Why we all wanted to believe what Greg Mortenson was selling.
Under the burden of a 60 Minutes exposé on CBS and a blistering, 75-page takedown by adventure writer Jon Krakauer, Greg Mortenson’s phenomenally successful weaving together of fact and fiction has already faced more scrutiny than most pop philanthropy ever receives in its entire shelf life. While opinions about Mortenson have always varied within the international development community and among humanitarian workers, that debate never really got a full airing. The ideas and philosophy driving the Three Cups of Tea mania for school-building has become a bit of an orthodoxy. Orthodoxies usually have the effect of muting debate. Pakistanis should know. Pakistan has endured far too much unjustified and illegitimate orthodoxy in its short history. Until the 60 Minutes exposé, only the very brave ventured to openly mock Mortenson. The fact that there is now unforgiving scrutiny of every aspect of his two books and the charity that he founded is therefore a wonderful thing.
Many Mortenson sympathizers are perplexed by the strong reaction to the unraveling of Mortenson’s elaborate and carefully constructed fables. These sympathizers are not all innocuous middle-aged accountants or bleeding-heart housewives. Some very knowledgeable and clued-in people — heads of NGOs, education experts, media personalities — are also confused by the outrage at the little lies Mortenson told to help address a big truth: that girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan need help getting educated. Consider this: In Pakistan, the proportion of rural women who have attended school is one in three. In such dire need, many reasonable people wonder why there is such unmitigated outrage at a few Mortenson fibs.
The fact that Mortenson and his legions of supporters are perplexed by the tsunami of outrage and disappointment is a big part of this story. But if you’ve ever felt a sense of moral outrage about a big social or political problem (and which one of us hasn’t?), then understanding these people’s defensive crouch should not be too difficult.
Indeed, moral outrage is the raw material that helps build and sustain efforts like Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. CAI’s donors evidently care deeply about the plight of girls in this part of the world. And that sort of emotion is the fundamental fuel that drives an entire globalized narrative of change being made in bad places (like Pakistan) by good people (like Greg Mortenson). The best and most effective practitioner of this narrative is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Kristof may accidentally stumble occasionally, but is decidedly anything but Orientalist — and he has introduced dozens of heroic African and Asian women to the Western world. Kristof’s columns and books help save lives; of this, there’s little doubt. But they do more than just spur generosity and philanthropy. They help hone the lens through which people see the less-developed world and the less-privileged that live in that world.
One aspect of that lens, which Mortenson’s book and several others like it share, is the notion that individual bravery, innovation, and action can be transformative for entire countries — as Mortenson’s various book titles clearly claim. The original hardcover subtitle for Three Cups of Tea was "One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time" and the subtitle for the "young reader’s edition" is "One Man’s Journey to Change the World … One Child at a Time." (To his enduring credit, Kristof’s reportage is almost entirely selfless, and he has rarely, if ever, credited himself as a savior).
Still, by any stretch of the imagination, the idea that anyone can save a country or the world is an emotional appeal, not a reasonable or rational one. There is nothing, of course, inherently wrong with tugging at people’s heart strings while relating serious problems and the possible solutions that brave innovators are coming up with to solve them. But just because there’s nothing morally or ethically wrong with this kind of narrative doesn’t mean it is the right way to deal with complex and multilayered problems like HIV/AIDS in South Africa, malaria in Tanzania, female infanticide in India, or education in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Every single one of these problems should rightly compel us to act at a basic human level. The morality of doing something to address these problems is unquestionable. But the stimulus to act, and the action itself, have to be separated. Rushing into the serious and sober public-policy problems of health, sanitation, and education on emotional highs, induced by books like Three Cups of Tea, is a recipe for disaster. Exhibit A: Mortenson’s post-60 Minutes reputation.
So what are the lessons from all this? There are a few. The first is that giving to charity without reading the fine print is tantamount to throwing your money away. Charity and philanthropy have an important place in a post-global world where our interconnectedness, from Kalamazoo to Karachi to Kyoto, is undeniable. Charity humanizes us and (hopefully) humanizes the recipients of our magnanimity. But you have to read the fine print. Luckily, I never donated to CAI, but owning to its elaborate and self-congratulatory subtitle, I also never read Three Cups of Tea. If I had, it would have been easy for me to resist the waxing eloquence of friends and family who were completely taken in by it. Mortenson’s story of being kidnapped by the Taliban in South Waziristan in 1996? Possibly the most blatant and obvious lie ever constructed in pursuit of girls’ education. The Taliban were busy taking over Afghanistan in 1996 and did not arrive in Pakistan until at least 2001.
