined “Key Actions” required by ChildFund Australia staff at various levels and locations, and outlined how work in this area was connected to our organizational Outcome Indicators.
Sanwar and I worked together on two ChildFund Alliance-wide projects. I had proposed that the operational Members of the Alliance (which, initially, meant Australia, Canada, and the US, with Japan and Korea observing) work together in Emergency Response and DRR, partly because we would be able to show global reach that way. So we planned to develop a set of common policies and procedures through which we would respond to humanitarian disasters jointly.
I want to describe the other project that Sanwar and I worked on in a bit more detail: I led the ChildFund Alliance delegation to the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction that took place in Japan in March, 2015; a delegation from ChildFund had a big presence at that conference. And, the week before the UN Conference, I visited areas of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan that had been affected by the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear explosion that had devastated that area exactly four years before. My visit was part of JCC2015 (Japan CSO Coalition for 2015 WCDRR) conference, which concluded the day after the field visit with an important program of sessions.
I will bring in some content from blogs I published here in 2015, just after my trip to Japan…
The visit to Fukushima was unforgettable. The impact of the horrific events of four years ago was still very apparent, as was the strong and continuing resilience of the local people, even those who (at that point) remained in “temporary” camps.
A good summary of the events of the events of 2011, along with some lessons we should learn, is contained in the publication“Ten Lessons from Fukushima.” In brief, a massive (magnitude 9) earthquake, at 2:46pm on March 11, 2011, caused extensive damage across northern Japan, and triggered an enormous tsunami. This tsunami struck coastal zones of northern Japan an hour after the earthquake, destroying vast areas and killing many. The Fukushima “Dai-Ichi” (number one) nuclear plant, located on the coast, was severely damaged by the tsunami. The next day at 3:36pm, core meltdown and a massive explosion destroyed reactor unit 1. Other reactors subsequently failed.
It has been estimated that the equivalent of 168 Hiroshima nuclear bomb’s worth of radiation was released when Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor unit 1 exploded.
Evacuation orders were slow to come, partly due to the loss of communications facilities, but also due to startling management and leadership errors. Eventually, after suffering serious exposure to radiation, some 300,000 people were evacuated from areas inside a 30km radius around the reactor complex.
This map shows the 30km evacuation zone, and the radiation plume.
We would visit areas well within the red area during our trip.
Radiation drifted with the wind, falling onto land and people and animals, leaving extremely high levels of iodine, cesium, and other radioactive elements. Radioactivity fell across inhabited, farmed, and forested areas according to the wind direction at the time, and radioactive water was released into the sea – even four years later, when I visited, something like 600 tons of radioactive water were being released into the ocean each and every day. “Safe” levels of radiation were repeatedly raised.
Investigations found that the nuclear disaster was preventable; appropriate safety mechanisms – existing at the time – were not incorporated into the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactors when they were built.
Another good document covering the disaster and its aftermath was created by the Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy.
I had not realised that vast areas of Fukushima Prefecture were still closed due to extremely high radiation levels, and that the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor complex was dangerously unstable, and events could have spun out of control again at any time. Wreckage littered a vast area, and radiation in many of the places we visited was startlingly higher than what is considered to be safe, if “safe” levels even exist. Radiation contamination seriously impeded recovery efforts, as workers could not stay in the area for very long. (I was struck by the contrast with Hurricane Katrina where, even with the bungled response, cleanup was far more advanced four years after the storm than what we saw in Fukushima… The difference? The radiation.)
We visited Iitate village, a place where some of the highest levels of radiation were found just after the meltdown – it’s right near the center of the darkest plume in the map above. We visited Namie town, where we met with local officials who are doing their best to deal with the situation, spending their days in highly-contaminated areas. We visited tsunami-affected areas of Namie, where we could see vast areas of wreckage, damaged housing, vehicles crushed by the power of the waves.
And we drove to within 4km of the Fukushima Dai-Itchi plant. We finished the day by visiting a group of evacuees from Namie town, at that point still in “temporary” housing in Kohri town. Their courage and resilience was powerful and inspiring.
Radiation levels on our bus were high. This reading, taken during our lunch break, is 0.82 micro Sieverts per hour, which is considered “safe” for short-term visits only.
Throughout the area, thousands of one-ton bags of soil, wood, debris, etc., were piling up. Topsoil, down 20cm, from farms was being removed; areas 20m around houses were similarly being cleaned. I was told that these bags, nearly a million of them now, would be taken to gigantic incinerators for processing. Nineteen hugely-expensive incinerators were being built, each with a short lifetime of just two years. Meanwhile, the residual ash was being stored, “temporarily”, at the Fukushima plant.
Radiation “hotspots” remained, however.
The catastrophe took place four years before our visit. The situation when we were there is described in the “Fukushima Lessons” publication noted above, and in a recent article in The Economist. There were still over 120,000 “nuclear refugees” who could not return to their communities, their homes, the areas we visited. They probably never will, despite financial incentives being offered, because levels of contamination were still so high.
We met with a group of displaced people, from Namie town, now living in Kohri town in “temporary” housing far from their homes, to which they will never return. They lived virtually on top of each other, able to hear the softest sounds from their neighbours (such as snoring!) – quite a change from Namie, where their ancestral homes and farms were.
We were lucky to be presented with a narrative, using a hand-made storyboard, of their experience in the days after the tragedy. It was a powerful and moving description of their suffering; and in the telling of the story, of their resilience and spirit.
Discussing Fukushima was sensitive in Japan. I found it interesting, the next week at the WCDRR Conference in Sendai, that the many references to the Fukushima disaster refer to it as the “Great East Japan Earthquake” or “Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami” disaster. No reference to the horrific and ongoing events at the nuclear power plant, which were somehow not relevant, or too sensitive to mention.
Some final reflections:
— Several times during the day in Fukushima, we heard local people use a striking visual metaphor: “nuclear power is like a house without a toilet.” Until there is a safe and permanent place for nuclear waste, we should not be using this source of power;
— In our increasingly-unstable world, the use of a technology with such potential for devastation and tragedy – Fukushima, Chernobyl – seems foolish. The precautionary principle should be followed;
— Let’s try to remember that the impact of these mega-disasters still persists. Four years after the disaster, there were 120,000 people still displaced, even in Japan, such a rich country. And cleanup and stabilization in Chernobyl, even more than 30 years later, is still far from finished.
Ultimately, I took a sense of inspiration from the stories of the people affected, of those who responded and who are responding still, and those who are living lives of advocacy to ensure that the injustices that took place in Fukushima are corrected, and not repeated.
Reflecting on what we saw, those (government, TEPCO, etc.) who were saying that the area had recovered, or was on the road to recovery, were either not seeing what we saw, or not telling the truth.
