Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…

June, 2019

(Note: I’ve updated this post in September, 2019, after climbing Mt Jefferson once again.  I’ve recently completed ascending all 48 4000-footers, and am going up a few again, in different seasons…)

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

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

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

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

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The Climb – Mt Jefferson

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

And so it was!

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

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

I parked at Bowman.

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

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

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

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

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

Moose Droppings?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt Jefferson – My 48th 4000-Footer!

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

Now what?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the final warning sign!

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

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

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.

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Some Final Thanks!

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

In a 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:

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

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

After I left Azogues, and the Peace Corps, it was Annuska who introduced me to Plan and who opened the door for me to join that organization. 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!

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

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

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

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

Thank you Monique!

Monique van ‘t Hek, On The Right

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

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

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

Thank you Leticia!

Leticia Escobar, Third From Left.

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SARO’s first Regional Director was Andy Rubi, a person who inspired me, and influences me still, to become the best I could be. Andy had served with Plan in a range of field positions and, when the organization decided to regionalize, and to pilot test a regional structure in South America, 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.

Thank you Andy!

Andy Rubi

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Ricardo!

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Max!

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

In the 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!

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

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

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

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

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!

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

But it was time to repot myself…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you Charlie!

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

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

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

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

Thank you Nigel!

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

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

Onward!

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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!

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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.

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

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

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

May, 2019

(Note: I’ve updated this post in September, 2019, after climbing Mt Adams once again.  I’ve recently completed ascending all 48 4000-footers, and am going up a few again, in different seasons…)

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

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

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

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

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

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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:

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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:

Madison Springs Hut, With Mt Adams In The Background

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

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

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

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

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

Look how far above Mt Madison I was!

Looking Down At Madison From The Summit Of Mt Adams

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

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

Here I took a right turn onto the Parapet Trail:

A Bit Sunburned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muddy

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

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

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

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

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

Knackered

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

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

I climbed Mt Adams again, three years later.  For a short description of that climb, skipping my final reflections on my journey, click here.

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Some Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a sense, they were victims of their own success: it was hard to let go of the tools and concepts that had been so useful. These large organizations were doing very good work and, by the turn of the century they had annual budgets of millions, 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.)

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

(Of course, there were a few bad eggs along the way, but very few 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.

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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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, stay tuned for one last article!

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Second Season, Second Climb

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...

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

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

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

December, 2018

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

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

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

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

But first…

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

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The Climb – Mt Hale

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

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

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

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

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

This was summit number 42, of 48!

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

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Summit of Mt Hale

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

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

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A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed – What Next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wordsworth wants us to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, there are only two choices:

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

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

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

Mt Bond (36) – “Case Studies” In ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness Framework

June, 2018

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

So far, I’ve described climbing 35 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.”

Last time I described the ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework,” the system that would help us make sure we were doing what we said we were going to do and, crucially, verifying 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…

This time, I want to go into more depth on one component of the DEF, the “Case Studies” that described the lived experience of people that we worked with.  Next time, I’ll describe how we measured the impact of our work.

But first…

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On 10 August, 2017, I climbed three 4000-footers in one very long day: Bondcliff (4265ft, 1300m), Mt Bond (4698ft, 1432m), and West Bond (4540ft, 1384m).  This was a tough day, covering 22 miles and climbing three very big mountains.  At the end of the hike, I felt like I was going to lose the toenails on both big toes (which, in fact, I did!) … it was a bit much!

Last time I wrote about climbing to the top of Bondcliff, the first summit of that day.  This time, I will describe the brief walk from there to the top of Mt Bond, the tallest of the three Bonds.  And next time I’ll finish describing that day, with the ascent of West Bond and the return to the trail-head at Lincoln Woods.

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To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Bond, and go directly to my description of case studies in ChildFund Australia’s DEF, click here.

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As I described last time, I arrived at the top of Bondcliff at about 10:30am, having left the trail-head at Lincoln Woods Visitor Center just after 6:30am.  I was able to get an early start because I had stayed the night before at Hancock Campsite on the Kancamagus road, just outside of Lincoln, New Hampshire.

It was a bright and mostly-sunny day, with just a few clouds and some haze.  The path between Bondcliff and Mt Bond is quite short – really just dropping down to a saddle, and then back up again, only 1.2 miles:

Bond Map - 6b

It took me about an hour to cover that distance and reach the top of Mt Bond from Bondcliff at 11:30am.  The path was rocky as it descended from Bondcliff, in the alpine zone, with many large boulders as I began to go back up towards Mt Bond – some scrambling required.

This photo was taken at the saddle between Bondcliff and Mt Bond: on the left is Bondcliff, on the right is West Bond, and in the middle, in the distance, is Franconia Ridge; Mt Bond is behind me.  A glorious view on an amazing day for climbing:

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From the Left: Bondcliff, Franconia Ridge, West Bond

It got even steeper climbing up from the saddle to the summit, passing through some small pine shrubs, until just before the top.

The views were spectacular at the summit of Mt Bond, despite the sky being slightly hazy – I could see the four 4000-footers of the Franconia Ridge to the west and Owl’s Head in the foreground, the Presidential Range to the east, and several other 4000-footers to the south and south-west:

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Looking To The West From The Summit Of Mt Bond

And I had a nice view back down the short path from the top of Bondcliff:

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There were a few people at the top, and I had a brief conversation with a couple that were walking from Zealand trailhead across the same three mountains I was climbing, and finishing at Lincoln Woods.  This one-way version of what I was doing in an up-and-back trip was possible because they had left a car at Lincoln Woods, driving to the Zealand trailhead in a second vehicle.  They would then ferry themselves back to Zealand from Lincoln Woods.

Kindly, they offered to pick up my car down at Lincoln Woods and drive it to Zealand, which would have saved me three miles.  I should have accepted, because finishing what became 22 miles, and three 4000-foot peaks, would end up hobbling me for a while, and causing two toenails to come off!  But I didn’t have a clear sense of how the day would go, so I declined their offer, with sincere thanks…

Getting to the top of Mt Bond was my 36th 4000-footer – just 12 more to go!

I didn’t stay too long at the top of Mt Bond on the way up, continuing towards West Bond… stay tuned for that next time!

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Case Studies in ChildFund Australia’s “Development Effectiveness Framework”

Jean and I had moved to Sydney in July of 2009, where I would take up the newly-created position of International Program Director for ChildFund Australia.  It was an exciting opportunity for me to work in a part of the world I knew and loved (Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam) and in a challenging new country (Papua New Guinea).  It was a great chance to work with some really amazing people – in Sydney and in our Country Offices… to use what I had learned to help build and lead effective teams.  Living in Sydney would not be a hardship post, either!  Finally, it was a priceless chance for me to put together a program approach that incorporated everything I had learned to that point, over 25 years working in poverty reduction and social justice.

In the previous article in this series, I described how we developed a “Development Effectiveness System” (“DEF”) for ChildFund Australia, and I went through most of the components of the DEF in great detail.

My ambition for the DEF was to bring together our work into one comprehensive system – building on our Theory of Change and organizational Vision and Mission, creating a consistent set of tools and processes for program design and assessment, and making sure to close the loop with defined opportunities for learning, reflection, and improvement.

Here is the graphic that we used to describe the system:

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Figure 1: The ChildFund Australia Development Effectiveness Framework (2014)

As I said last time, I felt that three components of the DEF were particularly innovative, and worth exploring in more detail in separate blog articles:

  • I will describe components #2 (“Outcome Indicator Surveys) and #12 (Statement of Impact) in my next article.  Together, these components of the DEF were meant to enable us to measure the impact of our work in a robust, participatory way, so that we could learn and improve;
  • this time, I want to explore component #3 of the DEF: “Case Studies.”

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It might seem strange to say it this way, but the “Case Studies” were probably my favorite of all the components of the DEF!  I loved them because they offered direct, personal accounts of the impact of projects and programs from children, youth, men and women from the communities in which ChildFund worked and the staff and officials of local agencies and government offices with whom ChildFund partnered.  We didn’t claim that the Case Studies were random or representative samples; rather, their value was simply as stories of human experience, offering insights would not have been readily gained from quantitative data.

Why was this important?  Why did it appeal to me so much?

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Over my years working with international NGOs, I had become uneasy with the trend towards exclusive reliance on linear logic and quantitative measurement, in our international development sector.  This is perhaps a little bit ironic, since I had joined the NGO world having been educated as an engineer, schooled in the application of scientific logic and numerical analysis for practical applications in the world.

Linear logic is important, because it introduces rigor in our thinking, something that had been weak or lacking when I joined the sector in the mid-1980s.  And quantitative measurement, likewise, forced us to face evidence of what we had or had not achieved. So both of these trends were positive…

But I had come to appreciate that human development was far more complex than building a water system (for example), much more complicated than we could fully capture in linear models.  Yes, a logical, data-driven approach was helpful in many ways, perhaps nearly all of the time, but it didn’t seem to fit every situation in communities that I came to know in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  In fact, I began to see that an over-emphasis on linear approaches to human development was blinding us to ways that more qualitative, non-linear thinking could help; we seemed to be dismissing the qualitative, narrative insights that should also have been at the heart of our reflections.  No reason not to include both quantitative and qualitative measures.  But we weren’t.

My career in international development began at a time when the private-sector, business culture, started to influence our organizations in a big way: as a result of the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980’s, INGOs were booming and, as a result, were professionalizing, introducing business practices.  All the big INGOs started to bring in people from the business world, helping “professionalize” our work.

I’ve written elsewhere about the positive and negative effects that business culture had on NGOs: on the positive side, we benefited from systems and approaches the improved the internal management of our agencies, such as clear delegations of authority, financial planning and audit, etc.  Overall, it was a very good, and very necessary evolution.

But there were some negatives.  In particular, the influx of private-sector culture into our organizations meant that:

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

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

In effect, this cultural shift had the effect of emphasizing linear logic and quantitative measures to such a degree, with such force, that narrative, qualitative approaches were sidelined as, somehow, not business-like enough.

As I thought about the overall design of the DEF, I wanted to make 100% sure that we were able to measure the quantitative side of our work, the concrete outputs that we produced and the measurable impact that we achieved (more on that next time).  Because the great majority of our work was amenable to that form of measurement, and being accountable for delivering the outputs (projects, funding) that we had promised was hugely important.

But I was equally determined that we would include qualitative elements that would enable us to capture the lived experience of people who facing poverty.  In other words, because poverty is experienced holistically by people, including children, in ways that can be captured quantitatively and qualitatively, we needed to incorporate both quantitative and qualitative measurement approaches if we were to be truly effective.

The DEF “Case Studies” was one of the ways that we accomplished this goal.  It made me proud that we were successful in this regard.

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There was another reason that I felt that the DEF Case Studies were so valuable, perhaps just as important as the way that they enabled us to measure poverty more holistically.  Observing our organizations, and seeing my own response to how we were evolving, I clearly saw that the influence of private-sector, business culture was having positive and negative effects.

One of the most negative impacts I saw was an increasing alienation of our people from the basic motivations that led them to join the NGO sector, a decline in the passion for social justice that had characterized us.  Not to exaggerate, but it seemed that we were perhaps losing our human connection with the hope and courage and justice that, when we were successful, we helped make for individual women and men, girls and boys.  The difference we were making in the lives of individual human beings was becoming obscured behind the statistics that we were using, behind the mechanical approaches we were taking to our work.

