Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Cup of Good Intentions Empty of Deeds

Rather than Mortenson waging a lonely battle against ignorance, the Aga Khan Development Network has been building hundreds of schools in the region and has a track record of staffing them and keeping them open. As the Pakistani journalist, Rina Saeed Khan, points out, Gilgit-Baltistan has one of the highest literacy rates in Pakistan. She asks, quite rightly, why Mortenson didn't join forces with the network given their experience and expertise, instead of struggling desperately to work it all out for himself. But an American putting money into a foreign-sounding aid foundation doesn't quite have the same marketing appeal as the "one-man mission" line that captures perfectly the boom in DIY aid: a new wave of fledgling agencies driven by individuals frustrated and impatient with bureaucracies and politics, who launch their bid to "make a difference". A myth that turns development into an amateur's hobby.
The above quote is an excerpt from The US swallowed these cups of tea to justify its imperial aims Madeleine Bunting published in The Guardian on April  22, 2011 

It has been nearly a week since 60 Minutes challenged the accuracy of events presented in Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea and exposed gaping holes in his claims of building and staffing schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. News agencies in the US and Britain have weighed in. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff in "Three Cups of Tea," Spilled has as asked readers to reserve judgment, and author and climber Jon Krakauer wrote a 90-page  investigative piece, Three Cups of Deceit, detailing gross misrepresentations, inaccuracies and lies presented by both Mr. Mortenson and the agency founded to carry out his mission, the Central Asia Institute Mr. Mortenson has defended his efforts in the New York Times. However, due to these recent accusations about his conduct, Mr. Mortenson is currently under investigation by Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock.

Along with 60 Minutes, many news outlets in the US and Britain have written extensively of Mr. Mortenson’s alleged misuse of donated funds and his failure to report or provide accounts of his expenditures to CAI's board (most who have resigned), auditors or the IRS. This forced CAI's staff to fabricate budgets regarding their schools, many sitting now unoccupied or used as storage sheds. They have questioned the veracity of his tales; it appears that his entire ‘origin story,' how he was separated from his group and lost while descending K2 and nursed back to health by the villagers of Korphe, is nothing but myth. Most egregiously in my opinion, as reported by Krakauer, Mortenson claims in Stones into Schools to have been kidnapped and held hostage by AK47 wielding Taliban supporters. In reality, these men were acquaintances who had invited Mortenson to their village, feted and protected him, presenting him as a medical doctor, a fact Mortenson did not dispute. They are now suing him. He also condemned the religious schools or madrassas as training grounds for Taliban insurgents. While  Nicholas Kristoff states that Mortenson was "right about the need to listen to local people - yes, over cup after cup of tea - rather than just issue instructions" he seems to miss the point that  the opposite appears to be true.

Here, I would like to address not Mr. Mortenson so much as individuals like him who, armed with good intentions, operate in lands far away, creating organizations and building stories of their deeds that are difficult to verify to their donors. They push just the right buttons to make everyone feel good as supporters of a noble cause.

I have a Ph.D. in cultural/medical anthropology. In addition, I have conducted a variety of volunteer international humanitarian activities over the last 30 years to Asia, Africa and South America. I also spent over three-weeks in Pakistan, visiting Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karimabad. For two of those weeks I stayed in northern Pakistan. For 10 of those days, I trekked on the Batura Glacier in the region of Gilgit- Baltistan (home to some of Mr. Mortenson’s projects), beginning in the village of Pasu where Ishmaili porters were hired to carry our gear.  This was in 1985, years before Mr. Mortenson’s journeys began. I mention this only to say I am familiar with the people, the terrain and the culture in areas where Mr. Mortenson has schools.

Often, after a vacation or some another type of visit, I observe well-meaning Westerners make pledges to develop projects in regions of the world in which they have little understanding of the local culture. Moved by scenes and stories of deprivation and poverty, they decide to help, to make a difference. Unfortunately, they tend to bring a Westerner’s sensibility to their efforts. They dictate what they would like to build, give or do, as in, “would you like a school?” Often, they do not ask the local community what they would want or need. In fact, according to Mr. Krakauer, Mortenson built a school in one village where the local leader essentially said, ‘we wanted a road or a health clinic, but Greg was giving money for schools.’ Residing hundreds or thousands of miles away, some donors seldom visit their projects, instead hiring and trusting local people as managers, often with little oversight. Indeed, it appears Mr. Mortenson rarely visited his schools and has not been back to Pakistan in years.

Two weeks ago, a friend wrote asking if I would join the board of a new NGO she is founding aimed at helping women and girls abroad. I declined as, in truth, I am a terrible fundraiser, a key characteristic necessary in a good board member. But, I did email the following:

If you are working abroad, I would suggest connecting with an organization already doing what you want to support and work on getting them the money to continue. Any program also needs a trusted, accountable person on the ground managing funds.

Key words here: accountable person. I travel every year to India to volunteer with Empower the Children and can even now hear the director Rosalie saying, “Did you get a receipt?” or see her digging into her purse to pull out an envelope stuffed with tickets detailing expenditures on supplies, fees and salaries. Every single penny is accounted for in writing.

In short, too many well-meaning, budding philanthropists try to execute humanitarian activities abroad without a full understanding of the local culture. They hire people to build and manage their projects with little knowledge of the hierarchy of relationships and loyalties among families and tribes.  Many tribal, clan and family groups have complicated histories of getting along or not that may affect one's work, including who gets helped, how and when. Naïveté regarding local politics can also impact whether or not ventures get fast-tracked, delayed, or derailed.

Mr. Mortenson indeed did some good. He built schools and with his book publishing tour enlightened many Americans about educational needs, particularly for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, he did so it seems under false pretenses. While espousing a charitable cause, he appears to have misled the public and misspent millions of dollars earmarked for for the education of children. Many sources reported on Mr. Mortenson’s chaotic, disheveled, disorganized demeanor and he stated himself that he was not a good financial manager.  Yet, people placed their money and trust in Mr. Mortenson despite rumors and now facts of his fabricated life. This is all the more reason to use one's head, not one's heart, when deciding how best to help people in need, for it is unwise to mistake good intentions for good deeds.

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