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

June, 2018

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

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

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

Call it the Holy Grail!

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

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

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

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

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

But first…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bondcliff From West Bond

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Isn’t that spectacular?!

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

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

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Bondcliff From The Top Of Mt Bond, Now Descending…

 

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

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Looking Up At Bondcliff

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Sleepers From The Old Forestry Railway

 

Scratches from walking poles?

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

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

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

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

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Knackered!

 

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

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Figure 1: The ChildFund Australia Development Effectiveness Framework

 

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

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

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According to this way of defining things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words:

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

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

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

So that’s what we did!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lots of group discussion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generally speaking, these reports would include:

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

Examples of these reports are shared below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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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:

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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!

*

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.”

*

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?

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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…

*

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.

*

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!

*

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

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

 

 

Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team

May, 2018

I began a new journey 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.

*

Picking up the story in July of 2009, I flew to Sydney for what would become 6 great years as ChildFund Australia’s first International Program Director; Jean would join me there in a few weeks.  In two previous blog entries of this series, I described how I was thinking about programming, and about putting together a strong set of teams in Sydney and overseas, as I approached this exciting new challenge.

In many ways, as I headed towards Sydney, I was hoping to put it all together: 25 years in international development and social justice, designing and implementing programs and partnerships, building cohesive and high-performing teams – this was my chance to start afresh with all of the lessons learned over those decades.  To really get it right.

In this article, I want to introduce the program team at ChildFund’s head office in Sydney – the “International Program Team” – share a bit about the great people I worked with, along with a description of how the team’s staffing and structure evolved.  I would approach this task very mindful of what I had learned in Plan International, especially how we refocused and restructured the agency; and keeping the lessons about building strong teams in complex situations, that I had learned at UUSC in my mind also.

But first: I climbed Mt Moriah (4049ft, 1234m) on July 22, 2017, with Kelly Royds and Raúl Caceres, friends from Australia who, coincidentally, had worked at ChildFund (but not on the IPT.)  We had hiked up Mt Pierce and Mt Eisenhower a year earlier, in August of 2016…

*

Raúl and Kelly came up from Cambridge the day before, and we left Durham at about 7:45am, and stopped for sandwiches and coffee in Ossipee on the way north.  Traffic was heavy on this summer weekend, so it wasn’t until 10:45am that we reached the trailhead in Gorham, in the northern reaches of the White Mountains.

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Raúl and Kelly at the Beginning of the Climb

 

Mt Moriah is the northern-most of the six 4000-foot peaks in the Wildcat-Carter range.  I had climbed Wildcat “D” and Wildcat Mountain (on one day), and Middle and South Carter (on the next day), in September of 2016, solo; and I had summited Carter Dome on 9 July, 2017, with our friend Draco.  So Moriah was the last of these six that I would climb.

Moriah is an “easy to moderate” hike, and we had a nice day for the climb: not too hot, partly cloudy and a bit misty.   It’s 4.5 miles up, and we retraced our steps from the top.

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The trail climbs moderately from the trailhead just outside of Gorham, reaching a ledge outlook at Mt Surprise.  There, views opened to the west towards the Presidential range:

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This ledge area seemed unusual to me – not so high in altitude, but quite alpine in nature: low pines and large areas of lichens, as if we were at a much greater elevation:

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I guess the conditions here were affected by a combination of elevation and latitude: since we were at the northern end of the White Mountains, perhaps the winter weather would be a bit more severe?

It was a bit misty, with views that were not quite as dramatic as last time I was up on this range, but still very impressive.  There is a short boggy area near the top.

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Nearing the Top – Raúl, With Kelly in the Background

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We reached the spur path to the summit of Mt Moriah at 2pm.  From here it wasn’t too far to the top.

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The summit itself is a small, rocky clearing, and on this day it was quite crowded, so we ate a late lunch at an outlook a short distance from the top, with great views to the north:

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The (Crowded) Summit Of Mt Moriah

 

An outcropping was visible to the south, without anybody on it.  It looked like there would be great views from there so, after lunch I thought that I would go ahead to try to get to it.  Maybe the view there would be worth the walk.  When we reached the intersection with the Kenduskeag Trail, Kelly and Raúl decided to wait for me there; I kept going, hoping to reach that outcropping.

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Taking first the right-hand turn (along the Carter-Moriah Trail, coincident with the Appalachian Trail here) and then doubling back to explore briefly along the Kenduskeag Trail, I just couldn’t find that outcrop.  After poking around a bit, I headed back to where I had last seen Raúl and Kelly, but they had gone.  So I began the descent back to the trailhead.

Soon I passed a couple who were climbing up, and I asked them if they had seen my friends.  No!  Whoops!  Clearly we had gotten separated at the top, so I asked the couple to tell Raúl and Kelly that I had begun the descent.  A few minutes later I was able to get reception on my cellphone, and rang Raúl: sure enough, they were waiting for me back at the summit!  In retrospect, I should have thought of that – of course they would want to wait where there was a view! – but I had been too tired to climb back up there, and assumed that they were feeling similarly.

From their perspective, as I was descending, Raúl and Kelly became worried that I was lost and perhaps injured.  Finally they decided that it would be best to walk to the trailhead, and then I called Raúl and we realized what had happened.

