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Mortenson – remote narratives

Being involved in school construction in Pakistan (among other work) since roughly the same time Greg Mortenson rose to fame with his first book, Three Cups of Tea, and myself familiar with many of the places he works in (from Baltistan to Wakhan) I did read about his work but was never interested in his projects and have never considered reading his books. Contrary to obviously the US, the book, although translated into German in 2009, has had a much smaller impact and the current debate hasn’t surfaced in german media yet. Back then, I was rather bemused by the simplistic “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism … one school at a time” catch phrase and have grown wary of projects with such a booming PR in a field we understand so little about.

I have equally little respect for the media that now challenge his work. 60 Minutes covers the area with Lara Logan in reports that are not only poor but outright propaganda gibberish. Checking on schools, finding them to store spinach and thus declaring them disfunctional is adressing the issue with no understanding of ground realities. Jon Krakauer’s Into thin Air was somewhat exciting to read, but written in the same style of trying to get attention by exagerating that he is accusing Mortenson of now and he is now trying to cash in on Mortenson’s sell out. Nevertheless Mortenson will need to adress the criticism. One side are the finances and practices of his organisation, an issue adressed once by the organisation itself here and already discussed extensively among Aid-Bloggers (most notably at Good Intentions are not enough). The other side are his made up stories, which are not so interesting as such, but do point out how he perceives the environment he works in. He has adressed that in written statements which can be read here and here. By trying to counter criticism with explanations of the “Balti notion of time” or his admiration for “proud Pathan people of Wazisristan” he is rather revealing his own simplistic understanding of the area he is working in than dispelling the doubts over his accounts. The organisation declaring, that it is unaware of any organization qualified to undertake such a study, that is to assess the effectiveness of their schools, points at their ignorance of local structures that have existed long before they pushed into their perceived void. The AKF is just the most obvious name that comes to mind, and they are not the only ones around.

It will be difficult to keep all the different sets of criticism’s mashed up in the CBS show apart, adress them separately and get to the core which may be relevant apart from whether Mortenson is a person with a bad memory or a passion for portraying himself as a ‘real life Indiana Jones’. Bergen is trying hard with a CNN anchor, which I think reveals the major problem of the whole issue – the way perceptions are shaped by narratives as not only Mortenson provides them. For me this is most aptly portrayed by the extensive use of remote in the context of referring to anything virtually in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is just outside Kabul or Islamabad. This has led to considering the whole Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remote, a province that lies along one of the major water ways of the planet and however you define the term, Attock, Peshawar or DI Khan are only remote in our understanding of the place. Nosheen Ali has adressed this issue in an excellent paper already last year (Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian development and the narrative of terror in Northern Pakistan, PDF), Ahmed points out (and will keep doing so) the consequences for policy.

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.



  1. Pingback: Collecting “Three Cups of Tea” posts | Good Intentions Are Not Enough - April 19, 2011

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April 2011


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