Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998

Jean and I arrived in Hanoi in July, 1998, for what would be four great years in Viet Nam. In this blog I want to share a bit about those years; I’ll go into more detail about my work there in future posts.


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

I climbed Mt Hancock (4420ft, 1347m) on 30 August 2016, the 17th of the 48 peaks that I would summit in this series.  Eric says that he and I had climbed Mt Hancock in March of 1991… I don’t have any recollection of that hike, but it must have been very chilly!

In August 2016, I had a very pleasant, solo, late-summer climb.  The Hancocks are located just west south-west of Mt Carrigain, which I had climbed about 6 weeks earlier:



Hancock Notch Trail begins at the parking lot at the hair-pin turn on the Kangamagus Highway, 4.7 miles east of the Lincoln Woods ski resort.  I left the Hancock Overlook parking area at about 10:15am, having driven up from Durham that morning.



After a pleasant walk through forest for about 45 minutes on the Hancock Notch Trail, I reached the junction with Cedar Brook Trail just before 11am.  It was a typical White-Mountains forest walk, moving gently uphill along the North Fork of the Hancock Branch river.



Then after another hour or so of forest walking, just before noon, I reached a fork in the Hancock Loop Trail where I turned left to go up Mt Hancock.  There, lying on the trail, was a small pink backpack, dropped by a tired child?  (I left it there, figuring that the owners would retrace their steps…)



From there, it was a fairly long and steep slog up to the summit of Mt Hancock.  I neared the top, hot and sweaty, at around 12:30pm.

There is a nice outlook, looking north-west from the top of Mt Hancock, and I had hoped to have lunch there, looking over toward Franconia Notch.  Sadly, there was a hiker there with a dog that was quite aggressive.  Even though the hiker assured me that the dog was “nice”, it was barking and snarling and trying to run at me, snapping its leash as it lunged – luckily it was leashed!  It felt like I shouldn’t stick around, so I left the top of Mt Hancock quickly, and hiked on towards South Hancock, with an empty stomach!


Nearing the Top of Mt Hancock, Before the Encounter With the “Nice” Dog


The Summit of Mt Hancock, Looking Back From the Top of South Hancock


I can understand why hikers want to take their dogs on these hikes, but some obedience training is in order.

After reaching the top of Mt Hancock, I continued along the Hancock Loop Trail, over South Hancock; I’ll describe that part of the day next time…


After leaving Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”) in May of 1997, Jean and I spent a year on sabbatical in Durham, New Hampshire.  In those days, Plan was very generous in allowing staff with certain levels of tenure to take up to a year off, without pay, to reflect and recharge.  So that’s what I did, spending the year taking courses at our local university, writing a couple of papers for “Nonprofit Management & Leadership” on the work I’d done at IH (both papers have been used earlier in this blog series), and taking the first three of many Vipassana meditation retreats that I would continue through the subsequent years.

It was a great year.  I did also do a bit of work for Plan during those months: I prepared a feasibility study for Plan to open in Madagascar, which involved a trip to that fascinating place.  Later that sabbatical year I applied to become Plan’s first Country Director for Eritrea, and travelled to Asmara to begin laying the groundwork to open an office there. Sadly, conflict with Ethiopia soon erupted, and Eritrea began to evolve towards repression.  Even during my visit it was apparent that what had been an open environment for international NGOs was becoming much more hostile.

So Plan postponed opening in Eritrea, wisely.  Later, nearing the end of my sabbatical year, I applied for the post of Country Director in Viet Nam.  Jean and I flew from Boston to Hanoi in early July, 1998, for what would be over 4 years in that amazing country.


I’m planning to write four or five blogs on my four years in Viet Nam.  I want to share what it was like working with the amazing Vietnamese people, what Plan did in those years, and how we restructured the operation to increase grant income.  I’ll finish with reflections on living and working there in those years.

But in this brief first entry, I want to describe what it was like arriving in Hanoi in mid-1998, beginning a long and very happy association with that country.


Jean and I arrived in Hanoi in mid-July, 1998, having transited for a day and night in Hong Kong.  We were picked up by a Plan car, and took the long ride into the center of the city, still jet-lagged but excited.

The next morning, despite having travelled all over the world with Plan, across Latin America, Africa and most of Asia, we were completely unprepared for the assault on the senses that awaited us in Hanoi: unbelievable heat and humidity, and unending rivers of bicycles and motorbikes on most roads in the city.

After just a few blocks walking towards the Hoan Kiem Lake, were were drenched with sweat and traumatized at having negotiated our way across the city streets at what seemed to be mortal peril.  I vividly recall Jean and I taking refuge at a small restaurant near the lake, sitting in air-conditioning and drinking cold Coca-Cola with shocked looks on our faces.

We would come to love Hanoi – the people, the timeless character of the city – and we became proficient at crossing the streets: just visualize yourself at the other side, and walk slowly, predictably, across…  But we never adjusted to the heat of that country, and even friends and colleagues who visited during those four years, people who had lived in the toughest climates in Africa and Latin America, were gob-smacked when they arrived in Hanoi.  Except for Hanoi’s winter, roughly late-October through March, the heat was unending and the humidity simply dissolved our clothes and shoes.


Some landmarks from our time in Hanoi are shown on this (present-day) Google Map:



IMG_4625Our first home was on Tong Duy Tan street, famous for having been the first area of private restaurants, as the socialist time began to evolve into a “socialist-oriented market economy.”  Right on the edge of Hanoi’s “Old Quarter”, it was a great place to live – lively and incredibly picturesque and unspeakably unsanitary.  A great place,  except for the railway that ran right in back of our apartment!  On our first morning after moving in, we went to the building reception to ask about the overpowering blaring through the night, and the caretaker indicated, with a smile, that the trains “only ran at night”!  Sounding their horns at top volume, of course, because Hanoi is very crowded, even with small homes right on the edge of the railway tracks, so running trains through there was dangerous.

We loved living at Tong Duy Tan, but the noise at night was unbearable, so after a year we moved to To Hien Thanh, which was more modern and a bit nearer to the Plan office.  I could bicycle (carefully!) to work from To Hien Thanh, and was able to jog many times per week around Lenin Park, which was an oasis of green (but with pungent water) in the city. We lived at To Hien Thanh for three years.


A View In Lenin Park


Plan’s office was on Tran Nhan Tong, right across from the city circus (which became a tongue-in-cheek metaphor, funny but Plan Viet Nam was never that crazy) and next to the newish Nikko Hotel.  We had two floors at the top of a fairly modern building.


Hanoi Circus, Right Across The Street From The Plan Office


Plan’s Office in 1998, We Had The Top Two Floors.  Photo Taken In 2014.  


Later, working with ChildFund Australia, I would return many times to Hanoi, so I will update this map with landmarks from that time, later on in this blog series…


Jean ended up having some very interesting jobs in Hanoi – teaching English at the Hanoi International School, helping in the HR section of the new Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, and doing some training as a consultant.

As I began working as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam, one very special connection was renewed. Loyal readers of this blog series will remember a reference to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, Chris Gilson. Chris had been a water promoter in the same group (“Omnibus 44”), assigned to Guaranda in Bolivar Province.  Here are Chris and I during Peace Corps training:



After finishing Peace Corps, Chris had gotten a masters degree at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, married Jean, and had two children (Katie and Tommy.)  Chris had joined Catholic Relief Services (CRS), having a few roles in their Baltimore headquarters, including overseeing their Cuba work.  Chris had visited Quito when Jean and I were living there, on a work trip, and we got together then.

Chris and I had occasionally stayed in touch over the years.

So imagine my surprise when, after just a couple of months in Hanoi, I received a memo from CRS announcing the arrival of their new Country Director for Viet Nam, the one-and-only Chris Gilson!  I showed up at his welcome reception, to his shock.

Chris and Jean stayed in Viet Nam longer than Jean and I did, around six years I think.  It was great having my old friend there, learning about the country together and building our connection.  While Chris ably ran CRS’s work in-country (and in Laos), his wife Jean played the key role in establishing the first post-war USAID presence in Viet Nam.


I will describe Plan’s work in Viet Nam, and the team I worked with, in the next few blog entries.  For now, I just want to note how strong my affinity with Viet Nam, and the Vietnamese people, became.  Of course, as an American living and working there, it was impossible to escape the shadow of my country’s tragic involvement with the country but I came to find that, unlike the US, in many ways the Vietnamese people had moved forward and were thriving, optimistic, and full of energy.

So, for example, aside from one encounter on the street in Hanoi, early in our time there, I never felt anything but welcome and appreciated.  Just the opposite, in fact.  Which struck me, and strikes me still, as a miracle, given that we killed 3 million of their people in a proxy Cold-War conflict in which we fought on the wrong side.

But there were other echoes of that history of conflict.  For example, all of the partners what Plan worked with during my time there, from central-government level all the way to our project work at commune level was with government or “less-governmental organizations” (such as the Youth Union, the Women’s Union, etc.) whose leaders had often fought on the other side of the “American” War.

Three anecdotes that I always go back to when I think about having been an American working in Viet Nam during those years.  Plan’s work was overseen, at central level, by the “People’s Aid Coordinating Committee,” known as “PACCOM.”  Initially, my counterpart there was a middle-aged man whose English-language skills were quite amazing.  One day, at lunch, I asked him how he became so fluent, and his answer was a bit chilling: as a young man he had been a translator at the Hanoi prison (which became know in the West as the “Hanoi Hilton”), assisting the interrogation of American POWs.  That explained it!  But it led me to imagine the scenes that he had witnessed as a very young man.

One of my closer relationships with local officials was with a great guy, Mr Truong Si Tien, who was the Vice Chairman of the Quang Tri People’s Committee.  For some reason, we really hit it off, which was very productive for Plan of course.  He had fought for the Viet Cong forces, which took control over Quang Tri in 1972 and never relinquished it.

There came a time that we had a vacancy in our leadership in Quang Tri province, and one day I received a resume from Mr. Tien.  He had never suggested any candidates for Plan before that, so I took the resume that he sent me very seriously.  The candidate had worked for USAID during the war, and there was a long gap in his resume after 1975 until fairly soon before our vacancy came up – he was working for the UN office in the central region of Viet Nam.  My sense was that this person was very special – he would have been marginalized after the war, having worked with the American government, but now I had a very senior government official, who I had faith in, recommending him to me.  I had to interview this guy!

And what a story he had!  He walked into the interview with a serious limp, which he later explained to me was caused by stepping on a land mine just after the war ended.  Apparently, many people who had worked with the Americans in the war were put to work clearing landmines with bamboo poles… After that, he spent a decade or more repairing raincoats in the Dong Ha market.  Imagine the loss of human potential!  Highly educated, fluent English – repairing raincoats.  But he worked his way out of his predicament, even having lost a foot, and ended up with a very good job and the backing of a senior government official.  An amazing guy, a heartbreaking story.

I wish we could have hired him, but (for other reasons) he wasn’t the most suitable candidate… That experience made me reflect on the sorrow of that war.  And I often felt very privileged to work in Viet Nam, as an American, to be able to do my small bit to help restore a little bit of the harm done in my country’s fundamentally wrong and corrupt war.

Finally, an anecdote from September 11, 2001.  I ended up serving on the “Steering Committee” for the NGO Resource Center, which was a joint government/INGO body that supported foreign NGOs working in Viet Ham.  There were four elected INGO representatives on the Steering Committee, and four government representatives. Because PACCOM was a committee under the umbrella “Viet Nam Union of Friendship Organizations” (“VUFO”), the NGO Resource Center Steering Committee related indirectly to the chairman of VUFO, Mr Vu Xuan Hong (who I would encounter again later, when I was working from Australia, and come to like and respect.)  Mr Hong was a very senior member of the government, holding rank equivalent to a Minister.

One day, in late September, 2001, the four foreign members of the Steering Committee received invitations to have lunch with Mr Hong.  This had never happened before. Given his seniority in the government, we were all very curious and interested, and looked forward to the meeting.  He booked a private room right on the Hoan Kiem Lake, at a restaurant known for traditional Vietnamese food.

After lunch, Mr Hong got down to business.  He wanted to share something with us that had just happened.  He had just received the text of a speech given by Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State.  The speech had been delivered in Washington, to an invited group comprising the heads of US-based international NGOs.

“We’ve never received anything like this before,” Mr Hong said, “and so we paid attention.”  Plus, he went on to explain, the speech had just been given a few days before, and was accompanied by a Vietnamese-language translation, parallel to the English-language text.

“That has certainly never happened before, so we paid very close attention,” he said.

In that speech, given just a few days after September 11th, Colin Powell had outlined the US government’s response to the attacks, and went on to refer to international NGOs as “our government’s boots on the ground.”

“So, we get it,” said Mr Hong.  “It’s clear to us.  We get the message.”  Colin Powell, an ex-General, ex-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referring to American NGOs working in Viet Nam as “boots on the ground” – this was an unfortunate message being given to a high official in the Vietnamese government!

Even though he was fluent in English, and had plenty of experience working with American agencies, I don’t think that Mr Hong understood that Colin Powell was using “boots on the ground” as a metaphor, and didn’t mean to say that American NGOs were part of a US military force.  But decades of history got in the way, and that message didn’t make it any easier for US-based NGOs to build trust with the Vietnamese government.  The shared, and tragic, history of relations between our nations got in the way of understanding each other.

Even though I am American, Plan was based in the UK and was supported through PACCOM’s European Desk.  So, at least partially, I was shielded from the little blip in mistrust that Colin Powell’s speech, and the way it was communicated to the Vietnamese government, caused.


But Viet Nam is a country, not a war.  Stay tuned for upcoming blogs on what it was like working with the amazing Vietnamese people, what Plan did in those years, and how we restructured our operation to increase grant income.

Before closing, here is a ten-minute video collage, taken from many hours of film that I took during those years.  It’ll give you a flavor for the country, and Plan’s great team.


Here are links to earlier blogs in this series – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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.


North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International

Last year I decided to climb each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  Since starting, I have been writing brief descriptions of the hikes, along with some reflections on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago.  On development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way …

The tenth of the 48 peaks that I summited was North Tripyramid (4180 ft, 1274 m), on 24 June 2016.  I did the whole loop over both North and Middle Tripyramids that day; in this posting I will describe the climb up North Tripyramid, the first half of the hike.


The Tripyramid hike begins at the Livermore Road parking area, in Waterville Valley.  I arrived from Durham at around 11am, and began to walk up Livermore Trail.


The first part of the walk, up Livermore Trail, is easy: a wide, unpaved forest-access road winding along a small brook, up past the Norway Rapids.  Eventually, I turned off the access road and, an hour later (3.6 m), I had arrived at the beginning of Mt Tripyramid Trail, which loops up over both peaks and back to this same junction:


Beginning of the loop over North and Middle Tripyramid mountains

One of the most interesting features of North Tripyramid is the enormous rock slide on the northwest side of the mountain – apparently the side of the mountain gave way during heavy rains in August, 1885.

Hikers are advised to do the loop clockwise – up the north side of North Tripyramid, and then over to Middle Tripyramid, and down its south side.  This is because going up the large slabs of granite on the north side is much easier (and safer) than going down them, especially when it’s wet or icy; being on the north side, the slide often remains icy long into the spring.  And also the south side, past Middle Tripyramid, has a long section of loose gravel which would be frustrating to ascend, sliding back constantly.  So: do the loop clockwise.  I’ll write about Middle Tripyramid, and the descent down the loose gravel, in my next blog…

About 1/2 mile after the junction shown in the image above, I reached the bottom of the famous rock slide, and the steep ascent began.  Here are a few views looking down the rock slide, as I neared the top, around 1pm that day:


Looking down the rock slide on the northwest side of North Tripyramid.


Mt Osceola and East Osceola are in the center distance here.


I think that’s Scaur Peak (3605ft) in the middle distance.


Waterville Valley Ski Area can be seen on the left, the Osceolas on the right.

It’s a long, steep haul up the rock slide but, as you can see, I enjoyed a spectacular, clear day with fantastic views to the north and west.  It was a sweaty but exhilarating climb.


Nearing the top of North Tripyramid.

I arrived at the top of North Tripyramid at around 1pm, so it took me around two hours to reach the peak from the parking lot.  Sadly, the top is forested and somewhat unremarkable:



The top of North Tripyramid

Although the top of North Tripyramid isn’t special, the climb up the northwest face, up that rock slide, was very memorable.

After lunch at the top, I continued on to Middle Tripyramid, which I will describe next time.


In my last blog entry, I described how Plan’s first Regional Office – for South America (SARO) – had embraced a key strategic shift towards what we called “empowerment” in 1991.  That’s what we called our change of approach, that emerged in the early 1990’s, from having Plan’s own staff manage the planning and implementation of development projects, to putting community members much more at the very centre of things in every way.

This shift had come as we at the Regional Office noticed, studied, and embraced  innovations that we saw emerging in Field Offices, in places like Plan Cañar (led by Annuska Heldring) and Plan Loja (under the leadership of Mac Abbey) and others.  These particular innovations were very similar in nature, seeking to “empower” local communities.

While we were very enthusiastic about the shift, as I mentioned last time I think that in some ways we might have been going a bit beyond our brief, filling an important, agency-wide void that was being left by an increasingly inward-looking International Headquarters.  But it was an exciting time for us in SARO.

Parallel to the move towards “empowerment” in South America, there were several other initiatives taking place in Plan.  Three task forces had been set up, working in a related fashion but not exactly in harmony.  All three of these efforts were connected, in some way, to stresses related to Alberto Neri’s initiatives and management style (described in earlier posts).  They represented efforts to correct the situation.

A “Morale Task Force,” was established, with representatives across the agency.  I think that the establishment of the MTF itself was an indication that Alberto was in trouble.  In fact, he would soon leave his position.  I wasn’t too involved in the MTF and, in fact, my morale was very good!  That’s not to minimize the real sense of discontent that had spread across Plan, and the MTF did a professional job of identifying the problem and proposing solutions, without being unnecessarily disruptive.

Two additional, separate, initiatives were undertaken as measures to address the morale situation inside Plan.  The “Strategic Plan Task Force” had begun to prepare a set of new guiding documents for Plan, including drafts of a “Vision” and a “Mission” (and, later, a “Commitment to Quality” that related to the work of the Quality Council – see below.)  These statements, which I will quote below, proved to be long-lasting and very effective in building unity of purpose across the organization:

  • Plan’s vision is of a world in which all children realise their full potential in societies which respect people’s rights and dignity;
  • Plan aims to achieve lasting improvements in the quality of life of deprived children in developing countries through a process that unites people across cultures and adds meaning and value to their lives by:
    • Enabling deprived children, their families and their communities to meet their basic needs and to increase their ability to participate in and benefit from their societies.
    • Building relationships to increase understanding and unity among peoples of different cultures and countries.
    • Promoting the rights and interests of the world’s children.

I found present-day references to Plan’s Vision and Mission statements, crafted, agreed, and approved in 1992, on several Plan website pages, though no longer at the level of governance.  Still, these statements guided the organization for well over twenty years, which is a tribute to the work of the people involved, including the SPTF Chairperson, Kevin Porter.

Many in Plan felt that Alberto Neri had moved the organization’s focus away from program, in his single-minded determination to introduce “professional” management, accountability, and systems befitting (in his view) such a large institution.  As a result, to bring focus back onto program, a third task force was established, building on an existing project that was developing indicators for program quality.  I was named to participate in this effort, representing South America, and attended an organization-wide workshop on “Program Quality and Program Quality Indicators,” which took place in Newport, Rhode Island in May, 1991.

