Broken World, Current Events — April 26, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Three Cups of Tea & Messy Development

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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.

6 Comments

  • This was Easter Sunday coffee conversation for me with all my brother in-laws. It’s a heart breaking expose. I think particularly for Krakauer himself. He had so many positive things to say about Mortenson: He was pressured into lying by his publisher, He didn’t live lavishly (except a few too many chartered jet rides), He truly has a heart for the Afghan people. Krakauer ended up donating all the proceeds from his expose piece to charity and had it online for free for awhile. It sounds like from the true character of Mortenson that Krakauer describes, he may be totally relieved to have this information out in the open.

  • The impression I received of Mr. Mortenson from his book was of a kind man, a compassionate man, a man who was willing to take risks and do what was needed to really help people– people whom he sees as people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, class, or anything else.

    I never received an impression of Mr. Mortenson of being a very practical man with finances, or a man who was good at keeping an eye on the bottom line. Quite the opposite, in fact. I would not be surprised if many or all of Mr. Mortenson’s financial indiscretions are a result of this impracticality. For another impression I received of Mr. Mortenson was that he was not the sort to intentionally divert funds for his own gain. A sort of innocence seemed to hover about him. I truly doubt that this was a fabrication by his publishers. I think it’s genuine.

  • I can’t agree with you more, Andrew. You described with authenticity the challenge of community development in a 3rd world country perfectly. As westerners we think we have all the solutions and we want to implement them in communities of need…. We have all of the money and thus all of the power and we forget about the dignity of the people we are trying to help. We would rather “tell” them what to do and believe, than take the time to hear their hearts and dreams for their own home communities. We must stop “telling” and and take real time to listen, learn and serve by coming alongside as opposed to rushing is with all the money and answers. Thanks for shining light on this.

  • There are so many challenges to development. That is undeniable, the field wouldn’t exist if there weren’t complexities. Yes, Mortenson brought a principle of community development (even a principle that is reflective of Christian ethics) into mainstream American culture. He helped people understand that they should ‘listen’ in cross-cultural discourse, prioritize partnership over task, and take girls education seriously. These are big contributions in a society that is largely ignorant and/or close minded towards Central Asia and the Middle East. HOWEVER, he is still a development practicioner and needs to be accountable for the way his organization uses funds. All organizations need to operate with transparency. I don’t really feel sorry for him. Fabrication of the facts is unacceptable.

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