I want to share links to two articles from The Guardian, describing the situation in 2017, two years after my visit to Fukushima: this article describes how radiation levels inside the collapsed reactor had risen to “extraordinary” levels, unexpectedly; and this article provides a lengthy update of what are described as “faltering” cleanup efforts. They make for depressing reading.
I want to share content from a summary article I published in DevEx soon after the conference ended:
After several sleepless nights of negotiations, representatives from 187 governments agreed theSendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. As one of more than 6,500 participants in the Sendai conference, I can attest to the exhausted sense of relief that many of us felt when the framework was finally announced.
The framework that emerged contains seven global targets — nonbinding and with funding left unspecified — focused on reducing disaster risk and loss of lives and livelihoods from disasters.
Sendai was a monumental effort, involving government representatives, senior-most leaders of the United Nations and several of its specialized agencies, staff from hundreds of civil society organizations and private sector businesses, and the media, with venues scattered across the city. The urgent need for international action to reduce disaster risks was thrown into stark relief when Cyclone Pam — one of the most intense storms ever to occur in the Pacific — tore across Vanuatu just as the conference began.
Why does what happened in Sendai matter? Because hazards — both man-made and natural — are growing, as our climate changes and growing inequality contributes to a sense of injustice in many populations. Doing nothing to prepare for these increased risks is not a viable option for our future.
Also, Sendai matters because the conference was the first of four crucial U.N. gatherings this year. What happened in Sendai will influence the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, coming in Ethiopia in July; the post-2015 sustainable development goals that will be discussed at the global U.N. summit in September; and the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.
ChildFund’s delegation, part of the “Children in a Changing Climate” coalition, had several objectives in Sendai. In particular, we worked to make the case that children and young people should be seen as agents of change in any new DRR framework.
Children and young people are normally seen as helpless, passive victims of disasters. During and after emergencies, the mainstream media, even many organizations in our own international NGO sector, portray children and young people as needing protection and rescue. Of course, children and young people do need protection. When disasters strike they need rescue and care. But what such images fail to show is that children also have the capacity — and the right — to participate, not only in preparing for disasters but in the recovery process.
Since the last U.N. agreement on DRR, in 2005, we have learned that children and young people must be actively engaged so that they understand the risks of disasters in their communities and can play a role in reducing those risks. Children’s participation in matters that concern them is their right — enshrined in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child — and strengthens their resilience and self-esteem.
And, crucially, we know that young people’s participation in DRR activities leads to better preparation within families and in communities.
The example we used to make our case came from ChildFund in the Philippines. In 2011, with support from local government and the Australian government, ChildFund worked with several youth groups to help them prepare for disasters, and to help them help their communities prepare. We engaged young people in Iloilo and Zamboanga del Norte provinces to identify hazards, to develop local DRR and disaster risk management plans, to train children and young people in disaster risk management, and to raise awareness of DRR in eight communities.
Little did we know that, just 18 months after the project concluded, this effort would really pay off. Many of us remember vividly the images of Typhoon Haiyan barreling across the Philippines in November 2013, just north of where our project was carried out. As local and national government in the Philippines began to respond to the typhoon, with massive support from the international community, we could see that the efforts of children and young people we had worked with were proving to be important elements in managing the impact of the storm.
Advocacy of children and young people during the project had led to the local government investing more in preparedness and mitigation, which was crucial as the storm hit. Young people trained in the project trained other groups of parents and youths, building the capacity of people who were affected by, and responded to, Haiyan. Local government units mobilized disaster risk reduction committees, including youth members, who were involved in evacuation of families living in high-risk areas. Youth volunteers helped prepare emergency supplies and facilitated sessions for children in child-centered spaces that were set up after the typhoon passed.
This experience led ChildFund to strongly support elements of the Sendai Framework that recognize the importance of the meaningful participation of children and youth in DRR activities. We are happy to see the text calling for governments to engage with children and youth and to promote their leadership, and recognizing children and young people as agents of change who should be given the space and modalities to contribute to disaster risk reduction.
But two major weaknesses can be seen in the Sendai Framework: Its targets are not binding and are not quantified; and no global commitments to funding DRR actions were made. Many observers feel that governments were keen to establish (or not establish!) precedents at Sendai that would bind them (or not bind them!) in the high-stakes conferences to come. These weaknesses are serious, and greatly undercut the urgency of our task and likely effectiveness of our response.
Still, on balance, the Sendai Framework is good for children and youth, certainly better than failure to agree would have been. Let’s hope for even stronger action in Addis Ababa, New York and Paris, with binding targets and clear financial commitments.
Then our children, and grandchildren, will look back at Sendai as a milestone in building a better, fairer and safer world.
After the success of Sendai, Felipe Cala (then working with the ChildFund Alliance secretariat) and I took a couple of days to visit Kyoto, a marvelous place full of culture and beautiful scenery. And we enjoyed the modern “bullet” trains, that made our countries look so backward.
Second Climb, Second Season
I climbed South Twin Mountain again, and Galehead, on 24 October 2019, with Eric. I was in my second round of climbing all the 4000-footers – this time in different seasons and, when possible, on different trails. So whereas I had climbed South Twin with V in the summer of 2017 (shown in the blue dotted line below), this time we would be going up in the fall.
This day’s hike is shown in black. Eric and I had left the Gale River Trailhead at around 10:20am, reaching the top of Galehead Mountain at 2pm. Dropping down to the Galehead Hut, we decided to go up to South Twin…
We climbed steeply up along the Twinway, heading nearly straight east. The wind began to blow very strongly, and the temperature dropped. At 3:15pm, I looking back at Mt Garfield:
Note the bit of snow on the left side of the trail! Fifteen minutes later we were at the top, with a great view west towards Franconia:
A spectacular video of the view from the summit of South Twin:
It was nearly 4pm when we left the top of South Twin, and it was getting late. So we dropped down at a good pace, retracing our steps to Galehead Hut, and then back down Gale River Trail to the trailhead:
This would be my final White Mountains climb in 2019, but definitely NOT my last ascent that year: just a month later I would attempt to reach Everest Base Camp in Nepal, with four great friends. That epic is described in 8 posts: see them here:
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:
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!
To skip the description of my ascent of West Bond, and go directly to my description of impact assessment in ChildFund Australia’s DEF, click here.
The Climb – West Bond
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:
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.
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:
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.
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!:
Here is a view from near the saddle between Mt Bond and Bondcliff, looking up at the latter:
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:
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:
Scratches from walking poles?
It was around 5:30 when I got to the intersection with Franconia Notch Trail, which is the path up Owl’s Head.
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!
It turns out that I lost the nails on both big toes after this long hike, even though my boots were very well broken in. This put a bit of a damper on later hikes, but I persevered…
Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness Framework
Here is the diagram I’ve been using to describe the ChildFund Australia DEF:
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:
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)?
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:
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:
There had been a significant, measured, positive change in a ChildFund Australia Outcome Indicator; and
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!
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:
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.
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.
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:
Here are images of the workshop. First, I’m opening the session:
Lots of group discussion:
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:
Here participants are discussing results, and attribution to different organizations that had worked in Svay Rieng District over the three years:
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:
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:
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:
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):
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.
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.
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:
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:
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”:
ChildFund had a major responsibility for the improvement in access to hygienic toilets in the district:
ChildFund made a significant contribution to the increase in access to improved, affordable water in the district:
ChildFund had made a major contribution to large increases in the percentage of children and youth who reported having opportunities to voice their opinions:
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:
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!
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.
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).
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:
Alongside descriptions of those climbs, I’ve been sharing what it was like working in international development during the MDG era: as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
In each article, I am writing about climbing each of those mountains and, each time, I reflect a bit on the journey since I began to work in social justice, nearly 34 years ago: on development, human rights, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
So, when I wrap things up in this series, there should be 48 articles…
Once the program approach was in place, as a strong foundation, we moved forward to build a structured approach to development effectiveness. I am very proud of what we achieved: the resulting ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” (“DEF”) was, I think, state-of-the-art for international NGOs at the time. Certainly few (if any) other INGOs in Australia had such a comprehensive, practical, useful system for ensuring the accountability and improvement of their work.
Since the DEF was so significant, I’m going to write three articles about it:
In this article I will describe the DEF – its components, some examples of products generated by the DEF, and how each part of the system worked with the other parts. I will also share results of external evaluations that we commissioned on the DEF itself;
Next time, I will highlight one particular component of the DEF, the qualitative “Case Studies” of the lived experience of human change. I was especially excited to see these Case Studies when they started arriving in Sydney from the field, so I want to take a deep dive into what these important documents looked like, and how we attempted to use them;
Finally, I will the last two DEF components that came online (Outcome Indicator Surveys and Statements of Impact), the culmination of the system, where we assessed the impact of our work.
So there will be, in total, three articles focused on the DEF. This is fitting, because I climbed three mountains on one day in August of 2017…
To skip the description of my ascent of Bondcliff, and go directly to my introduction of our DEF, click here.
The Climb – Bondcliff
On 10 August, 2017, I climbed three 4000-footers in one day: Bondcliff (4265ft, 1300m), Mt Bond (4698ft, 1432m), and West Bond (4540ft, 1384m). This was a very long, very tough day, covering 22 miles and climbing three mountains in one go. At the end of the hike, I felt like I was going to lose the toenails on both big toes… and, in fact, that’s what happened. As a result, for the rest of the season I would be unable to hike in boots and had to use hiking shoes instead!
Knowing that the day would be challenging, I drove up from Durham the afternoon before and camped, so I could get the earliest start possible the next morning. I got a spot at Hancock Campground, right near the trailhead where I would start the climb:
The East Branch of the Pemigewassit River runs alongside this campground, and I spent a pleasant late afternoon reading a book by Jean Paul Lederach there, and when it was dark I crawled into my sleeping bag and got a good night’s sleep.
Here is a map of the long ascent that awaited me the next morning, getting to the top of Bondcliff:
After Bondcliff, the plan was that I would continue on to climb Mt Bond and West Bond, and to then return to Lincoln Woods… more on that in the next two articles in this series. In this one I will describe climbing the first 4000-footer of that day, Bondcliff.
I got an early start on 10 August, packing up my tent-site and arriving at the trailhead at Lincoln Woods at about 6:30am:
It was just two weeks earlier that I had parked here to climb Owl’s Head, which I had enjoyed a lot. This time, I would begin the same way – walking up the old, abandoned forestry railway for about 2.6 miles on Lincoln Woods Trail, to where I had turned left up the Franconia Brook Trail towards Owl’s Head. I arrived at that junction at about 7:30am:
This time I would continue straight at that intersection, continuing onto the Wilderness Trail, which winds through forest for a short distance, before opening out again along another old logging railway, complete with abandoned hardware along the way, discarded over 130 years ago:
At the former (and now abandoned) Camp 16 (around 4.4 miles from the parking lot at Lincoln Woods), I took a sharp left and joined a more normal trail – no more old railway. I began to ascend moderately, going up alongside Black Brook: now I was on the Bondcliff Trail.
I crossed Black Brook twice on the way up after leaving the Wilderness Trail, and then crossed two dry beds of rock, which were either rock slides or upper reaches of Black Brook that were dry that day.
It’s a long climb up Black Brook; after the second dry crossing, Bondcliff Trail takes a sharp left turn and continues ascending steadily. Just before reaching the alpine area, and the summit of Bondcliff, there is a short steep section, where I had to scramble up some bigger boulders. Slow going…
But then came the reward: spectacular views to the west, across Owl’s Head to Franconia Ridge, up to Mt Garfield, and over to West Bond and Mt Bond. Here Mt Lincoln and Mt Lafayette are on the left, above Owl’s Head, with Mt Garfield to the right:
Here is a view looking to the southwest from the top of Bondcliff:
And this is the view towards Mt Bond, looking up from the top of Bondcliff:
I got to the top of Bondcliff at about 10:30am, just about four hours from the start of the hike. Feeling good … at this point! Here is a spectacular view back down towards Bondcliff, taken later in the day, from the top of West Bond:
I would soon continue the climb, with a short hop from Bondcliff up to the top of Mt Bond. Stay tuned!
ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness Framework (DEF)
Last time I wrote about how we built the foundations for ChildFund Australia’s new program approach: a comprehensive and robust “Theory of Change” that described what we were going to accomplish at a high level, and why; a small number of reliable, measurable, and meaningful “Outcome Indicators” that would enable us to demonstrate the impact of our work as related explicitly to our Outcome Indicators; and a set of “Output Indicators” that would allow us to track our activities in a consistent and comparable manner, across our work across all our programs: in Cambodia, Laos, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam. (Myanmar was a slightly different story, as I will explain later…)
Next, on that foundation, we needed a way of thinking holistically about the effectiveness of our development work: a framework for planning our work in each location, each year; for tracking whether we were doing what we had planned; for understanding how well we were performing; and improving the quality and impact of our work. And doing all this in partnership with local communities, organizations, and governments.
This meant being able to answer five basic questions:
In light of our organizational Theory of Change, what are we going to do in each location, each year?
how will we know that we are doing what we planned to do?
how will we know that our work makes a difference and gets results consistent with our Theory of Change?;
how will we learn from our experience, to improve the way we work?;
how can community members and local partners directly participate in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of the development projects that ChildFund Australia supports?
Looking back, I feel that what we built and implemented to answer those questions – the ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” (“DEF”) – was our agency’s most important system. Because what could be more important than the answers to those five questions?
