Three Shots of Vodka

30 Jan

This is by some margin, the best book review I have read to-date about Greg Mortensons’  Three Cups of Tea: read it.

In my heart of hearts, I wish that Three Cups of Tea was a realistic description of aid work. Actually, you know what? Right now I’d settle for it being a partially accurate description of aid work.

But Three Cups of Tea is not a realistic description. It does not paint an accurate picture.

And so no wonder that it made all kinds of best-selling lists, got fawned over by Oprah, and was translated into a bunch of languages. Three Cups of Tea makes humanitarian work sound like two tons of fun. It’s the kind of stuff that you can’t pay an adventure tour company to arrange for you. And not just fun, but cool. Making the world a better place, basically, by hanging out and just getting to know the locals.

If my job could be even 10% like Three Cups of Tea, I’d be stoked.

It’s worth noting that in a way Mortenson is lucky he was in Pakistan. I can think of other countries, not so far from there, where it would have been three shots of vodka. In one sitting. Before lunch.

If you’ve been following Tales From the Hood for very long you know that articles like this one really grind my gears (HT @laurenist): the article that grinds my gears.

Some B-grade actress we’ve never heard of (and who would almost certainly flunk the LSAT) feels she must “do something.” Against the advice of an actual disaster response expert she goes down to Haiti to “help.” And to the surprise of no one finds “proof” that small amateur organizations (most specifically the one that she’s aligned with) are the only ones who are really helping anyone in Haiti, and that everyone else is all talk. There’s a lot of hyperbolic language, sweeping generalizations, and some poorly-focused babble about “cutting red tape” and “eliminating bureaucracy.” It’s the by now classic illogical, breathless “what’s wrong with aid” discussion that we’ve all come to expect from Huffington Post. Barely worth even a “WTF???” on twitter at this point. And certainly not worth it’s own post on this blog, except insofar as it speaks to a broader general misconception about what we do and how we do it and why we do it in the ways that we do it.

Thanks in no small part to a growing body of pop-aid literature, of which Three Cups of Tea is but one example, the general non-aid-insider public seems to think that this is all some grand adventure. They seem to think that our jobs are about – you know – drinking three cups of awesome cardamom chai (the kind that would cost $5 in a trendy South Asian restaurant in lower Manhattan or Northeast DC) with village elders in ruggedly beautiful places with crisp, clean air and bright-eyed children, thereby demonstrating our good will and solidarity and winning their trust. All we really need to do is love the world and make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race. Eliminate the bureaucracy and cut through the red tape – the INGOs make this all ‘way harder than it has to be. Let’s roll up our sleeves. Let’s just  go get it done. It’s time to make a better day, so let’s start givin’.

And this all could not be farther from reality. Yes, of course taking the time necessary to understand the communities where we work is of immense importance, and yes – in many instances drinking the right number of cups of tea, or vodka, or curdled cows’ blood might be one small part of that. But it is far past time to burst the bubble of perception that this aid gig all somehow akin to the offspring of a mile-high club love-in between an Anthropology 101 field trip and adventure trekking in Pokhara or Chiang Rai. It’s not.

The reality of aid work is that it is a lot of text- and spreadsheet-bitchery. It is a lot of hunching over a laptop computer, late at night in sweltering heat (or bitter cold) banging out a report to satisfy a needy internal constituent who fails to understand the context. It is a lot of meeting donor reporting deadlines in particular donor formats. It is a lot of arguing with people who see the world very differently. It is a lot of trying to understand, and then explain why things have not gone as planned. It is a lot of documenting what has been done (text bitchery) and communicating what one plans to do (more text bitchery). It is a lot of re-re-connecting to the internet every 7.3 minutes so that you can continue your skype conversation because some cubicle-farmer at HQ is forever riding your ass about your international cell phone bill. It is about keeping the demons of ethnocentrism sufficiently at bay that you do not totally alienate the local staff and counterparts with whom you must work (because no matter how cool or awesome or even hot they are, there will come a day when they totally piss you off, and rightly or wrongly, in your heart in a moment of weakness you’ll blame their culture).

Monitoring and evaluation and accountability – those things that it’s so popular right now to accuse INGOs of not doing – are essentially bureaucratic functions: a lot about documents and spreadsheets (even more text bitchery), making sure that T’s are crossed, I’s are dotted, and receipts add up. And by the way, “eliminate bureaucracy” and “cut through the red tape” coming from amateur aid workers (all frothing at the mouth over the “waste” and the “inefficiency” of the aid industry) are almost always code for “do crap work”, and “not accountable.”