My presentation to the Newport workshop proposed that program quality could best be achieved by focusing the entire organization on meeting the needs of the children, families, and donors that were Plan’s vital customers.  And I proposed that, to do this best, Plan should incorporate the principles and methods of “Total Quality Management” (“TQM”) into its working processes.

As best I can recall, my Newport presentation was similar to one I made a few months later, in Quito – which is here: quality-in-plan.  Here I outlined how Quality was seen, and achieved, in Plan, and how it related to program quality:


Much of that presentation compelling, nearly 25 years later.  The way that we connected quality in the organization with program quality is great.  The focus on “community management” was the way that we incorporated “Empowerment” into the quality focus – nicely joined up.  And I really like, on page 34 of the PDF, how we reference work with “a permanent element in the local environment – the appropriate government agency, a local, specialized NGO, etc.” – our way of talking about partnership with local civil society.


Total Quality Management was an important management topic in the early 1990’s, subject of a wide range of scholarly articles, case studies, and billable time for consultants.   As I came to understand it, TQM sought to empower employees to address customer needs, and to use data to continuously improve the customer satisfaction by improving work processes.  Several management theorists and practitioners had developed TQM over the decades, principally W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran.

Of course, TQM had emerged from the business world.  Deming, in particular, had worked in Japan from the late 1940’s into the 1960’s, helping that nation’s manufacturing base move from low value-added industries to the high quality, high-value products that we see today.  Juran had worked with Pontiac, for example, on the Fiero.

TQM was a very positive approach, leading to massive improvements in the quality of business processes, in the private sector and in government, even through to today.  And by 1991, it was a huge management fad, with many consultants earning good livings helping organizations implement the tools and methods involved.  As such, my suggestion that Plan adopt TQM was met with a large degree of skepticism by program staff in particular (my own peers!)  It felt to many that I was moving the focus away from program and towards more systems and procedures, playing into Alberto’s hands!

My own point of view was that TQM would help us become more effective and efficient, and clarify how all Plan staff related to program quality.  And I felt a huge affinity with the concept of “quality,” having been deeply influenced by Robert Pirsig’s classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Management.”  In particular, I was very influenced by this quote:

A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristics of Quality.

I felt that this way of understanding “quality” fit well into the value-driven nature of organizations like Plan, and with people working in that kind of organizations.  And TQM offered a way to combine that level of “caring” with a rigorous way of approaching our daily work.  This was exciting stuff.


By the end of the 1991 Newport Workshop, Plan had agreed to address program quality while embracing Total Quality.  A working definition of “Program Quality” was agreed, for consultation across Plan:

“(Program) Quality is the optimal utilization of all resources to enable our vital customers (Foster Children/Foster Families/Communities and Foster Parents) to meet their needs.”

Also, a Quality Council was formed, to synthesize and disseminate the substance of discussions that had taken place in the Workshop; obtain consensus with respect to the definition of Program Quality; identify Quality Indicators or a means for identifying such Indicators; and prepare a proposal for working towards achieving Program Quality through a universal commitment throughout Plan to Total Quality.

The Quality Council included:

  • Me, as “Project Manager”;
  • Tim Allen, Director of International Relations at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  • Marjorie Smit, Deputy Program Director at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  • Glorianne Stromberg, Secretary and Director of Plan International.

Glorianne Stromberg was a dynamic force for positive change in Plan.  While serving as Board Secretary, she designed and implemented a major review of Plan’s governance, and led the resulting overhaul of the agency’s committee structure.  Near the end of her tenure, she was asked to become a Commissioner on the Ontario Securities Commission, and to review the regulation of Canada’s mutual-fund industry, an effort that produced a hugely-influential report advocating much greater transparency and enhanced consumer protection.  Glorianne remains a close friend today, decades later.


By October, 1991 (five months after the Newport Workshop), the Quality Council had synthesized and distributed a Report on the substance of the discussions and conclusions reached by the participants at the Program Quality and Quality Indicators Workshop.  This Report was distributed with the Quality Council’s Update Number Two – quality-council-update-2, and is found here: fisk-workshop-report-may-1991.  It contains summaries of all presentations (including mine), and notes the establishment of the Quality Council.

We had conducted focus group discussions and, with the assistance of the Regional Representatives at the Program Quality and Quality Indicators Workshop, conducted surveys to ascertain the consensus on a definition of Program Quality.  The results of these surveys and of the focus group discussions were summarized in Part II of the Quality Council’s Report on Follow-Up Work Regarding the Program Quality and Quality Indicators Workshop.  This Follow-up Report is contained in the Quality Council’s Update Number Five, which can be found here – quality-council-update-5.

With the assistance of the Regional Representatives at the Program Quality and Program Quality Indicators Workshop, we had conducted surveys to identify Program Quality Indicators.  A summary of the suggestions for the development of Program Quality Indicators as well as an outline of PLAN’S efforts to date to develop Program Quality Indicators was included in Part III of our Follow-up Report.

And we had considered how PLAN could create a structured framework to strive in a unified way and on a continuous basis for Quality, as described in our Final Report – which is available here – quality-council-final-report.

In summary, the Quality Council had confirmed that there was general agreement:

  • with the Working Definition of (Program) Quality which is quoted above;
  • that (Program) Quality is part of Total Quality;
  • that PLAN should undertake a systematic worldwide program to manage and monitor the level of Program Quality;
  • that this program should be implemented through a Total Quality initiative, centering the efforts of everyone in the organization on high quality service to Foster Children, Families and Communities and to Foster Parents; and, finally
  • that the focal point of this effort should be the needs and requirements of these people.

That consensus formed the basis for the Quality Council’s conclusions that the most effective way to provide quality Programs was for the entire Plan organization to focus, on a continuous basis, all of its operations in a Total Quality initiative.

We advocated the creation of a new Quality Council to push the effort forward, along with steering committees across the organization.  Skills training would be required for all Plan’s staff.  And the organization’s systems and procedures would need to be aligned with TQM.  We estimated that this would cost just over $1m in Phase 1 (mainly piloting and training), and just under $1.4m in Phase 2 (staggered rollout across Plan).

What would Plan gain from this large investment?  We made an attempt to quantify the benefits in our Final Report, and included some case studies of initial efforts (in South America and the Netherlands) to demonstrate that our estimates were based on real, tangible, proven experience.  And, citing research, we indicated that between $3 and $6 of savings and improvements could be expected from every $1 invested in the initiative.


Looking back on the Quality Council’s Final Report, and the Updates that I have access to now, I’m struck by how often we made the case that organizations that employed TQM as a means of operating had better morale, greater commitment, and increased cooperation and communication.  I find these recommendations included in the Final Report to be quite surprising and very forthright, considering that our remit was focused on Program Quality:

  • Establishment of Organizational Priorities.  In view of the organizational stress that is being caused by there being too many major projects under way at once, the Quality Council recommends that two to four clear organizational priorities be established. The Quality Council further recommends that the remainder of the projects be put on hold until they can be systematically reviewed and paced within the context of Total Quality management.
  • Leadership. It is essential that the management team be composed of people who create and maintain an empowering management environment in which the principles of Total Quality can flourish.
  • Decentralization. It is essential that the process of decentralization which was started with the establishment of the Regional Office in South America be completed without delay as the duplication of systems and procedures is placing undue strains and demands on the organization and its employees.

In this respect, it is recommended that the management structure with the corresponding staffing for the three remaining Regions be put in place forthwith and that these Regional Offices operate “offshore” pending completion of the necessary governmental agreements and concessions.

This step will facilitate the establishment of the Total Quality infrastructure that is necessary to support the Total Quality initiative throughout PLAN. In addition, it will expedite decentralization and permit staffing and the structuring of systems and procedures in a manner that facilitates improvement in Total Quality.

Clearly, as I have mentioned above and in earlier posts in this series, something was going wrong at Plan.


Our report was submitted to Plan’s board of directors in November, 1991.  The Quality Council was excited and enthusiastic, and looked forward to what we thought would become a structured, methodical, scientific focus on program and program quality, centering the entire organization on our reason for existing.

Sadly, this effort became sidelined in the upheaval that followed the dismissal of Alberto Neri at that very meeting.  More on that next time… but by the time that a permanent replacement for Alberto was found, many months had passed and initiatives such as TQM had lost momentum in the tumult.  And, as a result, my own emphasis shifted towards working to rebuild the organization, based as I would soon be, at International Headquarters…

So was the work of the Quality Council a waste of time?  I would argue that it was a very important effort, one that influenced many of us as we moved into different roles in Plan.  The ideas and approaches informed how we approached our work, and had positive, subtle impact on many future projects.

But, certainly, had the Quality Council’s proposal been followed through as we hoped, there would have likely been a much greater, more-positive impact on the agency.

I would come to see other cycles like this in my career in Plan – a great effort to address a real priority, followed by poor followup, or worse.  And repeat.  This cycle seemed to breed cynicism across the agency.

I would learn some important lessons from my experience leading the Quality Council, and seeing our great effort result in much less impact that it could have had.  And I would remain friends with Glorianne Stromberg from those days until now.


In my next post in this series, I will describe the rest of my hike that day, getting to the top of Middle Tripyramid and back down.  And I’ll continue this story – the arrival of Max van der Schalk, who would soon bring me to Plan’s International Headquarters as “Director of Planning and Program Support,” where my main focus would be to re-establish headquarters in its proper role at the center of the agency.


Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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!

Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!

I’ve been writing over the last few months about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  Each time I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

The ninth of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Whiteface (4020 ft, 1225 m), which is slightly to the Southwest of Mt Passaconoway.  I went up both of these peaks on 15 June 2016, just five days after having gone up Mt Osceola and East Osceola.

