Greg Mortenson has inspired millions with his mission to promote peace through education in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In his bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson tells the story of how he stumbled into his life’s work to build schools and promote education, especially for girls, in rural village communities.
Mortenson and his organization Central Asia Institute (CAI) have recently come under fire, led by CBS and 60 Minutes along with best-selling author and former Mortenson supporter, Jon Krakauer. According to the 60 Minutes report, Mortenson allegedly embellished his story in Three Cups of Tea, exaggerated the impact of the schools built by CAI, and receives an excessive amount of funds and benefits from the institute. The report asserts that “the $1.7 million that they spent for book-related expenses is more than they spent on all of their schools in Pakistan last year.”
I won’t attempt to comment on the accuracy of the report or the validity of Mortenson’s claims. The need for better use of funds, increased transparency and decreased corruption among development organizations is clear. At the same time, in light of the current controversy surrounding CAI, I think it is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves that there are few things as complicated as development work.
Too often donors don’t want to hear about the complexities of international development, yet it can be incredibly messy. Donors prefer efficiency, transparency, mission statements, objectives, reports, and feel-good success stories. These aren’t bad things. In fact, they’re important to the success of an organization. Everything changes, though, when a western development worker walks into a slum in Nicaragua, a nomadic tribe in rural Kenya, or a mountainous village in Pakistan.
Cultural differences and systems of poverty and oppression complicate simple solutions. It is not easy to promote education for girls within a community that views them as second-class citizens; a community in which polygamy and female genital mutilation are assumed practices. Exacerbating the problem is a history of colonialism which, along with a host of negative ramifications, fostered an environment where funds are assumed to flow ceaselessly from the West. Bribery is commonplace, to the extent that locals may find it justifiable to wait for an organization with western ties to shell out extra cash. And it gets difficult to track funds effectively when a receipt for a $3,000 purchase is hand-written on a piece of scratch paper.
The examples I name barely touch the scope of international development. Additional hurdles include systemic oppression, vast needs for food, water, shelter, security, education, infrastructure, capital, etc., differing cultural assumptions and values, war, disease, historical atrocities, politics and corruption, and negative views of the West and U.S. intervention throughout the world. These complexities don’t fit neatly into a mission statement. They certainly don’t raise money. Sugar-coated glances at organizational successes raise money. Organizations know it, and they provide the donor with what they’re looking for. Unfortunately, the line between simplifying difficult realities and embellishment of the truth is often blurred. This may be the case with Greg Mortenson.
Still, Mortenson got something right, as Nicholas Kristof reflected last week, “He was right about the need to listen to local people — yes, over cup after cup after cup of tea — rather than just issue instructions.”
Many organizations are making significant strides in doing development in the context of relationship. They are striving for partnership rather than paternalistic guidance, empowerment over dehumanization, and transformation instead of transaction. This is not easy. It certainly adds to the vast complexity of development work. It is a much slower process than simply entering a community with a plan to save the day. But it’s the right thing to do. Mortenson got it right when he titled his book, Three Cups of Tea, reminding us that development starts by sitting and listening to each other.