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Marianne Elliott Headshot

Three Cups of Humble Pie

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In my country (New Zealand), we get well-schooled in the dangers of getting "too big for our own boots." We call it the "tall-poppy syndrome": the risk that any flower who stands above the rest will have its head lopped off.

I know some people who suspect this is what's going on for Greg Mortenson this week.

"No good deed goes unpunished," said Clare Boothe Luce (or Billy Wilder, depending who you ask).

But that's not all there is to this.

I've just finished reading the impressive report "Three Cups of Deceit" by Jon Krakauer. It is a carefully researched and well-written expose of what I hope will become a cautionary tale about the perils of the cult of personality in aid work.

1. The Perils of Telling the "Truth"

As someone who has just finished writing a memoir about my work in Afghanistan, I confess, this topic makes me nervous.

In an interview with Outside magazine, Mortenson talks about how he worked with his editor and writer to agree on "compressions" in the story: combining two or three trips to the same place into one trip for the sake of actually fitting it all into one book.

I do that in my book. I combine two different trips to Qala-e-Naw town in Badghis province into one visit. Both trips did in fact happen, each contained one event relevant to the overall story and timing didn't seem to be critical.

Do these changes make my story less true?

And what about that police chief who -- if asked -- will almost certainly accuse me of lying about his collusion with drug traffickers? What if 60 Minutes ever interviewed him about the veracity of my book?

It's a minefield, writing a nonfiction book about a place like Afghanistan. And yet, I can stand behind every story in my book. I may have changed names, changed ethnicities and compressed events. But I have not claimed that the mob of angry men banging at my gate were Talebs trying to kidnap me. I have not exaggerated for dramatic effect. I have not invented.

And although I think "truth" is a slippery word, I also think that those of us who tell our readers that we are reporting life as we experienced it, rather than fiction, bear the responsibility of the trust our readers then place in us to report that life as carefully, mindfully and -- yes -- truthfully as we are able.

If we plan to then leverage our story to encourage our readers to donate money to our cause then we bear an even heavier responsibility not to mislead them in any way. Greg Mortenson appears to have taken this responsibility too lightly.

2. The Perils of Amateur or DIY Approaches to Educating Girls: The Empty School

Without teachers or ongoing operating budgets, perhaps built in the wrong place in the first instance, the image of Central Asia Institute (CAI) schools being used as warehouses or sitting completely empty has shocked many people.

During my two years in Afghanistan, I saw my fair share of empty schools built by well-intentioned foreigners (ranging from the U.S. military to a group of wealthy women from Germany).

Effective education programming requires a comprehensive approach. Teacher training, community engagement and consultation and -- in the ideal scenario -- effective government oversight to ensure that there is some kind of sensible strategy about which schools get built and where. Which brings me to my next point.

3. The Perils of Hero Worship

Greg Mortenson has been turned into some kind of hero. Many of us wanted to believe in the story as it was told. We wanted a hero.

The real story of girl's education in Afghanistan is even more inspiring than the Mortenson story. It is the story of men and women all over Afghanistan -- employees of the Ministry of Education, of large NGOs like CARE and local community members sitting on village school boards -- who work tirelessly to build an education system that meets the needs of as many of Afghanistan's children as possible.

But that wasn't the story the West wanted to hear.

We wanted the story of a single heroic individual doing battle against, or simply doing better than, big institutions.

But what if those big, clumsy, flawed, bureaucratic institutions are the real story? What if, as I believe, a national education strategy led and monitored by the Ministry of Education is the only long-term solution to education for girls in Afghanistan.

I am not alone in this conclusion. Back in July 2009, Mosharraf Zaidi said much the same thing about Pakistan.

To educate almost 70 million children, the only "cup of tea" that will do is the one that is served by the state. The state is not only ultimately responsible -- legally, morally, and politically -- for educating Pakistan's children. It is responsible, and internally wired, to ensure Pakistan's survival.

So I'm not surprised CAI schools are standing empty. But perhaps Mortenson's most important work was educating his readers about the importance of education for girls to effective development and security in the region. But that was not what donors thought they were funding and it brings me to the next set of questions, about governance and financial management at CAI.

4. The Perils of the "Founder Syndrome"

From all accounts -- and to be fair this is one of the few criticisms of him that does come through in the first book -- Mortenson resists any kind of management or oversight. Of all the accusations leveled against him, this is the one that stops me in my tracks. This is the one that makes me want to take him by the collar and say, "Greg, dude, what are you doing?"

According to Krakauer's report, Mortenson resisted accounting in any detail for any of the money he spent from CAI. One by one, CAI Board members and senior staff resigned as a result. And yet -- somehow -- this all remained unreported in the media until now.

This is the part of this whole scandal that shocked me.

Desiree Adaway has written a very good post about the basics of effective governance and oversight of a not-for-profit and she makes what I think is an essential point: beware of any organization dwarfed by the profile of its founder.

5. The Perils of Being Human

When my mother first told me about Three Cups of Tea, I was living in Afghanistan. Everything she told me about the book pissed me off. I was tired of the cult of the white/Western hero. I was tired of seeing well-intentioned individuals start projects that were unsustainable or, worse, harmful.

The title of the post I wrote when I finally read Three Cups of Tea was "What Greg Mortenson Taught Me About Aid and Humility." That could easily have also been the title of this article too.

Aid is complex. Anyone who wants to be of service in this field needs lots of humility. And, although it doesn't absolve him of his responsibility to account for his actions, Greg Mortenson gets my gratitude for teaching me this yet again, and -- simply because he is human -- he gets my compassion.