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Blog, The Other View

Mortenson II – opportunities

While the blogsphere mob keeps rolling over the Three Cups of Tea controversy, most are commenting based on a very brief and incomplete insight into the issue (the CBS Report) and on revelations by another mountaineer about whether Mortenson has been to one or another village that cashes in but generously promises to pass on money to another we-save-girls-charity (Jon Krakauer’s Byliner). To return from K2 Base Camp “Concordia” to the next village is a week’s hike over one of the biggest glaciers on the planet. An improbable trek to stumble alone, but whether it’s made up or not is really of no avail to the intents and impacts of Mortenson’s work. Discuss that in a mountaineer’s forum, fine – haluzination stories in high altitude climbing are not rare and has been centre of a debate when last year an Austrian high altitude climber (dubbed as the Sky Runner) had to admit that he had visualized the ascent of K2 and had never really been on top as he tried to make believe for weeks with fake summit photographs.

That he portrays his hosts as kidnappers is grave, and should be dealt with, but apparently Mahsud has already attempted that. The wasteful spending of his organisation may be harsh for those who contributed hard earned money, but is unfortunately a problem haunting many other ventures of that scale as well.

Also smart observers to debates, like zunguzungu, seem to be most and foremost focused on how everyone seems to have known from the start and now the practice of CAI is proven wrong by speculations of people who made no comment before the CBS show. Until now, I have not found commentary from someone who really knows CAI’s work on the ground.

The problem lies in an (adapted) observation by Alanna Shaikh, in an otherwise horrific piece of commentary, has made about why Mortenson became popular. “We let the debate spin us because we want to be spun.” We are not after answers to general misconceptions, we want to shred him and his work to pieces to start afresh with no progress made in basic – complex, they go further than “School building good or bad?” – debates.

The few sane voices are hardly making it to the centre of the debate (and I am not giving endorsements to writers who need it, apart from that two of those I often disagree with, one I hardly know).

Ali (again) in the Express Tribune:

While these are critical concerns that demand further inquiry, the real scandal is far more insidious and goes beyond Mortenson. Three Cups of Tea is not merely about Mortenson’s humanitarianism. It is the quintessential text through which Americans are seeing one of the longest wars in US history. […] The saviour rhetoric of humanitarianism constitutes a powerful force that often claims unquestionable moral certainty and superiority, and therein lies its danger. […] Perhaps the lesson to draw is not about sharing tea; it’s about sincerity. It’s also about self-interrogation of American interventions abroad, humanitarian or otherwise.

Her finger pointing straight at the Americans (and additionally, the urban Pakistanis) makes her probably not too popular – but she manages to phrase the criticism into well argued statements and from how I see the situation points to the core of the Mortenson-problem. Attacking the unquestionable moral certainty and superiority of humanitarian work is the second aspect, one which I reiterate again and when talking about the work I do in Pakistan. It’s a hindrance really to explain here (in Europe) what there (in Pakistan) looks like. People want to understand the work I do (which is in the Aid field among others) as basically great, even with all the word of caution and self reflecting criticism I fodder them with – hence the situation on the ground must basically be fucked. A difficult start to portray the country realistically.

Zaidi at ForeignPolicy:

Still, by any stretch of the imagination, the idea that anyone can save a country or the world is an emotional appeal, not a reasonable or rational one. 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.

Foust at PBS:

But maybe that’s not the point. Just because you can’t help everyone doesn’t mean you should help no one. Sadly, Mortenson’s good work is going to be overshadowed — possibly destroyed — by this scandal (albeit one that looks like it was largely of his own making). And the losers, besides wide-eyed Americans who’ve lost an unassailable hero, will ultimately be the people his schools were helping.

approach to advance

All three focus not on the problematic approach Mortenson has taken and why he crashed, but what are concepts behind our conceptions that make such approaches possible and popular even though they come out as a complete failure in the end. Not surprisingly they are written by people who don’t only know how to be smart when it comes to bringing their ideas into concise posts, but also have experience in the geographic and thematic area and manage to span a bridge between the three worlds that are otherwise also quite distinct in the blogosphere – the aid experts, the policy/politics experts and the local experts (be that locals, or scholars who deal with the area/culture that poses as the recipient of aid/policy).

Examples of how gravely you fail, when you stay stuck in your field are …

from the Policy side R. Winthrop at Brookings: What Ali has tried to make clear and warned of – that Mortenson played his humanitarian card along the national security line – she is underlining from the researcher level.

“On the other hand, his story captured the hearts of millions, bringing needed attention to the very real educational needs of Pakistan’s children and articulating the very important role good quality education can play in reducing conflict risk.”

She did not really get it, did she?

from the Aid side A. Shaikh in Foreign Policy: Not only is she taking the (US) blogosphere’s uproar as the measure for such debates – in Europe, still, this issue isn’t dealt with at all – when she starts “The world was shocked by a report …”. She also manages to conclude, after two paragraphs and watching the CBS show that “The whole CAI model was wrong. But here’s the truly awful thing: Looking back, it’s clear that everyone knew that CAI’s approach didn’t work.” Her observation that it’s teachers and curriculum that matter, is definitely true and important. Unfortunately many NGOs in Pakistan who are involved in school construction in Pakistan pay little heed to that fact and are satisfied with their work once the metal plaque with their website is placed on the building. But that does not equate to school construction being useless. We don’t really know how CAI worked, some of their work may be flawed – but to trash it, and leave it all to the USAID “experts” (whose work in school realted matters especially in this area is catastrophic from what I have seen during the last 5 years) is hardly the only solution.

The Aid Blogosphere has been quite active in similar discussions, and while I agree that aid blogs matter, I think they would do more so if they looked at the issues they deal with more often through eyes of receptors of their solutions. Smart Aid Curriculums make sense after you had the History, Language and Culture Curriculums for the area the smart aid is intended for. Aid and development University Courses in Austria are hugely popular, with little basics in history, anthropology or literature. Many of the Aid workers, be it from UN or private ventures like Mortenson’s, in Pakistan and Central Asia (and I can only tell from this area, but assume it to be similar elsewhere), have little sensibility for that place being an independent self with a history that reaches from early civilizations to Wi-Fi. They rather see themselves working in a medical operating theatre that needs instant solutions with no time to ask for the patients’ record. Mortenson is a stark example.

from the local side the bad example is, that local voices are giving a number of shout-outs to ventures they think are great, but it hardly becomes clear how they are so greatly different. And hence simplistic orientalist narratives, which Mortenson most probably did not come up with for deliberate malignant imperialistic intents but because he really saw it that way, are not challenged. But it’s the opportunities that I hope to find here. Umair Javed has pointed this direction along a project that Ahmed brought up earlier, but so far this has also rather ‘only’ been endorsement, no critical approach. It’s really in a very different area geographically and in terms of aid approach (flood relief vs. educational measures in a non-catastrophe-area) and one really has to bring up the larger scheme to make a point. But this larger scheme, exemplified on a number of projects could help to bring some understanding to the clash between Aid, Narrative and Culture. Endorsement is fine, projects need such support. But it would help the aid discussion, if some projects would be less viewed through the glasses of aid-from-outside-with-a-backlash-intention but with Ali’s warning in mind (do question moral certainty and superiority!) and from a local standpoint.

[As time permits I will try to make my point clearer in future and contribute myself. Apart from trying to be smart here, I did work in reconstruction efforts in AJK between 2006 and 2010, also working as an external consultant for UNICEF. At the moment we are active in AJK and KP with community based long term projects, all with our own NGO. I worked full time at SOS Children’s Villages in Lahore, and freelance as a journalist for Dawn. While asleep I was doing the Event and Media part of www.danka.tv (which has just been relaunched!), playing Tabla and obeying traffic rules.]

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 25, 2011

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