I descended as we had ascended, a beautiful day for a hike in the White Mountains:

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Presidential Range, Now Backlit In The Afternoon

 

Nearing the trailhead, I came across part of an old car that I hadn’t seen on the way up:

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I arrived back at the trailhead at 5pm, and Kelly and Raúl finished at about 6:30pm.  Despite our inadvertent (and temporary!) separation, all turned out OK and it was a pleasant and enjoyable day.  Mt Moriah, peak number 33, was climbed – 15 more to go!

*

When I arrived in Sydney, one of my first tasks was to finalize the structure of the new International Program Team (“IPT”), and complete its staffing.  Having spent lots of time and energy worrying about structure in previous roles (particularly at the International Headquarters of Plan International – see this blog), I was thinking about this in two ways:

  1. Because structure has a strong influence on behavior, I wanted to keep the IPT’s structure lean, flat and close to the field, and efficient, cost-wise;
  2. Because with the right people, structure wasn’t the most important thing, I wanted to not worry about it too much: just get the right people, make as good a structural decision as I could, and then get on with the work and let things evolve through intentional, restorative, reflective learning.

It turns out that these two aims are fairly consistent.  Yes, structure does have a strong influence on behavior, so it’s important not to get it wrong.  And, within reason, flatter structures are better: fewer levels of bureaucracy between field and senior management keeps things a bit more grounded in the reality of our NGO work.  Flatter structures help keep head-office costs down, also.  But I had also learned an important lesson along the way: hire great people, make roles very clear and connected to the organization’s mission and people’s passions, and then let things evolve, reflecting and learning-by-doing.  Don’t obsess too much about structure.

So that’s what I did.

*

When I arrived in Sydney, the IPT was in flux.  Even though ChildFund Australia had been working in Papua New Guinea for fifteen years, and in Viet Nam for a decade, the main role of Sydney-based program staff at that point was to oversee projects funded through the Australia-NGO Cooperation Program (“ANCP”) of AusAID (the Australian Government’s overseas aid agency), implemented by the US member of the ChildFund Alliance, confusingly-named ChildFund International.  This meant that the IPT had little role with regards to ChildFund Australia’s own programming…

In 2009, ChildFund Australia was preparing for growth: our private income was growing strongly, and because the new Labor government was promising to strongly-increase overseas development assistance in line with international commitments, and we had just become top-tier ANCP “Partners” with AusAID, it looked like that income stream was also going to grow quite rapidly.  Part of that preparation for growth resulted in the creation of my new role as International Program Director, which would assume the management of ChildFund Australia’s three (becoming five) Country Directors.

ChildFund Australia’s organizational structure as I arrived in Sydney looked something like this:

IPD Structure - 1.002

 

  • Five Department Directors worked with Nigel: Bandula Gonsalkorale (Finance and IT); Jan Jackson (HR); Lynne Joseph (Sponsor Relations); Di Mason (Fundraising and Marketing); and me;
  • Initially we had three Country Directors, handling program implementation and reporting to me: Carol Mortenson (Cambodia); Smokey Dawson (PNG); and Peter Walton (Viet Nam).  Peter also handled regional responsibilities for the Mekong, supervising ChildFund’s research into setting up operations in Laos.  I will share more about these Country Directors, and their successors and teams, in upcoming articles in this series…

And in the Sydney Program Department, five positions were in the FY2010 budget (in addition to my own):

  • Veronica Bell had just left ChildFund, taking up a position at the Human Rights Council for New South Wales.  So her International Program Manager position was vacant;
  • Richard Geeves had just joined, only a few days before my arrival, as International Program Coordinator for the Mekong programs (Cambodia and Viet Nam).  Richard had long experience in the education sector in Australia (including in indigenous areas), and was recently returned to Australia after many years working from Cambodia;
  • Rouena (“Ouen”) Getigan had joined ChildFund several years earlier, and therefore was our repository of wisdom and knowledge; the rest of us were new, but Ouen knew how things worked!  She handled relations with our ChildFund partners in Africa and Asia that were funded through the ANCP program, and did an outstanding job of building and maintaining these partnerships.  In addition, to support a large regional HIV and AIDS project in Africa, Ouen supervised a very capable Kampala-based project coordinator, Evas Atwine;
  • Terina Stibbard, like Richard, had just joined ChildFund, only a few days before my arrival, as International Program Coordinator for Papua New Guinea.  Overflowing with passion for the work, and with a tireless commitment, Terina took on what was perhaps our biggest challenge: building a strong program in PNG.  I will write much more about PNG in a future blog post in this series.  Also, among other things, Terina introduced us to the concept of “critical friend,” which perfectly captured the IPC role with our Country Offices: without direct authority, but able to advise and speak truth directly without harming relationships;
  • And Nigel had left one position undefined, for me to consider.

Interviews for the Mekong and PNG roles had begun before I was hired, but before finalizing things with Richard and Terina, Nigel and Jan had consulted me, asking if I wanted them to wait until I got to Sydney before finalizing these hires.  But Richard and Terina looked great to me, on paper, and I saw no reason to delay.

