Friday, July 22, 2011

Another Cup: follow-up on Greg Mortenson post

Three articles have caught my eye in the months since my first post about Greg Mortenson and the accusations of wrongdoing within his Central Asia Institute (CAI).  Unsurprisingly, they drew my attention in part because they pick up on two main themes of my post: the difficulty of verifying development dollars on the ground (which works in Mortenson’s immediate defense) and the uneconomical/unsustainable nature of the CAI solution (a longer term but also more damning critique).

We’ll start with the good: a February report by 16 education aid agencies currently working in Afghanistan offers two vindications for the CAI, (the Guardian also provides a nice summary). The report and article both contribute an arbitrating neutrality, having been published before the CAI news broke.  Two key points as they pertain to the Mortenson story:

First, the report points out the overall impressive gains in female education that have taken place in Afghanistan since 2001.  On paper, $1.9 billion has been spent on education, 2,281 schools have been built, and female enrollment has jumped from 5,000 to 2.4 million.

Secondly, the report simultaneously draws attention to the fact that these gains are significantly inflated on paper.  Potentially 22% of those new students are classified as “long-term absentees”.  A shocking 47% of the 2,281 “schools built” have no physical building, and school closure due to insecurity remains a chronic problem.

For CAI, the first piece of news is certainly a positive indicator that their efforts have been having some effect – they have been part of that collective school building campaign.  Let’s not forget we’re talking about one of the least developed countries in the world that is still battling some very repressive views towards female education.  In such a context, those gains really are impressive, and CAI is part of that story.

The second vindication is more bittersweet in that it demonstrates that many of the 60 Minutes’ claims regarding the schools themselves – the claims that suggested far less on the ground success than CAI claims on paper – are in fact not at all unique to the CAI.  Given those statistics above, in fact, CAI may be having far more than the average success in getting schools open in Afghanistan.

The second article takes up this issue at a more theoretical level, taking a look at the decade long project by Transparency International (TI) to rate countries’ performance on corruption by surveying locals.  In short, the article examines the disconnect between citizens’ perceptions and the reality regarding corruption in their country.  This echoes my point from April about the extent to which citizens are often poorly informed regarding the sources of project financing.  I’ve heard my host mother casually accuse our mayor of a million dollar corruption scandal over tea without batting an eye.  Yes, that is millions, and yes she meant dollars, in our tiny rural village.  When I ask how she knows, her response was the convincing “I just know.”  This is a relatively well educated woman, so I’d hate to think of an international outsider trying to verify development money spent simply by driving around town and asking those even less informed than her.

Again, this is a mark in favor of CAI, as this effectively seems to be what 60 Minutes did.  It’s also another sign of how tricky development is.  The fact is one can probably dig up stories of misspent funds on just about any project, especially if outsiders parachute in without any understanding of local alliances.  As I mentioned last post, it’s simply impossible to achieve “developed” country accounting standards.  Dealing with a certain level of uncertainty is an inherent risk in development; it can be mitigated, but never eliminated.  That story is a lot harder to sell to the public, but those of us in the business do ourselves no favors when we try to sugarcoat it.

Finally, as the Oxfam report points out, the worst builder of schools in Afghanistan seems to have been the military. Again, unsurprising.  I wouldn’t think to try to do the military’s job, and their strengths aren’t necessarily conducive to doing mine.  The Provincial Reconstruction Teams poor performance seems to partially stem from the fact that their very involvement makes a school a security target and thus un-attendable for students.  However, to some extent this is true for any Western organization.  Again in defense of CAI, this offers support for their low profile approach.  It’s a catch twenty-two for CAI because the approach breeds local confusion about who is funding schools, which in turn fuels 60 Minutes’ style sensationalism.

Now for the more important bad news: the World Bank recently released a new education strategy, as for that matter did USAID (once again, for brevity see this nice summary by the Center for Global Development).  The strategies distill half a century of development experience down into a few key goals, and come to very similar conclusions.  Unsurprisingly, what matters most in development is not building schools nor even necessarily getting kids in the seats, but rather incentivizing actors (students, parents, educators, administrators, and politicians) to perform, and most of all ensuring the quality of the education that goes on within the classroom.  In shorter words, the key goal in education should be the achievement of learning. If that conclusion somehow seems less than illuminating, the banal bureaucratic language of the strategies obscures the fact that for four decades the World Bank spent its efforts focused almost entirely on building schools and training teachers.

The development community has been learning, and we now see the resulting shift from focusing on inputs to an emphasis on outcomes in agencies’ program design.  Not even two decades old, it’s unsurprising that the CAI still betrays this older input focused approach, albeit at a much more grass roots level approach.

Both of these arguments confirm my initial comments regarding the CAI “scandal” a couple months ago.  On the one hand, development is messy and following the money trail on the ground is exceedingly difficult.  Greg Mortenson’s detractors seem to have a very poor understanding of this in their efforts to verify his foundation’s work.  On the other hand, much of the development community long remained unimpressed by Greg Mortenson because it knew the dirty secret he was still learning – building schools is a less than sufficient solution to a very complicated problem.  Good story, cosmetic fix, poor solution.

From my understanding, domestically the news has been much more focused on the inaccuracies in his personal stories as well as the “using CAI as a personal ATM” line.  I’m curious to hear from readers if they feel this is accurate.  Meanwhile, I’ll leave that debate to the courts, for as I’m sure Mortenson would agree, the bigger issue is not the finances of one small NGO, but the billion dollar education of the world’s most economically vulnerable children.


Susan said...

Your piece is invaluable to our understanding of CAI's role in / share of the work being done to fund education, especially for girls, in A & P. (Notice I say "fund education" not "build schools." That phrasing represents CAI's growth in variety of approaches as well as the theme of your posting.)

Re: textual issues in "3CofT" and "SintoS"

I refuse to get hung up on this issue or waste time discussing it. Although I DO confess to a personal itch to know what David Oliver Relin is thinking these days!! So far as I'm aware, he's not been heard from publicly since 4/17.

Re: the famous line about Mr. Mortenson's use of CAI as his personal ATM

It's my recollection that the former CAI person interviewed by JKrakauer and quoted as saying this popped up soon after the CBS show to renounce ANY connection to that idea or statement.

Moving past that, I have no doubt that GM is a sloppy bookkeeper, if you will, that CAI has long been understaffed, and that he is not the easiest person for the other directors to work with.

I also have no doubt that the MT AG's office, while working with CAI to investigate its financial practices is simultaneously teaching the institute how to do it right as they move forward.

Thanks for your excellent writing (and lovely site) from halfway 'round the world.

MDS said...

I run a small non profit that supports an orphanage and school in rural Kenya. We've recently looked at expanding and are just sort of dazzled by the factors involved, and I'm sure that what we're encountering is similar to what CAI faced/faces. Finding people on the ground we can trust, verifying the everyday attendance of students and a dozen other issues, it's not easy.

I think CAI has been understaffed, and its understandable, my organizations entirely yearly budget is less than $20,000 at this point. We'd have to raise at least $100,000 yearly just to have one full time US based staffer and still meet our mission. Nonprofits that work in impoverished countries face a difficult question, how can you justify a $30,000 salary when that would run an fully staffed orphange and school for three years?

There aren't any easy answers, and there are always more critics than volunteers.

Susan said...

MDS, I wish everyone interested in the CAI "situation" would read this succinct description of the quandary you face!

Because in effect you've shown us a snapshot of a particular point in the lifeline of a typical NGO.

And I can see how the NGO could reach the same point over and over, i.e., when to add the 3rd staffer... when to add the 4th staffer... when to add a niche staffer to do only a specific type of work FT who, because of their specialty, is looking for a larger salary...

All best wishes in meeting your goals without "doing yourself in"!

BellandHammer said...

You seem to have missed the primary charges against Mortenson, well documented and sourced in Krakauer's "Three Cups of Deceit." According to the evidence he's a liar and a thief who fakes accomplishments, defames people who helped him in Afghanistan, uses money for a life of luxury for himself that was donated to a nonprofit charity to build schools, etc.

He's a con man.

And aside from his actions being dishonorable, the larger issue is that behavior like his --especially when it's defended, excused, justified-- makes it harder and harder to raise funds for organizations that really are who they claim, really do the work they claim, and whose staff and directors don't live extravagantly.

ZJFS said...

@Susan: thank you for your kind words!

@MDS and Susan: you've both hit the nail on the head with just how difficult these issues are. Having been involved in founding a non-profit in the U.S., I can say that they will always be understaffed and underfunded, but these issues take on a more complicated set of ethical trade offs when working across radically different cultures (and development levels).

@MDS: I'm interested to hear what your non-profit finally decides. Another one of the drums I'm constantly pounding is the importance of EVALUATION. (CAI definitely could have used an external evaluation of its model...) It may very well be that your constituents are best served by devoting a little extra money to making your one school the best in the world, instead of trying to double your impact.

@BellandHammer: I do not dismiss the charges against Mortenson. They are very troubling. But as I state in both this and the original blog on this topic, he deserves his day in court like every person. Besides that point, I am neither a cop nor a judge; I don't have all the facts/career training, nor do any of this blog's regular readers. What I am is a development professional, and there are several important lessons in that sphere. From my perspective, it's the bigger issue - yes, because it's my career, but also because the development industry's tens of billions in aid make CAI's $2m budget pale. Furthermore, the development angle seems to be that which is least understood and most ignored by the media and public at present.