I mentioned last time that twice, during my career with Plan International, we had tried to produce such a system, and failed (at great expense). We had fallen into several traps that I was determined to avoid repeating this time, in ChildFund Australia, as we developed and implemented the DEF:
We would build a system that could be used by our teams with the informed participation of local partners and staff, practically – that was “good enough” for its purpose, instead of a system that had to be managed by experts, as we had done in Plan;
We would include both quantitative and qualitative information, serving the needs of head and heart, instead of building a wholly-quantitative system for scientific or academic purposes, as we had done in Plan;
We would not let “the best be the enemy of the good,” and I would make sure that we moved to rapidly prototype, implement, and improve the system instead of tinkering endlessly, as we had done in Plan.
Here is a graphic that Caroline Pinney helped me create, which I used very frequently to explain how the DEF was designed, functioned, and performed:
In this article, I will describe each component of the DEF, outlining how each relates to each other and to the five questions outlined above.
However, I’m going to reserve discussion of three of those components for my next two articles:
Next time, I will cover #3 in Figure 1, the “Case Studies” that we produced. These documents helped us broaden our focus from the purely quantitative to include consideration of the lived experience of people touched by the programs supported by ChildFund Australia. In the same way, the Case Studies served as valuable tools for our staff, management, and board to retain a human connection to the spirit that motivated us to dedicate our careers to social justice;
And, after that, I will devote an article to our “Outcome Indicator Surveys” (#2 in Figure 1, above) and Statements of Impact (#12 in Figure 1). The approach we took to demonstrating impact was innovative and very participatory, and successful. So I want to go into a bit of depth describing the two DEF components involved.
Note: I prepared most of what follows. But I have included and adapted some descriptive material produced by the two DEF Managers that worked in the International Program Team: Richard Geeves and Rouena Getigan. Many thanks to them!
The DEF was based on two fundamental statements of organizational identity. As such, it was built to focus us on, and enable us to be accountable for, what we were telling the world we were:
On the bottom left of the DEF schematic (Figure 1, above) we reference the basic documents describing ChildFund’s identity: our Vision, Mission, Strategic Plan, Program Approach, and Policies – all agreed and approved by our CEO (Nigel Spence) and Board of Directors. The idea was that the logic underlying our approach to Development Effectiveness would therefore be grounded in our basic purpose as an organization, overall. I was determined that the DEF would serve to bring us together around that purpose, because I had seen Plan tend to atomize, with each field location working towards rather different aims. Sadly, Plan’s diversity seemed to be far greater than required if it were simply responding to the different conditions we worked in. For example, two Field Offices within 20 km of each other in the same country might have very different programs. This excessive diversity seemed to relate more to the personal preferences of Field Office leadership than to any difference in the conditions of child poverty or the local context. The DEF would help ChildFund Australia cohere, because our starting point was our organizational identity;
But each field location did need a degree flexibility to respond to their reality, within ChildFund’s global identity, so at the bottom of the diagram we placed the Country Strategy Paper (“CSP”), quite centrally. This meant that, in addition to building on ChildFund Australia’s overall purpose and identity globally, we would also build our approach to Development Effectiveness on how we chose to advance that basic purpose in each particular country where we worked, with that country’s particular characteristics.
Country Strategy Paper
The purpose and outline of the CSP was included in the ChildFund Australia Program Handbook:
To clarify, define, communicate and share the role, purpose and structure of ChildFund in-country – our approach, operations and focus. The CSP aims to build a unity of purpose and contribute to the effectiveness of our organisation.
When we develop the CSP we are making choices, about how we will work and what we will focus on as an organisation. We will be accountable for the commitments we make in the CSP – to communities, partners, donors and to ourselves.
While each CSP will be different and reflect the work and priorities of the country program, each CSP will use the same format and will be consistent with ChildFund Australia’s recent program development work.
During the development of the CSP it is important that we reflect on the purpose of the document. It should be a useful and practical resource that can inform our development work. It should be equally relevant to both our internal and external stakeholders. The CSP should be clear, concise and accessible while maintaining a strategic perspective. It should reflect clear thinking and communicate our work and our mission. It should reflect the voice of children. Our annual work plans and budgets will be drawn from the CSP and we will use it to reflect on and review our performance over the three year period.
Implementation of the DEF flowed from each country’s CSP.
More details are found in Chapter 5 of the Program Handbook, available here: Program Handbook – 3.3 DRAFT. Two examples of actual ChildFund Australia Country Strategy Papers from my time with the organization are attached here:
For me, these are clear, concise documents that demonstrate coherence with ChildFund’s overall purpose along with choices driven by the situation in each country.
Beginning from the Country Strategy Paper, the DEF branches in two inter-related (in fact, nested) streams, covering programs (on the left side) and projects (on the right side). Of course, projects form part of programs, consistent with our program framework:
But it was difficult to depict this embedding on the two dimensions of a graphic! So Figure 1 showed programs on one side and projects on the other.
Taking the “program” (left) side first:
Moving onto the left side of Figure 1, derived from the Country Strategy Paper, and summarized in the CSP, each Country Office defined a handful (some countries had 3, others ended up with 5) “Program Descriptions” (noted as #1 in Figure 1), each one describing how particular sets of projects would create impact, together, as measured using ChildFund Australia’s Outcome Indicators – in other words, a “Theory of Change,” detailing how the projects included in the program linked together to create particular positive change.
The purpose and outline of the Program Description was included in the ChildFund Australia Program Handbook:
ChildFund Australia programs are documented and approved through the use of “Program Descriptions”. All Program Descriptions must be submitted by the Country Director for review and approval by the Sydney International Program Director, via the International Program Coordinator.
For ChildFund Australia: a “program” is an integrated set of projects that, together, have direct or indirect impact on one or more of our agreed organisational outcome indicators. Programs normally span several geographical areas, but do not need to be implemented in all locations; this will depend on the geographical context. Programs are integrated and holistic. They are designed to achieve outcomes related to ChildFund Australia’s mission, over longer periods, while projects are meant to produce outputs over shorter timeframes.
Program Descriptions were summarized in the CSP, contained a listing of the types of projects (#5 in Figure 1) that would be implemented, and were reviewed every 3 or 4 years (Program Review, #4 in Figure 1).
To write a Program Description, ChildFund staff (usually program managers in a particular Country Office) were expected to review our program implementation to-date, carry out extensive situational analyses of government policies, plans and activities in the sector and of communities’ needs in terms of assets, aspirations and ability to work productively with local government officials responsible for service provision. The results of ChildFund’s own Outcome Indicator surveys and community engagement events obviously provided very useful evidence in this regard.
Staff then proposed a general approach for responding to the situation and specific strategies which could be delivered through a set of projects. They would also show that the approach and strategies proposed are consistent with evidence from good practice both globally and in-country, demonstrated that their choices were evidence-based.
Producing good, high-quality Program Descriptions was a surprising challenge for us, and I’m not sure we ever really got this component of the DEF right. Probably the reason that we struggled was that these documents were rather abstract, and our staff weren’t used to operating at this level of abstraction.
