South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study

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

In this article, I move into another phase of my journey – working with CCF as a consultant for two years, helping that organization develop, pilot test, and begin to implement a new program approach for their global operations.  It was a very creative and exciting time for me, and (I think) for that organization, and it very much builds on the reflecting I’d been doing about how the development sector had changed.  It’s worth telling the story.

But first, let me describe my climb of South Carter, and the disaster that struck after that climb was over: an injury that would just about put an end to my hiking adventures for the rest of 2016.

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I had reached the top of Middle Carter at noon on 13 September, 2016.  After a quick lunch, I continued south towards the top of South Carter (4430ft, 1350m).

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Here is a view looking back at Middle Carter, taken at about 12:30pm:

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What a beautiful day it was.  Here are some views towards the east and south as I hiked away from Middle Carter:

 

 

Approaching South Carter, I had a fine view back towards the Wildcat Range, where I had hiked the day before.  Here Carter Dome (as yet, unclimbed at this time) is on the left, with Wildcat Mountain (which I had climbed the day before) on the right, with Carter Notch in between:

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Carter Dome On The Left, Wildcat “A” On The Right

 

Views to the east, towards the ocean, were also fantastic.  Here the Atlantic is clearly visible on the horizon:

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No insects, clear blue sky, heaven!

I retraced my steps from the top of South Carter, arriving back at the junction of Carter-Moriah and North Carter at 1:25pm.

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Descending from the Carter Ridge on North Carter, I reached the Imp Trail at a little after 2pm.

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This time I took the southern branch of Imp Trail, reaching the road (NH 16) at 3:45pm.  The Imp Trail reaches NH 16 slightly south of where it leaves from, so there was a brief road-walk to get back to the car, which was still there, eight hours later!

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My two days climbing four of the six 4000-footers in the Carter Range were spectacular – dry and clear, no insects, and few other hikers.  Two great days in the White Mountains, with a pleasant evening camping nearby.

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Then I drove home back to Durham.  Since I had camped at Dolly Copp Campground the night before going up Middle and South Carters, when I got home my groundcloth and tent needed cleaning before putting them away.  So, the next day, I took them out the back of our second-floor unit, and went down the metal circular staircase, in my socks.  My plan was to clean up both the groundcloth and the tent, and then leave them out to dry in the sun.

But as I started down the metal spiral stairway, with the damp groundcloth in one hand, the tent in the other, wearing socks, I slipped and fell.  As my feet came out from under me, I landed with all my weight directly on the edge of a metal stair, hitting (and breaking) a left rib.  I then slid down the rest of the stairway, trying to arrest my fall by hanging on with my left arm.

(Readers may recall that I had hurt my left shoulder on the very first hike in this series, when I climbed Mt Tom and Mt Field.  There was ice on the trail descending from Mt Field, and I had slipped on steep ice, going down, and grabbed onto a small tree with my left arm, twisting and wrenching it up and behind me as I arrested the fall, my full weight, with my left arm.  That had seriously injured the rotator cuff on my left shoulder.)

On the stairway, this time, I severely re-injured that shoulder, tearing my left rotator-cuff.  And breaking a rib.  Ouch!

These injuries put me out of circulation for some time, so I wasn’t able to hike again until I went up Mt Tecumseh, in late October.  (It was hard enough just getting out of bed, for a few days at least!)  I probably shouldn’t have climbed Mt Tecumseh, but I got away with it… Several months of physical therapy followed over the winter of 2016/2017.

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I returned from Viet Nam in October of 2002, and (as I mentioned last time) I had made a connection with Daniel Wordsworth just before leaving Hanoi when, out of nowhere, he had sent me an email.  It turned out that he had been the CCF Australia Country Director in Viet Nam during my first two years there, but I don’t think I had ever met him there: I think he worked at night and slept during the day, actually.

(Much later I would find out how the connection was made.  Daniel’s CEO colleague in Sydney, Jane Edge, had visited Hanoi when I worked there, and made an appointment to meet with me.  Just networking, I think, but it turned out that she had read one of the articles I had published during my sabbatical year – perhaps the only person I’ve ever met who had read that piece – which was a bit mind-blowing.  Later, I think she suggested that Daniel contact me…)

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Daniel Wordsworth in 2003

Daniel was the Program Development Director at CCF’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia.  More about Daniel in my next blog.

He worked for Michelle Poulton, who was CCF’s Vice President for Program; I knew Michelle from my time at Plan’s International Headquarters – our positions were equivalent – but hadn’t stayed in touch after that.  I had admired Michelle’s obvious intelligence, experience, passion, and courage.

Michelle and Daniel were engaged in a fundamental reconsideration of how CCF approached its programming, aimed at realizing the agency’s strategic goal of being a “leader for children.”  John Schultz, CCF’s President, articulated the motivation quite well, with impressive humility and candor:

As a worldwide organization that has been lifting children and their families from the grip of poverty for over 65 years, Christian Children’s Fund (CCF) understands well the difficulty of our task. Not all of our approaches have worked and some have become outmoded over the years. Education alone is certainly not the guaranteed route out of poverty and deprivation we once thought. Anti-poverty programs of all types have had mixed success.

As a learning organization that has changed enormously and adapted to new situations and new locations, CCF is always seeking out ways to do what we do better. We know that breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty-making a truly long-lasting difference in a young person’s life — is a tall order. There are no set recipes. It is always good to reflect on our goals, our methods, and our rates of success in accomplishing our mission.

We arranged to talk by phone before I left Hanoi, and Daniel asked if I knew anybody who could help CCF create a “program practices guide” that would describe their new approach, which would have to be created.

It sounded like a perfect next step for me.  I had been thinking a lot about how things had changed in the development sector, and the idea of spending some time helping an agency think through how they could have the most impact was very appealing.  Jean and I left Hanoi in early October, 2002, and a week later I flew from Boston to Richmond to spend a couple of days talking with Daniel and Michelle and John Schultz, CCF’s president, about the assignment.  We quickly agreed that I would help out as an external advisor, working directly with Daniel to define, pilot test, and document CCF’s new program approach.

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While I was in Richmond, I asked Michelle if I could meet with John Schultz.  I had learned from my time with Plan International that the kinds of changes she and Daniel were contemplating would need support from the top if they were to be successful.  So, one afternoon, I walked down to John’s office – it said a lot for Michelle and Daniel that they let me have that meeting by myself!

John and I had a good conversation.  It was clear that he was fully behind the changes that were being discussed; but two comments he made struck me in particular.  First, when I asked him about the degree of support for the programmatic changes that were coming, he said that “everybody supports the changes, but nobody understands them.”  That was a very perceptive and interesting remark, indicating that we would have to build consensus carefully, because once the nature of the shifts became apparent, support might evaporate.  Or, alternatively, just push the changes through…

He also took care to describe CCF as a “faith-based” organization.  That comment made me sit up and take notice!

This was 2003, and the US Administration, under President George W Bush, had placed great emphasis on working through “faith-based organizations.”  There was a White-House office tasked with increasing governmental partnerships, and grants were flowing to these agencies.  John Schultz himself was a retired Christian minister, and (after all) the agency he headed was called “Christian Children’s Fund.”  So I took his comments seriously.

But this was a problem for me.  I had witnessed the toxic combination of development assistance and religion in the past.  For example, I had seen people leaving evangelical Christian services in Colombia being given sacks of cement by the international NGO that was sponsoring the services.  And I had seen that same INGO proudly display its “transformational development indicators” in Uganda and in Viet Nam: in (predominantly) Christian Uganda, several indicators related to Christian conversion were included, but in (predominantly) non-religious Viet Nam, those indicators were nowhere to be seen in the agency’s literature.  This seemed wrong to me.