I hiked over to Whiteface from the top of Passaconoway along the Rollins Trail, reaching the top at around 2:30pm.  Whiteface’s summit is uninteresting, but there are some beautiful granite outcroppings just past the peak, which give the mountain its name:




The Top Of Mt Whiteface


Here in the distance you can see “Ferncroft”, where I began and ended that day.  The photo is taken from the granite outcroppings just to the south of Whiteface’s peak:



Ferndale, As Seen From Granite Outcroppings Just Past The Top Of Whiteface


Unusually, at least for the summer of 2016, there were massive numbers of black flies at those granite outcroppings, so I didn’t stay long.  Swarms, like other years.  It’s a lovely place with fantastic views, so it’s a pity that I had to leave so quickly…

Much of the way down was on the Blueberry Ledge Trail, which was very steep as I left the ledges, fleeing those black flies.  Many of the signs along the way were painted in appropriate colors:


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This was a great day – warm but not too hot, and enough of a challenge to be interesting.  Except for the black flies at the top of Mt Whiteface, it was a perfect day!


Last time I described Plan’s first Regional Office in South America in the early 1990’s.  The overall organization was still growing quickly, and regionalizing.  But morale at International Headquarters (IH) in Rhode Island was poor and, as a result, it seemed to becoming less effective.  So, less relevant to what we were doing… My sense was this was mostly because of the clash between Plan’s still-new International Executive Director, Alberto Neri, and the existing organisational culture.

As a result, in the early 1990’s, under the leadership of Andy Rubi, the South America Regional Office (SARO) began to fill the vacuum.  This was, to a great extent, a reaction to Alberto Neri’s strong emphasis on financial controls – most of us supported those changes, but wanted also to work on improving our programs.

I want to describe two of the ways that SARO moved ahead as IH seemed to drift a bit.  In this blog post, I will describe our efforts to pull the region together around a concept that was new to us, which we called “empowerment”.  This evolution became one component of a strategic planning exercise – which, itself, was another manifestation of how we were filling the vacuum left by IH.  A controversial action.

Next time I will describe how we adapted and implemented Total Quality Management, which was picked up by IH and considered by the overall organization.


South America’s embrace of “empowerment” came as we learned from several innovations that were taking place in Field Offices in the region, in particular what Annuska Heldring was doing in Cañar.  So in many ways this strategic evolution was a  good example of bottom-up change: a wider organisation recognising and embracing an innovation that was coming from the “coal face.”  This process led us to establishing a “vision” for Plan in South America, something that we were very proud of.

But, on reflection, I think that we might have been overstepping some boundaries – more on that later!


I’ve described how I met Annuska Heldring when she arrived in Azogues to set up a Field Office for Plan.  As she set up Plan Cañar, I remember hearing her describe how she would have very few staff.  At the time I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and had never heard of Plan, so I had no sense of the importance of what she was talking about, nor the implications for Plan.  But I do recall Annuska telling me about the problems she had faced as Field Director in The Philippines, before coming to Ecuador, in the Field Office in Iloilo.  Because of labor problems there, the Field Office had been closed; that experience had obviously had a very large impact on Annuska.

As a result, when she left the Philippines and began to set up the Plan Cañar Field Office, she was determined that it would be set up without the dozens (or hundreds) of staff that were typical for Plan offices in those days.  Plan Cañar would have just a few, mostly senior staff, plus a driver.  This meant that, because there were virtually no staff to manage projects, community members managed project implementation with, for example in the case of the water system in San Rafael, the support of government.  (In San Rafael, that was IEOS and me!)

So, I think that putting the community in the driver’s seat wasn’t necessarily the point.  It seemed that Annuska mainly was determined to avoid staff headaches, so created a “low-staff” model.  What we ended up calling “empowerment” – communities leading their own development, as was their human right – was a by-product of having low numbers of staff.  Not that simple, obviously, but that’s how it felt.

As a Peace-Corps Volunteer in Cañar, years before I arrived in SARO, what Annuska was doing seemed to work pretty well to me, but I had no sense of the audacity of this way of working, from Plan’s perspective.  It was only when I got to know Plan, in Tuluá, that I gained a clear perspective, and began to see what a revolution Annuska had begun.  Plan Tuluá was pretty typical, with around a hundred staff, including dozens of “Social Promoters” that did much of the project work.  With, of course, lots of involvement of local community members, and it worked very well, but it was quite different from what Annuska was doing.  At its best, Plan Tuluá was very empowering, but Plan Cañar was very, very different.

By the time I got to the South America Regional Office, Annuska’s office had been running for four or five years, and was performing well in terms of many of the things that we measured: unlike many Field Offices those days, Plan Cañar was spending its budget¹, complied fairly well with what we called “Sponsor Relations” – the elaborate system that Plan had put in place to specify communications between sponsored children and families with “Foster Parents” – and was extremely “efficient.”

This last point became very important.  Because of Plan Cañar’s low numbers of staff, Annuska was able to allocate a relatively very high proportion of her budget to project implementation.  Not only were staff salaries a low proportion of her budget (although her staff were highly paid, there were few of them), but associated staff-related costs such as office rent, vehicles, etc., were also low.  Again, perhaps this wasn’t Annuska’s intention, but Plan Cañar really stood out when we in the Regional Office, and IH, reviewed budget ratios.

And for Plan in those days, budget ratios were extremely important.  Alberto Neri had established a goal that Plan offices would spend at least 70% of funds on “tangible benefits”; no more than 20% on staff salaries; and no more than 10% on operating costs.

Like many of Alberto’s initiatives, to me this one made a lot of sense to me.  Many of our offices were spending even less than 50% on “tangible benefits” in those days, and encouraging all of us to become more efficient made sense to me.  I could certainly see ways that we could become more efficient.  But, also like many of his initiatives, it was handled clumsily, pushed too rigidly, and alienated the very people who were implementing it, and who would have been his best allies.  There was a backlash.

So Alberto liked what Annuska was doing, because it was low-cost.  And we in SARO and across South America began to like the model, too, because there seemed to be a big difference in the communities.  People from villages in Cañar managed projects themselves, learned a lot from that experience, and did good jobs – at least as well as our armies of “Social Promoters” seemed to be doing in other offices.  And when I commissioned a review of the Plan Cañar model, asking my old boss Monique van’t Hek from Tuluá to review things, the conclusions were very positive.

There were a couple other Field Offices where Plan was putting community members more centrally into the driver’s seat; for example, Mac Abbey in Plan Loja (Ecuador) was doing something quite similar.  These other initiatives were perhaps not quite as radical as Annuska’s approach in Cañar, but the difference was that they were approaching the change intentionally from the point of view of “empowering” the community, rather than having a “low-staff” model as such.

We at SARO began to pick up the importance of these initiatives, and started a process of strategic planning that incorporated the shift towards “empowerment” into a region-wide commitment.  Plan South America got excited at this strategic movement, partly because the overall organization seemed to be drifting, and it gave us a cause to rally around.  And, ironically, Alberto was very supportive, for his own reasons (as I described above, he liked the low-cost aspect of the model.)  The rest of the organisation – senior management at IH, staff in other regions – was much less enthusiastic!

Here is a page from a regional newsletter that I prepared.  You can see that Plan’s South America Region was committing to working in a quality way; to “empowerment”; and to focusing on children and our donors.




These statements were developed through a careful process of reflection and discussion – you can see me being rather careful in the last two paragraphs here, noting that we hadn’t yet “fully debated and endorsed” the final two strategic directions.

What I think became a bit more controversial were the Vision and Mission statements for the South America Region.  Here perhaps we went a bit too far, because the wider organisation was developing Vision and Mission statements at the same time, and it probably would have been more appropriate for us in SARO to simply focus on strategies that fit within Plan’s overall Vision and Mission.  In fact, the four Strategic Directions that are shown here fit very well within the final Vision and Mission that were adopted by Plan, globally.  But we in South America had a lot of momentum, felt that IH wasn’t leading, and we were going to move ahead.

Here’s another page, from a presentation I prepared at the time:




The presentation goes into lots of detail for each of these three elements of what we thought “Quality” should be in Plan.

This was good stuff.  Defining “Quality” as having those three pillars – unity of purpose, continuous improvement, and an empowering management culture – still makes sense to me, at least in an NGO setting.


And we paid a lot of attention to implementation, with the Regional Office providing support, funds, frameworks, guidance and accompaniment.  Mostly, we provided ways to share across Field Offices.  For example, here are four pages from workshop materials supporting an important event held in Cali, Colombia, in March of 1992:


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The purpose of this workshop was to help Field Directors from across the South America Region to prepare their transition to “Empowerment” – to “empowering” Field Offices, locally adapting what Annuska and Mac and others had pioneered.  There were few aspects of the end result that had been pre-defined; mostly, we learned together from what was happening out in the field.


I learned a lot from all of this.  As I look back on our regional focus on “empowerment,” a few things stand out to me:

  • I really like how we at the Regional Office were able to perceive that a key innovation was happening, how we paid attention to it, embraced it, without having to invent it ourselves, and that we sought to catalyze the spread of the innovation.  That was a good role for the Regional Office;
  • The documents I have, and my own memory of events, show a lot of enthusiasm, and mutual learning.  There was very little “top-down” feeling to SARO’s move towards “empowerment;”
  • The essence of the shift, that community members we were working with had the right to be in the driver’s seat, that the decisions they would make would be as good as, or better than, Plan staff’s decisions – that was a correct instinct.

But also, looking back, I think that other elements of the wider organization – at International Headquarters, in other Regions – were beginning to perceive us in South America as wanting to be independent, operating autonomously.  Our own “Vision” and “Mission”… rapidly changing program models … “not asking permission…” and even not asking for forgiveness!

Their suspicions were somewhat justified.  We in South America were asserting ourselves as a response to the weakness of the agency’s center.  Perhaps this is common when organizations regionalize, a normal struggle between center and region, between “parent” and “child.”  But from our perspective, norale at the center of the organization was bad, South America was the first area to regionalize, so we had a strong sense of unity and energy, and much of the rest of the agency was preoccupied with resistance to Alberto Neri.  So we simply filled the vacuum.