Most of the initial draft Program Descriptions were quite superficial, and were approved only as place-holders. Once we started to carry out “Program Reviews” (see below), however, where more rigor was meant to be injected into the documents, we struggled. It was a positive, productive struggle, but a struggle nonetheless!
We persisted, however, because I strongly believed that our teams should be able to articulate why they were doing what they were doing, and the Program Descriptions were the basic tool for that exact explanation. So we perservered, hoping that the effort would result in better programs, more sophisticated and holistic work, and more impact on children living in poverty.
For the same reasons outlined above, in my discussion of the “Program Descriptions” component of the DEF, we also struggled with the “Program Review” (#4 in Figure 1, above). In these workshops, our teams would consider an approved “Program Description” (#1 in Figure 1) every three or four years, subjecting the document to a formal process of peer review.
ChildFund staff from other countries visited the host country to participate in the review process and then wrote a report making recommendations for how the Program under review might be improved. The host country accepted (or debated and adjusted) the recommendations, acted on them and applied them to a revision of the Program Description: improving it, tightening up the logic, incorporating lessons learned from implementation, etc.
Program Reviews were therefore fundamentally about learning and improvement, so we made sure that, in addition to peers from other countries, the host Country Office invited in-country partners and relevant experts. And International Program Coordinators from Sydney were asked to always attend Program Reviews in the countries that they were supporting, again for learning and improvement purposes.
The Program Reviews that I attended were useful and constructive, but I certainly sensed a degree of frustration. In addition to struggling with the relatively-high levels of abstraction required, our teams were not used to having outsiders (even their peers other ChildFund offices) critique their efforts. So, overall, this was a good and very-important component of the DEF, designed correctly, but it needed more time for our teams to learn how to manage this process and to be open to such a public process of review.
Projects and Quarterly Reports
As shown on the right hand side of Figure 1, ChildFund’s field staff and partners carried out routine monitoring of projects (#6 in the Figure) to ensure that they were on track, and on which they based their reporting on activities and outputs. Project staff summarized their monitoring through formal Quarterly Reports (#7) on each project documenting progress against project plans, budgets, and targets to ensure projects are well managed. These Quarterly Reports were reviewed in each Country Office and most were also forwarded to ChildFund’s head office in Sydney (and, often, donors) for review.
When I arrived, ChildFund Australia’s Quarterly reporting was well-developed and of high quality, so I didn’t need to focus on this aspect of our work. We simply incorporated it into the more-comprehensive DEF.
Quarterly Output Tracking
As described last time, ChildFund developed and defined a set of Outputs which became standard across the organization in FY 2011-12. Outputs in each project were coded and tracked from Quarter to Quarter by project. Some of the organizational outputs were specific to a sector such as education, health and water sanitation or a particular target group such as children, youth or adults. Other Outputs were generic and might be found in any project, for example, training or awareness raising, materials production and consultation.
Organizational Outputs were summarized for all projects in each country each Quarter and country totals were aggregated in Sydney for submission to our Board of Directors (#8 in Figure 1, above). In March 2014 there were a total of 47 organizational Outputs – they were listed in my last article in this series.
One purpose of this tracking was to enhance our accountability, so a summary was reviewed every Quarter in Sydney by the International Program Team and our Program Review Committee.
Here is an example of how we tracked outputs: this is a section of a Quarterly Report produced by the International Program Team for our Board and Program Review Committee: Output Report – Q4FY15.
ChildFund also conducted reviews or evaluations of all projects (#9 in Figure 1, above) – in different ways. External evaluators were employed under detailed terms of reference to evaluate multi-year projects with more substantial budgets or which were significant for learning or to a particular donor. Smaller projects were generally evaluated internally. All evaluators were expected to gather evidence of results against output targets and performance indicators written against objectives.
All development effectiveness systems have, at their heart, mechanisms for translating operational experiences into learning and program improvement. In the representation of ChildFund’s DEF in Figure 1, this was represented by the central circle in the schematic which feeds back evidence from a variety of sources into our organizational and Country Strategy Papers, Program Descriptions and project planning and design.
Our program staff found that their most effective learning often occurred during routine monitoring through observation of project activities and conversations in communities with development partners. Through thoughtful questioning and attentive listening, staff could make the immediate decisions and quick adjustments which kept project activities relevant and efficient.
Staff also had more formal opportunities to document and reflect on learning. The tracking of outputs and aggregation each Quarter drew attention to progress and sometimes signaled the need to vary plans or redirect resources.
Project evaluations (#9 in Figure 1, above) provided major opportunities for learning, especially when external evaluators bring their different experiences to bear and offer fresh perspectives on a ChildFund project.
The reader can easily grasp that, for me, the DEF was a great success, a significant asset for ChildFund Australia that enabled us to be more accountable and effective. Some more-technically-focused agencies were busy carrying out sophisticated impact evaluations, using control groups and so forth, but that kind of effort didn’t suit the vast majority of INGOs. We could benefit from the learnings that came from those scientific evaluations, but we didn’t have the resources to introduce such methodologies ourselves. And so, though not perfect, I am not aware of any comparable organization that succeeded as we did with our DEF.
While the system built on what I had learned over nearly 30 years, and even though I felt that it was designed comprehensively and working very well, that was merely my opinion!
Given the importance of the system, relying on my opinion (no matter how sound!) wasn’t good enough. So we sought expert review, commissioning two independent, expert external reviews of the DEF.
The first review, which was concluded in November of 2012, took place before we had fully implemented the system. In particular, since Outcome Indicator Surveys and Statements of Impact (to be covered in an upcoming blog article) were implemented only after three years (and every three years thereafter), we had not yet reached that stage. But we certainly were quite advance in the implementation of most of the DEF, so it was a good time to reflect on how it was going.
In that light, this first external review of the DEF concluded the following:
The development of the DEF places ChildFund Australia in a sound position within the sector in the area of development effectiveness. The particular strength of ChildFund Australia’s framework is that it binds the whole organisation to a set of common indicators and outputs. This provides a basis for focussing the organisation’s efforts and ensuring that programming is strategically aligned to common objectives. The other particular strength that ChildFund Australia’s framework offers is that it provides a basis for aggregating its achievements across programs, thereby strengthening the organisation’s overall claims of effectiveness.
Within ChildFund Australia, there is strong support for the DEF and broad agreement among key DEF stakeholders and users that the DEF unites the agency on a performance agenda. This is in large part due to dedicated resources having been invested and the development of a data collection system has been integrated into the project management system (budgeting and planning, and reporting), thereby making DEF a living and breathing function throughout the organisation. Importantly, the definition of outcomes and outputs indicators provides clarity of expectations across ChildFund Australia.
One of the strengths of the DEF recognised by in-country staff particularly is that the DEF provides a basis for stakeholders to share their perspectives. Stakeholders are involved in identifying benefits and their perspectives are heard through case studies. This has already provided a rich source of information that has prompted reflection by in-country teams, the Sydney based programs team and the ChildFund Australia Board.