The reality is that aid work is 99% supremely unsexy office work, usually carried out in supremely unsexy settings. Like offices. For every hour that I spend drinking tea with the noble savages, I’ll spend at least a month dealing with what Cynan very aptly describes as, “a grind of everyday issues and actions”, regardless of whether I’m in my cubicle in North America or under flickering fluorescent light somewhere in “the field.”

Heck, I’d settle for my job being only 5% like Three Cups of Tea.

I think I’ll take my three shots of vodka now.

33 Responses to “Three Shots of Vodka”

  1. Reuben 30 January, 2011 at 11:54 pm #

    So when are you going to write “Three Shots of Vodka?”

    On another note, there’s still lots of us Grad students looking forward to taking that very unsexy training program that will prepare for us for a lifetime of unsexy aid work. Anyone planning on setting one up anytime soon?

  2. Dan 31 January, 2011 at 12:53 am #

    I like your perspective on this. However, the comments on the Maria Bello article seem to all agree with her. I guess her position is a lot more sexy than yours. Keep it up

  3. MJ 31 January, 2011 at 12:53 am #

    Haven’t read the book. Don’t think I want to. But one stat from the publicity blurb did catch my eye: he’s worked 72 months in the field over 16 years = average of 4.5 months. That’s not bad going, but is hardly the image of a man just drinking tea with the local the whole time.

  4. Bryan Bushley 31 January, 2011 at 3:43 am #

    Sounds like the author here is suffering a hangover from three long drinks of cynicism from being a cog in the wheel of the international aid industry. I’ve drank my three cups of vodka and tea (working for USAID projects in Central Asia and working with NGOs and conducting dissertation research in South Asia). I think the real point of “Three Cups of Tea” is that meaningful change can happen through the acts of dedicated individuals who take big risks. To me this book was not about sitting around drinking tea or sharing a peace pipe with the locals, but about risking your reputation and your life in politically volatile and fragile environments, putting in the time and energy to understand those environments, and doing a lot with limited resources. It is also about the personal journey of one individual who came in with an interest in climbing one of the world’s highest mountains and ended up helping to educate girls in a country with an oppressive regime where this was essentially forbidden. Maybe “Three Cups” does paint a somewhat overly rosy picture, but I suspect most people would rather read about such success stories than about the daily trials and tribulations of an aid desk officer. In no way do I intend to denigrate the commitment and talents of those working in larger bilateral or multilateral development organizations like USAID or the UN, or belittle the associated political and institutional challenges and requirements (as you imply, the bulk of aid work is not very sexy), but if the big development players and their sponsoring governments spent half as much money on building schools and implementing other meaningful social initiatives as they did on building up military arsenals or holding junkets and expensive conferences for expatriate and local experts in (post-) conflict situations, that would be something to drink to!

    • J. 31 January, 2011 at 9:39 am #

      1. Mortenson did not risk his reputation. Because he had no reputation. This all started, basically as a hobby between failed attempts to scale K2. And more broadly he took no “big risk.” He was always free to drop out of the amateur aid game and get a “real job” back in Montana (or wherever) at any time…

      2. You do see the irony of your comment, right? You positively compare Mortenson as an example of how to do it right, against the “big players… building up military arsenals….”, when in fact Mortenson is balls-to-the-wall in bed with the US DOD. (e.g. ; )

      3. I did not imply that the bulk of aid work is not very sexy. I said it straight out.

      • Bryan Bushley 31 January, 2011 at 6:35 pm #

        1. Yes, he did risk his reputation (and his life), with local Taliban warlords. And yes, he did have the freedom to drop out whenever, but he didn’t, going back to get “real jobs” and raise funds only in order to finance his work in Pakistan.

        2. I would hardly call this evidence of Mortenson being “in bed” with the DOD. Nice to know that the military is taking notice of such things, though. Wish they were building more schools too…

        3. Right, you did say it outright, and I agree with you.

        P.S. I’m not necessarily a cheerleader for Mortenson, but I do think what he did has some merit, whether he deserved all the attention he got for it or not. That’s not to say that the rest of aid work doesn’t deserve more recognition and support too. I’m supremely concerned by the recent move among US congresspersons to cut USAID, and the general notion that the whole of US foreign assistance is a wasteful extravagance.

      • J. 31 January, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

        All fair enough. We would seem to agree more than we disagree.

        ~Be well.