Therefore, I was determined to use the DEF Case Studies as tools for reconnecting us, ChildFund Australia staff and board, to the reason that we joined in the first place.  All of us.

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So, what were the DEF Case Studies, and how were they produced and used?

In practice, Development Effectiveness and Learning Managers in ChildFund’s program countries worked with other program staff and partners to write up Case Studies that depicted the lived experience of people involved in activities supported by ChildFund.  The Case Studies were presented as narratives, with photos, which sought to capture the experiences, opinions and ideas of the people concerned, in their own words, without commentary.  They were not edited to fit a success-story format.  As time went by, our Country teams started to add a summary of their reflections to the Case Studies, describing their own responses to the stories told there.

Initially we found that field staff had a hard time grasping the idea, because they were so used to reporting their work in the dry, linear, quantitative ways that we had become used to.  Perhaps program staff felt that narrative reports were the territory of our Communications teams, meant for public-relations purposes, describing our successes in a way that could attract support for our work.  Nothing wrong with that, they seemed to feel, but not a program thing!

Staff seemed at a loss, unable to get going.  So we prepared a very structured template for the Case Studies, specifying length and tone and approach in detail.  This was a mistake, because we really wanted to encourage creativity while keeping the documents brief; emphasizing the “voice” of people in communities rather than our own views; covering failures as much as successes.  Use of a template tended to lead our program staff into a structured view of our work, so once we gained some experience with the idea, as staff became more comfortable with the idea and we began to use these Case Studies, we abandoned the rigid template and encouraged innovation.

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So these Case Studies were a primary source of qualitative information on the successes and failures of ChildFund Australia’s work, offering insights from children, youth and adults from communities where we worked and the staff of local agencies and government offices with whom ChildFund Australia partnered.

In-country staff reviewed the Case Studies, accepting or contesting the opinions of informants about ChildFund Australia’s projects.  These debates often led to adjustments to existing projects but also triggered new thinking – at the project activity level but also at program level or even the overall program approach.

Case Studies were forwarded to Sydney, where they were reviewed by the DEF Manager; some were selected for a similar process of review by International Program staff, members of the Program Review Committee and, on occasion, by the ChildFund Australia Board.

The resulting documents were stored in a simple cloud-based archive, accessible by password to anyone within the organization.  Some Case Studies were also included on ChildFund Australia’s website; we encouraged staff from our Communications team in Sydney to review the Case Studies and, if suitable, to re-purpose them for public purposes.  Of course, we were careful to obtain informed consent from people included in the documents.

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Through Case Studies, as noted above, local informants were able to pass critical judgement on the appropriateness of ChildFund’s strategies, how community members perceived our aims and purposes (not necessarily as we intended); and they could alert us to unexpected consequences (both positive and negative) of what we did.

For example, one of the first Case Studies written up in Papua New Guinea revealed that home garden vegetable cultivation not only resulted in increased family income for the villager concerned (and positive impact on children in terms of nutrition and education), it also enhanced his social standing through increasing his capacity to contribute to traditional cultural events.

Here are three images from that Case Study:

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And here is a copy of the Case Study itself:  PNG Case Study #1 Hillary Vegetable farming RG edit 260111.  Later I was able to visit Hillary at his farm!

Another Case Study came from the ChildFund Connect project, an exciting effort led by my former colleagues Raúl Caceres and Kelly Royds, who relocated from Sydney to Boston in 2016.  I climbed Mt Moriah with them in July, 2017, and also Mt Pierce and Mt Eisenhower in August of 2016.  ChildFund Connect was an innovative project that linked children across Laos, Viet Nam, Australia and Sri Lanka, providing a channel for them directly to build understanding of their differing realities.   This Case Study on their project came from Laos: LAO Case Study #3 Connect DRAFT 2012.

In a future article in this series, I plan on describing work we carried out building the power (collective action) of people living in poverty.  It can be a sensitive topic, particularly in areas of Southeast Asia without traditions of citizen engagement.  Here is a Case Study from Viet Nam describing how ChildFund helped local citizens connect productively with authorities to resolve issues related to access to potable water: VTM Case Study #21 Policy and exclusion (watsan)-FINAL.

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Dozens of Case Studies were produced, illustrating a wide range of experiences with the development processes supported by ChildFund in all of the countries where we managed program implementation.  Reflections from many of these documents helped us improve our development practice, and at the same time helped us stay in touch with the deeper purpose of our having chosen to work to promote social justice, accompanying people living in poverty as they built better futures.

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A few of the DEF Case Studies focused, to some extent, on ChildFund Australia itself.  For example, here is the story of three generations of Hmong women in Nonghet District in Xieng Khoung Province in Laos.  It describes how access to education has evolved across those generations:  LAO Case Study #5 Ethnic Girls DRAFT 2012.  It’s a powerful description of change and progress, notable also because one of the women featured in the Case Study was a ChildFund employee, along with her mother and daughter!

Two other influential Case Studies came from Cambodia, both of which touched on how ChildFund was attempting to manage our child-sponsorship mechanisms with our programmatic commitments.  I’ve written separately, some time ago, about the advantages of child sponsorship: when managed well (as we did in Plan and especially in ChildFund Australia), and these two Case Studies evocatively illustrated the challenge, and the ways that staff in Cambodia were making it all work well.

One Case Study describes some of the tensions implicit in the relationship between child sponsorship and programming, and the ways that we were making progress in reconciling these differing priorities: CAM Case Study 6 Sponsorship DRAFT 2012.  This Case Study was very influential, with our staff in Cambodia and beyond, with program staff in Sydney, and with our board.  It powerfully communicated a reality that our staff, and families in communities, were facing.

A second Case Study discussed how sponsorship and programs were successfully integrated in the field in Cambodia: CAM Case Study #10 Program-SR Integration Final.

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As I mentioned last time, given the importance of the system, relying on our feeling that the DEF was a great success wasn’t good enough.  So we sought expert review, commissioning two independent, expert external reviews of the DEF.

The first review (attached here: External DEF Review – November 2012), 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 my next 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 advanced in the implementation of most of the DEF, so it was a good time to reflect on how it was going.

I included an overview of the conclusions reached by both reviewers last time.  Here I want to quote from the first evaluation, with particular reference to the DEF Case Studies:

One of the primary benefits of the DEF is that it equips ChildFund Australia with an increased quantity and quality of evidence-based information for communications with key stakeholders including the Board and a public audience. In particular, there is consolidated output data that can be easily accessed by the communications team; there is now a bank of high quality Case Studies that can be drawn on for communication and reflection; and there are now dedicated resources in-country who have been trained and are required to generate information that has potential for communications purposes. The increase in quantity and quality of information equips ChildFund Australia to communicate with a wide range of stakeholders.

One of the strengths of the DEF recognized 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.

This focus on building tools, systems and the overall capacity of the organization places ChildFund Australia in a strong position to tackle a second phase of the DEF which looks at how the organization will use performance information for learning and development. It has already started on this journey, with various parts of the organization using Case Studies for reflection. ChildFund Australia has already undertaken an exercise of coding the bank of Case Studies to assist further analysis and learning. There is lots of scope for next steps with this bank of Case Studies, including thematic reflections. Again, the benefits of this aspect have not been realised yet as the first stages of the DEF roll-out have been focused on data collection and embedding the system in CF practices.

In most Country Offices, Case Studies have provided a new formal opportunity for country program staff to reflect on their work and this has been used as a really constructive process. The Laos Country Office is currently in the process of translating Case Studies so that they can be used to prompt discussion and learning at the country level. In PNG, the team is also interested in using the Case Studies as a communication tool with local communities to demonstrate some of the achievements of ChildFund Australia programs.

In some cases, program staff have found Case Studies confronting when they have highlighted program challenges or weaknesses. The culture of critical reflection may take time to embed in some country offices and may be facilitated by cross-country reflection opportunities. Currently, however, Country Office staff do not know how to access Case Studies from other country programs. ChildFund Australia is exploring how the ‘bank’ of DEF Case Studies would be most accessible and useful to country office personnel.

One of the uses of Case Studies has been as a prompt for discussion and reflection by the programs team in Sydney and by the Board. Case Studies have been seen as a really useful way to provide an insight into a program, practice and ChildFund Australia achievements.

At an organizational level, an indexing and cross-referencing system has been implemented which enables Case Studies to be searched by country and by theme. The system is yet to be introduced to MEL and Program users, but has potential to be a very useful bank of qualitative data for reflection and learning. It also provides a bank of data from which to undertake thematic reflections across and between countries. One idea for consideration is that ChildFund draw on groups of Case Studies to develop practice notes.

In general Case Studies are considered to be the most ‘successful’ part of the DEF by those involved in collecting information.

The second reviewer concentrated on other components, mainly aspects I will describe in more detail in my next article, not so much the Case Studies…

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So the Case Studies were a very important element in the overall DEF.  I tried very hard to incorporate brief reflections on selected Case Studies at every formal meeting of the International Program Team, of ChildFund Australia’s Program Review Committee, and (less frequently) at meetings of our Board of Directors.  More often than not, time pressures on the agendas of these meetings led to us dropping the Case Studies from discussion, but often enough we did spend time (usually at the beginning of the meetings) reflecting on what we saw in them.

At the beginning, when we first began to use the Case Studies, our discussion tended to be mechanical: pointing out errors in the use of English, or questioning how valid the observations might be, challenging the statistical reliability of the conclusions.  But, over time, I noticed that our teams began to use the Case Studies as they were designed: to gain insight into the lived experience of particular human beings, and to reconnect with the realities of people’s struggle for better lives for themselves and their children.

This was a great success, and really worked as I had hoped.  The Case Studies complemented the more rigorous, quantitative components of the DEF, helping the system be holistic, enabling us to see more deeply into the effect that our work was having while also enhancing our accountability.

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Next time, I will describe getting to the top of West Bond, and all the way down the 11 miles from there to the Lincoln Woods parking lot, where I staggered back to my car with such damage to my feet that I soon would lose toenails on both my big toes!  And I will share details of the final two components of the DEF that I want to highlight: the Outcome Indicator Surveys and Statements of Impact were probably the culmination of the whole system.

So, stay tuned!

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

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

Owl’s Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change

May, 2018

I began a new journey just over two years ago (May, 2016), tracing two long arcs in my life:

  • During those two years, I’ve been climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
  • 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.

So, in each article in this series, 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.

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In 2009 Jean and I moved to Sydney, where I took up a new role as International Program Director for ChildFund Australia.  On my way towards Sydney, I was thinking a lot about how to build a great program, and how I would approach building a strong team with clarity, trust, and inspiration.  Last time I described the role and staffing and structural iterations of the International Program Team there.

This time, I want to begin to unpack the program approach that we put in place, building on what was already there, and on the lessons I had learned in the previous 25 years.

But first…

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To skip the description of my ascent of Owl’s Head, and go directly to my description of ChildFund Australia’s theory of change, click here.

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Owl’s Head (4025ft, 1227m) is described by many hikers as uninteresting, boring, and challenging – something that “should not be left to the end” of the 48 peaks.  I guess that’s because climbers want to finish their long voyage up so many great mountains in a blaze of glory, and they find Owl’s Head to be a letdown after the challenges and thrills of the other 47 4000-footers.