In terms of the program-team’s structure, I didn’t see any reason, at this point, for the extra structural level implied by the “International Program Manager” role.  Over time, I saw things might evolve in three general domains:

IPD Structure - 1.001

 

In the Program Support domain, one group of staff in Sydney would accompany Country Directors and, most directly, the Program Managers in our program countries, helping develop projects and programs with the greatest impact on the causes of child poverty in each location.  In the Program Development area, Sydney staff would provide technical and systems support, establishing standards and helping measure results.  Finally, of course, we had a general function of Program Implementation – our Country Directors.

As we will see, in fact, the IPT structure did in fact evolve in this way.

*

So here is the first iteration of the IPT structure, put in place soon after my arrival:

IPD Structure - 1.003

 

Richard, Ouen, and Terina focused mainly on “Program Support” duties, working directly with our Program Managers in Cambodia, PNG, and Viet Nam, and with ChildFund partner offices in Asia and Africa to help them develop and implement, and learn from, increasingly sophisticated programming.  Two new hires, Jackie Robertson and Cory Steinhauer, joined ChildFund to support program development: Jackie was focused on developing the policies and standards that would govern our work; and Cory would focus on building a development-effectiveness framework through which we would design our programs and measure our results.

Here are some images of that first IP team:

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Terina, Richard, Cory, Jackie, Me and Ouen

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Richard, Terina, Me

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Ouen

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This structure worked very well.  In terms of how I managed the team, from the beginning I tried to put in place a range of “restorative” practices, aimed at keeping the team together, keeping us grounded and motivated:

  • Every Monday morning at 10am, we had a team checkin.  I had learned how to do this from Atema Eclai at UUSC, though I had to adapt it quite a bit: Australians weren’t enthusiastic about the “touchy-feely” aspects of checkins like Atema’s.  So we limited things to a brief general chat followed by a discussion of priorities for the week.  This seemed to work very well, settling us into the week smoothly, and was replicated by the team even when I was away;
  • Every month or two, we had a formal IPT Meeting.  These events had agendas, minutes, pending-action-items lists, etc.  They were business meetings, which I would chair, meant to be efficient fora for decision-making and accountability.  They worked very well.  For example, I had learned how to use “pending-action-items” lists from Max van der Schalk while working at Plan’s international headquarters, and the introduction of this tool was very important at ChildFund: decisions that required action went onto the list, organized in order by date, and stayed on the list until they were completed or the IPT agreed to remove them.  This provided a strong element of accountability and was a helpful irritant that kept us from neglecting decisions and becoming less accountable.  Once the ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” (“DEF”) was completed, we introduced a short reflection from a field case study at the beginning of each IPT Meeting, to help ground us in the reality of our work; much more detail about the DEF will come in a future blog in this series;
  • My intention was to complement the formal IPT meetings with periodic reflection meetings about a topic related to our work.  These sessions wouldn’t have agendas or minutes, much less structured and more relaxed than the IPT Meetings, and would be chaired by different members of the IPT who had expressed an interest in a particular topic – micro-finance, human rights, direct giving, etc.  These sessions were always interesting and useful, and energizing, so I regret not organizing more of them.  Somehow they seemed to drop off the agenda with the fast pace of work, over time, and I don’t think that I fully realized the potential of this concept;
  • I tried to have an open door policy, available for IPT members at any time.  I made sure to close my door only when necessary, and to invite any team member to come in and sit down whenever they dropped by.  I think this was helpful in creating and sustaining a culture of caring and support, clearly communicating to everybody that helping the team was my main job.  Of course, there were times when my office door needed to be closed – for the discussion of sensitive matters, particularly on the phone with our Country Directors – but I had learned at UUSC to be quite mindful of asking permission to close my door, to enhance transparency and make sure people were comfortable.  As with the team checkins, it seemed that our mostly-Australian staff viewed this habit of mine – asking permission to close my door – as a bit silly.  But I think it was helpful;
  • Of course, I carried out an annual performance review of each member of the team, and spent lots of time preparing these documents.  I tried to be balanced, but to always include areas for improvement – loyal readers of this blog will remember my experience with Pham Thu Ba, back in Plan Viet Nam: when I finished her first performance review, which was stellar, she told me I wasn’t doing my job if I couldn’t help her improve!  This made a big impression on me, and even though western culture these days seems to only value praise, I wanted to honor Thu Ba’s example in my work in Australia.  This worked well, most of the time!;
  • In addition to the yearly performance review process, I tried to have some less-formal, one-on-one time with each IPT member every year.  I’d invite them for coffee or lunch, and have an open, unstructured chat about how things were going. I wasn’t able to make this happen as often as I wanted, but it was a very useful mechanism, helping surface concerns and opportunities that I might not have appreciated otherwise;
  • Finally, also dating from my time in Viet Nam, I adapted and used a “Team Effectiveness Assessment” for use with the IPT, and was able to use this tool to formally assess how we were progressing.   The framework I used came from a great workbook that I had discovered at Asia Books in the Bangkok Airport, back when I worked in Hanoi in the late 1990’s: “The Team-Building Workshop,” by Vivette Payne.  The approach included in the book outlined eight elements of team effectiveness, and a survey was included that could be used to measure the status of a particular team.  Starting with how I had used the survey in Hanoi, I now adapted the survey and used it four times with the IPT, tracking results and identifying areas that we could focus on to improve (in yellow):

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You can see that our overall score, a measure of team effectiveness, improved from 197.1 in March, 2011 to 230.6 in December of 2011, and then moved back down to 204.1 in January of 2014.  I think that the decrease in score reflects the arrival of several new IPT members, and the corresponding need to settle the team down into new roles and relationships.