A couple of years later, as Program Director at International Headquarters, I tried to take these lessons into account.  I tried to reassert the proper role of the center of the agency, ensuring unity of purpose, measuring results, and supporting organization-wide learning, while taking care that elements of the organization outside head office took the lead in important agency-wide initiatives whenever possible.

More on that later!



SARO’s focus on “Quality” led to a Plan-wide movement to adapt and adopt Total Quality Management for the entire organisation, an effort I was a key part of.

I’ll describe my involvement in that project – chairing Plan’s Quality Council – in my next blog post in this series!


Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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.


¹  In fact, Plan was building up a big surplus of funds, as Field Offices underspent, year after year.  This was, of course, a problem: firstly, we weren’t using funds that the public had entrusted us with for an important purpose, which was not to save it.  Second, it was also a potential public-relations issue – why give to an organizaiotn that didn’t seem to need it?
When I went to IH as Program Director, a few years later, we solved this problem in a very-effective way, I think.  Field Offices were, on average, underspending each year by 10%, year after year.  And Plan’s fundraising offices were overachieving their targets each year by around 5%, year after year.  So it was easy to understand the sources of the problem.
So Plan had tried asking Field Offices to budget better, and spend according to budgets, and asking the fundraising offices to be more accurate in their projections.  But it wasn’t working.
The approach we tried when I went to IH was different: recognise that the system was leading Field Offices and fundraising offices to behave in a specific way.  And plan for this.
So we simply asked Field Offices to plan to spend 15% more funds than we thought we’d raise.  Then their underspending, and the fundraising offices’ over-performance, would balance out.  In fact, to work down the “surplus” funds that had accumulated by the time I got to IH (which, if I remember correctly, was over $80m), we increased this to around 20%.
Over a few short years, that solved the problem, and we worked down the “surplus.”  A good lesson for me – think about the system, how it behaves, and manage it or change it.  Simply instructing people to behave differently was ineffective.

Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá

Today is International Day of Peace, the 21st of September.  To commemorate this day, this year the United Nations suggests that we reflect on how the new Social Development Goals contribute towards building a culture of peace:

“The Sustainable Development Goals are integral to achieving peace in our time, as development and peace are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.”screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-10-28-03-am

One of the SDGs, #16, calls on the world community to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.


In this blog post, I want to reflect on “building a culture of peace” by describing what it was like living for three years in Tuluá, Colombia, during a period of great conflict in that part of the world.  It was a time when that society seemed neither peaceful nor inclusive, where justice seemed to be arbitrary and distant for many, and when the institutions of the state didn’t fully function across much of the nation’s territory.  And it was a time that, nonetheless, of course was joyful and fulfilling for the vast majority of Colombians, an incredibly strong and resilient people.

The people of Tuluá, and of Colombia more generally, have lived in a state of civil conflict for decades, and the three years that Jean and I lived there were some of the most challenging.  Thankfully, we can see prospects of a brighter future for Colombia these days.


This blog post is sixth of a series I’m writing in which I combine a brief brief description of a climb up one of New Hampshire’s 48 4000-foot mountains with some reflections on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.  Over the next months, 48 posts.

I climbed Mt Osceola, which is 4340 ft tall (1323 m), on a solo hike, on 10 June 2016.




As I did, most peak-baggers climb both Mt Osceola and East Osceola on a single day.  I’ll briefly describe the first part of that day – the climb up to Mt Osceola – in this blog, saving the rest of that day’s hiking for the next article in this series, which will describe the construction of a water system for the marginalised community of “Cienegueta”, on the outskirts of Tuluá.

Here’s a view of both Osceolas from the Hancock Overlook parking area, east of Lincoln on the Kancamagus Highway.  (I parked there to climb Mt Hancock and South Hancock, in late August 2016, but that’s a story for another day.)  The climb up Osceola is from the other side of the ridge that can be seen in this image:




Mt Osceola Trail starts on Tripoli Road, just west up from Waterville Valley.  The hike up Osceola was pleasant and uneventful.  A nice summer hike, not too hot, not too many flying insects:


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A few weeks ago, in my last article in this series, I wrote about joining Plan International and moving to Tuluá, Colombia as Assistant Field Director in Plan’s office there.  As I described, Plan was growing and changing very quickly, and the Tuluá Field Office was one of 13 offices that were piloting the changes that the organization was putting in place to handle that growth.  Because of that, and because of the leadership of the Tuluá Field Director, Monique van’t Hek, and her Colombian staff, it was an exciting place to be.  I learned a great deal during those years.

This time, I want to describe what Tuluá was like in those days.


We arrived in Cali in early July, 1987, flying from Los Angeles where we had been quite startled by a minor earthquake that shook LAX while we waited to board our flight to Colombia and our new life.

Monique had sent one of Plan’s vehicles, an old Toyota Land Cruiser, to pick us up at the Cali airport.  The Cauca Valley was beautifully lush and green as we drove north, with tall sugar cane growing on the valley floor and high mountain ranges on each side.

Over the next hour and a half, as we admired the scenery around us along the road, I began to get a bit nervous, for a couple of reasons.  Despite having lived and worked for two years in Ecuador, just next door, and although I had been tested as fluent in Spanish in the Foreign Service Institute assessment in Quito just the year before, I was not understanding much of what our driver, Fernando, was saying!  His accent was strange, he was talking too quickly, and much of his vocabulary was new to me.  Also, Fernando’s habit of mixing the formal and familiar forms of the word “you”, even in the same sentence, really confused me: in highland Ecuador, where I had learned Spanish, you used one form, or the other, and never mixed them.  In fact, at least among men, the moment when you switched from formal (Usted) to informal (tu) was very specific… and usually took place when both parties were inebriated.  But I had just met Fernando, we weren’t drunk, and he was mixing tu and Usted, willey-nilley.  So I was having a very hard time understanding what he was saying, even which “you” he was talking about!  (This kind of informal use of the language was typical in the Valle.)

The other thing that made me nervous was, when I did understand what Fernando was saying, he was using words like asesinatohomocidiomasacre… (assassination, murder, massacre …)  as he pointed out various landmarks along the road as we drove.

Jean, who had not yet begun to learn Spanish, seemed content, happily looking at the beautiful landscape as we drove north, not listening to Fernando at all … while I was beginning to get nervous about what we had gotten ourselves into!  I couldn’t really understand the Spanish that a new colleague was speaking, and it seemed like we were going to live in a very violent place!

But then we arrived in Tuluá, and checked into the Juan Maria hotel – not before having the “Happy Bar” pointed out to us by Fernando.  The “Happy Bar” – called “La Happy” as can be seen below, in a photo of the place from our time there – was where much of Tuluá’s political violence, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, had been planned.  I guess Fernando thought we might have heard of it…




Tuluá lies in the Cauca Valley, between two of Colombia’s three Andean ranges.  Just as Plan, in 1987, was an exciting NGO to work in, Tuluá, a large town in the Valle del Cauca Department, was a great place to live.  The climate was hot but, at 1000 meters above sea level, not too bad, not as humid as on the coast.  It was a medium-sized town (with some 200,000 inhabitants today, in 2016) so there were markets and an old theatre, even a decent ice-cream shop (Mimo’s).  And it was only an hour or hour and a half from Cali, Colombia’s third city, so we could go to Cali to shop or see a movie every month or so.  Beautiful Lake Calima wasn’t too far away, on the road towards Buenaventura, where Plan had another Field Office.




And Tuluá seemed to be a joyful place, renowned for the quality of its salsa dancing and for the beauty of its women.  Tulueños knew how to have a good time.  In many ways, it was not a hardship posting for us…

So we had a number of visitors during those years.  Here is a photo of me and my mother, during a two-week visit she made to Tuluá.  This was a famous spot – the “Curva Del Violin” – a particularly sharp turn in the road towards Ibagué: “Go Slowly Or You Will Die” it says.




But Tuluá was also famous in Colombia for political violence, having suffered particularly in the long and bloody conservative / liberal wars in the 1940’s and 1950’s (known as La Violencia).  And by the time we arrived, the situation in Tuluá was becoming very complicated.

In addition to a continuing level of political violence, armed rebel groups controlled areas in the mountain ranges on each side of the Cauca Valley: to the west, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (“FARC” – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and to the east, the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (“ELN” – the National Liberation Army).

With its origins in La Violencia, by 1987 the FARC had evolved, from being political revolutionaries with a social-justice platform, into bandits, extorting and kidnapping, in alliances of convenience with the drug cartels in some places.  (As I write this, nearly 30 years later, it seems possible that the long armed conflict with the FARC may finally be coming to an end, with the signing of a peace agreement to be ratified through a referendum.)

Meanwhile, the ELN seemed to be focused on extorting money from multinational oil companies by blowing up remote pipelines, causing enormous environmental damage.  Despite their Marxist rhetoric, neither the ELN nor the FARC seemed to have authentic political goals.

Low-level armed conflict simmered between the government and each of these two Marxist rebel groups, with occasional skirmishes around Tuluá (and other areas around the country.)  To complicate things even further, cocaine-processing labs were scattered in the foothills on each side of Tuluá, run by what came to be known as the “Cali Cartel.”  At least initially, from my perspective, there didn’t seem to be much conflict between the government and the Cali Cartel, who (at that time) were reputed to be businessmen who had merely diversified into narcotics.  In fact, they did own a chain of pharmacies in those days – Drogería La Rebaja (“Discount Drugstore”), even with a branch or two in Tuluá.

Of course, the rise of Pablo Escobar and the “Medellín Cartel”, and the massive conflict between the Medellín Cartel and the Colombian government would soon greatly complicate matters…


So Tuluá  in those years (and before, and since) was a complex place.  But more broadly, the legacy of La Violencia from the 1940’s and 1950’s had, to some extent, normalised violence in society – particularly in Tuluá, but also in Colombia more generally.  The long-standing presence of armed rebel groups in the area around Tuluá, controlling significant areas, made working in those zones quite tricky.  And, while the Cali Cartel’s operations around Tuluá were much lower-profile than their more-violent peers in Medellín, that would change soon.



At a national level, things were becoming  very dangerous.  This graph, which I clipped from a newspaper article of the time, shows the murder rate between 1955 and 1988, rising inexorably to levels more typical of areas of declared war.


I remember visiting the local hospital, gathering data about child mortality for Plan’s program in health, and discovering that two-thirds of all deaths, from all causes, year-after-year, were from murder.  Two murders every day, on average, in this small town.  I’m not sure that there are very many places, outside of areas of declared war, with those kinds of statistics.

One night, early in our time in Tuluá, Jean and I were trying to get to sleep.  She leaned over and asked me why there were fireworks every night… I hesitated before correcting her: that was gunfire we were hearing.

The local newspaper, El Tabloide, like many of its kind around the world, seemed to delight in splashing photos of the victims across their front pages every week.  I kept notebooks with clippings from El Tabloide, some of which I’ll share here:


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These are terrible headlines, describing a very violent place.  But I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that our three years in Tuluá were a horror-show of violence and conflict – Jean and I hugely enjoyed our time there, and I learned a lot from the great Plan staff that I was lucky enough to work with.   They were smart, hard-working, great people, and we look back on those years very fondly…

At the time, and even now, I often felt that the view of Colombia, and Colombians, by my own country was terribly unfair.  While most of the causes of the terrible situation in Tuluá, and across Colombia, were to be found in the history of the country, actions by the United States certainly contributed and made things worse.

In particular, the so-called “War on Drugs” was destabilizing Colombia and contributing to increasing levels of violence.  Attempting to suppress the supply of narcotics into the US by military means greatly increased the already high levels of violence in Colombia (and elsewhere), affecting guilty and innocent alike.  And, of course, the only effective course of action would have been to suppress demand for narcotics, not the supply: as long as the demand exists, the supply will come, from somewhere.  Suppressing supply without dealing with demand, as any economist will tell you, only ends up increasing the price and, in this case, enriching a violent mafia.  But fighting the “War on Drugs” inside the United States was not politically acceptable, so the US chose to move the conflict to Colombia, and beyond.

One illustration of the immorality of this policy came in January of 1990, when the Mayor of Washington, DC, our capital city, was arrested after having been video-taped smoking crack cocaine:



Of course, we can’t blame the situation in Colombia entirely on Marion Barry, or on the US-sponsored “War on Drugs.”  But it seems clear that the demand for narcotics in the US, and Europe, was contributing to the rapidly-escalating levels of violence in Colombia.

It was the people in Tuluá, and Colombians nation-wide, who were suffering the trauma and loss of these events.  Their pain was immense in those days, and it’s a tribute to their resilience in such horrific times that their country has, to a great extent, emerged in much better shape today.


The town’s mayor for much of our time was the charismatic, very smart, Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazábal.  One of Colombia’s premier authors, he had written a famous novel set during La Violencia in Tuluá – Condores No Entierran Todos Los Dias.  He was a very effective mayor, quite populist, and he got things done.

Plan was able to work well with him: here’s a photo of the two of us at the (apparently quite jolly) inauguration of a sewer project in La Marina:





(Gustavo Alvarez went on to serve as Governor of the Valle Department, and later spent time in jail, convicted for having had financial dealings with the Cali Cartel.  More likely, I’m guessing, he was set up; it was a complex time.  These days he is a well-known radio personality and continues to write.)

The Condor referred to in the Mayor’s book was the bloodthirsty informal leader of Tuluá’s Conservative gangs in those days, a true story.  In one episode in the novel, the Condor is poisoned, and nears death.  Much of the Tuluá community gathers to celebrate, entertained by several members of the Cedeño family, Tuluá’s renowned musical clan.    The Condor recovers, however, and has the whole Cedeño family killed.

The Cedeño family was real, and young Daniel Cedeño, who played piano, is named in that episode; years later, Daniel became Jean’s Spanish teacher!  So, obviously, the novel was fictionalized in places…



Daniel Cedeño and Jean



Monique van’t Hek stepped down as Field Director in Tuluá, and I followed her in that role in July of 1989.  It was an easy transition, as the office was running very well and I’d been Assistant Field Director for two years, so the staff knew me.  I would serve as Field Director until late April of 1990, when we moved back to Ecuador where I would become Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador, working from Plan’s Regional Office in Quito.

In August, 1989, Luis Carlos Galán, the liberal candidate for President, was assassinated by the Medellín Cartel at an election rally.  He would have probably won the election of 1990, and would have become President.   The government of Colombia then declared war on the Medellín Cartel, leading to similar conflict with the Cali Cartel in the area around Tuluá.

The situation in Colombia then became even more unstable, with all-out war between the cocaine cartels and the government.  Armored helicopters began to fly from Tuluá to bomb  cocaine-processing laboratories in the foothills to the west of town; Jean and I could watch them fly overhead, and could see smoke rise from the attacks.  Three months after Galán’s assassination, on 27 November 1989, Avianca flight HK-1803 was destroyed by a bomb planted by the Medellín Cartel just after departing from Bogotá, bound for Cali.  107 people perished.

(During those days, with the situation growing increasingly dangerous and unstable in the country, Plan organized three days of security training for Field Directors in Colombia.  This was a good initiative.  We met in Cali.  On the first day, the trainer explained to us that there are three words, in Latin, that will calm any dog that is attacking us.  He moved on, without giving us the words, as I raised my eyebrows.  On the third day, as we wrapped up the workshop, I asked him to share the three Latin words with us, but he just ignored me… so I still don’t know those three important Latin words!)

And then, to top it all off, conflict between the Colombian Army and the FARC, in the mountainous areas around the town of Trujillo, to the west of Tuluá, erupted.  Tuluá itself was militarized, with tanks on the street and a nighttime curfew:



My farewell party was planned for these days, but such events were banned during the emergency.  We asked for an exception, and permission was granted by the Mayor.  The party went on for most of the night, with the loud music, salsa dancing, and joy that typifies Tuluá.


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At some point in the early hours the next day, still dark, there was a loud knock on the garage door of our office, where we were celebrating, and in came an army patrol in camouflage, painted faces, machine guns, and a combat radio.  They relaxed when we explained that we had permission for the party …


In the years after Jean and I left Tuluá, the Medellín Cartel was dismantled, with the killing of Pablo Escobar.  The Cali Cartel then rose to fill the vacuum created, of course, since the demand for cocaine had not been reduced, which again led to an escalation of violence.  Then, a few years later, shadowy right-wing paramilitary groups emerged across the country, fighting against the violence and kidnappings carried out by FARC and ELN and other rebel groups in rural areas… these same paramilitary groups in turn also became sources of violence and oppression in the population.

It was really only when the Colombian government established a degree of control, under President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), that the situation began to normalize.  While many, inside the country and overseas, strongly criticize President Uribe for human rights abuses, a majority of the Colombian people supported his actions, as they had had enough of the violence and terror that they had suffered, to various degrees, since the political violence of the 1940’s and beyond.

Returning to the theme of this year’s International Day of Peace, it was only when the institutions of the state began to function that peace could be imagined, even if only on the horizon.  And today, with the prospect of a permanent peace with the FARC (which, by the way, is fiercely opposed by former President Uribe) things seem brighter in Colombia, for the people of Colombia.


Before beginning to describe my time at Plan’s Regional Office in Quito, working across the Andean Region and as a Senior Manager for Plan International, one more story needs to be told about my time in Tuluá: the water system we built for Cienegueta.  That’ll be the subject of my next post here…


Here are earlier posts in this series – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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.


Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá

After getting up to the top of Mt Flume, bruised and a bit bloodied by the long ascent up the slippery granite rock face, we descended slightly and then climbed up to the summit of Mt Liberty.  Walking along Franconia Ridge Trail, the views were spectacular.


From the top of Mt Liberty. Photo courtesy of Eric Smith.

There was still a little bit of snow and ice in the saddle between Flume and Liberty, having been packed down by winter and early-spring hikers.  (But nothing like I had dealt with on Mt Tom and Mt Field.)  At the top of Mt Liberty, we could see many of the peaks that I will be climbing in coming weeks and months, that I will be describing in this series: on the west side of Franconia Notch, there were North and South Kinsman and Cannon; on the east side, where we were, we could see Garfield, Owl’s Head, North and South Twin, and the Bonds.  Just ahead, Lincoln and Lafayette loomed – for another day.

Soon after reaching the top of Mt Liberty, Eric and I took a left turn and re-joined Liberty Spring Trail, which forms part of the Appalachian Trail here.  We passed the busy Liberty Spring Tentsite (we were walking on a summer holiday weekend, crossing lots of folks coming up Liberty Spring Trail to the tentsite), and then back into the White Mountains forest for the long walk back to the parking lot.

Doing Flume and Liberty in one long day was the way to go, but it was exhausting, mainly due to effort involved in ascending the steep granite face of Mt Flume.  Far better to do it counter-clockwise, as we did, because coming down Mt Flume would have been even more challenging than going up…Map - Mt LibertyI’m writing here about climbing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers.  After a brief description of each hike, I reflect a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 32 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, and experiences along the way.  This is my fifth blog of the series; over the next months, I hope to share thoughts in 43 more posts.  We’ll see how that goes!

Over the next few entries in this series, I’m going to share what it was like to join Plan International, and live in Colombia, in the late 1980’s.  These were very formative, exciting times for that international NGO, and for Jean and me.  As I will describe, it was also an extremely challenging time for the nation of Colombia – somehow it’s very apt that, as I write this, a landmark peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the biggest remaining guerrilla group, the FARC, has just been signed.  The FARC were very active in the area around Tuluá, where we lived in the late 1980’s … but I’m getting ahead of myself here.