  5. Amelia 31 January, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    Well, I’ve just got this out of the library to take a look at it so I’m interested to check out your post.
    Not sure what to make of it so far. At present the guy is sailing about Peshawar with a trusty local driver type fixing the deals. Part of me thinks, hey, he’s trying, the other part of me thinks, I wonder how much commission the local got…let’s hope that Mortenson was guided by Allah to miraculously meet a local that is not taking a huge cut.
    The part that makes me MAD is that there is a cute little family photo of the chap with his wife and child and an AK47… WHY? I’m so fed up of the ‘I’m in Pakistan so posing with lethal weapons and a baby is OK’ mentality… anyway. Point being I haven’t finished it yet. And Yes, it’s not very realistic of the other 90% of aid life, and no, it’s not a very sustainable model and yes, we do occasionally get cups of tea in the field that make it worthwhile J… it’s not always being stuck at the computer. It’s just it mostly is.

  6. Anonymous 31 January, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    I don’t want to comment on the book or criticism of it, but on the comment about amateur aid workers “frothing at the mouth.” Do you disagree with amateurs who believe there is too much waste and inefficiency in the aid industry?

  7. mikeweickert 31 January, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    Here’s another “gear grinding” articles – similar story to the one you mentioned:–failure-in-the-republic-of-ngos

    This “one-man show NGO” isn’t even a B-list actor – just seems to be dating one. Doesn’t coordinate his work with other agencies and somehow he’s an expert on the aid industry.

    Other than this, there are some excellent articles in this series on Haiti by the Toronto Star.

    Goes to show that even good journalists are susceptible to this kind of thinking.

  8. angelica 31 January, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

    LMAO. I can always count on you to make me want to quit the day job. sadly it makes me want to read the book. am curious.

    I agree with you, 88.7% anyways

  9. Joe Turner 31 January, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    Y’know, I very nearly asked what people thought of Three Cups (ooh dear, I’ve a very nasty image in my mind now of something which has nothing to do with development) last year.

    I quite liked the books, I thought ole Greg sounded like a fairly genuine kind of guy. But I also took some time to add up all of his listed accomplishments and thought to myself that it didn’t really amount to a whole lot. I wasn’t too keen on his closeness to the military either.

    We’d all like to believe the romantic idea that an individual can succeed in a tough place like Pakistan/Afghanistan. But then, the next question is exactly what ‘success’ represents and whether it is achievable by an ignorant foreigner stumbling randomly onto the ‘right thing’.

    Amelia, I vaguely recall that there was some story about the photo of the family and the AK47, but I forget the detail.

  10. Leigh 1 February, 2011 at 3:47 am #

    A resounding hell, yeah! Especially the part about blaming the culture of those I’m working with in a moment of weakness. Yeah. Embarrassingly true.

  11. Daniel O'Neil 1 February, 2011 at 5:08 am #

    I agree that Three Cups of Tea is not a typical story, but that is what makes it interesting. What makes Greg’s story special is that not only did he put the time in to go from failure to success, he also studied hard. If he had only built the first school and walked away, there would be no story. Instead, he read everything he could find and even did a study trip to visit other projects to learn from the experts. Greg did not scorn the traditional aid industry. He actively sought it out to learn from it.

    Plus, his timing was lucky. If not for the Afghan war, he never would have made the cover of Parade magazine and become a big star.

    • Katy 1 February, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

      While I enjoyed your post and its witty rhetoric, I’d have to disagree that it’s all bad. Three Cups of Tea is a powerful story conveying Mortenson’s experiences in building schools in an impoverished region of Pakistan. He didn’t claim by any means, that it was how all aid work was. He was simply presenting his story. One of risks, passion, learning along the way and determination. I took from the book, that through meaningful relationships and entrusting others thus empowering them you can see improvement in development. None of Mortenson’s schools have been destroyed because the community he worked with is highly invested in them. Giving up control and allowing others a chance to succeed and take ownership is a valuable, and broader lesson in just helping people. I’ve never been an aid worker in my life, so I couldn’t even imagine the day in and day out grind of such work, so I come from a naïve perspective. But I just don’t think that was the purpose of Mortenson’s book. He could’ve delved into woe me, this is too hard, but instead he focused on the positives and successes he had. Maybe the attractive, feel good story approach isn’t such a bad thing. It at least made people aware.

  12. lhtorres 1 February, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    I think you’d make an excellent cab driver when you’re ready to give up the spreadsheet.

  13. Think 1 February, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    I agree wholeheartedly with every post I’ve ever read on this blog. But this one compels me to comment…

    First off, regarding the “amateurs”… you consistently (and eloquently) excoriate the way aid works from an insider’s perspective. But when outsiders criticize, you seem to take the typical stance of aid workers, which is to get super defensive. I won’t bother but I’m sure I could cite your own posts in support of these amateurs’ critiques of red tape and bureaucracy. Just because they get a lot of other stuff wrong, doesn’t mean they aren’t right about these issues.

    I’d also add that you’ve posted about the need to educate the public about the real problems of aid (including bureaucracy) rather than the less relevant ones (lack of money). Aren’t these amateurs taking a step towards us to learn about the real problems, to make up for the fact that we as an industry aren’t taking the initiative on public education? And aren’t these quick-to-disillusion amateurs just less-informed versions of ourselves? Sure, they lack an MS in Development Economics, but at least 80% of us get just as disillusioned, even if it takes more than a two week tour in Haiti to get us there. I think these outsiders’ views provide a healthy magnifying glass held up to the industry that the media and donors consistently fail to do.

    Concerning Three Cups of Tea, I think it’s clear that the general public does not equate one guy sleeping in his car and raising money by typing out 500 random fundraising letters to the IOs and INGOs. More importantly, while I spent the first 2/3 of the book thinking the guy was a fool, by the time I put it down I realized he’d accomplished more in 1 year than the ICRC, UNICEF, or CARE could have accomplished with all their assessments, experts flown in, and a fleet of 4x4s over a period of 5 years. You’re right, Mortensen doesn’t reflect the world of aid at all; he’s its polar opposite: honest about his mistakes, sacrificing his own comfort for his beneficiaries, and actually getting things done.

  14. Hendo 1 February, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    Love the analysis. This kind of romanticising about aid gets me too.

    I said this before in different words but… awesome blog!

  15. J. 2 February, 2011 at 3:42 am #


    Reuben – sign up for @alanna_shaikh’s newsletter. She answers this question about training programs.

    Dan – thanks

    MJ – interesting. You’re the only one I know who’s done the math on this…

    Amelia – curious for your thoughts when you finish the book.

    Anonymous – actually the amateurs agree with ME on this point. I (along with a whole host of professional practitioners) have been decrying the waste and inefficiency of the aid industry for some time.

    Mike – nice.

    Angelica – no, don’t quit your day job🙂

    Joe – “But then, the next question is exactly what ‘success’ represents and whether it is achievable by an ignorant foreigner stumbling randomly onto the ‘right thing’.” — precisely.

    Daniel, Katy, Think – Some interesting thoughts. Thank you. Look, my point is not to diss Greg Mortenson, the man or somehow argue that what he did was “bad.” I guess the point – beyond the obvious whinging about the reality of aid work – is that getting right out of luck is not a viable strategy that should be emulated. Yet that IS one of the messages coming through, whether Mortenson intended it or not. The (undeniable) fact that some good did get accomplished via this approach is still not reason to embrace it. We have to be smarter than that.

    Hendo – thank you

  16. Ian 4 February, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    The longer I do this work, the fewer vanity books about it I can bear read and the more vodka I need to drink. Once again, your post is insightful and to the point. Keep it up.

  17. Agent Cooper 9 February, 2011 at 1:57 am #

    And this is exactly why blog became a glorified travelpod update instead of one about development work as I originally intended. Log frames are so unsexy.

    • Sanjuana Gabriela Marquez Galvan 19 April, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

      And with the revelations about the book coming out…

  18. angelica 1 May, 2011 at 2:44 am #

    guess time prove you right on this one…

  19. Luca Pec 11 January, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    Haven’t read the book so I have no comment in that regards – but I did come back here a dozen times in the last year or so. And here I am again today, with a donor report waiting to be reviewed by COB (indeed.. COB for them perhaps). I just find your version of the story quite brilliant and not particularly cynic. I think a dose of reality is what keeps ourselves in love with our work. In a way, admitting and accepting that 90% (give or take) of our work is computer-bitching is a first step. The point is, should we let the public know this or should we just maintain the romantic aid worker image?
    What to say, I just wish people wouldn’t comment “wow, nice place, you’re so lucky” when I go work somewhere. Just get the fuck out and see for yourself. Ahh, just ranting. I thought I owed you a comment, after leeching for a year on your post. Totally unsexy setting today, let me get back to the report. Write a book, I’ll read it, and I won’t be the only one.
    Cheers from a scorching hot Padang – no vodka here. Not officially at least.

    • J. 12 January, 2012 at 11:44 am #

      Luca – love your comment. Thanks for reading. (I found vodka – or at least an approximation of it – last time I was in Padang… keep looking🙂 )


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