Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Greg Mortenson, and when it’s hard to know how many cups there are in three cups

The humanitarian philanthropic world is aflutter this week over the news of Greg Mortenson – literally, he became a trending topic on Twitter two days ago.  For those unfamiliar, Greg Mortenson is the co-author and main protagonist along with his charity the Central Asia Institute (CAI) of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea and its recent follow-up Stones Into Schools.

The mountaineer turned humanitarian started building schools, primarily for girls, in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan after a failed attempt summiting K2.  Or so everybody thought, until 60 Minutes aired an investigative wackjob last Sunday that called a number of books’ claims and CAI’s finances into question.

Some serious questions are already being asked of 60 Minutes’ reporting, but if its story holds – and indeed it has been followed this week by a much more in-depth, researched, and less sensationalist work by Jon Krakauer – then Greg Mortenson is in danger of becoming the Bernie Madoff of international philanthropic humanitarianism, not because Mortenson is being accused of anything criminal (yet), but because he risks becoming the symbol of something much larger.

Establishing the truth in this particular case will take a long time and will forever remain subjective, as hagiography always is.  In becoming a patron saint for a generation of a do-gooders, Mortenson long ago lost any ability to have an objective history.

Yet taking a step back, the case is certain to raise some larger questions as well.  Enter Mortenson the symbol, whose role is already being written in the press as a stand in for a much larger debate about foreign aid.

Within Peace Corps, Mortenson is a polarizing figure: for many he is a selfless personal hero, for others the paradigm of much that is wrong in international development.  For some, like myself, he is both things at the same time.

I first read Three Cups of Tea about a year ago.  At the time, the message resonated with me as a first hand account of the harrowing struggle of doing good against tall obstacles and also as treatise on the cultural integration on-the-ground approach to development.  The former appealed to the struggles I was slogging through getting Vitality In Action Foundation off the ground, the latter appealed to the archetypical cultural integration approach to development work I would soon be living as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Of course, the book is also a very good story.

By the time I read the follow-up Stones Into Schools, however, my skepticism was growing.  True, the book still resonated with fundamental aspects of Peace Corps service, (Mortenson in fact donated copies of his book to PC posts worldwide).  If cultural integration was my take-away development lesson of the first book, the “end of the road” approach, where one starts in the rural peripheries instead of the urban hubs, was the motto of the second.  As “Europe’s poorest country”, Moldova is flooded with international aid and donor organizations.  Working in a small rural village, I’ve seen how little of that aid makes it out of the capital, and how none of those international organizations make it all the way to villages, where the needs are arguably largest.  So once again, Mortenson captured a personal reality in his own story.

Living development on the ground, however, the gaping holes in Mortenson’s approach became more troubling.  There is nothing sustainable about the CAI method, and even over the short term its solutions to education are single dimensional.  The “build it and they will come” fiction is attractive in its simplicity, but if such a parsimonious solution existed, the development professionals who have been tirelessly scratching away at this problem for over a half a century would have long ago figured it out.  Indeed, that’s part of the beauty of the CAI solution: it taps into that American spirit that is animated by the outsider who goes against the grain and figures out the solutions the professionals had been missing all along.  But while outsiders are essential to figuring out new approaches, they also tend to make a lot of mistakes the experts have already worked through.

In Mortenson’s work, experience happens to point to the necessity of quality teaching, cultural factors (environments and attitudes), non-infrastructure material needs (rested and nourished students), and household factors.  Take the CAI approach out over the medium term and it becomes even more problematic.  Even if you build it and they come, will they maintain it?  In my ten short months here I have already seen enough abandoned projects concocted in foreign capitals.  It’s the natural result of poorly planned giving.  If you offer me a Ferrari, I’m unlikely to refuse it, regardless of whether I have any use for one (or even know how to drive a stick…)

To those working out in the field, there is likely to be little revelatory in any of the stories to come.  But much of the media attention is likely to be fleeting, which will be more than sufficient to do serious damage to the opinions of those who simply want to trust that a charitable donation will go to a good cause.

Take for example the BBC piece that investigated 60 Minutes’ claim of missing schools: it casts some doubt on 60 Minutes’ accusations, revealing that the news team may be just as amateurish in understanding development environments as Mortenson was back in 1993.  More than anything, it shows the messy affair of tracking development dollars on the ground.  No shock there – the reality is that there is probably sufficient ambiguity in many development projects to cook up a sensational story of malfeasance.  In my own village, it is nearly impossible to get to the bottom of project funding, a rival politician can always claim credit and his followers will, well, follow.

The uncomfortable truth is that a charitable American public cannot receive American quality auditing of dollars spent in these environments; that’s part of the problem causing a country to be “undeveloped” in the first place.  The Mortenson “shock story” pales next to the present recession’s waste and fraud of the private sector, yet Madoff’s fraud of billions is no opiate for the comparative pennies the CAI deals in.  We are less offended by even massive greed when we expect it than minor greed when we don’t.

The jury is still out on Mortenson.  As both an admirer and critic, even if I do not always agree with his solutions, I respect how he brought increased attention to a very real problem.  This week’s news is an invitation to further bring the public into this dialogue.  We can all hope the attentions outlives the sound bite media’s obsession with Twitter’s current trending topics, because Mortenson deserves a fair hearing just as any man.  More importantly, however, so does the issue he has devoted so much energy too.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Thank you Zach for your intelligent critique.