So when I was finished with my (otherwise very positive) conversation with John Schultz, I returned to debrief with Daniel and Michelle.  When I told them what John had said about CCF being “faith-based,” and shared my misgivings, Michelle said: “If that’s true, we’re both quitting!”  Then she went to speak with John Schultz!

Of course, what John meant was that CCF’s work had originally flowed from the values of compassion and solidarity of early-20th-century American Christianity, but that no religious content was, or would ever would be, included in the organization’s program work.

Well OK, then!

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Some months before, CCF had completed a new strategic plan that articulated an overall aim of becoming a “Leader For Children.”  Michelle and Daniel had asked Alan Fowler to carry out an overall “Organizational Capacity Assessment” (the “OCA”), focused on positioning CCF to increase grant funding from technical donors.

I will describe a bit more about the OCA, below.  An action plan had emerged from the OCA, and the first goal of the action plan led directly to the CCF Poverty Study, which will also be described below:

  • Goal 1: CCF will work from a more comprehensive understanding of poverty, and its impact on children, and will seek to integrate itself within the global movement against poverty.

My own assignment was to support work on the second goal:

  • Goal 2: CCF program practices will be guided by a more refined development approach that mitigates both the cause and effect of child and community ill-being through holistic and sustainable intervention strategies.

Next time, I will describe the research that I carried out as we developed what became known as “Bright Futures.”  This time, I want to describe the OCA, and the CCF Poverty Study, two efforts that produced important inputs for what became “Bright Futures.”  These projects were clear evidence that Michelle and Daniel, and John Schultz, were very serious about transforming CCF into a world-class evidence-based development organization: they were questioning almost everything, in an honest and open spirit of discovery.  Exciting stuff.

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The Organizational Capacity Assessment – “OCA”

Michelle had asked Alan Fowler to review CCF’s capacity to reach a major strategic goal: increasing private funding by 50%, and growing technical grants by a whopping 800%.  Alan was, and is, one of our sector’s “respected elders” – people who have thought and written deeply about our work.

Along the way, I had read several of Alan’s books, and many of the papers he produced.  (I had never met Alan, though had briefly collaborated with his wife, Wendy Crane, when she was with Plan International: as I arrived at Plan’s headquarters in 1993, a new strategic plan was being finalized, and it was my responsibility to finalize the plan.  Wendy had been on the taskforce developing the plan, so we worked together to finish it up and present the draft to Plan’s senior management and board.)

If CCF wanted to have an unvarnished assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, Alan was the perfect choice.

Data for Alan’s draft “OCA” report, dated April, 2002 (a few months before I arrived on the scene) was gathered through in-depth case studies, a survey, and focus group discussions.  He began with an appreciation of what CCF was already doing:

A major finding is that CCF’s distinct model of parent-driven and managed development using directly remitted sponsor funds has the potential to place it in a good position to raise funds from professional grant makers – predominantly the official aid system.

CCF’s approach produces what parents want for their children. It creates local community capacity, albeit within the narrow confines of managing CCF inputs. It fosters community ownership of change. It is sensitive to local and culturally appropriate forms of organising and oversight. It has helped bridged cleavages within communities and kept at bay political and external interference. And, it has helped women make significant gains in terms of position, voice and capabilities. These assets are some of CCF’s best-kept secrets.

But Alan had some significant suggestions, many of which led directly into the Poverty Study, and also into what became Bright Futures.  For example, the following observation was an important element in the organization’s decision to study how children and youth actually experience poverty:

However, there are important weaknesses in the CCF development model. It is insufficiently holistic and lacks a cause-based analysis of child poverty, vulnerability and deprivation. Consequently, symptoms receive more attention than causes.

As will be seen next time, Bright Futures would emphasize building the capacity of local partners to interact with, and influence, government service provision, in favor of people living in poverty.  The OCA pointed out the importance of building this into the new approach:

Attention needs to be given to policy and practical reform and strengthening in the CCF community development methodology. The policy parameters for CCF assistance require adjustment to deal with the problem of ‘development ceilings’. This does not automatically imply that CCF should gather every conceivable development competence in house. Rather, it implies building the capacity to relate and link communities to others. Of particular importance is capitalising on the decentralisation thrust in government reform and service delivery, with communities as legitimate claimants with rights, not supplicants.

