Greg Mortenson is starting to look like one of those empty school buildings his NGO dropped into the middle of the Af-Pak quagmire. Lots has been written (see this list at Good Intentions Are Not Enough) since Jon Krakauer and since 60 Minutes torched this American hero and his Central Asia Institute (CAI). There’s plenty to feed on here. Publishers converting delusionally inflated heroism into a major bestseller? American military brass transforming a crock of crap into a blueprint for the use of aid to convert the hearts and minds of hostile Central Asian populations? The persistence and popularity of aid with neither transparency nor independent audit? Another nail of cynicism in the coffin of the public’s faith in aid NGO claims of success? Or maybe just a textbook illustration of how hard it is to do aid well?
Prior to its implosion, Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea was a powerful, inspirational tale of how one determined, charismatic man could change the lives of children in a place that is arguably the world’s most visible crucible of poverty and unrest. This is not just a story, though, about make-a-differencism gone sour or the popped balloon of Mortenson’s valor and pluck. It’s also not about the CAI’s suddenly naked ineffectiveness (am I the only one whose suspicions are aroused by the CAI – CIA anagrammatic similarity). In so many ways this is a story about us, about what we deeply want to believe.
Mortenson’s story is American (and, to a lesser extent, Western) goodness incarnate. The plot is simple: a politically well-connected blend of individual effort, pioneer spirit and can-do attitude helps to transform the lives of the downtrodden by constructing school buildings. School children across the States collect their pennies for peace. After all, these impoverished children (read: target beneficiaries) are the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan, who’ve grown up in a society wrecked by foreign interventions and interference, in communities on the wrong end of bullets and drones and protracted violence. So CAI’s work is about the need for us to see ourselves, as nations not just (ineffectively) battling bad guys but battling the uncivilized garden of ignorance, backwardness, abuse and Islamic bloodthirst.
In the end, Mortenson and CAI have sold us what we wanted to believe. What we wanted to believe about aid. What we wanted to believe about simple solutions to immensely complex problems. More importantly, what we wanted to believe about the people in that part of the world and what we wanted to believe about ourselves; namely their desperate need to benefit from our virtue. In that sense, then, Mortenson and CAI are not alone in the NGO world.