Each time we used this tool, we identified areas for focus, which are initiated in yellow: for example, in October of 2012 we looked to focus on “Roles” and “Team Relationships” and “Skills & Learning.”  I found the tool to be practical and very useful, though not to be taken too literally; discussion of results and team reflection on next steps was more important than the numerical scoring… and the fact that I was using this tool periodically gave the team a message that I was taking our effectiveness seriously, and investing my time, and all of our time, on improving the team environment.

*

In one of my blogs about UUSC, I described how I had created the “UUSC Handbook,” to enhance clarity of how things would be done in that agency.  From my perspective, as Executive Director there, the UUSC Handbook was a big success, notwithstanding its large size.  Given the tensions that existed in that agency, having an agreed, approved set of standards and procedures was helpful, and since it mainly simply codified and clarified existing practices, it didn’t create too much bureaucracy.

I replicated this approach at ChildFund Australia, creating the ChildFund “Program Handbook.”  Like its UUSC predecessor, the Program Handbook was quite complex and bulky to produce and update, which happened periodically … they were both meant to be living documents.   And it contained much content that was already existing, just needing to be codified.

But, unlike the UUSC Handbook, ChildFund’s document contained much that was new: our Theory of Change and our Development Effectiveness Framework, and a range of program policies – these were new, developed by the new IPT, and represented the ongoing maturing of ChildFund’s programming.

A copy of a version of the ChildFund Australia Program Handbook is here (Program Handbook – 3.3 DRAFT ); even though this is marked as “Draft,” I think it was the final update that we issued before I left Sydney in 2015.

*

Two years later, in 2011, ChildFund Australia was growing strongly, and we had commenced operations in Laos.  The IPT structure in Sydney evolved consistently with this growth:

IPD Structure - 1.004

 

Carol Mortensen continued as CD in Cambodia, but changes had been made in PNG and Viet Nam, and we had started operations in Lao PDR:

  • Andrew Ikupu, a very-experienced Papua New Guinean, had replaced Smokey Dawson as CD in PNG.  Andrew had long experience working in development in his country, and had a PhD from the University of South Australia in Adelaide;
  • Deb Leaver had taken over from Peter Walton in Viet Nam.  I had first met Deb in late 2009, when I visited ActionAid Australia, where Deb was Program Director, and she had been probably the most welcoming of my peers in Sydney.  We were lucky to hire Deb to follow Peter;
  • Chris Mastaglio, with his able colleague Keoamphone Souvannaphoum, had helped ChildFund with the initial research into why, how, and where we should work in Laos.  Once we made the decision to start working there, we were fortunate that both Chris and Keo were available to join ChildFund: Chris as CD, and Keo as Program Manager (and, later, as CD when Chris transitioned to head up a regional sport-for-development program).

We were very lucky to have Andrew, Chris, Deb and Keo join ChildFund Australia.

In Sydney, things had also evolved.  Cory Steinhauer had departed, and Richard Geeves had moved over from Program Support (where he had served as IPC for the Mekong) to work on Development Effectiveness.  He was quite good at this role: while I was the primary architect of ChildFund’s Development Effectiveness Framework, which I will describe in detail in a future blog post in this series, Richard was an able foil, working to keep things simple and practical, and he had a good touch with the field, keeping the implementation of what was a new, challenging system on track, with good humor.

John Fenech joined the Program Development team, helping our Country Offices prepare grant proposals.  Relative to our size, ChildFund Australia had a lower proportion of income from technical grants (bilateral, multi-lateral, foundation) than our peer organizations, and John’s role was to build our portfolio.  Although John was one of the younger members of the IPT, he brought a vivid countercultural sense, sometimes seeming to date more from the 1970’s than from the 2010’s.  In a good way…

Terina remained engaged with PNG, and she was doing a fantastic job working with Andrew Ikupu and his Program Manager Manish Joshi (later becoming CD there).  As a result, our programs in PNG were really taking off – growing in size, impact, and sophistication, and diversifying in income source.  And Ouen continued to work with our ChildFund International partners across Africa and Asia as they implemented an increasing number of ANCP-funded projects.

As our programs were expanding, two new IPCs had joined, working with our programs in the Mekong: Caroline Pinney took over support from Cambodia and Laos, and Maria Attard worked with our team in Viet Nam, while also coordinating research and initial engagement in Myanmar.  Caroline brought long experience in Asia, with AVI (the Australian volunteer-sending agency), and a very strong level of dedication and passion for our work.  Maria’s work had been in Cambodia (working with women and children that had suffered from domestic violence) and the Pacific (in the disability sector), before returning to Australia (continuing in the disability sector).  Maria brought a welcome sense of activism to the team, building on her advocacy work in the disability sector.  Both Caroline and Maria showed remarkable dedication to the heavy workload and complicated realities of the programs that they supported.

Finally, in this second iteration of the IPT structure, we decided that the scale of operations was large enough to merit a program officer to provide a range of support services to the team.  Initially we wanted to hire an indigenous Australian, accessing subsidy programs offered by the government.  This was Terina’s idea, and was a very good one, but we were never able to make it work due to complicated and dysfunctional bureaucracy on the government side.

So we shifted concepts, and decided instead to look towards recent graduates in international development.  Given how many people were finishing degrees in the field, and how few jobs there were, we thought it would be good to make the position time-limited – giving new graduates some real work experience, and some income, while taking some administrative load off of the rest of the IPT.  And then booting them out into the real world.

We recruited externally, and were able to hire a very smart, extremely hard-working new graduate, Mai Nguyen.  From then on, Mai handled a range of administrative and program-support duties with great efficiency and good humor.

Here are images of that iteration of the IPT:

Cropped Team Photo

IPT in February, 2012.  From Left To Right: John Fenech, Ouen Getigan, Me, Maria Attard, Terina Stibbard, Mai Nguyen, Caroline Pinney, and Richard Geeves.  Missing: Jackie Robertson

IPT in March 2012.jpg

IPT in March, 2012.  From Left To Right: Ouen Getigan, Maria Attard, Terina Stibbard (seated), Caroline Pinney, Jackie Robertson, Me (seated), John Fenech, Mai Nguyen, and Richard Geeves

 

*

In 2014 we introduced IPT’s third structural evolution, the last version of my time as International Program Director.  At this point, our scale had grown further, with the addition of Myanmar and, with 11 direct reports, I was having trouble providing proper individual attention to everybody.  So we introduced a new level, partly to break my “span of control”: so Ouen and Richard became “Managers”:

 

IPD Structure - 1.001

 

Ouen would be handling Program Development and the support of our Development Effectiveness Framework, and Richard moved to manage Program Support while also serving as IPC for PNG (after Terina Stibbard departed.)  This allowed me to give priority attention to the five Country Directors now reporting to me, and to Ouen and Richard.

Here is an image of that final iteration of the Sydney-based team:

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IPT in November, 2014: John Fenech, Sanwar Ali, Caroline Pinney, Richard Geeves, Maria Attard, Me, Manasi Kogekar, Mai Nguyen, Sarah Hunt, and Ouen Getigan.  Missing: Jackie Robertson.

 

We had upped our technical support capacity, by recruiting Sanwar Ali from Oxfam Australia; he would head support for our increasing Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Response efforts.  John Fenech had moved to serve as IPC for Cambodia, allowing Caroline Pinney to focus on Cambodia, and Mai Nguyen had moved to serve as IPC for Myanmar, allowing Maria Attard to focus on Viet Nam.  To replace John in the grant-development role, we (re)hired Sarah Hunt, who was quickly very successful in bringing in additional resources to the program; Sarah had served on the IPT before my arrival, and we were lucky to bring her back, thanks to Ouen’s strong recommendation.  Sarah made grant development look easy, which it certainly isn’t!

This team worked very well, and seemed harmonious and effective.  Ouen and Richard were good, supportive managers of their teams, and I was able to spend much more time with our Country Directors.

*

In my last article in this series, I shared a framework that I developed over time, for thinking about effective teams in NGO settings:

Clarity Trust Inspiration - 1.001

 

In that article, I said that “… 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.”

How did we do in ChildFund Australia’s IPT?

  • Clarity: We did fairly well here.  I was careful to engage with the IPT to make sure that their roles and jobs were clear, and the work we did to develop a programmatic Theory of Change and Development Effectiveness Framework also greatly enhanced clarity.  The preparation and frequent updating of the Program Handbook also provided clarity, though perhaps was viewed as a bit bureaucratic by some.  But, overall, I’d say things were clear;
  • Trust: this is a bit harder to judge, for me, because it was my job to create and maintain an environment of trust.  Trust comes from a combination of competence and honesty, and I feel that IPT members viewed me as quite competent and honest.  For example, I decided to share minutes of all Senior Management Team meetings with IPT members at our IPT Meetings – orally, in summary, and omitting any confidential content.  I think that sharing this information helped reinforce a sense of transparency.  But of course many factors were beyond my control, and I was imperfect in my communications skills;
  • Inspiration: I think we did fairly well here, I tried to bring a sense of the realities in the field into all our meetings, and into board and Senior-Management meetings, using (for example) case studies from our Development Effectiveness Framework to reconnect us with the deeper motivations that brought us into the NGO sector.  Again, I was imperfect in this, but I think we did pretty well;
  • Restorative Practices: earlier in this article I described my efforts to build restorative practices into the ongoing context of the IPT, and I think these worked very well.

Overall, perhaps a solid B+.

*

That’s some of the story of ChildFund Australia’s International Program Team, from 2009 through 2015.  ChildFund’s work expanded enormously during that time, and the IPT  managed to support that expansion smoothly, with increasing attention to the quality and sophistication of our programming.

It did come at a financial cost: program support increased from around 4% of funds remitted to international programming in 2010, to 6.7% in 2015.  My sense is that the gains in effectiveness and impact were well worth this investment – I will explore this in more depth in an upcoming post in this series.