I climbed Owl’s Head on 26 July, 2017, and enjoyed every minute of it!

Yes, it’s long and mostly in the forest.  Yes, getting up the rock slide on the western side of Owl’s Head is tough going.  Yes, there are several river crossings which can be problematic when the water’s high.  And, yes, it’s not a ridge walk, so the views are (mostly) obstructed.  But on this late-July day, the walking was fantastic, the river crossings were nerve-wracking but doable, and the views going up (and coming down) the rock slide, looking across at Franconia Ridge, were fantastic.

I left Durham at about 6am, getting an early start because my calculations were that the ascent would be over 6 hours, just getting to the top.  Figuring in a descent of 4 hours, at least, made me want to get walking as soon as possible.  As has been my normal routine these days, I stopped in Tilton for coffee, and I bought a sandwich for lunch in Lincoln, very near the trailhead.

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I had brought sandals to carry with me for the river crossings, just in case.

After parking at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center, I started the hike at 8:10am.

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It was a beautiful, cool, sunny day.  Just beyond the Visitor Center, two trails head up the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River: the Pemi East Side Trail and the Lincoln Woods Trail.  To get to the Lincoln Woods Trail, which I would take, I crossed a suspension bridge and took a right turn to head north:

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The Lincoln Woods Trail runs along an old forest railway, and is wide and straight for over two miles.  Dappled, high forest, just gorgeous, crisp day.  Nervous about how long I thought it would take me to reach Owl’s Head, and return, I flew up this first easy part, almost trotting up the gentle incline:

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Lincoln Woods Trail – Formerly a Forest Railway, Straight and Wide

Old railway ties can be seen in the image, above.  Here is an image of one of the nails in a tie:

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There were a few other hikers heading up the Lincoln Woods Trail along with me, more than I expected on a summer Wednesday, but it wasn’t crowded.  I reached the junction with the Osseo Trail at 8:33am, and Black Point Trail at 8:53am:

Just before 9am, I arrived at the junction with Franconia Brook Trail.  So it had taken me about 50 minutes to walk up the 2.6 miles from the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center.  It had been gently up hill the whole way so far.

Here, just after a small footbridge over Franconia Brook, I would turn left, up the Franconia Brook Trail:

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Footbridge Over Franconia Brook
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(A few weeks later I would come to this junction once again, but would continue straight on the Bondcliff Trail.)

Franconia Brook Trail was a real trail, at least at the beginning, but soon, as I headed north up the Franconia Brook, there were long sections that must have also been old railway – straight, and wide, and gradually uphill.  Pleasant walking!  I thought that coming down would be even faster.

From here, the water level in Franconia Brook didn’t look too high:

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I hiked up Franconia Brook Trail, 1.7 miles, and reached the junction with Lincoln Brook Trail at 9:33am.  I was still making very good time – 1.7 miles in about 30 minutes.  But I didn’t feel that I was rushing, it was very nice hiking through the woods on the wide trail!

Here I would swing west to walk around Owl’s Head in a clockwise sense, following (and repeatedly crossing) the Lincoln Brook until reaching Owl’s Head Path:

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I would cross Franconia Brook four times going up the west side of Owl’s Head, and four times coming back down, retracing my steps.  The first crossing, at 9:44am, was the most difficult, and I almost gave my boots a good bath that time.  It was a little dicey…

Of course, as I climbed up the valley, the Brook became smaller as I walked above different streams that were feeding into it.  So the first (and last, when returning) crossing had the most water.

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The trail was less maintained here, certainly not an old forest railway, though I did see two trail crews working on it that day.

I reached the turnoff for Owl’s Head Path at 11:08am.  I had become nervous that I had passed it, feeling that I should have reached the turnoff some time before, and there were no signs.  By the time I reached the cairns marking the turnoff I was quite anxious and was thinking vaguely about turning back.  But, luckily, as I was approaching the cairns that can be seen in the next image, a young woman came down from having gone up Owl’s Head, and she confirmed that I had reached the junction!

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The Junction With Owl’s Head Path – Steeply Up From Here!

So it had taken me nearly an hour and a half to walk Lincoln Brook Trail, from Franconia Brook Trail to Owl’s Head Path, including four stream crossings.  Since Owl’s Head Path was supposed to be quite steep for some time, up a rock slide, I decided to leave some weight here at the bottom; so I took a quart of water and my sandals out of my pack and hid them at the junction.

I started up Owl’s Head at 11:17am, a bit lighter, after having a snack.  Soon I reached the famous rock slide, which was very steep, indeed.  Mostly gravel, so lots of sliding downward which made it heavy going.

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It was slippery and challenging, and did I mention that it was very steep?  Another young person came down and we crossed paths; she was very unhappy and had turned back before reaching the summit.  It was too dangerous and she was giving up, and was vocal about how unpleasant it was.  This would have been summit number 29 for her, but when carrying a full pack it wasn’t possible.  It was very heavy going, relentless and challenging!

But the views from the rock slide were fantastic, looking back towards Franconia Ridge I could see all four of the 4000-footers there: Flume, Liberty, Lincoln and Lafayette.  The light was still good, not yet noon, so the sun shined on the ridge from the east:

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Flume Is On The Far Left, Then Liberty, Lincoln, And Then Lafayette.
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Here is a video of that view from the rock slide, looking over to Franconia Ridge:

The White Mountain Guide indicates that the top of Owl’s Head is not very accessible, and that the end of Owl’s Head Path, which is just short of the actual summit, qualifies as reaching the top.  Apparently, at least when my edition of the Guide was published, reaching the actual summit involved a fair amount of bush-whacking.

Owl’s Head Path began to flatten out at about 12:09pm, and I reached what (I think) was the former end of the Path at about 12:15pm.

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The End Of Owl’s Head Path – Not The Summit!

Here I was able to turn left, to the north, and there was a path heading towards the actual summit – not a very wide path, switching back and forth a lot, but certainly not bush-whacking.

I got to the actual top at about 12:30pm, and had lunch.  Though I had seen a few other climbers after I passed the discouraged young woman, I had the summit to myself for lunch – it was very pleasant!

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Owl’s Head Summit
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Some Vestiges Of Lunch Are Visible!

I had really really enjoyed the walk so far… maybe partly because expectations had been so low?

I left the summit, after a nice lunch, still wet with sweat, at about 12:45pm.  I could see Franconia Ridge to the west, through the forest:

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And there were some views to the east, towards the Bonds, but the Owl’s Head ridge was more forested that way, so no photos were possible.  I got back to the top of Owl’s Head Path at about 1pm, and to the beginning of the rock slide about 20 minutes later.  I dropped down the slide, taking care and many photos, reaching the junction with Lincoln Woods Trail at about 2pm.  So, about an hour to descend carefully.

The walk back down Lincoln Woods Trail was pleasant:

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Recrossing Lincoln Brook four times – simpler this time – and passing the trail-maintenance crews again, I got back to the junction with Franconia Brook Trail at about 3:36pm.  Here I turned south and walked back down that old railway line:

There was a bit of old railway hardware along the side of the trail:

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For much of this section, there were a few mosquitoes, but the walking was pleasant, on a soft bed of pine needles:

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I passed a young woman resting on the side of the trail, with a very full pack.  “You’re carrying a lot!” I said, and she replied: “I’m ready to let it go!” in a resigned tone of voice…

Ups and down … mostly downward gently.  Long and level and wide.  I reached the junction with Lincoln Woods Trail at about 4:11pm, and the Trail got even wider and straighter and easier.  Funnily enough, there is a section of measured length here, which (of course) I had passed on the way up: 200 yards.  The idea is to measure how many paces it took.  On the way up, I counted 41 (double) paces, and 44 on the way back.  So I was walking with shorter paces on the way down!

I reached the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center, and my car, at about 5:15pm.  It had taken me almost 9 hours to climb Owl’s Head, which was substantially less than I had calculated: from the White Mountain Guide, just the ascent, walking up, should have been about 6 1/2 hours.

But it was a great hike on a wonderful day.  I enjoyed every minute of it!

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The ChildFund Australia Theory of Change

As I arrived in Sydney to take up the newly-created position of International Program Director, one of my biggest priorities was to clarify our program approach.  This would involve lots of internal discussion, research and reflection, and I was determined to bring to this task the lessons I had learned in the previous 25 years of working in the sector (and described in the articles in this series!)

I understood that our program approach needed to be built on a clear understanding of what we were going to achieve, and why.  After completing the staffing of the first iteration of the International Program Team in Sydney, getting to know our programs in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam, and settling in with other Sydney-based senior managers and our board, I got going!

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I had first heard of the concept of “Theory of Change” when I asked Alan Fowler to critique an early draft of the UUSC Strategic Plan in 2005.  He had, quite rightly, pointed out that the draft Strategy was good, but that it didn’t really clarify why we wanted to do what we were describing: how did we understand the links between our actions and our vision and mission?

Reflecting on Alan’s observation, I understood that we should put together a clear statement of causality, linking our actions with the impact we sought in the world.  So we did that, and ended up with a very important statement that really helped UUSC be clear about things:

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. 

UUSC’s strategy derived from that statement in a powerful way.

Perhaps a better definition of the concept comes from the “Theory of Change Community”:

Theory of Change is essentially a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused in particular on mapping out or “filling in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a program or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved. It does this by first identifying the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify all the conditions (outcomes) that must be in place (and how these related to one another causally) for the goals to occur. These are all mapped out in an Outcomes Framework.

The Outcomes Framework then provides the basis for identifying what type of activity or intervention will lead to the outcomes identified as preconditions for achieving the long-term goal. Through this approach the precise link between activities and the achievement of the long-term goals are more fully understood. This leads to better planning, in that activities are linked to a detailed understanding of how change actually happens. It also leads to better evaluation, as it is possible to measure progress towards the achievement of longer-term goals that goes beyond the identification of program outputs.

At ChildFund Australia, one of my earliest actions was to develop and finalize a Theory of Change and the associated Outcomes Framework and Outputs.  In this article, I want to describe how we did this, and what we achieved.

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First, some definitions.  Strangely, my experience is that when we in the INGO community try to agree on a common set of definitions, we usually end up arguing intensely and never agreeing!  The concepts we seek to define can be viewed productively in different ways; for me, it seemed most useful to find definitions that we could all live with, and use them, rather than trying to reach full consensus (which, over time, seemed to be an impossible dream!)

Here is the visual framework and definitions that we used in ChildFund Australia:

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A set of Inputs producing a consistent set of Outputs is a Project; a set of Projects producing a consistent set of Outcomes is a Program; a set of Programs producing a consistent set of Impacts is a Strategic Plan.

Note that:

  • “Inputs” are usually time or money;
  • “Outputs” are tangible and concrete products delivered by or through ChildFund: for example, a training course, a trip or meeting, a publication, rent, a latrine – see below;
  • “Outcomes” are changes in the Outcome Indicators that we developed – see below;
  • “Impact” is the highest-level of organisational achievement, related directly to the achievement of our mission.

This is pretty standard stuff, nothing particularly innovative.  But ChildFund Australia hadn’t formally adopted these definitions, which now began to provide a common language for our program work.

