L’Affaire Mortenson, reactions and commentary

by zunguzungu

“I stand by the information conveyed in my book.”

Greg Mortenson

One of the interesting things about the whole Mortenson story is that lots of people seem already to have known it was all bullshit, if not in the comprehensive and total way that Krakauer and 60 minutes demonstrated. For example, Carl Prine and Nosheen Ali. And yet!

Alanna Shaikh counts the ways:

…Mountaineers, it turns out, have also known all along that the origin story of Three Cups of Tea was a myth. When Jon Krakauer was reporting the April Byliner.com article that thoroughly debunks Mortenson’s travels and his book, he seems to have simply asked Scott Darsney, one of Mortenson’s companions, for the truth. He got it. Mortenson had three companions walk down K2 with him when he gave up his attempt, and he didn’t wander alone into the village of Korphe, as he claims.

The nonprofit community in the United States also knew that there was something tricky with CAI’s management. Some of Mortenson’s donors saw red flags, wondering how he could possibly run an NGO while also conducting his whirlwind speaking tour. The current board has only three members, one of whom is Mortenson himself: a risky structure with very little accountability built into it. Krakauer reports that three board members quit in frustration over poor management in 2002. Yet none of them spoke out. And CAI wasn’t rated by the Better Business Bureau, as most charities are, because of a failure to disclose accountability information.

Finally, Pakistan scholars knew there was something wrong with Three Cups of Tea because the descriptions of Pakistan were so inaccurate. Throughout the book, the authors get religious divides, tribal affiliations, and political alliances wrong. A scathing 2010 review of the book by the websiteIslamic Insights complains that the book relies gross generalizations and only a superficial knowledge of the region. And it’s just plain wrong: “Apart from problems with normative assumptions in the book, there are gross misrepresentations which require thorough scrutiny. For example, as one commentator pointed out elsewhere, ‘Mortenson could not have attended Mother Teresa’s funeral in Spring 2000 … because she died in Autumn 1997.'”

One of the blogs at The Economist took aim at Mortenson’s ridiculous attempt to pull the old “them savages don’t understand time” gambit:

Mr Mortenson’s  written response blames the confusion on the Balti language of the people of Korphe:

Even the Balti language — an archaic dialect of Tibetan — has only a vague concept of tenses and time. For example, “now” can mean immediately or sometime over the course of a whole long season. The concept of past and future is rarely of concern.

Calling Balti an “archaic dialect” is odd; it is a full-blown language according toEthnologue, and no language is any more archaic than any other. But this seems as though it might be an attempt to set up a linguistic defence: Balti, being archaic and a mere dialect and all, doesn’t have concepts of time that would allow the villagers to be reliable in contradicting Mr Mortenson.

People should know by now that this kind of thing can be checked. Just because Korphe may not have a broadband connection doesn’t mean that Mr Mortenson is the only person who has learned about its language. Mark Liberman found a book on tense and aspect in Tibetan languages, which includes a discussion of Balti:

Balti and Ladakhi, spoken under Pakistan and India regime, are not mere Tibetan dialects, but have, in contrast to Central Tibetan, generalized the past marker suffix -s for controlled action verbs, have introduced a general Past Marker and thus have fully grammaticalized the concept of TENSE-A, …

And so on. Balti’s alleged lack of care for time is not getting Mr Mortenson off the hook here. In fact, English can allow a lot of vagueness in describing a sequence of events in time. Could Mr Mortenson be taking advantage of our archaic dialect’s ambiguity? CBS asked him point-blank in writing:

Did you really stumble into Korphe after failing to summit K2? 

Mr Mortenson’s words his response rather oddly for a man who claims to have wandered into the village near death:

Yes, I first visited Korphe village, Braldu valley, Baltistan, Pakistan after failing to summit K2 in 1993.

“Visited” is a strange word in this context, if Mr Mortenson indeed staggered in by chance. And “after failing to summit K2 in 1993” leaves him rather a lot of temporal wiggle-room. The “1993” bit can refer to the failed K2 attempt, not the visit, so “I first visited Korphe after failing to summit K2 in 1993” can mean “I first visited Korphe in 1994.”  It doesn’t have to mean that, but it certainly can.

Laura Miller argues that the book’s inaccuracies are less important than CAI’s financial improprieties:

No one is quite accusing Mortenson of stealing, nor are they questioning his commitment to CAI’s mission. However, Krakauer presents persuasive evidence that Mortenson’s refusal to document any of his expenditures in the U.S. or in Central Asia — indeed, his refusal to be financially accountable to anyone — have made CAI dysfunctional and far less effective than it claims to be. No one knows what the money is spent on, and no one seems to be monitoring the results. At one point, CAI staff resorted to fabricating documentation in order to comply with an audit by an independent accounting firm.