Associated with this type of review, is developing a capability to build the capacities of local organisations and associations beyond the confines and requirements of managing CCF and community inputs. In other words, that the principle of community engagement is one of organisational development, not project management.

These findings would provide important underpinnings to what became “Bright Futures.”  Alan had identified with great clarity many of the ways that CCF’s program approach was falling short; it would be for Daniel and me to propose the remedy.

But first, Jo Boyden and her colleagues were busy interviewing children in five countries, trying to understand how they experienced poverty.  The resulting “Poverty Study” would be fundamental to the design of “Bright Futures.”

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The CCF Poverty Study

Consistent with the first goal that emerged as CCF considered Alan’s recommendations in the OCA, Jo Boyden was asked to carry out a ground-breaking effort to understand how children actually experience poverty.

A few years earlier, the World Bank had commissioned a landmark study of the lived experience of poverty, interviewing over 20,000 men and women across the globe.  The document that emerged, “Voices of the Poor: Crying Out for Change,” had a powerful effect on work in our sector.  (I’ve mentioned the work of one of the study’s authors, Robert Chambers, in an earlier posting, and I will return to highlight an impressive talk he gave many years later, at a conference I attended in Canberra.)

That the World Bank, such an enormous organisation with such an uneven record of impact, would take the time to listen to so many people living in poverty was, itself, impressive.  Even if the document’s findings didn’t seem to have much impact on many projects, particularly larger, infrastructure-focused efforts, it was easy to see the powerful effect it had on the wider policies and commitments of the Bank.

The findings from “Voices of the Poor” were organised around ten themes:

  • Livelihoods and assets are precarious, seasonal and inadequate.
  • Places of the poor are isolated, risky, unserviced and stigmatized.
  • The body is hungry, exhausted, sick and poor in appearance.
  • Gender relations are troubled and unequal.
  • Social relations are discriminating and isolating.
  • Security is lacking in the sense of both protection and peace of mind.
  • Behaviors of those more powerful are marked by disregard and abuse.
  • Institutions are disempowering and excluding.
  • Organizations of the poor are weak and disconnected.
  • Capabilities are weak because of the lack of information, education, skills and confidence.

This was important stuff, and I really liked that the authors had recognised that poverty, for those who experienced it, was more than deprivation.  Much more.

I still highly recommend “Voices of the Poor” – for me, it’s become one of the seminal, foundational texts for our sector.  But Daniel and Michelle recognised that the Bank study was incomplete in one important way, especially for a child-focused agency like CCF: it didn’t look at poverty from the perspective of children and youth!

As CCF sought to reformulate its program approach, this was a gap that needed filling.  And, importantly, it was an opportunity for the organisation to contribute fundamental research to the sector, and to thereby raise its fairly-low profile.

CCF had asked Jo Boyden to carry out the ambitious project that would fill this important gap.  Jo was a well-respected professional, with a strong background in participatory methods with children and youth, then working at Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford University.  Daniel and Michelle formed a steering committee, including Alan Fowler and, later, me, among others.

Jo and her team would produce three reports: firstly, they produced an extensive review of contemporary literature and thought related to child poverty, included here CHILDRENANDPOVERTY1 – COPY.  There were ten main findings, which I copy here from the report’s executive summary:

  1. Assumptions and Cultural Bias.  The literature of child poverty is based on demarcations of children and childhood drawn from Western cultures, and promotes certain conceptualizations of child and family relationships as the ‘goal’ of alleviation strategies, while vilifying others as the ‘cause’.
  2. Inaccurate Measurement, Irrelevant Indicators.  The literature is overly dependent on the statistical, quantifiable dimensions of child poverty, and organizes its knowledge around adult and institutional requirements rather than real situations. This has meant that the terminology, indicators and resulting interventions are often irrelevant to children’s lives in many ways.
  3. Overly-Simplistic Macro-Micro Linkages.  Not enough attention is given to how features in the macro environment — such as economic policy, political governance and conflict — translate into impacts on children. This partly because child poverty studies tend to adopt a ‘snapshot’ approach, making it difficult to assess the longitudinal effects and linkages to larger macro frameworks.
  4. Stigma and Discrimination.  The understanding of how child poverty is regarded by and responded to within the community is poor, and myopics, exclusively targeted interventions may themselves encourage or create further discrimination, as is the case with disabled children. There too little focus on how institutionalized systems of exclusion (e.g. caste and ethnicity) interact with the economic poverty of the family.
  5. The Narrowness of Health.  Health is a prime indicator of child poverty, but in the literature it is largely confined to considerations of mortality, excluding the mental health issues and other less visible concerns of older children. Local understandings and practices of healthcare are ignored, as are the views of the children themselves.
  6. The Reification of School-based Education.  Literacy and schooling are consistently held up as the universal keys to breaking the cycle of poverty in the literature, despite increasing evidence from many countries that education may be contextually useless or damaging, particularly for girls. The benefits are far from automatic, and are rarely available to all.
  7. The Myths of Child Labor.  Culturally biased notions of childhood as ideally ‘work-free’ have vilified the labor contribution of children and over-determined the causal link between work and poverty. There is evidence that in many cases employment can actually be more beneficial to the child than schooling, and may be entered into willingly without parental pressure.
  8. Overstating Vulnerability.  The creation of categories of ‘especially vulnerable children’ such as street children, AIDS orphans and child sex workers has led to disproportionate attention at the expense of other children suffering similar but less visible threats to their protection. It also appears that the vulnerability of such groups is in many cases overstated or misplaced, and being singled out in such a way may unintentionally further their stigmatization.
  9. Ignoring Child Agency.  The literature is very reluctant to accord any social or economic agency to children, despite increasing evidence of children taking control over their own lives at significant stages, and developing strategic capacities for coping that were once thought beyond them. 
  10. Understanding Poverty and Protection.  There is little recognition of child poverty as a protection issue, despite significant reports into child prostitution and trafficking. If at all, these threats to the protection of children are nearly always considered as originating from outside the home, and very little information is available on how poverty affects levels of domestic violence, family dynamics or alcoholism, for example. Some simply see these issues as pertaining to crime and lawlessness, and therefore outside their ‘development’ mandate.

For me, these were powerful findings, dramatically illuminating the biases and blind-spots that were common in our sector.  It was particularly challenging, to me, to read the critique of how we were overemphasising formal education, and demonising child labor, without considering the real impacts of each.

Parallel with the literature review, Jo’s team was engaged in semi-structured and focus-group discussions with children in five countries: Belarus, Bolivia, India, Kenya, and Sierra Leone.  Her report is included here: CHILDRENANDPOVERTY2 – COPY.

This was the most important output of the CCF Poverty Study: actually listening to children, across five continents, hearing them describe their lived experience of poverty, in their own words.  For example:

  • A 16-year-old girl in Kenyas said: “I feel bad. I feel like the odd one out…You lack self-esteem. You feel like you shouldn’t talk wherever you are, like you shouldn’t be expressing your ideas. You feel lonely. You feel ashamed. Like if you have only two underpants and you have to wear one and wash the other and hang it up to dry everyone will always see that you have only two – the red one and the green one – and you are alternating between them.”
  • A young woman in Sierra Leone said: “You have to be humble to the aunt and uncle and show them respect. You must not be proud. Because you don’t have a mother, you don’t have a father so you have no other choice but to be humble. If you do good things you never get praised – they always shout on you and put you down.”
  • A 30-year-old woman in Bolivia said: “There’s no justice. For them (urban population) there’s justice, there’s law, while here there’s nothing, we die and that’s it. Quietly we disappear…that’s how it is.”
  • A 9-year-old girl in India said: “It does not look good when Patlia children say on our face that ‘you are Harijan and we do not eat the food served to you’. I do not feel good when they do not eat in the school. It hurts me.”
  • A young girl in Belarus said: “Poverty means unequal relationships with others. If you are poor you suffer from stigma. Others look at you in a certain way like you’re worthless. Feeling unimportant: ‘No one will listen to me, no one cares for me’. ‘You don’t count’. ‘I’m poor, I don’t count, I’m a piece of dirt.’”
  • A 12-year-old boy in India said: “Of course I want more money because ultimately, food is the ultimate thing you want in life, you know there’s lots of problems we don’t have enough money to get food, for ourselves so we would…we have only two goats and two cows and we have little land, and that’s what we do.”

In summary, the CCF Poverty Study found that children understand poverty as a deeply physical, emotional and social experience.  This experience is felt acutely and minutely from an early age.  And, for them, poverty is more about experience than about resources.

The final output from Jo’s team was a summary document that sought to integrate the literature review with the voices of children: CHILDRENANDPOVERTY3 – COPY.

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Early in 2003, the Poverty Study Steering Committee met in London to try to make sense of it all.  I felt fortunate that, by then, I was a member of the Committee.  Our aim was to formulate a poverty framework, using what we were hearing from children about their lived experience, that could be used by CCF staff as a key input for program design.

Those three days in London were fantastic – collaborative, creative and mutual team-work that produced a framework that would stand the test of time for CCF.  We agreed that:

  • For children, poverty is a deeply relational and relative, dynamic, and multi-dimensional experience.
  • Poor children are deprived of essential material conditions and services; they are excluded on the basis of their age, gender, class, caste, etc.; and they are vulnerable to the increasing array of threats in their environments.

We came to call this the “DEV” framework: like adults, children and youth experience poverty as Deprivation – the typical “lack” of basic needs.  But, from a surprisingly early age, children living in poverty also feel Excluded from their communities, and Vulnerable to risks and threats around them.

The Poverty Study was very valuable in encouraging CCF staff to recognise that poverty, for children was much more than a “lack” of basic needs.  This way of thinking about child poverty, from the lived experience of children themselves, would be a fundamental foundation for Bright Futures.

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The OCA and the CCF Poverty Study were very impressive examples of rigorous, evidence-based research.  But, in a very real sense, they were just studies, on paper.  The next, and most important step, would be to integrate insights from these studies into what CCF actually did, on the ground, in poor communities.

It would be up to Daniel and me to create, test, and document CCF’s new program approach, Bright Futures.

I’ll begin to describe how we did that, next time.

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;

  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed.
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Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed

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

Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed”

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

But, unlike Bob Dylan, I still cared.

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

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

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

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

Dolly Copp was (and is) under construction, necessary renovation.  I had a simple flat area, picnic table, and nearby (common) toilet in the area of the campground that was not being renovated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Summit Of Middle Carter

 

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

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

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

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

  • lucky to have been sent to Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and to have been assigned to Cañar, where I was given big responsibilities, and located far from other Volunteers!;
  • lucky that Annuska Heldring arrived in Cañar while I was a Volunteer, because she helped fund my most innovative project (San Rafael), taught me a lot about how to manage a big international NGO … and later opened the door for me at Plan International;
  • lucky to have worked for Monique van’t Hek during my first posting in Plan, in Tuluá, Colombia – I learned a great deal from her about how to run an NGO, how to manage people, how to speak Colombian Spanish!  And lucky that I later worked for Leticia Escobar when I became Field Director there, a smart and very dedicated professional;
  • lucky to have worked for Andy Rubi, Plan’s first Regional Director, once I moved to Quito;
  • lucky to have joined Plan during a period of rapid expansion, which gave me many, many opportunities to learn at a rapid pace during a phase of professionalization of that, and most other, international NGOs;
  • lucky to have had the opportunity to succeed Andy Rubi as Regional Director for South America for Plan; and lucky to move to become Plan’s Program Director at International Headquarters; where I was
  • lucky to work with Max van der Schalk, Plan’s CEO of the time;
  • lucky to have had support from Max and Plan’s board to decide to tackle some fundamental changes in Plan;
  • lucky to finish my time in Plan in Viet Nam, such a special place, with such special people (Thu Ba, Duat, Minh Thu, Ary, etc.)

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

 

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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Mount Washington From Wildcat “C”

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Looking East, the Atlantic Ocean (Right Side Background)

 

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

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

 

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

What is a ‘cycle’?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Stay tuned for descriptions of those climbs!

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Plan Struggles To Increase Grants

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

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

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

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

A Regional Meeting in Plan Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Large Grants Implementation Unit” – Conceptual Drafts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My response was three-fold:

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Foresight, hindsight and the LGIU becoming the new norm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many thanks to Ary for his recollections!

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

So, stay tuned!

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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The Summit Of Wildcat “D”

 

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Population Below $1 (PPP)

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

U5MR

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

Improved Drinking Water

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

*

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

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

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

 

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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With the Prime Minister of Viet Nam, Pham Van Khai

 

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Then we summarized the CSP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

One of the things that I was most proud of, during my four years serving as Plan’s Country Director in Viet Nam, was how often I was able to get to visit our work in the provinces.  In part, this was because our team at the Country Office was so strong (see my descriptions of Le Quang Duat, Tran Minh Thu, and Pham Thu Ba in my previous blog post), as were our managers at Program Unit level, in the provinces.

But it would have been easy to stay in Hanoi, there was plenty to do there and plenty of demands from Plan’s hierarchy in the Regional Office and donor offices.  But I managed to get to the field for (roughly) week-long visits nearly 50 times in my four years there, which allowed me to stay connected to the realities of our work, build relationships with Plan’s staff and our partners, and to simply be true to the best ethos of our non-profit sector – to accompany the people we were working with, and for.

I have hours of film of these visits, unedited records of the people, the setting, and our work.  Here is video of two visits, both of which took place in October, 2000.

First, here is a five-minute video of my visit to Bac Giang province, north of Hanoi.  Bac Giang had been Plan’s third provincial office (after Nam Ha and Hanoi itself), still an area with plenty of poverty, as can be seen:

 

Pham Van Chinh was Plan’s Program Unit Manager in Bac Giang when I visited; many thanks to him and his team, and to our local partners, for hosting my visit, and many others during those years.

And here is a longer (almost 29 minutes) video of a visit to a new province for Plan in those days, Thai Nguyen – a beautiful, poor place, much less developed than Bac Giang in those days:

 

 

Tran Dai Nghia was Plan’s Program Unit Manager in Thai Nguyen when I visited; many thanks to him and his team, and to our local partners, for hosting my visit.

(I might include more video in later edits of this blog post.  I have more!  They document, in a way, a part of the history of Viet Nam, of the history of Plan in Viet Nam, and of the people involved in that effort, that is unique.)

*

Next time, I want to share our experience pilot testing a new structure in Plan.  This was our attempt to solve a problem that had vexed the organisation for many years: how to increase the proportion of funding coming from non-sponsorship sources, in particular, in the form of “large grants” from bi- and multi-lateral aid agencies.  It’s a story of innovation, success and, ultimately, failure.

I’ve invited Ary Laufer, the person who contributed more than anybody to make the “Large Grants Implementation Unit” in Viet Nam the success it was, to share his thoughts on the experience.

So, stand by for the next chapter in the story!

*

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

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:

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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.

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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.

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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…)

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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!

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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Hanoi Circus, Right Across The Street From The Plan Office

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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:

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

 

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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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

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

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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

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:

 

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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:

 

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

saro-strategic-directions-april-1992

 

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:

 

saro-quality-framework

 

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.

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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.

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

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed.

 

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.