Significantly, the DEF signals a focus on effectiveness to donors and the sector. One of the benefits already felt by ChildFund Australia is that it is able to refer to its effectiveness framework in funding submissions and in communication with its major donors who have an increasing interest on performance information.
Overall, the review found that the pilot of the DEF has been implemented well, with lots of consultation and engagement with country offices, and lots of opportunity for refinement. Its features are strong, enabling ChildFund to both measure how much it is doing, and the changes that are experienced by communities over time. The first phase of the DEF has focused on integrating effectiveness measurement mechanisms within program management and broader work practices, while the second phase of the DEF will look at the analysis, reflection and learning aspects of effectiveness. This second phase is likely to assist various stakeholders involved in collecting effectiveness information better understand and appreciate the linkages between their work and broader organisational learning and development. This is an important second phase and will require ongoing investment to maximise the potential of the DEF. It place ChildFund Australia in a strong position within the Australian NGO sector to engage in the discourse around development effectiveness and demonstrate its achievements.
In early 2015 we carried out a second review. This time, we had implemented the entire DEF, carrying out (for example) Statement of Impact workshops in several locations. The whole system was now working.
At that point, we were very confident in the DEF – from our point of view, all components were working well, producing good and reliable information that was being used to improve our development work. Our board, program-review committee, and donors were all enthusiastic. More importantly, local staff and communities were positive.
The only major concern that remained related to the methodology we used in the Outcome Indicator Surveys. I will examine this issue in more detail in an upcoming blog article in this series; but the reader will notice that this second formal, external evaluation focuses very much on the use of the LQAS methodology in gathering information for our Outcome Indicator workshops and Statements of Impact.
That’s why the external evaluator we engaged to carry out this second review was an expert in survey methodologies (in general) and in the LQAS (in particular.)
In that light, this second external review of the DEF concluded the following:
ChildFund Australia is to be commended for its commitment to implementing a comprehensive and rigorous monitoring and evaluation framework with learning at its centre to support and demonstrate development effectiveness. Over the past five years, DEL managers in Cambodia, Laos, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, with support and assistance from ChildFund Australia, country directors and program managers and staff, have worked hard to pilot, refine and embed the DEF in the broader country programs. Implementing the DEF, in particular the Outcome Indicator Survey using LQAS, has presented several challenges. With time, many of the early issues have been resolved, tools improved and guidelines developed. Nevertheless, a few issues remain that must be addressed if the potential benefits are to be fully realised at the organisational, country and program levels.
Overall, the DEF is well suited for supporting long-term development activities in a defined geographic area. The methodologies, scope and tools employed to facilitate Outcome Indicator Surveys and to conduct Community Engagement and Attribution of Impact processes are mostly fit for purpose, although there is considerable room for improvement. Not all of the outcome indicators lend themselves to assessment via survey; those that are difficult to conceptualise and measure being most problematic. For some indicators in some places, a ceiling effect is apparent limiting their value for repeated assessment. While outcome indicators may be broadly similar across countries, both the indicators and the targets with which they are to be compared should be locally meaningful if the survey results are to be useful—and used—locally.
Used properly, LQAS is an effective and relatively inexpensive probability sampling method. Areas for improvement in its application by ChildFund include definition of the lots, identification of the sampling frame, sample selection, data analysis and interpretation, and setting targets for repeated surveys.
Community Engagement and the Attribution of Impact processes have clearly engaged the community and local stakeholders. Experience to date suggests that they can be streamlined to some extent, reducing the burden on staff as well as communities. These events are an important opportunity to bring local stakeholders together to discuss local development needs and set future directions and priorities. Their major weakness lies in the quality of the survey results that are presented for discussion, and their interpretation. This, in turn, affects the value of the Statement of Impact and other documents that are produced.
The DEF participatory processes have undoubtedly contributed to the empowerment of community members involved. Reporting survey results in an appropriate format, together with other relevant data, in a range of inviting and succinct documents that will meet the needs of program staff and partners is likely to increase their influence.
Great credit is due to ChildFund staff that contributed to the conceptualization, development, and implementation of the DEF. In particular, Richard Geeves and Rouena Getigan in the International Program Team in Sydney worked very hard to translate my sometimes overly-ambitious concepts into practical guidelines, and ably supported our Country Offices.
One of the keys to the success of the DEF was that we budgeted for dedicated in-country support, with each Country Office able to hire a DEL Manager (two in Viet Nam, given the scale of our program there.)
Many thanks to Solin in Cambodia, Marieke in Laos, Joe in Papua New Guinea, and Thuy and Dung in Viet Nam: they worked very hard to make the DEF function in their complex realities. I admire how that made it work so well.
In this article, I’ve outlined how ChildFund Australia designed a comprehensive and very robust Development Effectiveness System. Stay tuned next time, when I describe climbing Mt Bond, and then go into much more depth on one particular component (the Case Studies, #3 in Figure 1, above).
After that, in the following article, I plan to cover reaching the top of West Bond and descending back across Mt Bond and Bondcliff (and losing toenails on both big toes!) and go into some depth to describe how we carried out Outcome Indicator Surveys (#2 in Figure 1) and Statements of Impact (#12) – in many ways, the culmination of the DEF.
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:
— Working in international development during the MDG era: what it was like in the sector as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
So far, I’ve described climbing 30 of those 48 mountains in New Hampshire, and I’ve moved across time, from the beginning as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador (1984), through to serving as Executive Director for UUSC Just Democracy (into mid-2009).
Last time I described a failed merger between three large international NGOs. Across the MDG era there was a constant theme, in senior management strategy sessions and board rooms, of consolidation: surely, we thought, the sector would go through a period of mergers and acquisitions like what we were seeing in the for-profit world. We imagined that, at the end of this process, that there would be many fewer, larger generalist INGOs, and a range of smaller, specialized agencies. Seemed inevitable.
That consolidation hasn’t really happened, even now, but we had tried one: I had led the due diligence effort from Plan International’s perspective in mid-1997, helping formulate a strong case that Plan International, Plan USA, and Save the Children USA could achieve much more if they combined forces. The process ended, as I described, because of glitches in the relationship between two CEOs and their boards. And because, in one case, the agency’s board saw their own roles being diluted should the merger go forward.
A real pity, because the combination of these three agencies back in 1997 would have really created very strong programmatic and funding synergies. And it would have jump-started a necessary and positive consolidation in our sector…
In this article, I want to reflect about how to build a great INGO program: to misquote Haruki Murakami: what we think about, when we think about a great program.
In early 2009, my work as Executive Director at UUSC Just Democracy was in transition, partly because of our success. Our political work in New Hampshire had contributed (in a small way) to the success of several progressive candidates in the 2008 federal election, and our donors were starting to relax. (Which is pretty sad because, as we all know now, the great results of 2008 would be rapid undermined by a virulent, anti-democratic, right-wing reaction from 2010 onwards.)