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When we began to develop ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change, Outcomes Framework, and Outputs, I took care to bring into the process several important lessons I had learned from previous experiences:

  • As mentioned above, from my experience at UUSC I had learned that the creation of a Theory of Change had the potential to be energizing and unifying, if it was carried out in a participatory manner;
  • Along the way, as the loyal reader of this series will have seen, my own view of development and poverty had grown to incorporate elements of social justice, collective action, and human rights.  I wanted to recognize these important elements into ChildFund Australia’s understanding of child poverty and development;
  • I recognized the significant complexity and cost associated with crafting and measuring Outcome Indicators, which would essentially articulate how we would hold ourselves accountable to our purpose.  Outcome Indicators are complex to use and expensive to measure.  So I felt that we should rely on the work done by technical agencies (the UNDP and UNICEF, other INGOs, and other ChildFund members) whenever possible, and to rely on national-government measurement systems when available and credible.  That meant that using MDG-related indicators, where appropriate, would be our first priority, because of the enormous effort that had been put into creating and measuring them around most of the world;
  • From my work with CCF, especially having participated in their child-poverty study, I had learned that children experience poverty in a more-complex way than we had earlier recognized: as deprivation, certainly; but also as exclusion and vulnerability.  We would incorporate this DEF framework now in Australia;
  • In my next blog article, I will describe how we created a “Development Effectiveness Framework” for ChildFund Australia.  The “DEF” would describe and detail the processes and products through which we would use the Theory of Change, Outcomes Framework, and Outcomes to operationally improve the effectiveness of our development work.  Twice, during my career with Plan International, we had tried to produce such a system, and failed comprehensively (and at great expense.)  We had failed due to several fundamental mistakes that I was determined to avoid making in Australia:
    • At Plan, we fell into the trap of designing a system whose purpose was, mostly, the demonstration of impact rather than learning and improvement of programming.   This led to a complex, and highly-technical system that was never actually able to be implemented.  I wanted, this time, to do both – to demonstrate impact and to improve programs – but fundamentally to create a practical system that could be implemented in the reality of our organization;
    • One of the consequences of the complexity of the systems we tried to design at Plan was that community members were simply not able to participate in the system in any meaningful way, except by using the data to participate in project planning.  We would change this at ChildFund, and build in many more, meaningful areas for community involvement;
    • Another mistake we made at Plan was to allow the creation of hundreds of “outputs.”  It seemed that everybody in that large organization felt that their work was unique, and had to have unique descriptors.  I was determined to keep the DEF as simple and practical as possible;
    • The Plan system was entirely quantitative, in keeping with its underlying (and fallacious) pseudo-scientific purpose.  But I had learned that qualitative information was just as valid as quantitative information, illustrating a range of areas for program improvement that complemented and extended the purely quantitative.  So I was going to work hard to include elements in the DEF that captured the human experience of change in narrative ways;
    • Both times we tried to create a DEF-like system in Plan, we never really quite finished, the result was never fully finalized and rolled out to the organization.  So, on top of the mistakes we made in developing the system, at great expense, the waste was even more appalling because little good came of the effort of so many people, and the spending of so much time and money.  In ChildFund, we would not let “the best be the enemy of the good,” and I would make sure to move to rapidly prototype, implement, and improve the system;
  • Finally, I had learned of the advantages and disadvantages of introducing this kind of fundamental change quickly, or slowly:
    • Moving slowly enables more participation and ownership, but risks getting bogged down and losing windows of opportunity for change are often short-lived;
    • Moving quickly allows the organization to make the change and learn from it within that short window of enthusiasm and patience.  The risk is that, at least for organizations that are jaded by too many change initiatives, the process can be over before people actually take it seriously, which can lead to a perception that participation was lacking.

I decided to move quickly, and our CEO (Nigel Spence) and board of directors seemed comfortable with that choice.

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Upon arrival in Sydney in July of 2009, I moved quickly to put in place the basic foundation of the whole system: our Theory of Change.  Once staffing in the IPT was in place, we began.  Firstly, since we knew that effective programs address the causes of the situation they seek to change, building on the work of Amartya Sen, we defined poverty as the deprivation of the capabilities and freedoms people need to live the life they value.

Then I began to draft and circulate versions of a Theory of Change statement, incorporating input from our board, senior managers (in Sydney and in our Country Offices in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam), and program staff across the agency.

This process went very well, perhaps because it felt very new to our teams.  Quickly we settled on the following statement:

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The ChildFund Australia “Theory of Change”

Note here that we had included a sense of social justice and activism in the Theory of Change, by incorporating “power” (which, practically, would mean “collective action”) as one central pillar.  And it’s clear that the CCF “DEV” framework was also incorporated explicitly.

The four dot-points at the end of the Theory of Change would come to fundamentally underpin our new program approach.  We would:

  • Build human, capital, natural and social assets around the child, including the caregiver.  This phrasing echoed the Ford Foundation’s work on asset-based development, and clarified what we would do to address child deprivation;
  • Build the voice and agency of poor people and poor children.  This pillar incorporated elements of “empowerment,” a concept we had pioneered in Plan South America long before, along with notions of stages of child and human development; and
  • Build the power of poor people and poor children.  Here we were incorporating the sense that development is related to human rights, and that human rights don’t advance without struggle and collective action; and we would
  • Work to ensure that children and youth are protected from risks in their environments.  Our research had shown that poverty was increasingly being experienced by children as related to vulnerability, and that building their resilience and the resilience of the caregivers and communities around them was crucial in the modern context.

This Theory of Change would serve admirably, and endure unchanged, through the next five years of program development and implementation.

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Output Indicators

Now, how would we measure our accomplishment of the lofty aims articulated in the Theory of Change?  We would need to develop a set of Outcome and Output Indicators.

Recall that, according to the definitions that we had agreed earlier, Outputs were seen as: tangible and concrete products delivered by or through ChildFund: for example, a training course, a trip or meeting, a publication, rent, a latrine.

Defining Outputs was an important step for several reasons, mostly related to accountability.  Project planning and monitoring, in a classical sense, focuses on determining the outputs that are to be delivered, tracking whether or not they are actually produced, and adjusting implementation along the way.

For ChildFund Australia, and for our public stakeholders, being able to accurately plan and track the production of outputs represented a basic test of competence: did we know what we were doing?  Did we know what we had done?  Being able to answer those questions (for example, “we planned to drill 18 wells, and train 246 new mothers, and ended up drilling 16 wells and training 279 new mothers”) would build our creditability.  Perhaps more pungently, if we could not answer those questions (“we wanted to do the best we could, but don’t really know where our time and the budget went…”!) our credibility would suffer.  Of course, we wanted to know much more than that – our DEF would measure much more – but tracking outputs was basic and fundamental.

To avoid the trap we had fallen into in Plan, where we ended up with many hundreds of Outputs, I was determined to keep things simple.  We had already planned to bring all our Program Managers to Sydney in October of 2009, for another purpose, and I managed to commandeer this key group for a day.  I locked them in a meeting room for a day with the task of listing all the outputs that they were producing, and agreeing a short and comprehensive list.  We would then work with this draft and use it as a starting point.

The process worked very well.  Our Program Managers produced a list of around 35 Output Indicators that covered, well-enough, pretty much all the work they were doing.  Over the next three years, as our programming evolved and matured, we ended up adding about 15 more Output Indicators, with the final list (as of March, 2014) as follows:

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This listing worked very well, enabling us to design, approve, monitor and manage project activities in an accountable way.  As will be seen when I describe our Development Effectiveness Framework, in the next article in this series, we incorporated processes for documenting ChildFund Australia’s planning for Output production through the project-development process, and for tracking actual Output delivery.

Outcome Indicators

Designing Outcome Indicators was a bigger challenge.  Several of our colleague ChildFund agencies (mostly the US member) had developed indicators that were Outcome-like, and I was aware of the work of several other INGOs that we could “borrow.”  Most importantly, as outlined above, I wanted to align our child-focused Outcome Indicators with the Millennium Development Goals as much as possible.  These were robust, scientific, reliable and, in most countries, measured fairly accurately.

As we drafted sets of Outcome Indicators and circulated them for comment with our Board Program Review Committee, Senior Management, and program staff, our CEO (Nigel Spence) was insistent that we kept the number of Outcome Indicators as small as possible.

I agreed with Nigel, in general (“keep things simple”) and in particular (in Plan we had been swamped by too many indicators, and never actually implemented either system).  But it was a big challenge to measure the lofty concepts included in our Theory of Change with just a few indicators!

When we finalized the first iteration, approved by our Board of Directors in June of 2010, we had only 16 Outcome Indicators:

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Nigel thought this was too many; I thought we had missed covering several crucial areas.  So it seemed a good compromise!

It would take some time to work out the exact mechanism for measuring these Indicators in our field work, but in the end we were able to keep things fairly simple and we began to work with communities to assess change and determine attribution (more on that in the next article in this series.)

Additional Outcome Indicators were introduced over the next few years, elaborating especially the domains of “Protection” and “Power,” which were relatively undeveloped in that initial package of 16, finalized in June of 2010.

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So, by the time I was celebrating one year at ChildFund Australia, we had agreed and  approved a clear and comprehensive Theory of Change, a coherent and concise set of robust Outcome Indicators, and a complete set of (not too many) Output Indicators.

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Looking back, I think we got this right.  The process was very inclusive and participatory, yet agile and productive.  The results were of high quality, reflecting the state of the art of our sector, and my own learning through the years.  It was a big step forward for ChildFund Australia.

This meant that the foundation for a strong Development Effectiveness Framework was in place, a framework which would help us make our program work as effective as possible in building brighter futures for children.  This was (if I do say so myself!), a huge achievement in such a complex organization, especially that we accomplished it in only one year.

From the perspective of 2018, there is little I would change about how we took on this challenge, and what we produced.

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My next article in this series will describe how we build the ChildFund Australia Development Effectiveness Framework on the foundation of our Theory of Change and Outcome and Output Indicators.  Stay tuned!

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

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

Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration

April, 2018

I began a new journey nearly two years ago (May, 2016), tracing two long arcs in my life:

  • Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
  • Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it 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.

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Picking up the story as I arrived in Sydney in July, 2009, to take up the newly-created position of “International Program Director” for ChildFund Australia, I was thinking a lot about how to build great programs for children and youth.  I wrote about that last time.

And I was also thinking about the other big part of my new job: building strong teams.  Next time I will introduce some of the people I worked with in those teams – in Sydney, Port Moresby, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Yangon.

This time I want to share thoughts about how to build teams, in particular in the context of international non-governmental organizations.  Through my career in the INGO sector, I was fortunate to work in, and lead, teams across the world, and learning a lot about how to build strong, high-performing teams.  Learning-by-doing, from watching others, and from my own mistakes.

I was determined to bring this learning to ChildFund Australia.  But before diving into that topic…

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To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Garfield, and go directly to my reflections on building strong NGO teams, click here.

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The Climb – Mt Garfield

I climbed both Galehead Mountain and Mount Garfield on 19 July, 2017.  My plan that day was to walk up Gale River Trail to join the Garfield Ridge Trail, and then take the Frost Trail to reach the top of Galehead Mountain, which would be number 31 of the 48 4000-footers.  Then I would loop around Garfield Ridge to go up Mt Garfield, and return to meet up with Jean at the bottom of Garfield Trail.

Jean had driven up from Durham with me, and left me at the trailhead of the Gale River Trail.  She would spend the day with an old friend from high school, planning to pick me up at the end of the day.