Jean and I were married in Massachusetts in October, 1985, on my only trip out of Ecuador during two years in the Peace Corps.  When I finished up in Azogues and left Ecuador, I joined her in Somerville, eventually getting what turned out to be my last engineering job, at Tecogen in Waltham.  It was a very good job, working with Leo Smolensky and Fred

Mark - Tecogen

The prototype coal-water slurry burner.

Becker to design and build a prototype home-heating system using coal-water slurry.  Those were days of high gasoline prices, and it was felt that burning an abundant, clean resource instead of oil was a good idea.  But although grinding the coal into fine particles made removing the sulphur from it, and adding water made it relatively easy to pump and (in principle) distribute, it wasn’t easy to burn something that was 85% water!

I remember trying various paint-sprayers in the Tecogen parking lot early in the project, just getting a feeling for the slurry and how it would burn.  The slurry was so corrosive that sprayer nozzles lasted only a few minutes.  But we learned a lot, and were able to get the prototype to work stably for a visit from the US Department of Energy, who had contracted Tecogen to develop the prototype system.  One of the DOE visitors told us he had never actually seen the coal-water slurry burn sustainably, so we were proud!


I experienced some “culture shock” returning to the US, reentering my native country.  Just the scale of affluence, of consumer choice, was initially bewildering.  In Azogues, for example, there had been two kinds of bread, just two kinds: two Sucre bread, and three Sucre bread, sold in small bakeries in town.  (The “Sucre” was Ecuador’s currency until, a decade later, in the midsts of very high levels of inflation, they adopted the US dollar.)    The only difference between the two kinds of bread, other than the price, was the size!

During my first week back in the US, I went to our local Somerville supermarket to buy bread.  There was a whole aisle of bread! – white, whole wheat, oat, rye, etc., etc., etc.  I got confused with the huge selection – after all, I was used to a choice of two kinds of bread, and was happy with that choice!! – so I just grabbed a loaf, any loaf, and went home.  It was too much to deal with, in my culture-shocked condition.

Turned out I had grabbed a loaf of raisin bread, which was not what I needed.

Soon I re-adapted to the US, but it was a challenge!


I had been working at Tecogen for nearly a year when Plan International, the NGO that I wrote about earlier, got in touch, and that led to a very significant fork in the road for Jean and me.

Like many international NGOs in the mid-1980’s, Plan was expanding rapidly.  This growth was mainly due to the massive public response to food shortages in the horn of Africa.  Initiatives such as Live Aid and “We Are The World” had raised awareness of poverty in general, and of the situation in Ethiopia in particular, which led to a very strong  increase in public response.

As a result, many international NGOs were able to scale up their programs in the late 1980’s.  This figure illustrates the vertiginous growth that Plan was about to experience, more than quadrupling in size in ten years:

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 2.53.51 PM(Data for this figure are from Plan’s Annual Reports of the time; the figure is from an article I wrote some years later, which will be the subject of another blog later in this series.)

One consequence of this growth was that INGOs were becoming large businesses, with large budgets; risks were growing along with budgets.  Boards began to insist on systems and controls, and we started to see much more focus on efficiency and accountability.  At around this time, not coincidentally, we started to see senior executives come into the sector from the business world, bringing management approaches from the business world.

Plan was no exception, with a range of initiatives underway, as I’ll describe below.  One way that Plan was handling its growth was by setting up regional offices.  This was very lucky for me, because the launch meeting for the first Region – being established in South America, with the Regional Office to be located in Quito, Ecuador – was taking place at Plan’s headquarters in Rhode Island, and Annuska Heldring, their Field Director in Cañar, attended.  Annuska, who figures centrally in the last two blogs of this series (here, and here), and I had stayed in touch after I left Ecuador, so Jean and I drove down from Somerville to Rhode Island to have dinner with Annuska one evening during the launch meeting.

It was great seeing Annuska, and soon after that dinner I was contacted by Plan – was I interested in coming down to Rhode Island for an interview?  Annuska was working behind the scenes!

A few weeks later I went down to East Greenwich for an interview, which led to an offer to join Plan as “Assistant Director” at their Field Office in Tumaco, Colombia.  Jean and I were excited at the opportunity, and so I accepted the offer immediately, moving away from engineering without looking back – to a life and and what became thirty years in international development.

After I accepted that job offer, however, Plan got back in touch, asking if we would be willing to go to Tuluá, Colombia, instead of Tumaco.  Although I had travelled through Colombia years before, and must have passed through Tuluá in a bus, I didn’t have much of a sense of the two places, so we said “sure, why not!”  It was all the same to us…

Later I came to understand why they made the change: Plan’s new CEO (then called International Executive Director, IED), Alberto Neri, was pushing the organisation to change very rapidly, in part as a response to growth prompted by the situation in Ethiopia, and several major initiatives were being pilot tested in 13 Field Offices in South America.

One of those pilot offices was in Tuluá.  The idea was to add capacity to those offices so, in July, 1987, Jean and I flew to Cali, Colombia to begin what became 15 fantastic and formative years with Plan.

Alberto Neri, an Italian, had recently joined Plan, from the private sector.  (Rumour had it that he had been manager of a high-tech valve production facility…)  This was, of course, consistent with broader trends in the sector at the time, bringing in senior staff from the private sector to “professionalize” our organizations as they grew.

Alberto is on the right in this photo, taken at a meeting just after I joined Plan:

Tuluá - 7

Replacing Plan’s beloved IED, George Ross, who was a social worker by training and had risen through the ranks, Alberto was an outsider with an abrasive and somewhat authoritarian streak.  Or maybe it was just that he was from the business world and the rest of us were development hippies…

Although Alberto’s priorities, as I came to experience them from the Field Office perspective, made a lot of sense, and even though, as I came to get to know him personally (much later), we got along well, there was clearly a big clash of cultures going on.  Plan was a family, and George Ross was the father; Alberto viewed Plan as a business that needed systems and accountability, and staff were employees, not family.

But all of that was far away from Jean and me, as we arrived in Tuluá.

In addition to being part of Plan’s first region – getting set up in Quito, covering South America, and led by Plan’s first Regional Director, Andy Rubi – the main focus for the 13 pilot offices was the implementation of four new systems, all aimed at enabling our offices (and, once the pilot period was completed, all of Plan) to handle the growth we were experiencing efficiently and effectively, with strong financial control.

Underspending was a big problem in Plan during those days, with surpluses building up, particularly from operations in India.  This was a potential risk – why should the public  support an organization that couldn’t spend the money it already had?  Alberto felt that Plan’s Field Offices overall needed to do a much better job in planning their work to make budgeting more accurate and to enhance the quality of implementation.

From my perspective, as I joined Plan, he was right – so one of the new systems we were testing was focused on Planning and Budgeting.  (Later, when I went to Plan’s headquarters as program director, we would deal with the accumulation of surpluses in a more robust way – more on that later!)

This focus on planning and budgeting fit in well with my own background as an engineer, so I was very comfortable with it.  Along with Plan’s new Planning and Budgeting software (we were testing the second version – “PB2”), I introduced project-planning methods and tools such as Gantt Charts, helping staff plan and track projects better and more accurately.  Our great staff in Tuluá embraced these tools with great enthusiasm.

Complementing “PB2” was a new general ledger system, “FS2”.  Before this, Plan’s accounting system was manual; FS2 was the first computerized accounting system introduced into the organization.  It was meant to import data from PB2, and would then be able to produce a range of budget and actual reports at the end of each quarter.  The idea was that these tools would enable offices to better plan and implement their budgets.

In 1987, Plan lacked a number of HR systems that were common in the private sector, such as a consistent way of establishing job descriptions, modern performance appraisal processes, and an approach to career development, etc.  Alberto pushed Plan to professionalize all of these practices, and set up support structures in headquarters and the Quito Regional Office to help.  In Tuluá we tested these new HR systems, starting with job-task analysis and moving into job design, and job grading and remuneration systems.

(One fantastic HR system that Plan did have was new-staff orientation, at least for new expatriate staff.  It was so good, in fact, that I’ve shared the training package that I went through in 1987 as a model several times in my career since, in other organizations that were creating orientation materials, but nobody has come close to creating anything this good.  Here is a scanned copy of the main section of that package, dating from December, 1985: Plan – AD Training Manual – 1985.

Why do I think this package is so good?  It’s thorough and concrete, and demanding, in a good way: you had to actually carry out all of the key tasks in the Field Office, physically, yourself, and get your manage to sign off.  So, once you had gone through the training process, over at most six months, you were actually ready to manage and support that particular function in the Field Office, because you had done it yourself.  No other orientation package I’ve seen since prepared new staff so thoroughly to be competent at the basic functions of the office they were joining.

Finally, note the reference to growth on the first page of the package, consistent with the driver that I’m emphasizing in this article:

“There is a push to complete this project (the orientation) as soon as you can because of growth.  We need FDs (Field Directors).  We will consider an AD (Assistant Director) for FD after 18 months.”) 

Ann Kerrigan-Amaral and Meredith Richardson were leading the HR modernization from Plan’s headquarters, very effectively.

Plan had a good approach to setting strategy at Field Office level, but didn’t have a system to measure impact, so the agency put resources into developing and rolling out the “Field Office Evaluation System” – FOES.  This involved establishing a “baseline” situation in the population we served, remeasuring the same set of indicators three years later, and then comparing and analyzing any changes.

Most of these new systems were computerized, so all 13 pilot Field Offices received two of the new-fangled IBM Personal Computers that had just entered the marketplace.  Here’s a photo of our new computer room with one of our new IBM “AT” machines:

Tuluá - 6

As our 13 pilot offices began to pilot test these new systems, much stricter financial controls were rolled out across the entire organization.  Now, for example, delegations of authority were put in place so that, for example, Field Directors could only sign contracts up to certain levels, beyond which staff in the Regional Office had to get involved.

