Response to Greg Mortenson’s Allegations

Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, is under a lot of scrutiny now facing several allegations of mismanagement with his self-founded Central Asia Institute foundation, including that he uses the organization’s funds for his personal use. This is quickly becoming a hot topic namely because it is such a disappointment for the Americans who promoted his book and contributed to the fundraiser Pennies for Peace. His story has been an inspiration to many people in the U.S. and encouraged people to give trustfully to international NGO’s. Now that Greg Mortenson is under the critical eye of journalists and international aid workers, his mission to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan for girls is under attack. I have read the book and two contrasting articles on this issue, and feel very bothered by the accusations. Ultimately, I believe that Greg Mortenson is not well equipped for managing this multi-million dollar NGO and does not have enough cultural comprehension to operate in the Middle East. Does this mean that I do not support his mission or that I think he should stop what he is doing? I think the better answer is to give grace where it’s needed, management training and accountability, and possibly reworking the means to his goal.

The two articles I read were “What Mortenson Got Wrong” by Peter Hesser (a negative criticism) and “‘Three Cups of Tea’ Spilled” by Nicholas D. Kristof (a supportive outlook). Here are some of my thoughts I jotted down as I read these articles (I tried to reorganize them as best I could):

My impression after reading the book was that the author took particular interest in highlighting Mortenson rather than his work. He is made to be the hero, as all Westerners are made to be when they serve in “developing” countries, of course. [I still prefer to use the outdated term “underdeveloped” per Walter Rodney’s definition.] Although the book is largely one-dimensional in this aspect, I recognize Mortenson’s effort to converse with the locals over cups and cups of tea–an aspect of community development that I believe is essential, especially in international work. Kristof also condones Mortenson’s method in doing this rather than just “issuing instructions”.

I don’t agree with Hesser that Mortenson shows no special knowledge of Pakistan or Afghanistan. I think for the time that Mortenson put into the region, he has learned a good deal and possibly spends more time in actual field work than do other international NGO leaders. Mortenson’s mission to build schools in Central Asia is crticized by Hesser, yet I don’t believe in one perfect method and would agree with Kristof again when he says “even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.” Yet on the other hand, misson workers need as much accountability as do everyone else. This gives me reason to believe that Mortenson needs professional guidance, accountability, and his work to be cultivated by those with greater knowledge and experience of this particular region. One man alone should not carry this burden, not for just himself, but for the sake of others.

The first article has a solid point about Western involvement in community development. The writer says that foreign assistance can have negative impacts–people might become dependent upon outsiders. It’s as simple as the old give a man a fish/teach a man to fish. Hesser includes excellent examples of this in his second paragraph. The negative aspect of Mortenson’s work–as well as any international NGO program–is that it creates a long-term foreign involvement, the antithesis of local empowerment that should be the goal.

I like Hesser’s practical perspective on international development, seeing that it’s not as glorious as we tend to make it. He sees that there is complex cultural, geographical, and deeply rooted historical hurdles of NGO work. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive and has an inflated view of their involvment. This seems to be the case with Mortenson, who self-promotes himself and his organization. I believe that we all need praise from time to time, but I think it should come from others–not ourselves. It would be difficult, though, to not be a self-promoter if you’ve made great accomplishments, but if your passion is for the people you are serving, then it leaves self-promoting out of the equation.

Yet, going back to the second article, I wouldn’t want these unproven allegations to get out of hand for fear that it would discourage an already cynical America to support efforts like these. Like Kristof, I want to give some benefit of doubt to a man who has risked his life for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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