I reached the top of Galehead Mountain at a little after noon.  When I had arrived at the Garfield Ridge Trail, going up, it seemed that I was making great time.  But by the time I dropped down from Galehead, and left Galehead Hut to head towards Mt Garfield, I was much less optimistic: to reach the trailhead by 5-6pm, as arranged with Jean, I thought I needed to leave Mt Garfield by 3pm, at the very latest.  I had less than three hours to get to the next peak.

So I headed down from Galehead and tried to keep up a good pace.

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I got back to the junction with Twinway and Garfield Ridge at about 1pm, and continued towards Garfield.  The walking was, at first, quite pleasant as I retraced my steps down to where I had come up Gale River:

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From there, it was pleasant walking along Garfield Ridge.  Continuing along the ridge in a westerly direction, I reached the junction with the Franconia Brook Trail (at the saddle of Garfield Ridge Trail, between Galehead and Garfield) at about 2:15pm.

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View Looking Down Franconia Brook
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Looking Back, Galehead Hut Is Just Visible In The Saddle, With South Twin Above It To The Left, And Galehead Mountain Above It To The Right

I was getting nervous: I had calculated that I needed to start descending from the summit of Mt Garfield by 3pm, in order to reach the trailhead, where Jean would be waiting, by 5-6pm.  But from the saddle, well below the summit, at 2:15pm, Mt Garfield towered over me, and the next section of the hike looked to be very steep.  VERY steep.

In all of these climbs, all 32 of them thus far, I don’t think I have ever been as tired as I was now.  The climb up from the saddle between Galehead Mountain and Mt Garfield felt unrelenting, up up up.  It was very hot, very humid, and I was down to one liter of water, of the 2.5 liters I had started with.  Luckily, I passed by Garfield Ridge campsite, and there is a wonderful spring there, so I drank a full liter of cool, clean mountain water – a great relief!  Fantastic!

But, even so, the climb was unrelenting.  It was very challenging, a really tough climb up 0.7 miles from the saddle to the top.

I reached the junction with the Garfield Trail at just after 3pm, and decided to drop my backpack there, and finish the climb to the summit with just a bottle of water and my walking stick:

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At least I had water.

Luckily, though the last section was very steep, I got there at about 3:15pm.  Though I was exhausted, the views from the top of Mt Garfield were stunning, with just enough clouds to produce a nice contrast as I looked around.  I could see Owl’s Head in front of me, and the peaks of Flume, Liberty, Lincoln and Lafayette to the west.

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Summit of Mt Garfield – Foundation of the Former Fire Lookout Tower
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From The Summit Of Mt Garfield: Galehead Mountain Is In The Foreground, South Twin In The Background
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Franconia Ridge, On The Right, and Owl’s Head Below, To The Left
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Looking Back Towards Galehead, and The Twins

Sadly, my camera seriously fogged up at the top of Mt Garfield, so the photos I took towards Franconia Ridge were spoiled.  This video panorama of the view is also fogged up, but perhaps the beauty of the day can be inferred here?

I couldn’t stay too long at the top, though it was beautiful, because I was worried about reaching the parking lot too late.  So I headed back down to the junction with Garfield Trail, picked up my backpack, and started down from there at 3:30pm, a half hour later than I had hoped.  Here I’m looking back up at the junction as I began the descent down Garfield Trail:

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Luckily, because I was so exhausted, the 4.8 miles down Garfield Trail were not challenging, just long long long.  By about 4pm, I hadn’t seen anybody at all, which was quite a change from the steady stream of hikers, and through-hikers, up on the ridge.  But, at a very awkward moment, a young hiker passed by me, walking quickly, just saying hello.  If she had been just a few moments earlier, it would have been quite embarrassing (probably for us both!)

The walking was fairly easy, gently downward, on a beautiful White-Mountains day:

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My feet were sore and I was very ready to finish the hike by the time I arrived at the end of Garfield Trail, at 5:30pm – nicely within the range I had predicted.  It had been two hours, and Jean was waiting there!  Happily, she had only been waiting a few minutes!

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5:33pm At The Trailhead!  I Look Fresher Than I Felt!

What a great day – two 4000-footers on a beautiful day.  But far more challenging that I had expected!

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Building Strong NGO Teams

As I flew towards Sydney in mid-July, 2009 (Jean would join me there two months later), I was thinking a lot about two aspects of my new role.  On the one hand, my role was “International Program Director,” which meant that I was expected to lead the thinking and strategy related to ChildFund Australia’s development and humanitarian work.  In my last blog entry I outlined some of what I was thinking about when I was thinking about great INGO programming…

At the same time, I would lead several teams and be a member of others.  In Sydney, I would lead the “International Program Team” (“IPT” – I will write more about this team next time), and I would be a member of the two “Senior Management” teams that Nigel Spence, ChildFund Australia’s CEO, had recently established: first, there was the Sydney-based “Business Support Leadership Team” (“BSLT,” chaired by Nigel), which was comprised of Nigel and the five Department Directors based in Sydney.  The BSLT was focused on leading the functions that made our programs possible: fundraising, finance, IT, human resources, sponsor relations, governance support, etc.  The role of the BSLT was described in the team’s charter:

The Business Support Leadership Team is responsible and accountable for developing and implementing systems, policies, procedures, guidelines and controls that enable the organisation to meet strategic and business objectives. The Business Support Team is also responsible and accountable for securing resources and determining resource allocation. 

And then there was my relationship with ChildFund Australia’s overseas teams in Hanoi, Port Moresby, and Phnom Penh.  As Nigel and I had discussed my new role, we looked at two possibilities:

  • Nigel could continue to directly manage ChildFund’s three Country Directors (located in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam), as he had been doing.  This option would put me in a “staff” role in relation to overseas operations, “line” managing only IPT members in Sydney.  This would be similar in some ways to my role at Plan’s headquarters;
  • I could take over Nigel’s “line” management of the overseas CDs in addition to managing IPT members in Sydney.

Loyal readers of this blog will recall an earlier discussion of the tradeoffs involved here: as I moved from being Plan’s Regional Director for South America to the post of Program Director for the global organization, Max van der Schalk (Plan’s CEO at the time) and I had looked at two similar options.

In that case, we decided that I would not manage Plan’s Regional Directors, leaving him as their “line” manager; this left me in a “staff” role.  This would keep the organization’s structure a little bit flatter, but would burden Max with a broader span of control.  But that’s the way we went, and we made my new title reflect the difference: instead of following Marjorie Smit as “Program Director,” we decided my title would be “Director of Planning and Program Support.”  A rose by any other name…

So I was free to focus on strategy and structure, without being distracted by the daily dramas involved in line management – spending pressures, audit responses, personnel issues, etc.  It felt right at the time, and I certainly had more than enough power to get my job done; but later I did feel that the additional clout that line management would have given my role might have been helpful in making the transformational changes (in Plan’s goals, structure, and resource allocation) we achieved.  But I was happy with the choice we made, and we did make those changes.

I described the tradeoffs as I saw them to Nigel, and left the decision to him; I felt that I could go either way.  But I was delighted when he decided that I would become the line manager of ChildFund Australia’s three Country Directors … though, I quickly discovered that the CDs felt quite differently about what they felt was a loss of status.

So I would also lead and manage those three people, which became five as we expanded into Laos and Myanmar in the next few years.  The second “Senior Management” team that Nigel had recently formed was the “Program Operations Team,” (“POT”), which was comprised of him, me, and the three Country Directors; I would chair that team.  The role of the POT was described in its charter:

The Program Operations Team is responsible and accountable for operations: individually in their countries and head office; and collectively for the wider organization.  The Program Operations Team is focused on program strategy, managing the daily operations of the organization and furthering the achievement of ChildFund Australia’s programmatic goals.

This meant that I was going to be in three teams in my new role, leading two and joining the third as a member.  (I’d also co-chair the ChildFund Alliance Program Committee, but that’s a different story…)

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Over the previous 25 years, I had learned a lot about working in, and leading, teams.  I had learned that people working in INGOs, generally speaking, are intrinsically motivated.  We join our agencies because we felt driven to help improve the world, with a passion for making a difference – not everybody was like that in my experience, but most were.  I saw this across all the organizations I had worked in, and all the locations where I had worked – we could almost take motivation for granted.  This was a luxury, something that many private-sector organizations work very hard to produce.

And that intrinsic motivation is a gift that could be spoiled if not handled correctly.  For example, my sense was that if a team leader managed as if motivation were a problem, and put in place mechanisms of control based (in part) on distrust, that kind of management culture would clash with the nature of our people, and would demotivate staff.  This accounted for some of the trouble that Alberto Neri got himself into in Plan

As I have discussed in an earlier blog post in this series, I had also learned that leading teams of INGO people did not mean that everything was going to be positive and nice.  Our organizations have plenty of internal complexities and might even have more-pervasive politics and ego than some for-profit environments.  There were dishonest people in our agencies.

In that earlier article I noted that:

… there is no inherent, inevitable contradiction between being clear and firm about roles, being fair but strict about adherence to procedures and performance, and the ideals of a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice.  

And, for me, the way to successfully navigate the terrain between principle and pragmatism is to learn how to manage conflict while developing a deep sense of humility and self-awareness, mindfulness and equanimity, and engaged non-attachment.

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Looking back, it seems to me that it boils down to four key domains that I would try to focus on during those years in Australia:

  • Teams, and team members, needed to be completely clear (1) about their task, their role, and the way that they were meant to carry out their duties;
  • They needed to work in an environment of trust (2), where they felt motivated, and
  • Inspired (3) to achieve their best in an important endeavor.  And, finally,
  • The whole effort needed to be founded on maintaining and restoring (4) relationships.  The most fundamental aspect of INGO management, in this model, is building and preserving authentic relationships in a context of clear accountability.

The rest of this blog post will describe how I tried to draw from what I had learned to make things clear, build trust, inspire, and restore relationships in the teams I worked with at ChildFund Australia.  It worked much (but certainly not all) of the time…

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One aspect of team leadership that seemed to be essential when dealing with INGO people was establishing a clear aim, clear strategy, clear logic, and a clear way of measuring progress.

So the first element I thought about was clarity.  Clarity, in practical terms, meant building a shared understanding of what our teams were going to do, why we were going to do that, how we were going to do it, and how we would track what we accomplished to be accountable for our use of time and resources, and to learn from it.

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Building Strong INGO Teams: An Emerging Venn Diagram (1)

Building clarity was probably my biggest focus during my first year or two in Sydney.   I was lucky that I was able to build on the solid, existing statements of vision and mission for the overall organization:

ChildFund Australia’s vision is of a global community, free from poverty, where children are protected and have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

ChildFund Australia works in partnership with children and their communities to create lasting and meaningful change by supporting long-term community development and promoting children’s rights.

These statements were great foundations, but they weren’t detailed enough to provide the clear, measurable foundation for our program work that I was looking for, the clarity that would be needed to foster high-performing program teams.

So we moved quickly, in the first few months of my tenure at ChildFund Australia, to develop a Theory of Change, outcome indicators, and a measurement framework.  In future blog posts in this series I will describe each of these elements of our program design in much more detail, because I think that they were state-of-the-art at the time; I mention them in passing here, because they created a clear and shared understanding of our program work.  The resulting “Theory of Change” (that I will unpack in a later blog entry in this series) was:

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This Theory of Change draws in particular from two sources: the CCF Child Poverty Study, and from my own learning from the development of the UUSC Strategic Plan.

