No Kidding

22 Apr

The list of articles and blog posts related to Three Cups of Tea-gate, as of this writing, is at 110 and counting. I don’t suspect there’s much original content I can add to this conversation.

Actually, you know what?  There was not much original content to add to this conversation before it even got started. Outside of the details of how the Central Asia Institute (CAI) proved itself incompetent to the mission that it set out for itself, in my opinion there is really nothing new here. Certainly nothing really surprising, and certainly nothing that hasn’t already been said many, many, many times before.

Thanks to all those awesomely intuitive peeps in the mass media, what, exactly, are we learning from all of this? Well…

It turns out that doing long-term programming, and doing it properly is hard. It takes commitment. It costs a lot of money. Who would have thought? No Kidding.

Going someplace where there are a lot of brown people and having an epiphany about how simple the needs of the poor are is easy. Doing something about it takes a lot of knowledge and skill and experience. No Kidding.

… And even with a lot of knowledge, skill and experience, there are no guarantees of success. Sometimes programs fail. Even ones that are well-planned, resourced and executed. Sometimes they fizzle or deliver marginal results. No Kidding.

Greg Mortenson is a big, lumbering, completely disorganized (according to a “friend”) oaf who thought this was all nice and easy, but who – as it turns out – was just plain wrong.  No Kidding.

A famous journalist who thought he understood aid better than he does (I know, almost never happens, right?), whose own career has been made by inaccurately portraying the issues (“it’s simple, really”) in the name of “raising awareness”, and who got all misty over Three Cups of Tea… is now heartbroken and covering his own ass. No Kidding.

[But let’s not forget that even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”

Err… well.. 1) Impossible to prove; 2) not an excuse for fraud.]

Oh, wow. It’s all more complicated than we thought. Very few programs, strategies, ideas, or contexts are cut-and-dried. No Kidding.

The happy propaganda (some bloggers insist on calling this “the narrative”) that aid providers of all sizes and colors feed to their constituents bears somewhere between zero and very little resemblance to what they really do and what the issues really are. No Kidding.

Aid workers – even the really really altruistic ones – are not above Botox-ing their own “narratives” for the sake of a good story. No Kidding.

Maybe we shouldn’t put eccentric visionaries in charge of practical things. Like designing and running programs in other countries? No Kidding.

D.I.Y. aid based on larger-than-life, cults-of-personality is almost always bound for total lameness. No Kidding.

OMG. They read books and have the internet in Pakistan. No Kidding.

[Insert your own snarky, cynical wrap-up paragraph here…]

15 Responses to “No Kidding”

  1. Laura 22 April, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    I think a lot of these points are really good and to the point. Many of the articles coming out are focused largely on that there were failures, and some lies told and that a face man really isn’t all he says he is. But don’t we really already know this? Some people got so wrapped up in this “great thing” that they forgot what they already know. People embellish stories, face men are not usually all they say they are, and everything has failures. I think people should be looking less at Greg Mortenson’s book and more at the Central Asia Institute. The CAI is an organization that stands for doing good. It says it takes millions of dollars and puts it into helping education and building schools. This is an organization that has taken people’s money and spent it where it says it wouldn’t. How did this organization get by with only one evaluation in fourteen years? This is what really needs to be addressed. We need to focus on how this happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s an organization that was able to fool people into receiving more money. There is no doubt that the CAI has done good. But everyone knows failures happen, so why are they hidden? Their foolish reporting to make themselves look better may now take down any future good that they could have accomplished. Non-profit organizations should not be able to make it this far with no transparency in to what is actually going on. We need to make transparency of these organizations a priority in dealing with them.

  2. R Berg 23 April, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    Name ONE aid organization that is perfect… just ONE.

    • J. 23 April, 2011 at 9:35 am #

      There isn’t one.

      • R Berg 23 April, 2011 at 9:52 am #

        My point, exactly.

      • J. 23 April, 2011 at 10:09 am #

        Um… Well, that would be a half-baked point, then.

        We should let Mortenson off the hook because he meant well and no one is perfect? Or we should be trying to improve the practice of foreign aid, including – oh, I dunno – actually telling the truth and doing what we say we will do/have done with people’s money?

        Sounds to me like you don’t actually know what you think on this issue…

  3. R Berg 23 April, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    Actually I do. I don’t think Mortenson is the ‘criminal’ he is being made out to be. I believe he is honestly trying to help the children in Afghanistan and Pakistan get an education. I haven’t read the 110 articles on this issue, but I’ve read enough to believe that someone may have his nose out of joint. Did Mortenson make mistakes? Maybe. But I don’t sense that he was being deceptive. Everyone is always so quick to condemn; and journalism is always looking for a sensational story.

  4. Marc 24 April, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    Without either transparency or regular audits, it appears that the successes touted by aid agencies might suffer from a wee exaggeration or two. No sh!t. That presidents and generals wouldn’t feel constrained by such details. No sh!t.

  5. molly 26 April, 2011 at 1:42 am #

    @r berg: innocent until proven guilty aside, there’s some not insignificant evidence to suggest that you can remove those quotation marks from around the word criminal. legally speaking, if allegations about using non-profit funds for personal use are true, well, there you go.

    but beside that, and i say this as someone who, admittedly, has always refused to read 3 cups of tea on the basis of not wanting to spend my free time indulging arrogant, self-congratulatory “whites in shining armor”, i have no patience for a project so astoundingly ill-conceived. school houses are only the easiest and, frankly, as others have pointed out, least necessary component of education promotion.

    the one sliver of credit i’ll give is awareness raising, but i still wish education in south and central asia had a smarter, more experienced, humbler spokesman or that mortenson who would actually inject some of the complexity of the issue into his marketing.

    but let’s be clear. i’m not picking on mortenson because his public persona rubs me the wrong way. i would be just as hard on ANY operation as badly run as his. true, nobody and no organization is perfect. as j says, development is complicated and the best of programs often fail or underperform. but this is profoundly not the best of programs. not even close, from the get go. and “nobody’s perfect” is NO excuse for arrogance, intellectual laziness, sloppy planning, and fraud, particularly when people’s lives, hopes, and futures are being toyed with.

    • aimemoimoins 20 May, 2011 at 7:45 am #

      I’m in the same boat. I refused to read the book for the same reasons and didn’t feel all that surprised when it turned out the story was riddled with falsifications.

      And quite frankly, every time we say “no organization is perfect” we are giving them more and more leeway for false reporting and making the blatant planning and implementation mistakes you mention.

      The aid and philanthropy world would have learned and benefitted a lot more from learning about CAI and Mortneson’s failures and what led to them.

      Now that’s a book I would read.

  6. Amelia 26 April, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    I was thinking (rather bitchily) American media (and erm, my own dear country) build up a ‘hero’ and then shred him when he turns out to not be a hero… (sounding like a certain well known American President who sort of couldn’t?) No Sh!t baby! That’s what sells papers. Well let’s get back to the business of doing this stuff the hard way…


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