I enjoyed working with the IPT, and learned a lot from them.  Morale was good, consistently, and though I can’t take sole credit for that success, I think that the approach we took helped.

With gratitude and warm appreciation to:

  • Sanwar Ali
  • Maria Attard
  • John Fenech
  • Richard Geeves
  • Rouena Getigan
  • Sarah Hunt
  • Manasi Kogekar
  • Mai Nguyen
  • Caroline Pinney
  • Jackie Robertson
  • Cory Steinhauer
  • Terina Stibbard

*

Stay tuned for more blog posts about ChildFund Australia: our Theory of Change and Development Effectiveness Framework, our work and great teams in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam, and much  more…

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.

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.

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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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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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!

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.

 

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.

*

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…

*

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!

*

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.

*

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:

IMG_5540

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.

*

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:

CG Meeting - 1.jpg

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.

Scan.jpeg

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.

*

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!

*

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!

*

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.)

*

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!

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.

 

South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002)

May, 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 arriving as Plan’s Country Director for Viet Nam, in July of 1998, and what it was like living in Hanoi.  This time I want to describe the team I worked with during the four years that I served in Viet Nam.

*

I climbed South Hancock (4319ft, 1316m) on 30 August 2016, having reached the top of Mt Hancock earlier that day – it was a solo hike, looping across both Hancocks.

South Hancock was the 18th of the 48 peaks that I would summit in this series – there were still 30 to go!:

Slide17

 

After leaving the top of Mt Hancock, the Hancock Loop Trail continues to the top of South Hancock, which I reached at about 1:45pm.  South Hancock’s summit is wooded, but has a nice outlook towards the south.  Having been frustrated earlier, when a hostile dog had prevented me from having lunch at the top of Mt Hancock, when I arrived at South Hancock’s summit, two hikers were resting at the outlook.  Rats!

So I had a late lunch away from the top, and when the hikers moved on I spent some time at the outlook, which was fine.

IMG_6841

The Summit of South Hancock

Here are some images of the hike down from South Hancock and back to the trailhead, where I arrived at about 3:45pm:

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So it was a short hike from the top of South Hancock to my car, just about two hours.  All in all, a fine day in the White Mountains.

*

Jean and I arrived in Hanoi in July, 1998, after having spent a year on an unpaid sabbatical.  Plan was very generous allowing this time to rest and reflect, which I felt I really needed after four rather intense years at International Headquarters (“IH”).

Readers of this blog may recall that three of my major projects at IH were focused on redefining Plan’s programmatic objectivestransforming the agency’s operational structure in the field, and orienting Plan’s growth to where the organization should be, strategically.  And I’ve mentioned at least once my feeling that one of Plan’s major weaknesses was its tendency not to finish major initiatives: when personnel changed, priorities were reinvented, and work underway before staff changes was very often abandoned.  It was like “Year Zero” whenever a new manager arrived.

This tendency was wasteful and, even worse, introduced an underlying cynicism into Plan’s culture.

I was determined not to fall into this trap when I took on the challenge of becoming Plan’s second Country Director in Viet Nam, a relatively new program country.  And I was excited at the opportunity to put the reengineering of Plan’s approach that we had carried out at IH into practice locally.  This meant that I hoped to:

  1. Determinedly build on the work of my predecessor, Supriyanto, and to never, ever disparage what had been accomplished in his tenure;
  2. Faithfully implement the operational structure that we had designed at IH;
  3. Reflect Plan’s new program directions in our work in Viet Nam;
  4. and, since Plan’s growth plan indicated that our work in Viet Nam should grow robustly, I would work to scale up our program in-country.

In other words, I wanted to face the real, practical consequences of what we had done at IH!

Let me describe how this worked.

*

It was very easy to respect, recognize, and build on, Supriyanto’s work, because he was (and is) a very smart and pragmatic leader, a strong and practical manager.  In particular, he had made sure that Plan’s work fit into the structure of Vietnamese society, enlisting the local government structure into project management while at the same time devising and implementing a “Community Management System” which provided the checks and balances that Vietnam’s monolithic, single-party state lacked.  As an Indonesian, Supriyanto was deeply familiar with this kind of context (governance in Suharto’s Indonesia bore some similarities with the way that Viet Nam was structured), and the system he devised was very effective.  It worked, both in terms of being acceptable to local authorities, while also ensuring realistic levels of accountability.

I didn’t mess with it!

In fact, when the Vietnamese government proposed to award Supriyanto a medal for his work, I enthusiastically organized for him to return for the ceremony.  (Putting aside false modesty, I would receive the same medal, later…)

*

As I arrived in mid-1998, Supriyanto was moving towards implementing the operational structure that had been devised at IH during my tenure there.  In particular, he had named two gifted Vietnamese women as “Operations Support Officer” and “Sponsorship and Grants Support Officer.”  These posts were meant to be, short-term, stepping stones into two of the core, common positions that we had designed at IH – “Operations Support Manager – OSM,” and “Sponsorship and Grants Support Manager – SGSM.”  Supriyanto had named them as “Officers” instead of “Managers” simply to give them time to grow and mature into the very significant responsibilities that the “Manager” positions entailed.  They needed to get ready.  And, I think, he wanted to let the incoming Country Director make the final decisions.  Smart guy.