The overall program framework (which, again, I will describe in detail later) looked like this:

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ChildFund Australia Development Effectiveness Framework (DEF)

Once programmatic clarity began to emerge, in those first months, I started to assemble another key element of clarity and accountability: the ChildFund Australia “Program Handbook.”  Here I built on the “UUSC Handbook” that I had created several years earlier.  The Program Handbook ended up being a very long, complex document, but to me it seemed vital – an unambiguous reference that I could point to whenever I felt that things were starting to diverge in an unnecessary way.

These, and other, elements of clarity were put in place fairly quickly, and we spent a lot of time over the next five years using that framework as a basis for planning, learning, and accountability.

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Along with clarity, I was thinking a lot about trust.  Knowing the character of our INGO people, and the culture of our organizations, it seemed to me that once we had a strong sense of clarity, the next essential ingredient in making a high-performance team was trust.  If people were motivated (which, as I said above, was something we could count on, at least until we harmed it!), clear about their purpose, learning from their work, and accountable for their behavior, then I had learned that they would get on with the job and fly.

But trust was essential, because without trust then the old management tools of management-by-objective, tight job descriptions, payment for performance, etc., would be necessary, and culture would surely shift in the wrong direction.  Motivation would drop because those old management tools were developed, and are suitable only (in my view) in contexts where people fit in to simpler, more-linear processes such as manufacturing or bookkeeping.

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Building Strong INGO Teams: An Emerging Venn Diagram (2)

That’s a major lesson I had learned from watching Alberto Neri’s work in Plan long before: what he wanted to do was right and good, but the way that he put his initiatives in place destroyed motivation and led him to failure as Plan’s CEO.

How to build trust in a team?  It’s a truism that trust takes years to develop, but only an instant to destroy.  I had learned how to build trust, and how I had damaged trust, along the way:

  • Trust has two elements:
    • You know that the person you trust knows what they are talking about.  They are competent;
    • You know that the person you trust is honest with you, has your best interests at heart, and works to maintain an authentic, human relationship with you.

If either of those two elements are not in place, then trust will be very elusive.  If both are in place, over time, trust can build.

As I thought about my new position at ChildFund Australia, it seemed to me that my own competence was probably unquestioned.  I had worked in the field for over 20 years, in similar, larger, organizations, across the world, and I had done a very similar job (in Plan) before.  I had served as Executive Director of an INGO.  I was very familiar with working in globally-federated organizations (as ChildFund Australia was), and had even been very involved in creating the program approach used by a key member of the ChildFund Alliance.  So even though I would be new to ChildFund Australia, I felt confident that my own competence would be recognized.

So, to build trust, I had to build on that sense of competence by being honest and straight with people on my teams, in a way that demonstrated that I had their best interests at heart, while trying to build and maintain an authentic relationship with them.  This didn’t mean that I would always agree with them, or that I would never discipline people, but that I would strive to be clear and honest and authentic in my management actions.

*

I had a feeling, as I flew towards Sydney, that if I could build clarity and trust, anything would be possible.  But there was one element missing: inspiration.  Given the motivation that is intrinsic in our INGO people, even if they were clear about the test and worked in a culture with high levels of trust, as time went by I felt that they would still need to be inspired to do their very best.

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Building Strong INGO Teams: An Emerging Venn Diagram (3)

Inspiration would be necessary because much of our work in INGOs isn’t particularly exciting.  Yes, it’s an honor to visit the field and work alongside people fighting for justice, for better futures.  Real inspiration comes from those visits.  But we also have to compete for funding, deal with reports and other paperwork, participate in performance reviews, deal with difficult people, (often) cut budgets, change plans, etc.  And we spend most of our time on those mundane tasks, which can create a sense of alienation from the source of our motivation.

That means that we need refreshing of our motivation periodically.  When I worked with ChildFund Australia I tried to make that happen in various ways.  In the Sydney office I organized occasional, open reflection meetings at which we would consider a range of topics that related to our program work, in a freewheeling way.  For example, one time we discussed the notion of direct cash transfers, something that challenged our program approach.

Another way of keeping us connected with the source of our motivation involved using the “case studies” that were produced frequently as part of our Development Effectiveness Framework – see element 3 in the diagram included above.  At our regular, formal IPT meetings, and even (when possible) at board committee meetings, I started our work with a quick reflection on one of those “case studies” to ground our work in the real, lived experience of  people who faced poverty and injustice.  I will describe the DEF, and the “case studies” in much more detail in a future blog, but for now I think that these, and other elements of my approach helped to keep up our teams’ levels of motivation and inspiration.

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Finally, even with clarity, trust, and inspiration, over time, harm is done.  That’s because the normal, natural interaction in any team produces friction, and that friction takes a toll on the human beings within the team.  Luckily there is a range of principles and practices that are designed to restore harm.

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Building Strong INGO Teams: An Emerging Venn Diagram (4)

Late in my time at ChildFund Australia, as I worked through my Masters in Dispute Resolution at the University of New South Wales, I would study restorative justice in detail, which would help gel this topic for me.  But at this point my intention was to model some of the practices that I had seen Atema Eclai use at UUSC: frequent checkins with the team, and with each member; considering not just how people on the team were doing in their work lives, but as human beings; working in circles instead of around square tables; rotating the chairing of meetings around the teams.  Atema had clearly achieved very high levels of morale and loyalty, motivation and trust, which in part seemed to come from having spent lots of time building real, caring relationships with her team.

(At UUSC this seemed to veer into a sense of disunity, of aloofness and separation of Atema’s team from the rest of the organization, which was not a positive result.  But, overall, her team was very high-performing and, in part, this was due to Atema’s management approach.)

So I tried to put some of those mechanisms in place, and they worked pretty well.  Some of them ended up clashing with the very straightforward culture that is common in Australia, and which I came to appreciated.  But I tried to adapt things.

*

That’s what I was thinking about as I began to plan for my new post.  It makes sense to me, and reflects lots of learning over the years: our INGO teams will perform strongly if:

  • their task is clear, accountability is clear, what we are supposed to do, and why, is clear, and if how to carry out our tasks is clear;
  • we operate in a context of high trust;
  • the inspiration that we bring to our work is refreshed periodically.  And:
  • the normal wear-and-tear on our human relationships, the harm done over time, is restored intentionally.

Yes, we needed formality and controls.  And firm management.  I had learned that too much control, too many private-sector management tools, would harm team performance in INGOs.  But if I could create a management culture of clarity, trust, inspiration, and authentic human relationships, we might achieve a lot.

I’m sure there’s more to it, but that’s what I was thinking about as I flew towards Sydney!

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Here are some random images of teams I’ve worked with:

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Next time I will introduce the teams I worked with during my six years in Australia:

  • The Sydney-based International Program Team;
  • The Country Directors I worked with, in Papua New Guinea, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar;
  • The senior managers in Sydney, at ChildFund Australia’s head office.

Imperfectly, doing the best I could, I tried to live up to an ambition to make sure that these teams were clear, trusted, and inspired.  Stay tuned!

*

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

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

Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997)

February, 2018

(Note: I’ve updated this post in May 2020, after climbing Carter Dome once again.  I’ve recently completed ascending all 48 4000-footers, and am going up a few again, in different seasons…)

I began a new journey in May of 2016, tracing two long arcs in my life:

— Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;

— 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 29 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).

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In this blog post, I want to describe a short “project” that Max van der Schalk, then the CEO of Plan International, gave me as I was leaving Plan’s international headquarters for a year’s sabbatical.  We were looking at a big merger, and Max asked me to head up the merger team on Plan International’s side.

But first…

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To skip the description of my ascent of Carter Dome, and go directly to my description of the failure of a merger in the NGO sector, click here.

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The Climb – Carter Dome

I climbed Carter Dome (4832ft, 1473m) on 9 July 2017, with Yingjie Ma, a friend who is studying at UNH.  He goes by the name of “Draco” here.  Carter Dome is the eighth-highest of the 48 peaks

We left Durham at about 7:15am and drove up Rt 16 towards the White Mountains, stopping along the way for coffee and tea, and sandwiches to pack for lunch.  We arrived at the trailhead of the 19-Mile Brook Trail at about 9:30am:

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Draco: Peppy And Energetic – As We Departed!

Our plan was to hike up 19-Mile Brook Trail, and then bear left to take the Carter Dome Trail up to Carter-Moriah Trail, on the ridge.  Then we would turn south, taking the spur over to Mt Hight (4675ft, 1425m), and continue along Carter-Moriah to reach Carter Dome.  Rejoining 19-Mile Brook Trail at Carter Notch, we’d finish the day dropping down directly back to the parking area.

(Note that Mt Hight does not qualify as an official “4000-footer.”  The AMC criteria for being included as an official “4000-footer” is that a mountain must (1) be at least 4000 feet high while also (2) rising at least 200 ft above the low point of its connecting ridge with a higher neighbor.  In this case, Mt Hight does not rise 200 feet above the ridge connecting it to Carter Dome, which is higher.)

I had climbed the southern and northern sections of this ridge over two very memorable  days in September, 2016 – climbing Wildcat D, Wildcat Mountains, and then Middle Carter and South Carter.  Once we finished the climb today, nearly a year later, I would have only Mt Moriah left of the six 4000-footers on this long ridge that stretches along the east side of Mt Washington, across Pinkham Notch from the Presidential Range.

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We walked up the 19-Mile brook, gently upward for some time.  It was a very nice day, mostly sunny, perfect cool temperature.  Draco said he felt good and fresh!

At 10:41am, we reached the start of the Carter Dome Trail, where we went left onto a less-developed path:

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The trail then became steeper, and at 11:57am we reached the junction of Carter Dome Trail and Carter-Moriah Trail:

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Here we turned south towards Carter Dome, our objective for the day, joining the Appalachian Trail.  Soon we came to another junction where we had the option of going directly towards Carter Dome, or getting there via Mt Hight.  It was about noon, and we had time, so we decided to take the slightly-longer route, and go via Mt Hight:

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This was a good decision because, even though the ascent up to Mt Hight was very steep and rocky, the views from there were excellent.  As we would see, the summit of Carter Dome is forested, without any view at all!  We arrived at the summit of Mt Hight at 12:30pm, very windy, and a good time to have lunch.

There were really great views towards the east and the Presidential Range, and towards the west and the Atlantic Ocean:

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Pinkham Notch Visible Below
Mt Hight Summit

After lunch at the cold and windy top of Mt Hight, we continued towards Carter Dome, at about 1pm.  We were now up at elevation, so the trail was up-and-down along the ridge:

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We arrived at the junction of the Black Angel Trail, and continued towards Carter Dome:

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We reached the summit of Carter Dome at about 1:30pm:

It looks like there used to be a tower here at the summit, but we didn’t stay too long at Carter Dome, as there are no views.  So we continued along the Carter-Moriah Trail and, as we approached Carter Notch, the view down into the notch was impressive.  Here the Carter Notch Hut complex is visible below, and Wildcat Mountain rises above the Hut:

Back in September of 2016, I had sat on Wildcat Mountain and had lunch looking north into the notch.  A guy with two new artificial knees had sat with me, and described his plan to do the “cycle” of the 48 4000-footers: every one of the 48 peaks, in each month of the year!  Too much for me…

Here is the mirror-image view, taken last year from that spot at the top of Wildcat Mountain at lunchtime: I’m looking back towards Carter Dome here, in September of 2016:

Draco and I dropped down steeply toward the hut, hopping over and around typical White-Mountain granite boulders, and arrived at the lake next to Carter Notch hut at 2:20pm:

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After resting for a few minutes (Draco said he was getting tired!), here at the junction of the 19-Mile Brook and Carter-Moriah trails, we took a right turn, and headed north.  It was about 2:30pm … the 19-Mile Brook Trail ascends briefly up to the Carter Notch saddle, and then drops steadily down to the trailhead.

