I can’t even count the number of times people — from peace activists to congressional staffers — have recommended that I read “Three Cups of Tea,” or shared their enthusiasm for Greg Mortenson’s efforts to bring positive change to countries in which the US military has wrought havoc. For those of us who want to see a radical transformation in how the US interacts with the world — with more focus on schools than bombs — the recent controversy over Mortenson’s book and his management of the Central Asia Institute is heart-breaking. Whatever one makes of the allegations, it’s undeniable that the controversy is going to damage Mortenson’s formerly pristine reputation.
That’s why it’s so important that we don’t let this debate obscure the fundamental truths behind Mortenson’s work, as well as that of many other aid groups. Nicholas Kristof, a big Mortenson supporter, highlighted this in a recent column:
I’ve visited some of Greg’s schools in Afghanistan, and what I saw worked. Girls in his schools were thrilled to be getting an education. Women were learning vocational skills, such as sewing. Those schools felt like some of the happiest places in Afghanistan.
I also believe that Greg was profoundly right about some big things.
He was right about the need for American outreach in the Muslim world. He was right that building schools tends to promote stability more than dropping bombs. He was right about the transformative power of education, especially girls’ education. 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.
I worry that scandals like this — or like the disputes about microfinance in India and Bangladesh — will leave Americans disillusioned and cynical. And it’s true that in their struggle to raise money, aid groups sometimes oversell how easy it is to get results. Helping people is more difficult than it seems, and no group of people bicker among themselves more viciously than humanitarians.
There are dedicated people all around the world who are partnering with local communities to bring real change to people’s lives. Most of these humanitarians don’t have the benefit of the international attention that Mortenson has received.
Katha Pollitt points out some of these efforts at The Nation, and the danger that Mortenson’s reputation could reflect poorly on them:
The real tragedy of the Mortenson news is that it may make Americans not more knowledgeable but more cynical. “Why can’t there be at least one morally correct person in the world?” asked one YouTube poster on the 60 Minutessegment. “Just one person who can selflessly do the right thing, change the world for the better, and not be a jerk about it?” Poignant question, but the answer is: there are lots of such people. Afghanistan and Pakistan have many honest, energetic and creative aid workers, including many locals—they just don’t get the celebrity media treatment or the celebrity-sized budgets. The Afghan Women’s Fund, run by the Afghan expatriate Fahima Vorgetts, builds and supports schools, runs literacy classes and income-generating projects for women, digs wells in parched villages and much more—on around $120,000 a year. Think what it could do with just one of CAI’s wasted millions! Lauryn Oates, of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (cw4wafghan.ca), told me the real Afghan education problem isn’t bricks and mortar; it’s finding qualified teachers—especially women. “The majority have no postsecondary education at all, or maybe didn’t even finish high school. We have high school math teachers who don’t know long division.” Besides doing other important projects, such as running literacy classes in places where there is zero literacy, her group has trained more than 1,800 already working teachers since 2008. Its annual budget? Around $800,000.
Development and humanitarian efforts can be extremely effective, and we need to keep that message at the forefront to make sure these programs don’t fall by the wayside. We’ll be highlighting successful efforts in our monthly Stand Up newsletter so you can learn more about these life-changing programs and educate your friends and family.