Here is an image of the Country-Office based managers for Plan Viet Nam, around 2001:

Country Office Managers

Tran Minh Thu          Pham Thu Ba                Mark                Le Quang Duat

 

Tran Minh Thu is on the left in this photo, in red.  Minh Thu became SGSM when she was just 24 years old, and did an outstanding job in that complex role.  She had to oversee the complex and voluminous communications flow between families that Plan worked with and the sponsors that supported the program, hundreds of thousands of individual letters, reports, queries, etc., all across daunting barriers of language and culture.  She also managed public-relations, filming visits from Plan’s fundraising offices, which involved mediating and negotiating between very demanding western staff members and supportive but often inflexible government rules and regulations.  Viet Nam was a very popular country for these filming visits – a fascinating, picturesque place, with (for westerners) a very exotic culture.  This meant that misunderstandings were constant, which could easily have led to mistrust and conflict, but Minh Thu managed things astutely; I can only imagine the pressures she faced.

Later in my career, when Jean and I were based in Australia, I was able to get together with Minh Thu several times – she was living and working in Canberra.  It was good staying in touch with her.

Pham Thu Ba is in yellow, second from the left.  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, as I will describe in a future article, 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. In fact, Thu Ba would often take the initiative to convene a “reunion” of Plan staff from my time; these were always joyful events – I’ll include a video of one such reunion below.

On the far right in the photo, in a black shirt, was Le Quang Duat, who served as Program Support Manager during the last three of my four years in Viet Nam.  Duat was a bit older than many Country Office staff, which meant that he accrued a degree of intrinsic respect despite being much newer to Plan than Minh Thu or Thu Ba.  Because I could rely so confidently on how Thu Ba and Minh Thu managed the fundraising and operational sides of Plan’s work, I was able to spend a lot of time working with Duat on how we would evolve Plan’s program.  I relied on his insights into his country, his instincts, and his good hearted and sincere nature.

The term “Support Manager” might be a bit confusing for non-Plan staff, though I outlined the thinking behind the terminology in an earlier blog.  In summary, when we redesigned and brought a measure of consistency to Plan’s operational structure across all field locations, my thinking was that the organization should be as “flat” as possible, with as few layers of bureaucracy as possible.  This would enable Plan to be agile, focused on our “customers” (people living in poverty, and our supporters), and efficient.  Part of the new structure specified that field operations would be conceived as “Program Units” with “Program Unit Managers” reporting to the Country Director.  A core-common structure at Country Offices would include, in addition to the Country Director, three additional positions, reporting to the Country Director but not directly managing PU Managers.

Although in many countries these positions were often filled by expatriates, in Viet Nam they were ably performed by Minh Thu, Thu Ba, and Duat.  I was very lucky to work with these three professionals at Plan’s Country Office.

*

Another key staff member was our Internal Auditor, Vu Khac Tan, who had also been named in his post by Supriyanto.  He did a great job, in my time, in a very challenging role.

*

Two other aspects of Plan’s standard operational structure, as implemented in Viet Nam, are worth mentioning.  Firstly, field operations (outside the Country Office) were meant to be organized, whenever possible, consistent with the socio-political structure of the country, with “Program Units” coincident with provinces.

We faithfully implemented this concept.  Supriyanto had established four Program Units, with “Program Unit Managers” by the time I arrived.  Of these, three were in the north, in and around Hanoi, while the other was in the central region of the country:

  • Our first province, which actually had split into two separate provinces by the time I left, was Nam Ha.  Our work there was managed by Nguyen Van Mai, who was a very smart manager;
  • Hanoi, Viet Nam’s capital, was the second province Plan worked in; Nguyen Van Hung was the PU Manager there.  I worked closely with Hung, partly because he was based near to the Country Office, partly because his program in Hanoi was very innovative (he managed a large project focused on “street children” in the city), and partly because I liked him.  Hung’s English was very good, and somehow he became my “official translator,” helping me in many of our formal meetings with government.  He now teaches pharmacology at the University in Haiphong, but stays active as a consultant in child protection programming;
  • Our third province was Bac Giang, where Le Thi Binh managed our work, having succeeded Pham Van Chinh.  Binh joined Plan when Chinh moved to the Country Office to take on a technical role.  Chinh was an icon in Plan Viet Nam, having been Supriyanto’s first hire.  He was a rare, older Vietnamese who had studied overseas, in France, so was able to bridge cultures, which was very important in Plan’s early days, when the Vietnamese government was unfamiliar with the idea of an international NGO, even wary of the concept;
  • In Quang Tri, Nguyen Van Quang was Plan’s Program Unit Manager, succeeding Nguyen Van Hung (not the same person as the PU Manager in Hanoi).  Most of our staff was from the north of Viet Nam, where our Country Office was based and where the other three Program Units were.  Quang Thi was in the central region of the country, bordering the old border and DMZ, and Quang himself was from the central region, from Danang.  He joined Plan after leaving World Vision.  He did a great job managing the team and our partnerships there, and seemed to be a good, kind-hearted person.  Quang still works for Plan.

The growth plan that I had devised while at IH had put a high priority on growth in Viet Nam, we worked to expand during my four years there, trying to move towards poorer areas of the country.  We wanted to move our emphasis from areas close to Hanoi, towards more mountainous areas, and to expand in the central region.  So we were able to open operations in Phu Tho and Thai Nguyen, in the north, and Quang Ngai in the center.

  • In Phu Tho, our work was managed by Ly Phat Viet Linh.  Linh was from the south of Viet Nam, which I think was a challenge for him, working in Phu Tho.  There were still some barriers to people from the south working in the north, coming from the country’s history.  Linh had followed the original PU Manager in Phu Tho, who had been dismissed, which was a second challenge for Linh.  But he did a good job and has since held several positions at UNICEF;
  • Our second Program Unit in the center of Viet Nam was in Quang Ngai, where our work was managed by PU Manager Nguyen Duc Hoang.  Like Quang in Quang Thi, we had hired Hoang from World Vision – World Vision’s loss, Plan’s gain.  Both Quang and Hoang were not Christians, which (sadly) seemed to limit their careers in World Vision.  Hoang was a very strong leader and manager, and handled setting up operations in Quang Ngai very competently.  He still works for Plan, in a very senior position;
  • Finally, near the end of my tenure, Plan opened operations in the northern mountainous province of Thai Nguyen, where our PU Manager was Tran Dai Nghia.   Nghia came from an academic background, and was himself from Thai Nguyen, which was an advantage for us.  Nghia was very able and smart, and handled initial stages of our work in that province very well.  I saw Thai Nguyen, known as the “capital” of the northern mountainous region, as a stepping stone towards working up in the provinces farther north and higher up, near the Chinese border.

Finally, Plan’s standard structure envisioned a “decentralized operations support – DOS” office, providing administrative and financial support to Program Units far from the Country Office.  We hoped to grow our work in the center of the country, and established a DOS in Hue, led and managed by Ary Laufer.  (Establishing a DOS in Thai Nguyen, supporting Program Units farther north, was also in our thinking…)

Ary had worked for Plan in West Africa, and did a fantastic job setting up the DOS (and the LGIU, see below) in Hue.  It ran well, and served as an essential support for our expansion into Quang Ngai, and Plan’s later growth (after I left) into the Central Highlands.  Ary worked hard, far from the Country Office.

When he joined, Ary would also be assigned the task of setting up and managing Plan Viet Nam’s pilot “Large Grants Implementation Unit”; I plan to write an entire blog article on the LGIU, which was a significant innovation.  The Unit was very successful before it succumbed to Plan’s fatal weakness when I left and the “Year Zero” phenomenon kicked in.  I’m hoping that Ary will contribute to that article, which will describe the challenge that the LGIU was designed to overcome, how we designed it, how it performed, and how it was closed.

Here are images of the full Plan Viet Nam Country Management Team, around the year 2000, with their base indicated on the map:

 

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And here is a video clip of a New Years gathering (“Tet”) that took place at the Country Office in early 2001.  Many of the people mentioned above appear in this video:

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I mentioned earlier in this article that Thu Ba often organized reunions when I visited Viet Nam, after Jean and I left.  Here is a short (4 minute) video of one such reunion, which took place in October, 2007, five years after we had left.  Jean and I had visited Bhutan, and spent a few days in Hanoi on our way back to New Hampshire:

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Of course, beyond the team that I worked with directly, there were dozens of other staff working with Plan in those days, who really made so many great things happen.  Along with the senior management team that I’ve mentioned here, people like Nguyen Minh Nhat (who managed our monitoring and evaluation program, later working with UNICEF and UNDP), Vu Duc Thanh (a brilliant IT professional who was our MIS officer), Mai Thi Thuy Nga (finance officer at the Country Office, who had a keen and sharp sense of humor), Thanh Thuy and Minh Ha (very capable and professional Sponsorship Communications Officers who worked with Minh Thu at the Country Office), Thuc Anh (another key finance officer), Nguyen Phuong Thuy (communications officer at our Hanoi Program Unit, now with ActionAid), Thanh and Quang (our first staff members in Nam Ha), Tran Thi Lan (the Health Coordinator in Quang Tri), Nguyen Thi Que (finance facilitator in Bac Giang), Tran Thi Thu (who handled sponsorship communications in Nam Ha), Vo Thi Bich Lan (sponsorship communications in Quang Ngai), Ngo Kim Dung (sponsorship communications in Bac Giang) … too many to mention.  Of course, I’ve forgotten some great, and superb people in this list, my apologies, please write to correct me!  But here is a complete listing, at least at one point in time: Plan Viet Nam Staff List – 2001.

My thanks to this great team.

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My time working with Plan’s teams in Viet Nam was probably the most memorable posting in my career so far.  I enjoyed every minute of our four years there.  At the time, levels of child poverty were still high, so our work was important – see the next post in this series for more about Plan’s work. It was a fascinating place to work, with its long history and deep culture.  And, as I’ve described here, I was honored to work with a motivated, smart, and hard-working team of people who wanted to improve themselves, and improve their country.  Many thanks to those amazing people for teaching me so much.

My next blog entry in this series will describe Plan’s work in Viet Ham.  Stay tuned!

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
  28. Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
  29. Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
  30. Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
  31. Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
  32. Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.