Along the way, the trail rejoins the 19-Mile Brook, and we walked down alongside it, crossing occasionally:

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We had seen an inviting swimming hole on the way up, and talked about taking a quick dip when we came back through.  In the end, Draco took the chance and said it was “SUPER COLD”:

We arrived back at Rt 16 at about 4:20pm after a very nice day, beautiful views along the way, especially at Mt Hight.

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Arriving Back At The Car – Looking Slightly Less Energetic!

A glorious White-Mountains day, and peak number 30 had been climbed!

I climbed Carter Dome (and South Carter, and Middle Carter!) again, this time in the autumn season, a bit over three years later. For a short description of that climb, skipping my description of my reflections on how things had changed, click here.

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A Failed Merger in the NGO Sector

Loyal readers of this blog will recall that Jean and I had left the UK in May of 1997.  I had wrapped up four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), and was looking forward to spending a year in Durham, New Hampshire, on a “sabbatical.”  This was a very generous policy that allowed Plan staff with tenure in the organization to take time to reflect, without pay but with a guarantee of a job at the end.

We flew from Heathrow airport to Boston that May, on the day that Tony Blair became Prime Minister, and then drove up to Durham, where Jean’s sister Joan had helped us rent a house outside of town.  The plan was to take a year and reflect about my time at IH, maybe climb a few of these White Mountains, take some courses at the University of New Hampshire (which is based in Durham)…

It was a great year.  The “reflection” part of that year led to two papers that were published in peer-reviewed journals, and which have informed several blog posts in this series:

— A description of how we produced the first data-driven growth plan for Plan International: how-should-an-international-ngo-allocate-growth;

— A summary of the three major “projects” that I had focused on during my four years at IH, along with lessons learned:  Tackling Fragmentation and Building Unity in an International Nongovernmental Organization.

Few operational staff in INGOs take the time to write for serious journals, so I was proud to have managed to publish these articles.

As for taking classes at UNH, that worked out well also.  I took courses in African History, Intro to Architecture (with Jean), and bicycle maintenance.  I began a lifelong habit of Vipassana meditation, attending two 10-day courses. That winter, I spent a good amount of time learning to cross-country ski.  And I did two small pieces of work for Plan, researching the potential for the organization to begin work in two new countries: Madagascar and Eritrea.  This involved a few weeks of work, and a visit to each country.

During the year, I kept my eye on internal vacancies in Plan, thinking about reentry.  My ideal next job would be back in the field, starting up a new country for Plan, as Country Director.  The visit to Eritrea had been positive, and I had recommended that Plan consider establishing operations there.  After that decision had been made, I applied for the job and was appointed as Country Director.  The future looked bright for Eritrea, and for Jean and I there, but just as I was leaving the country from my research visit, tensions rose (again) with Ethiopia, which led to a long period of conflict.  Soon, what had looked to be a possible model for an open society in Africa descended into repression and dictatorship.  This included a rapid closing of space for civil society in the country, including for INGOs.  So Plan deferred the opening of a Country Office in Asmara…

In the end, as readers know, Jean and I ended up flying to Hanoi in July of 1998, where I had been appointed as Country Director.  This would be my favorite posting in Plan, which I’ve described extensively in earlier articles in this series: here and here and here and here.

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But as left for that sabbatical year, in May of 1997, Max asked me to continue to look after a very important and rather sensitive project for a few more weeks, from New Hampshire.  Now, 20 years later, I feel that I can write about it: we were moving towards merging three organizations together: Plan International, Plan USA, and Save the Children USA.

Over the years, our sector always seems to be on the cusp of consolidation.  The logic is clear: many of our organizations do very similar work overseas, duplicating many functions.  And we compete for funds domestically.  So, at least in principle, mergers would seem to offer opportunities for massive cost savings.  To my knowledge, if we had succeeded in merging Plan, Plan USA and Save USA, it would have been one of the first mega-mergers in the sector.  The fact that the merger failed is, I think, a case study that illustrates why consolidation hasn’t really happened, despite the clear economic (and moral) case that can be made.  Instead, what we’ve seen, mostly, is consolidation between unequal parties (a larger INGO absorbing a smaller agency) rather than the kind of merger we were examining (between three large organizations.)

*

The day after Jean and I arrived in New Hampshire, still with major jet lag, I drove south to Rhode Island.  You may recall that Plan’s International Headquarters had been located in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, before we moved to the UK.  But the US fundraising office, “Plan USA,” was still there in Rhode Island, in separate premises not far from where IH had been.  It was a two hour drive for me: an hour to Boston, then another hour to Rhode Island.

The idea of merging Plan International, Plan USA, and Save USA had been on the table, quietly, for a few months.  I think that the idea emerged from what we had called “The Gang Of Four,” which was an initiative that Max van der Schalk had prompted over coffee with three other CEOS (Dean Hirsch of World Vision International, the head of Save USA, and Paul McCleary of CCF) one afternoon in Geneva at a UNICEF meeting.  Max thought that Plan, Save, World Vision, and CCF ought to be able to collaborate on something big, and the other three CEOs agreed.  Maybe as a way of building towards something even bigger.

We four program directors (the Save International program director had joined us) were asked to figure out something that made sense, and I proposed that we work together to figure out how we could do a better job with girl education, together.  My colleagues liked it, our CEOs embraced the idea, and off we went.  (It’s quite interesting that Plan is now becoming quite focused on girls, overall.  A good move into “exclusion” and away from “deprivation”, very appropriate for these times.  More on that later…)

From the “Gang of Four” initiative came, among other things, closer relations at the programmatic level, with me, Gary Shaye of Save US, Steve Commins of World Vision, and  Joy Carol of CCF getting to know each other.   It was great working with the three of them – I certainly learned a lot.  And, out of that very positive initiative came, I think, the idea of merging.

*

There were three CEOs directly involved in this possible merger: Max, of course, at Plan.  Then there was Sam Worthington, who was the CEO of Plan USA (now the CEO of the US peak body for INGOs, Interaction.)  And of course the CEO of Save USA.

The potential for efficiencies was really clear: Plan USA and Save USA competed for support in a very similar marketplace: individual donors, major donors, corporations, and the US government.  Even more interesting was that Plan USA raised most of its funding from private sources, and Save USA got the majority of its money from the US government; this meant that the potential for leveraging Plan’s private income to “match” a big increase in government grants seemed very large if the two agencies were merged.  In fact, Save USA’s government funding was pretty much “matched out”:  they they didn’t have any more “private” income to match government funding, so they couldn’t grow that income stream.

And Save USA and Plan International both had operations in a number of countries, doing very similar work in the same places.  Duplication and inefficiencies across the three organizations seemed ripe for elimination.  All in all, there seemed to be big financial, programmatic, and moral reasons to at least consider consolidation.

But structural relations were complex: Plan USA was, in theory, a fundraising office for the Plan alliance, tightly bound to the wider group.  Plan International implemented programs for the whole Plan alliance.  Save USA was, similarly, a key member of the Save the Children Alliance, raising funds and running their own programs around the world, and also remitting funds to other Save members.  A merger would be challenging.

But first we needed to figure out if the advantages we saw, in principle, really existed in fact.  And we needed to do this very quietly, because a merger of this kind, with Save USA leaving the Save the Children alliance, would be a bombshell!

(As an aside, as I was leaving IH for my sabbatical, I had a strange conversation with the chairman of Plan’s international board of directors, Fred McElman.  I thought he simply  wanted to thank me for having spent four years at IH, which he did, but then he went on to express his sorrow that things hadn’t worked out… but perhaps something would come from the merger.  Later I thought that he was assuming that I had been interested in the CEO job, Max’s job, and that perhaps something like it would emerge from the merger for me!  It was kind of him, but of course he was looking at things from a private-sector point of view: I was DELIGHTED to be leaving IH and, after the year on sabbatical, going back to the field.)

As I mentioned above, Max asked me to lead the due diligence from Plan International’s perspective.  Sam Worthington was, of course, based in Rhode Island, and Gary’s office was in Connecticut.  There was a fourth player involved in the process: Dave Matheson, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group, was on the board of Plan USA and Plan International and he offered to provide expert assistance, in the form of a savvy BCG analyst with experience in our sector.  I’ve forgotten this person’s name, sadly, but we all worked together well in the process.  New Hampshire, Boston, Rhode Island, and Connecticut – we were all in the same general area, which boded well for being able to get through the due diligence.

*

Gary and I were asked to look at the value proposition for the merger from the programmatic and government-funding sides, with that BCG analyst helping us.   We met a few times in Rhode Island and Boston, and worked out the details.

We saw how overhead costs could be lowered by eliminating duplication where both agencies had field operations in the same country.  And, most importantly, Plan’s private income could be used to “match” a big increase in government funding.  In both ways, the combined entities would be able to do more than the three separate organizations could do.  Perhaps a lot more.  From our perspective, as I recall, the business case for the merger was strong and we realized that, if it went ahead, we would be in the vanguard of consolidation that so many had predicted for years.

The arguments for, and against, the merger were prepared and board meetings were scheduled to consider matters.

Sam Worthington had become seriously ill while visiting Plan’s work in Africa, and was still recovering during this time.  I vividly remember a lengthy meeting of Save USA’s board which Sam and I both attended, where he had to retire to an adjoining room where a cot had been set up so he could rest a few times during the meeting.  His courage, and commitment, were admirable.

*

Of course, the merger didn’t happen.  In fact, things fell apart rather quickly after Gary and I concluded our due diligence.

Why did it all fall apart?  From what I could observe, which admittedly was only part of the story, I think there were two main reasons that such an obvious good idea didn’t go forward.

First, in two of the three agencies the CEOs weren’t in strong positions.  Max van der Schalk was transitioning out of Plan, and would leave within a few months.  This kind of merger would need strong leadership from all sides, and while Max certainly was a strong leader, he was also leaving.  What was worse was that Max’s successor, John Greensmith, had been named but had no idea that this huge merger was a distinct possibility!

It’s hard for me to understand why Plan’s board hadn’t briefed John about the discussions, but it is easy to understand why he was very opposed to the idea once he found out: there would be nothing attractive about the idea for him, which might even threaten his (very new) job!  So while Max was on-board, and saw the compelling logic, John Greensmith was uninterested and skeptical.

The situation with Save USA was even stranger.  The board meeting that Sam and I attended was surreal, to say the least, and not only because Sam was so sick: despite clear evidence why it made lots of sense, the idea of the merger was basically put aside without significant discussion.

What was going on?  Like Plan’s board, Save’s board was well aware of the discussions; and, in this case, their CEO was very involved and positive, but he wasn’t on the way out of his job.  So it wasn’t like the situation in Plan, where the board was involved but a new CEO was uninterested.

My sense, from attending that one board meeting, was that the Save CEO had lots of great initiatives bubbling along, he was very creative … and his board had learned that many of them wouldn’t come to fruition.  I got the feeling that the Save USA board tended to let a thousand flowers bloom, but when this one unexpectedly looked like it was turning into something serious they were very uninterested, to say the least.  And they quashed it without hesitation.

So the first reason why the merger didn’t go ahead was that two of the three CEOs didn’t want to, or weren’t able to, push things ahead with their boards.  The second reason is also related to the boards that were involved: ego.

The brief discussions at that Save USA board meeting were informative: they didn’t focus on the business case, but rather on their individual roles in a combined entity.  In other words, sure, it makes sense from the perspective of doing more for children living in poverty, but what role will I, a Save board member, have in this merged organization?   Since Save USA would be a minority part of a a combined organization, the writing was on the wall.  So: no!

From my perspective, the merger failed for those two reasons: Plan’s new CEO hadn’t been briefed on a huge development that affected his job, and Save USA’s board thought that merging the organizations would diminish their own roles in some way.

*

Once the merger failed, I focused on the things I had wanted to do in my sabbatical: skiing, studying, writing, hiking.  In later years, of course, some mergers would happen in our sector and many more acquisitions would take place.  But I still wonder about the  impact that our merger would had in the sector – it would have been a big deal, I think,  a very positive example of putting aside vested interests and ego in favor of the mission.

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Stay tuned for the next blog in this series: before describing how Jean and I moved to Australia for six great years with ChildFund, I want to reflect a bit about how poverty, the sector, and my own thinking had changed since my time in the Peace Corps, 25 years before.

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A Second Climb, A Second Season

I climbed Carter Dome once again on 19 October 2019, on a solo hike in which I also climbed South Carter and Middle Carter. 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 Middle Carter in the late summer of 2016, this time I would be going up in the early fall. And since I would be attempting to do all three Carters (Middle, South, and Dome), it would be a very different hike.

Here you can see my route up to Carter Dome in 2016 (in blue) and my second, fall-season climb in 2019 (in black):

As you can see, this was a major climb – three 4000-footers in one day!

I’ve already described my second ascents of Middle Carter and South Carter. I left the wooded summit of South Carter at 3pm, having decided to continue and try for the third summit of the day!

This time I bypassed Mt Hight, as I was running out of time. So I stayed to the east of that summit, which Draco and I had climbed two years before, and reached the top of Carter Dome.

Dropping down from there towards Carter Notch, the view back east towards the Presidential Range was incredible. This time, the highest peaks in New Hampshire were dusted with an nearly snowfall:

At 4pm I was down from Carter Dome, and past the hut, arriving at the junction of the Wildcat Ridge and 19-Mile Brook Trails:

Descending steadily down 19-Mile Brook Trail, I arrived at the junction with the Carter Dome trail at 4:51pm. So I had about 2 miles left.

Just before that junction, this stream crossing caught my eye.

It was just after 5pm when I arrived back at the trailhead. There were still many cars along the road, but I hadn’t seen too many people on the trails.

An incredible day, climbing THREE 4000-footers in one glorious day!

*

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

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

Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed

June, 2017

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

Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed”

(Note: I’ve updated this post in October, 2019, after climbing Middle Carter once again.  I’ve recently completed ascending all 48 4000-footers, and am going up a few again, in different seasons…)

*

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

But, unlike Bob Dylan, I still cared.

*

I began a new journey a year ago, tracing two long arcs in my life:

— Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;

— 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.

*

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

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To skip the description of my ascent of Middle Carter, and go directly to my reflection on how the world had changed during the first two phases of my career, click here.

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The Climb – Middle Carter

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

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

Dolly Copp was (and is) under construction, necessary renovation.  I had a simple flat area, picnic table, and nearby (common) toilet in the area of the campground that was not being renovated. No shower facility, unfortunately…

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

Here you can see my plan for the first part of that day – the solid line heading up to Middle Carter. And you can see the route I had taken the day before, in dotted lines, up Wildcat “D” and Wildcat Mountain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Summit Of Middle Carter

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

I climbed Middle Carter (and South Carter, and Carter Dome!) again, this time in the autumn season, a bit over three years later. For a short description of that climb, skipping my description of my reflections on how things had changed, click here.

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Things Had Changed

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

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

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

— lucky to have been sent to Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and to have been assigned to Cañar, where I was given big responsibilities, and located far from other Volunteers!;

— lucky that Annuska Heldring arrived in Cañar while I was a Volunteer, because she helped fund my most innovative project (San Rafael), taught me a lot about how to manage a big international NGO … and later opened the door for me at Plan International;

— lucky to have worked for Monique van’t Hek during my first posting in Plan, in Tuluá, Colombia – I learned a great deal from her about how to run an NGO, how to manage people, how to speak Colombian Spanish!  And lucky that I later worked for Leticia Escobar when I became Field Director there, a smart and very dedicated professional;

— lucky to have worked for Andy Rubi, Plan’s first Regional Director, once I moved to Quito;

— lucky to have joined Plan during a period of rapid expansion, which gave me many, many opportunities to learn at a rapid pace during a phase of professionalization of that, and most other, international NGOs;

— lucky to have had the opportunity to succeed Andy Rubi as Regional Director for South America for Plan; and lucky to move to become Plan’s Program Director at International Headquarters; where I was

— lucky to have work with Max van der Schalk, Plan’s CEO of the time;

— lucky to have had support from Max and Plan’s board to decide to tackle some fundamental changes in Plan;

— lucky to finish my time in Plan in Viet Nam, such a special place, with such special people (Thu Ba, Duat, Minh Thu, Ary, etc.)

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Second Climb, A Second Season

I climbed Middle Carter again, on 19 October 2019, on a solo hike in which I also climbed South Carter and Carter Dome. 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 Middle Carter in the late summer of 2016, this time I would be going up in the early fall. And since I would be attempting to do all three Carters (Middle, South, and Dome), it would be a different hike.

I left Durham around 7:30am, on a brisk and clear morning. Little did I know just how “brisk” it would be later that day!

My idea was to park at the Nineteen Mile Brook Trailhead, and walk up Rt 16 to Camp Dodge. I had seen references to a “Camp Dodge Cutoff” that would save me a longer walk along the road, if I could find it!

Here you can see my route up Middle Carter in 2016 (in blue) and my climb in 2019 (in black):

So I was able to save that first part of the southern Imp Trail.

Then I was pretty sure I could get to the top of Middle and South Carters, but my hope was to also climb Carter Dome that day. Ambitious, because climbing two 4000-footers was pretty challenging; climbing three, especially in mid-October when the days are shorter, seemed perhaps too much.

The walk from Nineteen Mile Brook Trailhead to the entrance to Camp Dodge was short and easy, and I headed up towards the Camp on a winding dirt road. There was construction going on, even on a Saturday, but after one short wrong turn, I was able to find the “Camp Dodge Cutoff” and made my way up it at just before 10am. Camp Dodge is at about 1453ft of elevation:

The Cutoff is unmarked, leaving the camp just to the right of a maintenance shed. It’s the only trail leading in the right direction, towards Imp Trail.

I reached the junction with the south section of the Imp Trail loop at about 10:15am, and headed up. At this point, it was cool and dry, with evidence of the recently-concluded foliage season below me:

The trail continued upward, and I reached the junction with North Carter Trail at about 11:15am. Thirty minutes later, still working my way upward, the situation began to change, with evidence of ice and snow starting to appear:

I reached the junction with Carter-Moriah Trail at noon:

OK, now it was getting cold and icy! I had brought my “Yak-Trax” but didn’t put them on yet, as the snow and ice were still navigable in boots. At this point I was hiking in fog.

I got to the top of Middle Carter at about 12:45pm, having climbed around 2 hours and 45 minutes. Fortunately, the fog lifted, and the views from the top of Middle Carter, over to the Presidential Range, were just spectacular!

After enjoying that magnificent view, I continued south towards South Carter…

*

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

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

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

June, 2017

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

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

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

*

I began a new journey a year ago, tracing two long arcs in my life:

  • Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
  • Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it 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.

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To skip the description of my ascent of Wildcat Mountain, and go directly to my description of the Large Grants Implementation Unit that we established in Plan in Viet Nam, click here.

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

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

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Mount Washington From Wildcat “C”
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Looking East, the Atlantic Ocean (Right Side Background)

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

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

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

What is a ‘cycle’?” I asked.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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Stay tuned for descriptions of those climbs!

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The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam

Plan Struggles To Increase Grants

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

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

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

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

A Regional Meeting in Plan Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Large Grants Implementation Unit” – Conceptual Drafts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My response was three-fold:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foresight, hindsight and the LGIU becoming the new norm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many thanks to Ary for his recollections!

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, stay tuned!

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

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

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

June, 2017

I began a new journey a year ago, tracing two long arcs in my life:

  • Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers.  I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
  • Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it 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.

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

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To skip the description of my ascent of Wildcat “D” Peak, and go directly to my description of Plan’s workin Viet Nam, click here.

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The Climb – Wildcat “D” Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Summit Of Wildcat “D”

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

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

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Plan’s Work in Viet Nam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Population Below $1 (PPP)

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

U5MR

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

Improved Drinking Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Part of our efforts to connect with the Vietnamese government involved me, as the representative of Plan in Viet Nam.  Field visits always included protocol meetings with the Provincial, District, and Commune People’s Committees.  In Hanoi, also, there were opportunities to connect at various levels.

By the time I had been in-country for two years, I was fairly well known, and knew my way around.  One perk that went with that kind of status was being invited to the yearly “Consultative Group” (CG) meetings, where the multi- and bi-lateral donors met formally with the government to review how the aid program was going.  The World Bank Country Director co-chaired these important meetings, along with a Deputy Prime Minister; several (I)NGO representatives were invited.

The WB Director in my time was Andrew Steer, a brilliant and charismatic leader who did a fantastic job, ably supported by Nisha Agrawal and Carrie Turk, both of whom had come from NGO backgrounds.  Here is a photo of the INGO representatives attending the 2001 CG Meeting, along with Andrew Steer:

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From the left: Mandy Woodhouse (Oxfam GB), me, Bill Tod (Save the Children), CD from (I think) Marie Stopes, and Andrew Steer

At the end of CG Meetings, unless things had gone very badly, participants were invited to a closing meeting with the Prime Minister.  The first time I attended, the closing meeting was quite strained; apparently there had been tensions within the government unrelated to the CG Meeting.  The second year, all was positive, so we walked over to the PM’s offices and reported to him.

After the meeting with the Prime Minister was over, he invited the group, maybe a hundred people, to move up to a stage for a group photo with him.

Once the photo had been taken, people began to move off and leave.  I had brought a camera with me, and held back.  Imagine my surprise when I found myself standing with the Prime Minister with nobody else around!

So I moved quickly, knowing that a photo of the two of us would be priceless evidence of Plan’s status in such a hierarchical country.

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With the Prime Minister of Viet Nam, Pham Van Khai

My only regret is that I was determined not to have my eyes closed, because I guessed that the PM would not hang around for long.  So my eyes are wide open!

My Vietnamese language skills were good enough for me to understand when, after the photo was taken, the PM asked his staff member: “who is this person?”  Luckily, the aid answered correctly, so all was well!

That photo hung in all of Plan’s offices across the country, until I left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we summarized the CSP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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