At least some of the schools Mortenson takes credit for building are “ghost schools,” empty structures without students or teachers. Krakauer, after speaking to several former CAI employees, charges Mortenson with repeatedly subverting “efforts by his Montana-based staff to track effectively how many schools have been built, how much each school actually costs and how many schools are up and running.” Achievements that Mortenson claims in this department are not derived from verifiable records or facts, so any donations solicited on the basis of those claims could be regarded as obtained under false pretenses.

The evidence of Mortenson’s financial improprieties is solid; just how much he may have lied about the recuperation and kidnapping stories in “Three Cups of Tea” is both murkier and a bit irrelevant.

Conversational Reading doesn’t quite buy that, and argues that the pretense of realism is the problem:

I’m a huge fan of the writer Enrique Vila-Matas, who has done as much as any author to pioneer the “false memoir” school of literature. But here’s the difference: If you read just one page of Shields or Vila-Matas, you’re immediately aware that you’re in the presence of a highly ironic voice that you must be suspicious of. Everything about this kind of literature screams “caveat lector.” But if you read Mortenson (and I have) it’s precisely the opposite–every last rhetorical trick in the book is used to instill a belief that what you are getting is 100% true.

Kalsoom Lakhani notes (in her roundup of links):

He also has not addressed the troubling revelation that the 1996 photo of his alleged Taliban kidnappers were, in fact, not Taliban at all. One of the men, Mansur Khan Mahsud, is actually a well-respected research director of the FATA Research Center, an Islamabad-based think tank. Mahsud recently told the Daily Beast, “[Mortenson] just wanted to sell books because by 2006 everyone wanted to know about the Taliban and Waziristan…He thought this was a good chance to cash in.”

Mosharraf Zaidi on the danger of the appeal to heart strings:

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.

Zaidi wrote a great piece in 2009, by the way, on how philanthropy that attempts to fill in for what should be the state’s responsibility will both inevitably fail and, by giving the state an excuse to avoid that responsibility, contribute to the very problem it seeks to correct. (Alex de Waal’s argument along these lines in Famine Crimes, while I’m at it, is must reading in general).

Joshua Foust on “what we’ve lost”:

It was wanting to help people on their own terms and not ours, one of the central themes of his book, which resonated with me deeply…Quite possibly, the greatest danger of the fallout from Mortenson’s scandal (he vigorously denies the allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement lodged against him) is that his influence on foreign policy — what I’ve jokingly referred to as the “don’t be a jerk” school of counterinsurgency — will become discredited as everyone rushes to explain how clever they were to have seen through it all.

Despite the many charges that Mortenson now faces — inflating the number of schools he’s built, fabricating his personal history and the origins of his charity, and so on — his basic message still makes sense. People are going to focus on the ancillary parts of the scandal, like the military’s surprising obsession with it (as if drinking tea would somehow unlock the secrets of counterinsurgency). Or, perhaps the allegations of  financial mismanagement, which are probably more attributable to incompetence rather than malice, will resonate in the future. But his fundamental message of helping people by working locally is still very much a good one, even if it makes no sense for the military to adopt it as a war-fighting strategy.

Certainly, all the NGOs operating in the region will now face more scrutiny, especially if their employees come forward with inspirational stories of triumph over adversity and poverty. And Mortenson can and should answer for what he’s done and not done. His charity has allegedly built 141 schools; even if the real number is significantly less, the achievement is still a substantial one.

As Macy Halford puts it into perspective:

This scandal is only tangentially about the difficulty of ensuring truthfulness in non-fiction writing, which is a problem we’ll never fully solve (book publishers can’t afford fact-checking, but even fact-checked writing depends a great deal on trust). It’s about the particulars: our country is deeply invested—financially, psychologically, and emotionally—in the region where Mortenson sets his tale, and eager to help create a happy ending. Barack Obama donated a hundred thousand dollars to the Central Asia Institute; “Three Cups of Tea” is required reading for American troops sent to Afghanistan; and the “Young Reader’s Edition” is essentially required reading for American school children. In other words, the book is central to the story we’re writing about ourselves, and if certain aspects of it turn out not to be true (like whether Mortenson was really held captive by the Taliban), we’ll have to find different ways of telling that story. The Times talked to a military official in Afghanistan, who said, “We continue to believe in the logic of what Greg is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and Pakistan because we know the powerful effects that education can have on eroding the root causes of extremism.” That’s an endorsement of an idea, not a person—the hope is that the idea can survive the person who gave it life, should that person be found wanting.

Michael Maren declares that “the cause is crap, and the faster Greg and his foundation disappear the better”:

What the 60 Minutes piece made clear is that what The Central Asia Institute does primarily is build buildings.  Call them schools. Call them warehouses. Call them what you want, but a building is NOT a school. A building is a monument. A building gives you something made of stones to show your donors.  But you don’t need a building to have a school.

You need teachers. You need books. You need a community’s dedication to educating its children. If a community does not have the resources to build a school in the first place, it will not have to resources to maintain it. As the empty school buildings attest, CAI was not paying for teachers and administrators to run the schools.  They were paying for bricks and mortar — They were investing in their own fund raising.

For a school or any development project to be successful, it must evolve from the strong desires of a community. The community must be able to dedicate the resources necessary to carry out the project. Of course, these communities can’t build school buildings, but they hire a teacher and buy a few books. The evolution process is slow. It requires a huge shift in attitudes and priorities. Placing a building in a community doesn’t accomplish any of this.

Plopping a building into a community doesn’t change anything except the landscape. It makes donors feel good. It gives the charities something to photograph for their brochures.  But in the end it’s all just a pile of rocks. Good riddance Greg Mortenson and your self-serving, self rightous crusade.

Alanna Shaikh, again, on that point:

Why, exactly, did we ever think that Mortenson’s model for education, exemplified in his Central Asia Institute (CAI), was going to work? Its focus was on building schools — and that’s it. Not a thought was spared for education quality, access, or sustainability. But building schools has never been the answer to improving education…Over the last 50 years of studying international development, scholars have built a large body of research and theory on how to improve education in the developing world. None of it has recommended providing more school buildings, because according to decades of research, buildings aren’t what matter. Teachers matter. Curriculum matters. Funding for education matters. Where classes actually take place? Not really.

The whole CAI model was wrong. But here’s the truly awful thing: Looking back, it’s clear that everyone knew that that CAI’s approach didn’t work. It was just that no one wanted to talk about it.

Timothy Burke argues against increased cynicism:

The thing we all really need is a sharper understanding of the development industry and a wiser appreciation of how our own desires for sweeping messianic transformations are as much of a target market as any other consumer demand. I don’t know that we can blame people like Mortenson for giving us what many of us want. Nor should we be surprised when people like Mortenson raise millions of dollars before anyone thinks to ask skeptical questions either about the concrete organizational principles involved or about the accounting. Well-meaning, smart young people all around the world who get involved in philanthropy, NGOs, community service, development work and the like frequently find that good intentions, passion, and a dollop of appropriately couched ideological genuflection to the audience for a given pitch are the equivalent of picking up the “Pass Go and Collect $200? card. There’s little incentive to spell out plausible limits, models of organizational sustainability, or to downplay the potential positive impact of a project. Often it’s the opposite: the more messianic the rhetoric, the more likely the pitch is to succeed.

…If I gave you an unlimited line of credit and carte blanche to run everything your way, do you think you could make a single secondary school work? I mean, really work so it was beyond reproach, was by almost any measure superior in outcomes and character and ethos to any alternative? Now what if I took away from you the choice of where your school was located and restricted you to pupils who lived within 30 miles of your school? Now what if I required you to obey all relevant national and local laws addressing education? Still confident? Now what if I made you operate within a budgetary limit that was generous by local and national standards but not unlimited? Getting harder yet? Now what if I put your school in a location with very little infrastructure and serious structural poverty?

The point here is that when one crucial task like that is hard enough, we should be deliriously happy to see a person dedicate their life and money and effort to make that task work. One. When we keep our checkbooks closed and our frowny-faces on because that’s not enough, not nearly enough, we create a situation where development messianism is inevitable. We invite not mission creep but mission gallop: make a hundred schools! change gender ideology! eliminate poverty! Under the circumstances, looking back, you have to ask how that was ever creditable, why anyone cheered and hoped and wrote checks.

In that vein, Umair J offers “Resettling the Indus” as an example of exactly the sort of thing Burke is talking about:

As opposed to upsetting the historically evolved balance created by the way a village is shaped in a particular environment, the theory behind RTI seeks to re-grow a village using locally available material, and domestic labor, so as to remove costs and obstacles created by contractors and middle men. They’ve been ably facilitated by their invented technique to fashion multiple hazard resistant compressed mud-bricks that reduce cost of rebuilding by nearly 50 percent and create locally sustainable structures.

Beyond the blandness of development speak, the unquantifiable impact that this project has had on that community can only be witnessed in that particular space. The community that has been facilitated into resettling itself radiates a manner of cohesiveness, purpose, and camaraderie that’s arisen out of a sense of shared experience. Beyond the limited agenda of recovery, as important as that is, the residents of this small village are now seeking collective and shared solutions to solve long-term problems of subsistence and employment. It is exactly this ingredient that is normally missing from the way development practice is carried out in Pakistan.

Of course, Resettling the Indus had already gotten the coveted Chapati Mystery endorsement, who gave us this bit of language from RtI’s facebook page:

Architecturally speaking, people who have lived in mud houses for generations will be satisfied to be living in a brick or concrete house, but in the long run, will they have the resources to maintain these houses? Who will pay for the maintenance of these houses? ‘Aid’ will be not always be flowing in for them. They need to be given solutions that they can sustain, long after the aid is gone. Mud (or any other local material) is readily available in these areas, and will always be. Why give them an infrastructure, which they will not be able to afford? Why give them an infrastructure that they are not used to culturally, socially and financially?

It is utterly impractical, and insensitive, for any organization to pick up a project that promises more and delivers less. The approach to this disaster should be delivering more by promising them less – in a way that requires the participation of the local population in the reconstruction process.

This might seem like an unsympathetic approach to their vows, but one that understands the overall implications. It is imperative, in our view, that the people affected by this natural disaster are involved in the process of rehabilitation, so that they are a vital part of putting their own lives and their communities back together again. This will not only instill a sense of ownership in them, it will give them a chance to be a part of rebuilding their own lives. Maybe the only opportunity in this disaster is to help these people rise beyond their current states of mind about not being ‘able’ enough and actually be able to be agents of change in their own lives.

A blog post from the 60 minutes photographer for the Mortenson segment:

The school looked like it was never-ever used. The 2 only Kyrgyz teachers in the Afghan Pamir leave too far off from the school . In fact, by the time the CAI finished building the school, the government had already started sending teachers up to the Afghan Pamir and classes were being held at 8 locations. They didn’t have schools, they just used the Aga Khan Foundation tourist yurts or regular guestrooms or tents. But it worked. For these reasons, the school, so far, has never been used – at least not to the degree CAI claims…

And an interview with the producer of the 60 minutes story.

In response to the outpouring of defensive rationalizations for Mortenson’s actions, Nosheen Ali notes that:

…such a lenient, sympathetic response would have been unimaginable if the humanitarian in question was a non-westerner.

The saviour rhetoric of humanitarianism constitutes a powerful force that often claims unquestionable moral certainty and superiority, and therein lies its danger. All critiques of Greg Mortenson’s work can simply be silenced by saying, ‘he has made schools, you have not’. Hence, the bottom line for many people is that since Mortenson is doing good and making a difference in the lives of poor people, it does not really matter if there are errors in how he conducts himselfbecause the targets of his action are basically happy to have schools. That is tantamount to saying that poor people do not have feelings or a right to due process and dignity. Ghulam Parvi, a key character inThree Cups of Tea and CAI operations director in Pakistan for many years, resigned from CAI last year partly in response to the book’s blatantly false depiction of Baltistan as Taliban-central. Several of my friends from the region who are deeply grateful for Mortenson’s services are nevertheless thoroughly disappointed that he would use his platform to spread fundamental misperceptions about their region. Others are suspicious of his work with the military. If the CBS report is indeed true, then the casualness with which the director of a Pakistani think tank is portrayed as a Taliban kidnapper in Mortenson’s writings exemplifies a form of imperialist abuse that cannot be shielded under the guise of humanitarianism.

And Saleem Ali points out the ways a focus on celebrity philanthropy crowds out and impedes quieter but more effective organizations:

What is most troubling about these revelations is how they show a dangerous conflation of pomp and circumstance with philanthropy. Often, the easiest way to secure funds from the public is through theatrical melodrama rather than simple, honest hard work…

In contrast to Mortenson’s celebrated charities, the Aga Khan Foundation has done far more for rural education in remote parts of Pakistan, yet they have instead been marginalised through sectarian innuendo. Recall the Aga Khan educational board controversy from only a few years back.

Also, consider the work of Mukhtaran Mai and her charitable schools. After her harrowing experience at the behest of medieval tribal practices, she continues to work on rural education in Punjab. Has she received the same respect from our own Pakistani philanthropists? How many politicians have come to her assistance in recent months when local politicians in Muzaffargarh repeatedly threatened her activities and her life? Instead of helping such noble indigenous activists, we are beguiled by celebrity endorsements which fall flat on modest scrutiny.

(A far more comprehensive round-up is to be found at Good Intentions are Not Enough; 77 articles and counting!)