The second lesson is that emotions have no place in solving serious public-policy problems. When we allow emotions to overtake our intellect, we allow charlatans like Mortenson to construct fables that play with those emotions. Put aside emotion as you consider the titles "One Man’s Journey to Change the World" or Stones into Schools, and what’s left is an intellectually indefensible set of words. Schools don’t get built from stone. They get built from teachers, students, parents — interacting with each other. They get built from annual budgets; and annual performance assessments of principles and school district superintendants; and education councilors, ministers, and secretaries. They get built from boards, and PTAs, and excursion trips, and sporting competitions. If that infrastructure is missing, then you will build schools from stones that will be empty and used as sheds for cows. That’s exactly what has happened to thousands of government schools in Pakistan (known as ghost schools), and that is what has happened to more than a dozen of Mortenson’s schools, as reported by 60 Minutes.
The lesson could not be more valuable. I recently worked as a strategist for the Pakistan Education Task Force, a government-established group of thought leaders assigned to devise solutions to Pakistan’s education emergency. The reaction to even some of the conservative data that the task force publicly released was nothing short of shock and awe. It was a demonstration of the fact that the true extent of the problem is understated and often misunderstood. One example? No less than 25 million Pakistani kids between ages 6 and 16 are out of school. (I personally favor the 40 million figure for out-of-school kids, which depends on older enrollment data and a larger net — it includes children between 5 and 18.)
The emotional response to such devastatingly low levels of enrollment is to indiscriminately support anything that claims to provide education. The spectrum of what this produces shouldn’t be hard to predict. At one end, it validates arguments and appeals made by radical Islamist charities to increase coverage of madrasas — religious schools — most of which may be benign, but some of which are decidedly malignant. At the other end, it creates an incentive for do-gooder NGOs and charities to eventually go bad — kind of the way it happened with Mortenson.
At just a shade under 10 million, Pakistan already has one of the world’s largest nonstate school (or private school) populations in the world. Any eventual solution to Pakistan’s education crisis will necessarily include both for-profit private schools and nonprofit schools of the kind built by organizations like the Pakistani charity the Citizens Foundation, which has built more than 600. That’s why Mortenson’s fall from grace is so disappointing, because his schools are not a bad idea — just an incomplete one.
Mortenson’s mistakes and fabrications notwithstanding, philanthropic schools offer too much value to be rejected wholesale. Three reasons stand out in particular. The first is that they provide a demonstration effect. Schools built from foreign charity that do well are an example for others in Pakistan to follow. For generations, Pakistan’s Zoroastrian and Catholic schools served as examples for the private sector to ape. The successful ones now regularly produce Ivy League material. There’s no reason to believe that — in theory –Mortenson-style schools couldn’t do for Baltistan what the nuns did for Karachi and Rawalpindi.
The second is that they spur competition among local charity initiatives, regular government schools, and even private schools. In the free market for education in Pakistan, that competition will invariably spur improved practices across the board. This process has already begun and will, over the years, only deepen. Private schools are often housed in rented homes, rather than custom-built premises, yet they outperform government schools. Pakistanis have been voting with their feet, with total enrollment in nonstate schools going from virtually zero in the early 1980s to now making up about a third of all enrolment. One big reason the government has organized an education task force is to address this shaming of the public school system by nonstate providers.
Finally, they serve as a badge of shame and dishonor. Any country that cannot educate all of its children has a serious deficiency. Foreign charity schools should be prominent in the Pakistani education discourse because they should serve as reminders of the failures of Pakistani state and society to address a basic and fundamental human right, now recognized by Pakistan’s Constitution, thanks to last year’s passage of the 18th Amendment, which requires the state to "provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years."
No matter how important their contribution may be, however, charity and philanthropy cannot service the needs of a country that has more than 70 million children between ages of 5 and 18. Only a state-financed education system, with serious oversight and accountability instruments built into it, can address the challenge here. Mortenson may have been wrong to tell lies and make up tales. But those who believed he had the answers to Pakistan’s problems were not fooled by Mortenson. They were fooled by their own thirst for easy solutions to cold, hard, and complex problems.
The warmth of our emotions will never solve public-policy problems of the magnitude and scale that exist in Pakistan. Only an effective and accountable state will. Fact or fiction, Mortenson’s cups of tea were never going to deliver such a state. Only the Pakistani people can do that.