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Mortenson Is Not the Sole Suspect

Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes could not control his smile when Mansur Khan Mahsud, director of a local think tank, nullified the claims of abduction made by Greg Mortenson in his books. "Why do you think Mr. Mortenson would write this?" asked Kroft. "To sell his book," was the prompt answer of Mahsud. Kroft had achieved a key goal of his investigation, to bring Mortenson's charity into disrepute. Mortenson can be seen holding an AK-47 in one of the pictures provided by Mahsud, which certainly no kidnapper in his right mind would even dare placing near his abductees, let alone handing it over to them and taking pictures.

Kroft has raised many valid questions about Mortenson's charity in his investigative report. There is something fishy about the activities of the Central Asia Institute and its relationship with Mortenson. Leaving the controversy aside, which many are already talking about, one needs to broaden one's horizons to look at the big picture.

A significant number of western charities and their associates in the third world countries lack transparency. Many are doing great work and one should support them in their cause. It, however, does not give them the license to evade inspection and scrutiny. Take the USAID for example, the main development/charity arm of the U.S. government. It has recently launched an ambitious $20 million project in Pakistan where a local version of Sesame Street will be produced and broadcast on TV channels.

The project indeed is a great idea since it will have a local setting and characters. The project directors are planning to take it to thousands of schools and villages, which is even better. But is it really worth $20 million? There are dozens of TV channels in Pakistan, many of them run their transmission in local languages. None of them has invested or earned half of that amount in their years of existence. They still reach out to millions of homes and are wildly popular. Broadcasting is not a very expensive business in Pakistan, or for that matter in other third world countries. Big Bird is not foreign to Pakistanis, who call him by the name of Lam Dheeng and have seen dozens of episodes of Sesame Street during late 1990s, dubbed in Urdu language.

Why, then, is there a need to spend $20 million on this project? One explanation is the logistical and administrative costs where a sizable chunk of the money will be spent by the USAID itself. The rest of the money will be given to the foundation responsible for this project in Pakistan. It will hire executive directors, managers, strategists, accountants, drivers, cooks, maids, and scores of other staff. Charity jobs -- those supported by the western countries -- are considered a goldmine in Pakistan. The salary is generous and benefits spectacular. Whatever left will be spent on the project.

This is what is wrong with some modern charity organizations. There is more pomp and show than actual groundwork. Corruption is a necessary evil even if an organization tries hard to stay transparent. Their first enemy is the bureaucracy and its never ending lust for money. Local organizations are the next in line, who often mislead them to fill their coffers. Many of these organizations, especially in Pakistan, are headed by the kin of bureaucrats, politicians, industrialists, and army men. Western-educated and stupendously rich socialites, who have no connection to the poor and who have amassed wealth on their blood and tears, manipulate foreign charities into funding their programs. They do some good for the society but not without taking big cuts for themselves.

Don't blame Mortenson for the alleged lack of transparency in his charity work. Most, if not all, are naked in this hammam. Transparency should also begin at home.