Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea came into my life just before my first project “in the field.” I – appropriately – read it at Teaism, whose wooden benches I miss on nostalgic days “in the field” now. There was a lot I loved about Mortenson’s book: the emphasis on women and girls’ education in Afghanistan, his commitment to the significant involvement of the local population in his development projects, his ability to tell a story in a magnificent enough way to attract attention (and donations) to a worthy cause.60 Minutes recently questioned the veracity of that story.
As a reader and storyteller, I was disappointed and felt that if the allegations were true, Mortenson could be discredited. Following the airing of the 60 Minutes segment on Three Cups of Tea, many have drawn attention to the need for more robust Monitoring & Evaluation processes for aid projects, more accountability, more transparency and more funneling of funds/donations directly to projects as opposed to maintaining high overhead expenditures. Saundra of “Good Intentions Are Not Enough” is kindly compiling related links into a single post. I could not disagree with those claims and not only support these practices for the organization in question, but also consider them sound guidelines for any aid project out there.
Yet, it is another aspect of this controversy that has most affected me. Disappointed as I may be in Mortenson, the Central Asia Institute (CAI) or anyone responsible for the inconsistencies, I am even more saddened by the response the 60 Minutes segment has generated. In my eyes, the recent revelations do not detract from the way in which Mortenson’s vision and the CAI initiatives have impacted the lives of women, girls, families and whole communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am saddened by the joy in the tone of some, journalists and colleagues alike, who are celebrating that “it was too good to be true all along” and they had “called it” first. Before anyone else says it: I know. I know misconduct occurs in the aid universe, just as it does in the military and in government, and that we should draw attention to it in order to learn. There is, in fact, a wonderful website encouraging organizations to do just that — head over to “Admitting Failure” and browse some reflections on the shortcomings of aid and development work.
For now, I know this: I have not built hundreds of schools or educated thousands of students. I have not crafted an eloquent vision, developed an elaborate model for education and community development, or told any story of that magnitude that would generate this extensive an appeal. I understand that the recent revelations suggest the story is problematic and parts of the underlying model may be as well. Mortenson is, rightfully on some counts, getting de-idolized and I find the idolization itself problematic in the first place. In light of the other pieces of the puzzle though – the positive ones, the ones that inspired me and many others – I resolve to extend some compassion to Mortenson. His work and life story still ignite something inside me.