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What Greg Mortenson taught me about aid and humility

Saturday, November 7, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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What I am about to confess does not make me look good. But in the interests of full disclosure I’m going to confess it anyway. Because I’m a straight-up, even-if-it-makes-me-look-bad kinda gal.

My confession is that I avoided reading “Three Cups of Tea” for more than a year. My mother read it while I was still in Afghanistan. She emailed me saying she had read a book about an American mountain climber who built schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She loved it and thought that I would enjoy it. I didn’t think I would enjoy it.

At the time I was living and working in a remote part of Afghanistan and dealing with the mess left behind by well-meaning US soldiers who had decided to build a school for girls in an isolated district of the province where I worked. The school had been abandoned part way through the construction, after the soldiers had returned home, and the community were waiting for someone to come along and finish it.

A local conflict had broken out between the community elders and the construction company that had been contracted to build the school. The company said that the money left by the soldiers hadn’t been enough to finish the school so they had to stop work. I was called in to see if I could find some more funders to finish the project.

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.

Fast forward almost two years and I have finally read the book. It was a lesson in humility for me. I realised that Mortenson has little in common with 90% of well-intentioned would-be do-gooders.

For one thing he did whatever he said he would do. In the book the local villagers comment on several different occasions about how rare thisĀ  was. They had seen many climbers come and go, all making promises to send back assistance. Only Mortenson had ever actually returned and fulfilled his promises.

I know from personal experience how easy it is to make promises to people, promises that you may then find very difficult to fulfil. I learned the hard way not to make a promise unless I was ready to do whatever it took to fulfil it. In the end I made fewer promises and then kept the ones I made.

Secondly, Mortenson did not assume that he knew what was needed. From the outset he asked the elders of the village what they needed. As things progressed he continued to listen, and was willing to admit if he had made a mistake. He trusted the wisdom of the people he claimed to want to serve. This is also much rarer than you might expect. The very best development organisations do this, but many do not, or they pay lip service to local wisdom and then carry on with their own ideas regardless.

Thirdly, he respected the local culture and went to significant lengths to adapt to local religious and cultural traditions and practices. He learned to speak the local languages and even learned to pray in the local style. This degree of respect and commitment is always noticed. In the end it was what saved Mortenson’s work when a peeved local Imam tried to issue a fatwa against him.

Fourthly, Mortenson understood that he needed to be in it for the long term. He may not have realised this initially, but once it became obvious that his work was not over he embraced this realisation and continued to do the work he had started.

Fifthly, Mortenson worked out of love. Actually, this one probably encapsulates all the others. It was, I believe, because of the love, gratitude and compassion he felt for the people with whom he was working that he worked as he did: with respect, with trust, with perseverance. This makes all the difference in the world. When I hear my friend working in the South East of Afghanistan, not far from where Mortenson was building schools, talk about her work with local tribe to resolve age-old conflicts I can hear the love in her voice and I know that this is what sustains her and what makes her effective.

So, 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. He’s even helped me nurture my own dreams for what I could do to better serve the people I love in Afghanistan.

UPDATE: For my response to revelations that Greg Mortenson may have falsified events in his books, misled the public about CAI programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan and mismanaged CAI funds please see this post.


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12 Responses to "What Greg Mortenson taught me about aid and humility"

  1. tiny noises says:

    I haven’t read this book yet either (but not for any particular reason). I look forward to reading it. Your post rings so true for my line of work as well. All of our programs are based in Positive Youth Development, which at its core is supposed to offer opportunities and supports for young people, but most importantly to let them tell you what their needs are. Or rather, to help them figure out what those needs are.
    We often think our job is to help them get housing or a GED when really they are starting to open up about past trauma and are fighting with everyone in sight. We need to start there, to know that if we help them developmentally their growth and skills will stay with them for life.
    ‘I promise to walk with you as you succeed AND as you make mistakes’ This is the hard promise to make but one so important to keep.

  2. sassy says:

    I like what you said abut not making many promises, and keeping the few that you make. I think that’s what made this book worth reading… and it is also a good mantra we can apply to any of our lives.

  3. Mandi says:

    I have to admit, I would have had the same gut reaction as you, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily bad, just (unfortunately) informed by experience. But also a good reminder that keeping your heart open is just important sometimes as protecting it!

  4. Thanks for posting this. I had a very similar reaction to this book, being very wary of do-gooders. But I too was pleasantly surprised. I posted a review on my blog here –

  5. OK: here’s my own confession. I tried to read Three Cups but I only got through Two Cups before I set it down. And not because I was cynical about his work, but because of how the book was written. The most compelling part of the story for me was his search for purpose as a young and rudderless man. It was real and (publishing term) relatable. I just got dizzy in the elevations after awhile with the odd way he was both the narrator and the hero.
    That tells you where I’m coming from. My Zen teacher laughed and said,”That’s the thing with you Maezen. You always quit 2/3 of the way through.”
    Anyway, take all of this to mean that as far as storytelling goes, there is a wonderful opening for you to sail through. Another thing I’ve learned in this “business:” no one can tell your story but you. Take that to heart.

  6. asiyah says:

    I avoided the book for the same reason! A lesson for me too. I am looking forward to reading it. Thank you my friend.

  7. Imohena says:

    Funny, I am sitting in Kigali reading this very book right now! I must say I am not enjoying the way the story is written very much and agree with Karen on that note. I may not finish it, but yeah, for sure it teaches a lesson to us hardened cynical aid workers about what amazing things can be achieved with a good dose of love, respect and commitment. Big ups to the wonderful Ed Hillary.

  8. Captain Cat says:

    Wherever there is a genuine sentiment, and work is carried out with love and commitment, good things will get done. Because even if you can’t deliver on those promises – for reasons that you can’t control – the love you bring with you and the real friendships made along the way do make a difference, I’m sure of this.

  9. Lubna says:

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful post. Three Cups of Tea is my favourite read this year.

  10. […] I confessed, at the time, that I had been humbled by his story. 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. […]

  11. Wilbur Orbison says:

    Flash forward to 2011. It turns out Mortenson may have fallen into the “I didn’t effectively give out aid” trap after all!

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