I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s “3 Cups of Deceit,” the 90 page article that exposes Greg Mortenson–the author of the bestselling books “3 Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools”–for his lies and tricks. Wow. Almost every page drew out a verbal exclamation from me as I read it on the bus. Krakauer makes a devastating case against Mortenson and his charity, Central Asia Institute, which has received over 50 million dollars to build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He paints a portrait of a man so wrapped up in created a heroic image of himself and his work that he’s willing to throw his own close people under the bus, including the communities that he’s supposedly dedicated to.
I read the article as soon as I heard about it because, I have to admit, I was inspired by Mortenson like millions of others. I read “3 Cups of Tea” last winter when I was in Guatemala, when Glendi and I were finally getting serious about building a free community school down there. I was mesmerized by the story of a humble, complicated white guy who, through the building of respectful relationships with people at the grassroots–and without government intervention–helped communities provide education to thousands of children. While I was upset by some of the implicit Islamaphobia in the book, I still thought that it was a powerful story of how much can be accomplished when privileged people approach solidarity from a place of listening, mutual respect, and responsibility.
Ha! It’s really jaw-dropping how far from the truth the stories were. I won’t spend my time going into all the details because they’re all over the net, but they include at least dozens of schools that simply don’t exist, dozens more “ghost schools” that are just empty buildings because teachers and supplies were never sent, Mortenson repeatedly claiming that a group of people who treated him with the utmost respect and friendship were Taliban who had kidnapped him for 8 days, and the subsequent banning of Mortenson from certain communities for his defamation of them. It goes way beyond this, though.
I feel sick. Not because I’m actually surprised–somehow a large part of me just reacts, “It figures”–but because of what it exposes about the ethics of international solidarity work. While Mortenson’s offenses are particularly outrageous, they actually highlight how easily such projects can be corrupted. See, the reason Mortenson got away with this for so long is because of the tremendous distance–geographical, cultural, linguistic, and technological–between the communities in which he was supposedly working and the communities in which we live. This distance allowed him to be a gatekeeper and a translator, and it made it really hard to enforce meaningful accountability. I actually think this phenomenon is rampant in international solidarity projects (and in U.S. non-profits), and I actually feel hints of it in my own representations of Guatemala here in the U.S. When privileged people have the power to set the narrative of what marginalized communities need, it is a pretty much a certainty that eventually that narrative will become corrupted and abusive.
This is what should have tipped us all off, and which I assume many anti-imperialists have probably been arguing against for years: that Mortenson has spent the last 15 years endlessly speaking for communities, without making any real efforts to step back and support those communities to speak for themselves. That open communication– based in authentic and lasting dialogue between the community affected and those wishing to work in solidarity–is the foundation for ethical international solidarity projects. If it’s not there, then we should always know that something’s fishy.
And if it’s not messy, then we should also assume that something’s wrong. International, cross-class, cross-cultural communication is fraught with contradictions. Differences in perspective and education level are real. It doesn’t usually make for heartwarming, page-turning bestseller material. In the Mortenson case, for example, it’s ridiculous to assume that the top priority for every community was building a school. That narrative should have been doubted from the beginning, as Krakauer touches upon. What happens if a community wants a medical clinic, a road, a mill, irrigation? How did those conversations happen? One of the tricks of the Mortenson books was that they did have some of that messiness, but it’s incredible to see how much of it is projected upon the communities and not the North Americans. And it’s really telling that I didn’t notice it until now.
It’s impossible for me to separate this thinking from Glendi and I’s own aspiration to build a school. So far, it’s been very much our project. We do have a plan for moving toward community control of the project, but there is no question that the project is starting from our own values, priorities, and money. Two ways that we’ve made sense of the ethics of this are that 1) Glendi is rooted in the community where we are working, and this project comes from her own dream to make this school happen, and 2) the current channels of community leadership are so corrupt that if we try to engage them they will potentially destroy or deeply distort the project…and so community control has to wait until we can do more on-the-ground organizing. I think these two points have merit, but what is the process by which the community itself–not the community power structure, but the base community–gets to speak for and control the project? Is it going to be a patronizing decision by us, the benefactors, that now our neighbors are “ready” to assume control? Do we just go to a mass meeting with a big check and do whatever the first mass meeting decides? This is not easy, and I would argue that anyone who thinks it is doesn’t have much on the ground experience in such things.
So if authentic international communication, decision-making, and accountability are hard, there’s at least one thing that’s not so hard: telling the truth! This is where Mortenson’s “management style” is straight up racist and criminal. While I know that my presence in Guatemala, every dollar I send, every dollar I hold back, every piece of advice I give from my perspective is problematic, at least I admit it openly. I talk about it. I ask about it. I try to read about it. That’s the least I can do. That, in my view, is the basic humility that privileged folks need to have when working in communities that are not our own. Honesty and transparency are the bare minimum…they are what allow us to turn our perpetual screw-ups into lessons, and then into solid contributions.
I’m curious about what will happen to Greg Mortenson and his charity. I personally hope that he loses his fortune. I hope that, in his absence, the communities that were supposed to benefit from his work will find more listeners and authentic supporters. And I hope the thousands of other projects like his will take a long hard look at ourselves, and start making some deep changes to our work.