The consequence for UUSC Just Democracy was that I started to pick up some consulting work from my old life, in particular with old friends at ChildFund, organizing what became Bright Futures 101 in the Philippines, which I’ve blogged about earlier.
That consultancy led to a connection with ChildFund Australia, which was looking to put in place a new, international program department in Sydney. At first it seemed like I might be able to help out on a consultancy basis, because they were having trouble finding the right International Program Director, a new position. Maybe I could fill in for a while … so I had several Skype interviews with ChildFund’s CEO, Nigel Spence, which went well. So well that it felt like maybe I should consider doing the job!
We agreed that after my assignment in the Philippines I would travel to Sydney for face-to-face discussions with Nigel and members of his board of directors.
As I prepared for that visit, I spent time thinking about how I would approach creating a new program approach, and a new team, for ChildFund, should I be lucky enough to be given the opportunity.
To skip the description of my ascent of Galehead Mountain, and go directly to my discussion of great NGO programs, click here.
The Climb – Galehead Mountain
But first, back to the other arc of this journey: I climbed both Galehead Mountain and Mt Garfield, solo, on July 19, 2017. Here is a view of both peaks, from an image I had taken from Mt Lafayette a couple of weeks before:
North Twin and South Twin Mountains can be seen behind Galehead. The idea was that Jean would drop me off, I would loop up over Galehead, across to Garfield, and then finish up a few miles from where I started. If we planned things well, Jean would be waiting for me…
Jean and I drove up from Durham that morning, leaving home at about 7:15am. We stopped for refreshments in Tilton, and then to buy me a sandwich (for the hike) in Lincoln.
We drove up through Franconia Notch, and then east on Rt 3. Jean was going to drop me off at the start of the Gale River Trail, and then have a day with an old high-school friend in Littleton, and pick me up at the end of the Garfield Trail. I planned to hike up Gale River Trail, then make my way up past Galehead Hut on Garfield Ridge Trail, to the top of Galehead Mountain. Then I’d retrace my steps on Garfield Ridge Trail, to the top of Mt Garfield, and then drop down Garfield Trail.
First, the climb of Galehead Mountain:
Jean left me at the Gale River trailhead at 9:45am:
When I looked at the AMC White Mountain Guide, it seemed that the whole loop would take me over 9 hours, which seemed hard to believe. I figured it would take me between 7 and 8 hours, so asked Jean to meet me between 5pm and 6pm. In the meantime, she would visit with her friend from high school.
The walking was easy up the Gale River Trail, gently upward for several miles, mostly in the shade of a lovely clear blue sky. The first couple of miles were a bit unusual, because I wasn’t “rock-hopping” here, it was mostly on roots, “root-hopping,” dodging mud. But it was a gorgeous day:
The trail is north-facing, so would be covered with snow and ice for many months in an average year. Of course, I was walking in late July, so the path was clear, but evidence of winter walking, with poles, was clear along the way:
At around 11am, the trail became somewhat steeper, and rockier; by this point, I was completely drenched with sweat!:
I reached the Garfield Ridge Trail (coincident with the Appalachian Trail here) at about 11:30am, and became very optimistic about how long the hike would take me. I had read that this part of the hike would take 3 1/2 hours, so if I was already at the ridge, not even two hours after starting, this was going to be easy!? Was I making much better time than I expected?
Things definitely didn’t turn out that way! To begin with, even though I had reached the Garfield Ridge Trail, I still had plenty of climbing to do before I even reached Galehead Hut. As I looked ahead, the actual ridge seemed quite a bit higher than I was, and North Twin Mountain loomed over me to the east.
I took a left turn, and it took me 15 minutes to reach the actual ridge near Galehead Hut, the end of the Garfield Ridge Trail, the intersection with Frost Trail and the Twinway:
There were several Appalachian Trail through-hikers on the trail, mostly seeming to be heading south. I took the Frost Trail, and arrived at Galehead Hut just before noon:
From Galehead Hut, the Frost Trail continues a short distance to the summit of Galehead Mountain. I dropped my pack at the Hut, and headed up.
There is a great outlook half-way up the mountain, where there are views back down to the Hut, to South Twin Mountain, and down along the Bond ridge:
I arrived at the forested summit of Galehead Mountain at 12:19pm. Just a rock cairn surrounded by small pines, no view at all:
Peak number 31, done and dusted!
I got back to Galehead Hut at just past 12:30pm, and had a quick lunch. I started back on the Frost Trail to rejoin the Garfield Ridge Trail at just before 1pm, heading towards Mount Garfield!
I climbed Galehead Mountain (and South Twin) again, this time in the autumn season, a bit over three years later. For a short description of that climb, skipping my reflections on great NGO programs, click here.
What We Think About When We Think About Great NGO Programs
So what does it take to build a great INGO program? I was thinking a lot about this as I prepared for my interviews with ChildFund Australia, drawing from my career thus far. In the rest of this blog, I want to outline the elements of my thinking.
If I was lucky enough to be able to create a new program structure in Australia, I kept coming back to experiences I’ve described earlier in this blog series. They seemed to coalesce into five general themes:
It felt important to emphasize the commitment to closeness with people living in poverty that I had learned from colleagues in Tuluá, Colombia, as they explored and adapted PRA methods in the late 1980’s. As our sector had “professionalized” in the 1990’s, it really felt like we had gained a lot, but lost a lot, too. (I would describe both sides of that coin in an article I would write in Australia, which I have already blogged about earlier.) Later we would insist on incorporating this commitment into what became “Bright Futures”, in the early 2000’s;
To make sure we got things right, I thought about lessons from the Total Quality Management framework that I developed when I was Regional Director for Plan International in South America in the early 1990’s. Part of this would have to be a clear measurement system, so that we could learn and improve and be accountable;
To measure it, we needed to have a clear understanding of poverty (in general), and child poverty (in particular). I thought a lot about the framework that we had developed when I worked with CCF as a consultant in the early 2000’s, designing and testing what became “Bright Futures”;
I had learned a lot about how human-rights and social-justice frameworks could help us address the deeper causes of poverty, because these concepts had underlaid UUSC’s work, and the understanding of power that drove our activist work, in the mid-2000’s. To have real impact, these frameworks needed to be alive in our work;
And, finally, it felt like I might have a priceless opportunity, setting up a new team in Sydney and, later, in Laos and Myanmar, to approach my leadership and management role using the restorative principles and NGO values I had learned along the way. I wanted to focus my own contribution squarely on bringing out the best in our NGO people.
When I thought about putting all those pieces together, I began to get very excited at the prospect of joining ChildFund Australia, which I would do in July of 2009. Before this journey arrives in Sydney, however, I want to reflect a bit more on the five areas outlined above…
As I thought about creating the new department in Sydney, being close to the people we were meant to serve – people living in poverty – seemed to be of fundamental importance. How could we dream of helping improve their lives if we didn’t have a clear sense of their situations, at a human level?
