In my country we get well-schooled in the dangers of getting ‘too big for our own boots’. We call it the ‘tall-poppy syndrome': the risk that any flower who stands above the rest will be lopped off.
I suspect some people will see this week’s controversy about Greg Mortenson’s writing and work as an example of this alleged communal impulse to strike down anyone who rises too high.
‘No good deed goes unpunished’ said Clare Boothe Luce (or Billy Wilder, depending who you ask).
Some of my friends think Greg Mortenson is the victim of a media that loves only one thing more than building up a hero, and that is tearing him (or her) down.
And that’s probably part of what is at play here. I’ll confess: my very first thought when I saw tweets coming through about this controversy was “I hope my book is never successful enough to motivate a witch hunt”.
It’s terrifying enough exposing your not-so-admirable qualities in a memoir without wondering whether someone will go and hunt out the Police Chief you criticised on page 143 to ask him whether your allegations of his corruption are true.
(I can think of at least one Chief of Police, one Provincial Governor and the head of one UN office who are likely to claim everything I say about them in my book is a lie. Does that make me a liar? I digress. But only partly. I’ll come back to this in a bit)
But that’s not all there is to this.
I’ve just finished reading the impressive 90 page report ‘Three Cups of Deceit’ by Jon Krakauer (author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air).
First point to be made about this is: read it
Don’t rely on the short video clip from 60 Minutes (which I’m not even going to link to because I want you to read the full report).
If you made the time to read Three Cups of Tea or Stones Into Schools then you owe it to yourself to read Krakauer’s report. Apparently it is only available for free until 20 April, so if you don’t want to pay for it, download it now. Although, if you paid money for Three Cups of Tea, you may think – like me – it is worth paying a little for this very carefully researched commentary.
Okay. So we’ve all read the report? It is 90 pages long so I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes you three cups of tea to get through it. Take your time. This is important. If necessary bookmark this page and come back in a week once you’ve had time to read it.
Okay – now what?
Well, my take is that there are (at least) four different issues at play in this situation.
1. Questions about ‘truth’ in memoir
2. Questions about the effectiveness of Mortenson/CAI’s approach to education programming
3. Questions about our obsession with the ‘Great White Hero’ in development/humanitarian/aid narratives
4. Questions about the management, especially financial, of CAI
1. The Perils of Telling the ‘Truth’
Oh boy. This first one gives me the heeby-jeebies.
In an interview with Outside magazine Mortenson talks about how he worked with his editor and writer to agree on ‘compressions’ in the story: combining two or three trips to the same place into one trip for the sake of actually fitting it all into one book.
I do that in my book.
I combine two different trips to Qala-e-Naw town in Badghis province into one visit in the book. In one trip I met two men in the prison who were alleged to be Taleban and who told me they had been tortured as a result. On another trip the provincial governor was being investigated for corruption. I wanted to include both stories. My editors found the two trips repetitive and confusing. They suggested combining both stories into one trip. I agreed.
I agreed because both stories did in fact happen and because the timing seemed to me to be irrelevant. I’ve also combined more than one real person into a single character in order to protect the identity of each person.
I’ll be very clear in the foreword that I’ve done these things.
But do these changes make my story less true?
And what about those Police Chiefs and Provincial Governors who – if asked – will almost certainly accuse me of lying about their collusion with drug traffickers leading to the death of a junior police officer? What if 60 Minutes ever interviewed them about the veracity of my book?
More concerning, to me anyway: what do my Afghan colleagues (whose names I have changed) really feel about the way I’ve presented them in the book. I suspect that their approval of my writing is tainted by their reluctance to do anything that would cause me trouble. I fear they keep saying everything is okay because it seems terribly rude to them to do otherwise.
When Brett Keller talks about ‘The Tea Test‘, I wonder if my book would pass.
It’s a minefield, this business of writing a non-fiction book about a place like Afghanistan.
And yet, I know that I can stand behind every story in my book. I may have changed names, changed ethnicities, even combined more than one person into a composite character who will be unrecognisable to anyone from his village who reads the book. But I have not invented.
And although I think ‘truth’ is a slippery word, I also think that those of us who tell our readers that we are reporting life as we experienced it, rather than fiction, bear the responsibility of the trust our readers then place in us to report that life as carefully, mindfully and – yes – truthfully as we are able.
If we plan to then leverage our story to encourage our readers to take action (and I would love it if readers of my book decided as a result to take action in support of human rights in Afghanistan) then we bear an even heavier responsibility not to mislead them in any way.
Oh dear. More heeby-jeebies.
I worry that I won’t meet my own standards on this. I worry that my memories of Afghanistan have already been distorted by three years worth of writing and rewriting. I worry that I’ve already lost my grip on ‘the truth’.
And then I hope that the fact I worry about this so much is – in itself – some kind of protection against getting too far off track.
2. The Perils of Amateur or DIY Approaches to Educating Girls: The Empty School
This seems to be the point on which many readers are most disappointed: the CAI schools are empty.
Without teachers or ongoing operating budgets, perhaps built in the wrong place in the first instance, the image of CAI schools being used as warehouses or sitting completely empty has shocked many people.
Sadly, perhaps, it doesn’t shock me at all. In my two years in Afghanistan I saw my fair share of empty schools built by well-intentioned foreigners (ranging from the US military to a group of wealthy women from Germany).
Effective education programming requires a comprehensive approach. Teacher training, community engagement and consultation and – in the ideal scenario – effective government oversight to ensure that there is some kind of sensible strategy about which schools get built and where.
Which is why anyone who reads development blogs regularly will be have read aid bloggers decrying the perils of DIY development. Development is complex. Professional aid organisations don’t always get it right, but the good ones at least are learning from their own mistakes and constantly trying to get it better.
Which brings me to my next point.
3. The Perils of Hero Worship
Recently I caught myself bristling a little when a (wonderful) friend of mine used Greg Mortenson as the example of education programming for girls in Afghanistan.
I had nothing against Mortenson. I’ve always thought his books were doing a great job of raising the profile of girl’s education as a linchpin of development, human rights and security in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
My complaint was that I wanted her to list organisations like CARE, IRC or the Aga Khan Foundation. Organisations that have been building schools in Afghanistan since long before Greg Mortenson ever got there.
Perhaps even more importantly, these are organisations I’ve watched persist with the slow (and surely infuriating) process of liaising with the Afghan Ministry of Education in order to ensure that their activities were in line with the Afghan National Strategic Plan for Education.
Because here is my perhaps unpopular view: there can be only one solution to education in Afghanistan and that is the Afghan Ministry of Education.
Call me a socialist if you like. It won’t be the worst thing I’ve been called. And it’ll take a lot more than that to dissuade me of this view. A national education strategy led and monitored by the Ministry of Education is the only long-term solution to education for girls in Afghanistan.
I am not alone in this conclusion. Back in July 2009 Mosharraf Zaidi said much the same thing about Pakistan.
To educate almost seventy million children, the only “cup of tea” that will do, is the one that is served by the state. The state is not only ultimately responsible—legally, morally, and politically—for educating Pakistan’s children. It is responsible , and internally wired, to ensure Pakistan’s survival.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. So I won’t try to. I’ll just say that I’m not surprised CAI schools are standing empty. But I also don’t think that building schools in Pakistan or Afghanistan was ever going to be the most important work Greg Mortenson did in the field of education.
His most important work was, in my humble view, his work to educate the public of the US (and the rest of the West) about the importance of education, especially education for girls.
Which is why I don’t find it terribly shocking, either, that 60% of CAI’s program funds were spend on domestic outreach rather than building schools in Pakistan. Perhaps that was the more important (or at least the more appropriate) education work for Greg Mortenson to be doing. But that does bring me to the next set of questions, the questions about the financial management of CAI.
4. The Perils of the ‘Founder Syndrome’
From all accounts – and to be fair this is one of the few criticisms of Mortenson that does come through in the first book – Greg Mortenson resists any kind of management or oversight. Of all the accusations leveled against him, this is the one that stops me in my tracks. This is the one that makes me want to take him by the collar and say, “Greg, dude, what are you doing?”
In my own memoir I write in the first chapter about the training we get in the not-for-profit world in being accountable for every penny we spend on a project. This is fundamental.
And yet, according to Krakauer’s report, Mortenson resisted accounting in any detail for any of the money he spent from CAI. One by one senior members of CAI staff and CAI Board members resigned as a result, because it prevented them from doing their job. And yet – somehow – this all remained unreported in the media until now.
This is the part of this whole scandal that really shocked me.
Her first point it perhaps the most challenging and, in this case, the most critical. It is a Board’s responsibility to appoint the Executive Director of their organisation. It is their job to find and select the person most qualified for the role.
That person may not be the founder.
I could say a lot more about the way in which CAI money appears to have been spent to fund book-related promotions (on the one hand I think a legitimate case can be made that this is both effective awareness raising and powerful marketing for CAI – on the other hand I find it concerning that CAI appears to have recieved none of the payments for those promotional events).
But others have already said plenty on that topic and at the end of the day I think Desiree’s point is the most important one, beware the organisation that is drwarfed by the profile of its founder.
5. The Perils of Being Human
Finally, I wanted to say that Greg Mortenson has been turned into some kind of hero. He may well have willingly collaborated with that process, but he did not do it alone. Many of us wanted to believe in the possibility of one ordinary man making an extraordinary difference in the world.
We wanted to hear the story as it was told. We wanted an idol. We wanted a hero.
When my mother first told me about Three Cups of Tea I was living in Afghanistan and everything she told me about it pissed me off. I was tired of the cult of the white/Western hero.It was several years before I would conceed and read the book. And when I did, I was surprised and impressed.
I was feeling skeptical about well-meaning individuals. I knew that there were organisations like CARE who had built many hundreds of schools in Afghanistan. They worked closely with both the government and the local community. They knew how much a school should cost and they understood that a school without teachers wasn’t much good. So they also worked to support training for local teachers.
At the time, if anyone asked me about doing something like what Mortenson was doing I would tell them to give their money to CARE instead. I had seen how badly good intentions can turn. I hadn’t even read the book but I placed Mortenson into the same category as those other well-meaning soldiers.
But then I read the book and, in my own words: “Concerned as I was about the perils of well-intentioned amateurs undertaking development work, Mortenson taught me that they can almost all be overcome with the kind of loving attention that he shows in his work.”
Was I wrong? Was I – like so many others – totally sucked in by the great white rescuer myth that Greg Mortenson seems to fit and fulfil so beautifully?
It appears I was wrong. At least in part.
And in this humble reminder of my own ability to get things very wrong, despite my best intentions, I feel compassion for Greg Mortenson. Compassion, after all, has very little to do with blame, desserts or worthiness. It is rooted in our shared humanity and in our ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of another.
I want to finish with the words of my friend Roxanne:
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.
If you want to read more about this subject, Saundra at Good Intentions Are Not Enough has been doing a great job of compiling all the recent posts on subject. Over at A View From The Cave responses from both Mortenson and CAI have been posted.
Other than the ones I have linked to above I particularly valued Elmira Bayrasli’s thoughtful post on the risks of ‘founder’s syndrome’, Kent Annan’s reminder that this is not an excuse for a lack of generosity, Solar Sister’s reflection on the ‘origin’ or ‘Eureka’ myth, and Joshua Foust’s exploration of what we are really losing in this whole debacle.
UPDATE: An edited version of this post has now been published at Huffington Post.