In a country that has spent the last 10 years fighting wars that we can’t win and which have cost so much in every sense of the word, it is understandable that Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea describing the journey that led him to want to build schools, especially for girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, struck a chord. It was a story that many wanted to believe. We wanted there to be a romanticized way that the white colonizer could convince the dark heathens that we would save them. We needed a Lawrence of Arabia looking hero and Mortenson fulfilled our fantasy.
Even the U.S. military, which has waged the counter-productive, impossible to win war in Afghanistan wanted to believe, to the extent that they invited Mortenson to advise and speak to troops on many occasions. As Greg Jaffe writes in the Washington Post, Mortenson provided a kinder, gentler way of winning hearts and minds that the military badly wanted to be true,
Mortenson’s narratives of wise, patient and kind Afghan and Pakistani elders made it seem as though progress in Afghanistan was achievable. All U.S. troops had to do was learn the Afghan culture, show some patience and deliver a little bit of progress, and the Afghans would see the U.S. military’s good intentions and turn against the Taliban. In this formulation, counterinsurgency — a complex, morally ambiguous and frequently bloody type of war — came to look a bit like social work with guns.
The allegations made by 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer have however severely dented the armor of our hero. While no one disputes that Mortenson has built schools, it is deeply disturbing that,
a financial statement from the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which Mortenson co-founded in 1996 and is acting executive director of, show that only 41 per cent of funds raised actually went towards schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the American Center for Philanthropy, a charity watchdog, CAI claims that $1.7 million was spent on Mortenson’s “book-related expenses,” more than they spent on all of their schools in Pakistan last year.
Also, as Michelle Goldberg points out, while indeed CAI built numerous schools, education requires more than just a building–ongoing funding for books, teachers, etc. are key. But as Goldberg writes, while we want to believe in the white knight in shining armor image that Mortenson presents, it isn’t the best model for making a sustainable difference.
Mortenson became as famous as he did because people love the idea that one intrepid humanitarian can solve intractable problems in the world’s most desperate places. Schimmelpfennig calls it the “White in Shining Armor” approach to development. It makes for good stories, but it usually doesn’t work. In nearly every country in the world, there are people on the ground trying hard to improve things in their communities, and the most successful programs work through them. The Global Fund for Women, for example, takes applications for grants in any form and any language. It supports organizations like the Afghan Institute of Learning, which began by running underground girls schools during Taliban rule, and which has since trained more than 7,000 female primary school teachers. The problem isn’t that the world of development lacks real heroes. The problem is that they’re rarely the ones we hear about.
Kalsoom Lakhani wisely offers this perspective on the Mortenson saga, saying,
We should also use this opportunity to look inwards at ourselves, at our ability to get carried away by a charismatic personality and digestible narrative, in which Mortenson was the John Smith in the Pakistani version of Pocahontas. Rather than society questioning whether good intentions truly equaled good aid, we gave him a platform, feeling warm and fuzzy for the part we indirectly played in saving schoolchildren. This thinking is endemic of a larger problem with charity and non-profit giving, in which show ponies and personalities often sweep us off our feet. We forget that we must demand transparency, and that we need to go beyond giving, remembering instead to give well, and who our money should be ultimately going to. This means supporting institutions and organisations that are not built on personality alone, but on community engagement and sustainability.
There is no question that CAI’s finances need to be thoroughly investigated and Mortenson needs to be given a chance to fully respond (the 60 Minutes story unfortunately came out just before Mortenson underwent a heart proceedure from which he is currently recovering and therefore it may be some time before he is able to respond).
Regardless of that however, the Mortenson story is merely a variation of the we are better than everyone else therefore we must save them and show them the wisdom of our ways mythology that poisons so much of our public dialog.
And let’s remember that Mortenson is hardly the first person to observe that educating children, especially girls, is a very effective way to better a society. Human rights groups have been saying this six ways to Sunday for a very long time. If we truly bought into this theory however, we would be spending a great deal more on education and a great deal less on military action. Women’s rights groups such as RAWA have been operating schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan long before Mortenson showed up to discuss the matter with the male elders of remote villages. Yet RAWA, which operates on very minimal funds and in the face of great danger and usually the disapproval of those very same warlords and elders, only generates niche support in this country while Mortenson catches the attention of the whole country for the simple reason that we were brought up to believe that this was the model of heroism that will save the world.