They were a joyful group in Tuluá, and I learned a lot from them. For example, I vividly recall our program head (Lucyla Posso) and several program staff working to carry out a PRA exercise – I had no idea what that was, but they were excited by this new methodology. I was still caught up in my engineering approach – Gantt Charts, etc. – and didn’t pay enough attention to what Lucyla, Lijia, and Oscar Arley and others were doing. Later I would catch on to the power of PRA methods!
Later, we would incorporate this fundamental commitment – accompaniment of people living in poverty – into what became Bright Futures. In 2003 I summarized much of the research carried out as we designed Bright Futures in the Phase 1 Report (attached here: Phase 1 Report – Final):
For now, I just want to highlight the fourth dot-point included in the Box: “to be appropriate and relevant, (good development practice) is based on an immersion in each local environment, and the active participation of the poor themselves.” The use of PRA tools would be fundamental in enabling us to make this a reality, but as I thought about setting up a new department in Sydney I was determined to bring this into our work not only as a tool, but also as a key value. Accompaniment of people living in poverty would enable us to design effective development programs and to understand their impact, and it would also help create and reinforce a culture of respect and humility.
From my time at Plan International’s South America Regional Office, and in particular as we developed a framework for Total Quality Management in Plan, I had learned that a great organization must be united around a clear purpose, drive the continuous improvement of everything it does, and it must have a healthy and accountable management culture. Later I came to appreciated that this greatness can only be constructed on a strong platform of policies and procedures. Otherwise, people would tend to spend too much time reinventing ways of carrying out mundane tasks; for some reason, we are drawn to spend time on these kinds of housekeeping issues instead of grappling with the challenges of our program work. The graphic captures the overall idea:
Of course, my role at ChildFund Australia, if I ended up joining, was not to run the overall organization – that was Nigel’s job. But nevertheless the framework was in my mind as I thought about setting up a new department:
— I would want to have our basic policies and procedures be crystal clear, mostly so that we wouldn’t have to think about them. The idea of creating something like the “UUSC Handbook” I’ve described earlier was in my mind, somehow;
— The management culture that we would co-create in our team would be as full of trust and empowerment, accountability, and fun, as possible. I wanted to apply what I had learned from Atema Eclai at UUSC, what I would later learn to describe as “restorative principles,” in our teams;
— We would establish a clear framework for assessing the effectiveness of our work, and we’d use that framework to improve our work on an agile basis. What would become the ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” came from this;
— And we would strive to be very clear about our purpose, and how our program work linked explicitly to that purpose. Here I would end up building the first chapter of what became the ChildFund “Program Handbook” to include a theory of change and how we would measure its achievement.
I will share much more on all these topics in the near future!
As I’ve outlined in an earlier blog post in this series, one of the many exciting aspects of the work that Michelle Poulton and Daniel Wordsworth were doing in CCF in the early 2000’s was the study of child poverty. CCF had commissioned staff from Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford University to survey the literature, listen to children and youth around the world, and then reflect back their findings.
I’ve explored those findings in some detail earlier in this series. To summarize, we had formulated a clear framework that represented the lived experience of children who were living in poverty:
— Part of their experience could be described as deprivation. Just as with adults, children and their caregivers experienced poverty as a lack of health, education, income, etc.
But children’s actual lived experience of poverty couldn’t be described entirely in terms of what is traditionally understood as “deprivation.” The CCF Poverty Study documented very clearly that:
— in addition to deprivation, children experienced exclusion, even from the earliest ages;
— And that children living in poverty felt a strong sense of vulnerability.
These two additional elements of child poverty, exclusion and vulnerability, represented areas that, generally speaking, we were not addressing in our programming. I wanted to see how we could build them into our work at ChildFund Australia, if I ended up joining the organization!
Later I had been lucky to join UUSC, where I served as Executive Director. One of the key elements of our work there had been the creation of the “UUSC Handbook”, which was my attempt to put in place the kind of clarity of policies and procedures mentioned above.
More importantly, UUSC was an organization focused on human rights, social justice, and activism. Our organizational theory of change, described in an earlier blog post in this series, spoke to the linkages involved for us:
Human rights and social justice have never advanced without struggle. It is increasingly clear that sustained, positive change is built through the work of organized, transparent and democratic civic actors, who courageously and steadfastly challenge and confront oppression.
As we explored the consequences of looking at our work at UUSC in this way, I began to deepen my own understanding of the importance of power, and collective action, in advancing human rights. I would want to incorporate this understanding, somehow, into our work in ChildFund Australia.
Finally, to some extent I would be setting up a new team in Sydney, if I ended up going there. I mentioned above that great international NGOs have a healthy and accountable management culture, so my intention was to build teams in Australia (and where we worked overseas, in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam) that were grounded in the values of our sector, clear about what we were doing and why, and driven to improve the impact of our work.
Just as important, I wanted to build teams that had high trust, listened well, were inspired, trusted each other, and were curious enough to discover the innovations that would help us break through. I had learned how this can be achieved, and how it can be undermined, in the preceding 25 years, so I felt ready for the challenge.
My visit to Sydney for the interview would be successful, and I would return to New Hampshire in mid-2009 to pack up for the move, rent our house, and get our cat Lois ready for the trans-Pacific trip.
It felt like a priceless opportunity. To help build a world-class program:
— which was as close to people living in poverty as possible;
— with clear policies and procedures, united around a clear purpose, driven to continuously improve what we did, and with a healthy and accountable management culture;
— underpinned by an understanding that poverty was a shifting and dynamic mixture of deprivation, exclusion, and vulnerability;
— informed by human-rights and social-justice frameworks, and by an understanding of power and collective action; and, finally,
— that I would lead and manage in a way that brought out the best in our NGO people.
A big challenge, that I would do my best to achieve, imperfectly, over the next six years. In my next post, I will reflect about what I had learned about building strong NGO teams and then, in my 33rd posting in this series, my six years at ChildFund Australia begins with a description of the team we put together in Sydney…
Second Climb, Second Season
I climbed Galehead Mountain once again, and South Twin Mountain, on 24 October 2019, with Eric. I was in my second round of climbing all the 4000-footers – this time in different seasons and, when possible, on different trails. So whereas I had climbed Galehead in the mid-summer of 2017, this time we would be going up in the fall.
We arrived at the Gale River trailhead at 10:20am. Note the different colors this time!
It took us a bit over two hours to climb up Gale River Trail, reaching the junction with the Garfield Ridge Trail at 12:45pm:
We arrived at Galehead Hut at around 1:30pm, and continued towards the peak:
Which we reached 30 minutes later:
It was about 2:15pm. A bit late but, dropping back down to the hut, we decided we were up for trying to climb back up to South Twin…
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: