Why you Should not let the Greg Mortenson Scandal Discourage you from supporting NGOs

04/27/2011 12:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2011

As a Marine and cofounder of a non-governmental organization (NGO) in one of Africa's largest slums, I drew inspiration from Greg Mortenson's books and work. My peers in both the military and the NGO community embraced the story of building schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a way to strike at a root cause of terrorism. Three Cups of Tea became required reading for soldiers and Marines deploying to Afghanistan, and it motivated many young Americans to join the frontlines of the aid community.

I didn't want to believe the accusations of deceit and gross mismanagement when the news broke this week, though the evidence presented in writer Jonathan Krakauer's recently released seventy-five-page exposé is overwhelming. I felt betrayed by Mortenson as I read it. Particularly upsetting were the descriptions of how his NGO handled millions of dollars it received to build schools.

This story is likely to fuel greater skepticism and scrutiny of the international aid community. Some of that attention will be productive. There are certainly NGOs that waste money and lack transparency. These NGOs are typically large and locked into top-down, paternalistic attitudes about poverty.

But many NGOs that operate for more than a few years are not this way. The majority of these organizations are small, honest and community-based, and they engaged in long-term work on the front-lines of places too often stereotyped as hopeless. If Mortenson's story is allowed to undermine this work, it will have unfortunate consequences for the world's poor. It will also be a set-back to our national security.

The U.S. military is increasingly engaged in "capacity building" of local governmentsin war-torn nations and other parts of the world deemed to be susceptible to terrorism. But the military is not very good at this type of work because effective development requires a unique skill-set and operates on a different time-line than warfighting.

While the military's relationship with NGOs is often tenuous, most military leaders recognize the crucial role that NGOs canplay in strengthening civil society and helping to prevent violence in post-conflict areas. During a deployment as a Marine human intelligence officer to Fallujah, Iraq in 2005 and 2006, we struggled with how to stand-up an effective local government. NGO presence was minimal because the levels of violence were still high. However, the number of NGOs and the prominence of their roles helping Fallujah rebuild increased in future years as the security situation stabilized.

I continued to volunteer with the NGO I cofounded in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya while I deployed in the Marines. While my experience in Kibera helped inform my service as a Marine, it also reinforced my conclusion that the military would never be particularly effective at development. NGOs that take the right approach will always be far more cost-effective channels for this work.

In Kibera, where our organization has run a holistic youth leadership development program for ten years, we call our approach participatory development. Participatory development recognizes that change has to happen from within communities, not outside of it. The main reason I was able to stay involved with our NGO as I deployed as a Marine was because I wasn't leading it. Our NGO is run by community leaders, exceptional young men and women with whom we have built long-term, enduring relationships. These relationships are rooted in trust and a core value that the military espouses -- integrity.

Our organization, Carolina for Kibera, is one of thousands of smaller, community-based organizations that invest scarce resources directly into the hands of young people with enormous talent but little opportunity. It's an effective approach, and it's one low-cost, high-impact way to help brake cycles of violence and poverty from within.

Military service and community development may appear to be contradictory, and the truth is that they are very different. In times of extreme violence they can be incompatible. Yet when effective, they share that essential value of integrity. Integrity makes trust possible, and that's where it has to begin. However well intentioned he may have been, it appears as though Mortenson was lacking this essential ingredient from the very beginning.

Many of us who have dedicated large portions of our lifeto fighting poverty and violence in the NGO community are now wondering if the latest turn in the Mortenson story will discourage donors from investing in our organizations. We hope this will not be the case. We hope Americans will keep an open mind about the vast majority of honest NGOs doing long-term work with local leaders in troubled parts of the world. Lives depend on it, including our own.

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