My initial reaction to the Three Cups of Tea criticism was from the perspective of an American non-profit manager focused on international poverty alleviation. I agreed with the aid blogosphere questioning key elements of CAI management. The board consists only of Greg Mortenson and two others? He gets all of the royalties from his book, not the charity? He takes ill, and only a friend can replace him, not a deputy already in place at CAI? Clearly there were some longstanding management issues brewing under the surface of this heroic tale.
I turned to Pakistani English-language newspapers to confirm suspicions of local malfeasance. I started with The Dawn, the most widely circulated English language newspaper in Pakistan. This story wasn’t headline news, but Dawn’s blog published a post by DC-based Kalsoom Lakhani that criticized Mortenson for playing John Smith in a Pakistani version of Pocahontas. The post received 44 comments; by my superficial reading of names, only one Pakistani was critical of Mortenson’s work. Over and over, responders implore the author to reserve judgment and to celebrate the fact that Mortenson did anything on behalf of Pakistani children.
It was Afridi’s comment on an Express Tribune column by a Pakistani scholar at UC Berkeley that made me realize the situation was more complex that originally thought. “Yet more pseudo-intellectual pap from a Pakistani in the American ivory tower.” I began to look at the bylines of writers, and by in large, those critical of Mortenson are based in the U.S. or work for international aid agencies. I have no idea where people commenting live, but an overriding theme took shape. This is less of a story of “he said, she said,” and more a story of two perspectives that coexist within one field of poverty alleviation.
Comparing apples to apricots
Several years ago, our family hosted a Pakistani NGO leader studying at the University of Washington, and he told us about his family’s abundant apricot harvest in Gilgit, Pakistan. He planted an apricot pit in our backyard and told us that it would grow into a strong and productive tree. I think about this imminent apricot tree while reading all of these blog comments. People are speaking two different languages, engaging two different world views, and comparing proverbial apples to apricots.
On one side, people are talking about NGO accountability, accuracy, honesty, and effective governance, comparing Central Asia Institute to the American NGO ideal. They feel betrayed by Mortenson, having bought into the story that he depicted in his books.
On the other side, people herald Mortenson for his sincerity, selflessness, humanity, and commitment to those people deemed second class by their own people. In their view, CAI comes out strong when compared with Pakistani government programs, which historically have padded the pockets of government officials. As Faizan comments, “Being a citizen of a state where the education is being circumvented by all democratic despots in the past,…even if Greg is [utilizing 40% of its funds to conduct educational activities], I am the one very much happy with that because we never attained 40% of our rights in anything including education, health, security, social justice, social status.” As Faizan and many others point out, something is better than nothing.
And this response caught my eye:
I guess its finally the time to tell the truth. Mortenson sahib is no fraud or thief. I’m one of the little girls who entered the school built by him in his book. My picture is also on the book cover. So no one better to tell you about him. He has changed my whole life. now I work in an ngo in our village. If it wasn’t for him i would be illiterate and married with 5 kids not earning my own livelihood. I say wail to mortensen sahib our saviour.
As published reactions to Three Cups makes clear, bi-cultural NGOs operate in two very different worlds. One side is held against an ideal standard of American/Western accountability with governance, accounting, and evaluation systems in place to demonstrate clear and transparent effectiveness. The other side has a very different standard, one defined by existing structures marred by corruption and the legacy of colonialism. Complex social structures and long timelines impact the delivery of aid. Those of us who have worked with international partners in poor places around the world have seen their appreciation of our help with very few questions asked. Anything is better than nothing when you have little.
I hope that this Three Cups debacle starts some critical conversations among NGO leaders, recipients, and donors involved in bi-cultural NGO work. Some topics might include:
How do we move away from “scaling up” to locally-driven social change? One reason Mortenson has been so successful raising money is because he claims to have build 170 schools, serving 68,000 children. Big numbers entice big donors, while real impact comes in the quality of engagement, not necessary the quantity.
How do we change the narrative of aid? I have trained many interns on grant writing, and the narrative always goes like this: describe how really bad the situation is for these people, and then describe how your project will save the day. It works—I have received many grants following this narrative. The problem, however, is that it portrays local people as living without any resources or resourcefulness to use in solving their own problems, opening the door for us to save them.
How do we leverage opportunities for transformational change while providing critical services? The only way to end poverty is to change the circumstances that cause it in the first place: change the education system, shift local culture away from corruption, and commit ourselves to a culture of learning on both sides of the partnership. Ashesi University in Ghana is one example of an education project that does this so well. How do we do more of this?
How do we create bi-cultural boards of directors that bridge the two sides of these organizations? There is no international accountability mechanism that links a board of directors here with a board in the country of operation. In most cases, any linkage is made through the U.S. executive director, who sets the tone for bi-cultural exchange based on his or her management philosophy. Without a new standard for cross-cultural accountability and learning, we will continue to be comparing apples to apricots in larger conversations about effective poverty alleviation.
We are still waiting for the apricot tree to grow out of our backyard, much as people wait for the truth of come out about CAI and Mortenson’s work in Pakistan. After all of this time, I don’t expect a tree to grow because we live within different conditions. I also don’t expect one truth to result from these inquiries because different cultural contexts impact our sense of the truth. Through cross-cultural, cross-class, cross-sector dialogue, we could move closer to building NGO structures that honor both sides—indeed all truths—in these discussions.