And Alberto was pushing Plan to become more efficient, setting a target that was called “70/20/10”: this meant that, over time, at least 70% of our budgets had to go towards “tangible benefits” in communities; at most 20% would go to staffing costs; and at most 10% would be for other, administrative costs such as office rent, transportation, etc.

This was a good goal, because (from my perspective) Plan was spending too much money on itself those days, and even early on in my time I could see that there were certainly ways we could be more efficient.  But messaging and implementation were both counter-productive: the new ratios were set without much discussion (at least that I was aware of), and seemed arbitrary.  Especially, counting staff as purely an overhead cost was wrong and counter-productive, leading to “creative accounting” in some cases.  Program staff should have been counted as part of the program, surely. (We made that change later…)

Over time, we were able to achieve Alberto’s goal of 70% tangible benefits.  But, as leadership changed and (well-intentioned) priorities shifted, the situation deteriorated again, and by 2009 these ratios were quite a bit worse than they had been before Alberto’s time.

Overall, however, the 70/20/10 goal was healthy, as were Alberto’s initiatives in general.   His approach to implementing them, and his interpersonal skills, however, let him down and created upheaval at headquarters.


Being one of the 13 pilot offices was a great opportunity – for Plan Tuluá, for the staff, and for me.  I certainly learned a lot about financial accountability, and business systems and controls, which I wouldn’t have learned as early or as quickly elsewhere.  Like my two years in Azogues, I was in the right place at the right time to learn and grow quickly.

But there were drawbacks.  PB2 and, especially, FS2 were both very buggy.  Plan wasn’t really set up to build software, to say the least, and on several occasions, the FS2 database became corrupted (through no fault of the Plan Tuluá accounting staff) and all transactions for the fiscal year had to be re-entered.  That was a lot of work, and frustrations built as the systems failed several times.


I feel very fortunate to have joined Plan, and to have gone to Tuluá.  To a great extent, this was because of my new manager – Monique van’t Hek, Plan’s Field Director there.

I would come to learn a great deal from Monique, who was a dynamic and smart leader and manager, with very strong organizational and social skills.  She was able to build close relationships and strong loyalty, while also maintaining clear and unquestioned authority.  A difficult balancing act, which she did very well.

Here’s a photo of Monique and I, with a couple of other Plan staff members, at a meeting:

Tuluá - 4

One of Monique’s greatest achievements in Tuluá, of many, was the creation of what became “Barrio Internacional.” When I arrived in Tuluá, Monique was already working with a large group of around 200 single mothers, helping them get organized to obtain financial support from the Colombian government to help build their own homes.

Over the next three years, Monique worked patiently and carefully with this group, helping them raise funds step-by-step, purchase a large plot of land on the periphery of Tuluá, design a model for their new homes, learn how to be carpenters or carpenters’ assistants, and build their own houses.  I watched Monique in action, as she met every week in the evenings, building the solidarity and confidence of this group of very poor and vulnerable women – progressing through the stages of what was a very ambitious project.

The new neighborhood became a reality a year or so after Monique left Plan Tuluá, after I had stepped into her shoes as Field Director.  My own contributions to the Barrio Internacional project were minimal, mainly just learning and supporting what Monique had built – so I was very glad when she was able to attend the inauguration of Barrio Internacional as guest of honor; even a terrible case of hepatitis didn’t deter her from attending!

Throughout my career with Plan I was very lucky to work with people like Annuska, and Monique, as mentors.  In future blogs in this series I will recognize a few more of them, people like Leticia Escobar, Andy Rubi, Donal Keane, Max van der Schalk, and Ricardo Gomez.


And here are photos of all the staff of Plan Tuluá, at the 1989 Christmas party in La Marina:


Tuluá - 2

Tuluá - 3They were a joyful group in Tuluá, and I learned a lot from them.  For example, I vividly recall our program head (Lucyla Posso) and several program staff working to carry out a PRA exercise – I had no idea what that was, but they were excited by this new methodology.  I was still caught up in my engineering approach – Gantt Charts, etc. – and didn’t pay enough attention to what Lucyla, Lijia, and Oscar Arley and others were doing.  Later I would catch on to the power of PRA methods!

As I will describe in my next blog, living and working in Tuluá in those days was a dangerous proposition, but our team faced the dangers inherent in working amidst one of the world’s most vicious narcotics cartels, surrounded by two violent rebel armies (FARC and ELN), and facing the ongoing legacy of the terrible political violence that had been an integral part of Tuluá’s history.


In my next blog, I’ll describe what it was like to live there in that tumultuous time in Colombia’s history.  And, after that, I plan to describe how we built a special water system in an informal settlement near Tuluá, called Cienegueta.


Here are earlier posts in this series – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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).


Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey

A few weeks ago I climbed Mt Tom, one of 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  Since moving to New England in the late 1970s, I have climbed many of these peaks, but in the coming months I’ll climb all 48.  May take me a year or two? … we’ll see.

So that’s a new journey.  Along with a brief description of each of these climbs, I’ll also reflect a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.  Over the next months, 48 posts.

Mt Tom is 4051 ft tall (1235 m), and I got to the top (a solo hike) on 10 May 2016, leaving from Crawford Depot:


There isn’t much of a view from Tom’s top, as it’s surrounded by short pine trees, but near the summit you can look over towards the “Presidential Range” – Mt Washington, the tallest of the 48, can be seen clearly, still with snow on May 10, 2016.


The Presidential Range, From The Top Of Mt Tom

And here is the summit of Mt Tom – not the most spectacular!  Well below the tree line, so no real view.


Mt Tom Summit

An easy and enjoyable start to this project, with few other hikers.  So I had a nice, solitary walk for the most part…

However, as I neared the top, I found myself on snow and then ice that had been packed by climbers over the winter.  I had brought my Yak-Trax on the trip, thinking that there might be some risk of snow, but it was quite warm at the trailhead, with no snow visible, so I left them behind, in the car.  Big mistake!  Because as I walked from Mt Tom over to my second 48-footer – Mt Field – I ran into much more snow and ice and the trail became steeper.  The few other hikers I saw had brought along micro-spikes, and used them.  I felt a bit nervous on the ice.

I will write about getting to the top of Mt Field, and down, soon.  For now I’ll just say that the descent was very tricky!


Another new journey began on Valentine’s Day, 1984, when I flew from Boston to Miami to begin two years of Peace Corps service.  That was an emotional day, because I was leaving Jean behind in Boston.  Little did I know that, in 2016 we would celebrate 31 years of marriage!  But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit…

Omnibus 44 gathered that day at the Everglades Hotel (demolished in 2005), for training and assessment before flying to Quito a few days later.  I made two long-lasting friendships that week (this means you, Chris, and Kenny!).  And, in retrospect, it was the beginning of a new career, because in my second year as a Volunteer a large international NGO came to town, and that led to a long and happy career in the NGO world.  More on that in future posts!

Having studied mechanical engineering, when I signed up to volunteer I was assigned to the Instituto Ecuadoreano de Obras Sanitarias (IEOS) as a project engineer.  There were several different groups of soon-to-be Peace Corps Volunteers gathering that day in Miami, forming Omnibus 44: agriculture, disability (vision-impaired), water, etc.  Some in our water group were going to be “water promoters” – focused on working with communities, organising projects.  Others, like me, would be “water engineers”, working  as project heads, designing and overseeing project implementation.  Despite having studied mechanical engineering, I was assigned as a water engineer because the technical skills required weren’t very specialised… Chris, who would spend his two years in Guaranda, was a “promotor de agua”; Kenny, a fellow engineer, would be assigned to Cayambe, north of Quito.

So after five days in Miami, we flew to Quito and stayed there for about a month, focused mainly on language training.  Each of us lived during that month with an Ecuadorean family – I lived with the “Familia Larrea”, not too far from the training center.

Omnibus 44’s different groups (agriculture, disability, water, etc.) then split for two months of technical training.  We moved outside Quito, and then farther afield to Riobamba, continuing (less intensive) language training.  Here’s the water group, future engineers and promoters, in a photo taken at the Ecuadorean Cooperative Institute (ICE) training centre, outside of Quito.  Our technical trainer, and one of our Spanish instructors (Laura) are also in the photo…

ICE - 1984

Water Volunteers, Peace Corps Ecuador Omnibus 44, April 1984.

After three months of training we went to our assigned sites – for me, Azogues, capital of Cañar province.

Azogues wasn’t too isolated geographically, being fairly close to Cuenca, but (for my first year, at least) I was the only PC Volunteer assigned there; I had heard some rumours that, because the Province of Cañar was quite leftist in its politics, earlier Volunteers had a hard time.  So I guess I was a bit of a guinea pig (a “cui”!)

I was very lucky to be assigned to Azogues, and to IEOS Cañar.  Being the only Volunteer in the province for the first year, and the only project engineer (apart from “L”, the “Jefe Provincial“) I had nothing to do but work, which is what I did: on my very first day in the IEOS office, the “Jefe Provincial” told me that there were two communities ready and waiting for a water project to begin, materials were in the office, so he didn’t want to see me until the water systems were built!  What a great opportunity – just out of graduate school, and I had responsibility for two significant water projects.

Being fairly isolated in Azogues, I wasn’t distracted by socialising with other Volunteers, unlike (for example) some of my fellow PCVs closer to Quito, who got together a lot.  This helped me learn Spanish – nobody to speak English with except Jean, who telephoned the IEOS office every two weeks!

Another reason I was lucky was that, after a year, an international NGO arrived in Azogues. There was absolutely no missing the arrival of Annuska (Plan Cañar’s first Field Director) and her white Land Cruiser – Plan International opened a Field Office!

But first, I had a couple of water systems to get built that first year in Azogues.  In my next post, covering my hike up Mt Field, I will also describe what it was like helping bring potable water to El Tambo and Cochancay.  Stay tuned!