Since the publication of Three Cups of Tea, Americans have lavished nearly $60 million on Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute, to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last week, four years after the book came out, someone — CBS's 60 Minutes — finally visited the schools that Mortenson claims to have built, and found many empty, misused or nonexistent.
Reading about the extent of financial irregularity and lack of oversight at CAI, is heartbreaking. But worse, I dread how the crumbling of Three Cups of Tea will reinforce American skepticism and Pakistani cynicism about positive efforts in the region.
The shoddiness of Mortenson's work is not surprising to me. In the spring of 2009 when I volunteered to work with CAI over the summer, I was told that the organization was basically Greg, running around Pakistan, and a few support staff. I was not surprised — the book indicated as much. But, as I soon learned, it takes more than a one-man show to run upwards of 170 schools, anywhere in the world.
I ended up spending my summer with one of the largest and most reputable school-building NGOs in Pakistan — an organization that was founded and run by Pakistanis. I saw what it took for them to support 730 schools. Their office was large, crowded and busy, with education, training, monitoring and testing, and audit departments, supported by four regional offices and field managers. I knew that Greg Mortenson could only be doing a C-grade job on his own.
Nadia Naviwala and her students sing on the steps of an NGO-built school in Minhala, Pakistan.
Courtesy of Naviwala's students
Many people, including myself, have argued that Pakistan needs more than Three Cups of Tea: The scale of school-building efforts, alone, is not enough to be a national solution. NGOs like the one I worked for can have transformative impact in the places where they work, but they educate kids on the scale of hundreds of thousands, while estimates of the country's out-of-school children run into tens of millions. Ultimately, the public sector must work, and that's where reform and innovation is desperately needed.
Since coming back from Pakistan, I've consistently been astonished by the attention and donations that Americans have lavished upon Greg Mortenson. In the end, he is an American who peddled a story, and hope, to Americans.
Instead of losing hope, there are many lessons to learn from this debacle. First, Pakistanis are often doing the work that Americans promise to do, and better. There are dozens of effective organizations in Pakistan that are household names there, as Greg Mortenson is in America. Unfortunately, their stories never become New York Times best-sellers. If Americans want to continue to give to Pakistan (and I hope they do, because the country needs it) their best bet is a reputable local organization, whose work has been verified and audited. The Pakistan Center for Philanthropy provides a guide to 131 such NGOs.
Secondly, American perceptions of ground realities in Pakistan can change as fast as newspaper headlines or best-seller lists. The same is true of Pakistani perceptions of America. Two countries, divided by security and visa restrictions, yet so intensely involved with one another, can only believe what they hear. But before we pour millions of dollars into anything, someone needs to go out and kick the tires. It's not unusual for an organization facing a massive influx of easy money — perhaps more than it can realistically use — to suddenly become financially irresponsible, take liberties with its budget, and develop skewed incentives.
Pakistan needs Three Cups of Tea and more— but not necessarily Greg Mortenson's tea.
Pakistanis need effective leaders, true stories and good causes to believe in. I fear that the latest chapter in Mortenson's unwritten story will reinforce cynicism in Pakistan, showing that promises are always broken and people and organizations can't be trusted. Ironically, while Americans lament deception by one of their most inspirational folk figures, Pakistanis have already transformed his broken promises into reality.
Unfortunately, Mortenson may, once again, unwittingly overshadow the good local work that is happening.