By now, I am sure many of you have heard of the raging controversy over the work and story of ‘Three Cups of Tea‘ writer and Central Asia Institute Founder, Greg Mortenson. Recently, a 60 Minutes piece came out with allegations against Greg Mortenson, and this was followed by an excellent 90-page report by Jon Krakauer, called ‘Three Cups of Deceit.’ I’d urge you to download it and read it if you haven’t yet (it’s only free for download until tomorrow, Apr. 20) — it provides plenty of documentation of Greg Mortenson’s alleged fabrication of stories in his two books, as well as seeming rampant mismanagement of CAI. I definitely think Krakauer has it in for Mortenson because the e-book is written in a decidedly vicious tone, and as Marianne Elliott writes in an excellent post, writing about Afghanistan is difficult. It is such a complicated place to work, with constantly shifting alliances, and I am sure there are individuals who have may have motives for disparaging Mortenson. Regardless, there is plenty in Krakauer’s report that seems to be true, devastatingly for Mortenson and CAI.
A lot of excellent posts have already written on the topic, so I doubt I have much to add to the mix. Nevertheless, I’d like to chime in with my thoughts because this news hit me particularly hard. Perhaps I was naive – you could say I was drawn in and convinced by Mortenson’s inspiring yarn about community development and education in the most isolated and conflict-ridden parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Partially, I wanted to believe in some positive story coming out of Afghanistan. The news seems so bleak, that sometimes we feel the need to hold on to some hope – and Mortenson provided a healthy dose of uplifting news. I can’t say I succumbed to ‘hero worship’ but quite honestly, I couldn’t have imagined the level of fraud and allegations he is now being accused of.
Yet, he has been accused of: fabricating/condensing the ‘origin’ story of how he decided to build schools in Pakistan, spending 60% of funds on promoting his book and only 41% on building schools, of treating CAI like his own personal bank account, of failing to keep tabs on his spending, of engaging in such a horrible management style that his Board Members and staff have resigned, and of ultimately having many schools abandoned & empty.
I think there are a few key lessons that we can take away from this controversy:
Building schools and engaging communities is HARD work
The most ironic aspect of the allegations, perhaps, is that I was most impressed by Mortenson’s model: community-based development. I loved the fact that he was educating the American public on the fundamental principles of good aid work: engaging communities and ensuring their ownership over projects.
Sadly, it turns out that while he may understand the importance of this on a theoretical level, he has not been able to put it into practice. He touts the importance of three cups of tea, but it turns out that he has never even visited many of his projects. Many schools end up as unused ‘ghost’ schools.
The lesson is that development work – particularly in isolated and conflict regions – is far from easy. It requires a dedicated staff, constant monitoring and evaluation of projects, and strict accounting of every penny. It requires sufficient oversight to ensure a project is still running. Without teacher training, salaries to teachers, materials and lunch for students, and a good curriculum, a school is just a building.
Understanding community development on a theoretical level is one thing. Actually putting it into practice? Clearly, far more difficult.
Hero worship has got to stop
Greg Mortenson willingly put himself in the role of ‘hero,’ but we as a public have played a part in hero worship as well.
This is one problem I have with this movement towards ‘social entrepreneurship.’ We have Echoing Green, Ashoka, Skoll Foundation, PopTech, and many more fellowship programs. But I believe we focus far too much on the founder of an organization rather than what’s most important: the effectiveness of the work being done.
We as a public have become enamored of quick solutions to poverty, and the most innovative, unique and exciting projects and solutions. Mortenson’s work was innovative because he focused on the most isolated regions, where few other NGOs went. But to some extent, focusing on innovation and exciting new models leads us away from what is important: the results.
Instead of getting taken in by stories of individuals and ‘hero worship,’ let’s move towards what matters: metrics, evaluations, numbers, RESULTS!
Criticism can spur positive change
What I sincerely hope is that all this criticism and backlash forces Mortenson to not just respond angrily, but to humbly step back and take a look at the operation of CAI. If CAI is to redeem itself in the eyes of the public and its beneficiaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it needs to engage in serious reform, now.
Greg Mortenson needs to hire professionals to audit his organization properly, and recruit financial officers to meticulously keep records of all their expenses and the costs incurred in building each school. Mortenson needs to evaluate his own spending, transparency, and management style. He needs to hire a trustworthy team of Board Members and make sure they are involved in all decisions. He needs to step back and let go, instead of trying to control everything. He should work to put in place and follow streamlined policies for the organization. Ultimately, he should consider whether he is even the right person for the job. He is great at being an ambassador for education, but not so good at day to day management of a non-profit.
This criticism can also educate the American public on what is needed for a successful non-profit to run, and how difficult good development work is. It’s a sad lesson to learn, but a good one nonetheless. The fallout from this controversy can spur better work on behalf of CAI and better understanding by Americans. I certainly hope this is what happens.
We have bigger fish to fry
My last concern is this: for all the criticism that has been heaped on Mortenson, are we looking at other, bigger aspects of society that need to be changed if we are to truly eradicate poverty and human rights violations?
Are we holding the U.S. government, our military, and NATO truly accountable for what is happening in Afghanistan?
Are we holding the international community and U.N. accountable for humanitarian interventions and the aftermath?
Are we investigating the practices of large multinational corporations and their involvement in unfair, exploitative business practices & human rights violations?
Are we examining in detail the backsliding of the Afghan government on women’s rights? The responsibility of the Afghan government to it’s own people?
The truth is, Greg Mortenson may have captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans with his simplistic narrative: books v. bombs. But the reality is far more complex. He is ultimately a small fish in a big pond. I agree with Marianne that even if Greg Mortenson or other non-profits like Oxfam or the Aga Khan Network build hundreds of schools, it is still not going to be the change required to solve Afghanistan’s problems. I agree with her because I believe that certain things: education, clean water, health care, legal services – are basic human rights and should be provided by the government.
In truth, non-profits may be trying to fill a gap left by the state, but they are not the solution. The CAI can do all it wants, but in the end we have to delve into the far more complex picture – politics, the war in Afghanistan, security, the role of the Afghan government – if we are to fundamentally solve these problems.
The public wants simple, black-and-white narratives. But the reality could not be more complex.
We have bigger fish to fry, so while the media loves to focus on bringing a hero down, let’s move beyond this to try and understand what’s really needed to improve the lives of Afghan children (indeed, children everywhere).
There are so many other excellent posts written on this topic; please read through the following: