Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for December 30th, 2009

On our recent trip to the US we were given a copy of Three Cups of Tea, an engaging account of  an American Greg Mortenson’s contribution to village education in Pakistan and Central Asia. My wife, Karin, has read the book and has written the following review which we are sending to friends involved in community development work. It is a topic that arouses her ire and enthusiasm in equal measure. [Warning: since it is written by her, it is a little longer than my normal blog posts!!]

Three Cups of Tea has been hugely popular in the USA. Not only was it a #1 New York Times Bestseller but, according to the Afterword of the book, it is ‘a freshman, honors, or campus-wide required reading selection in over eighty universities and hundreds of schools. It is also required reading for senior U.S. military commanders, Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training, and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan…’

The book recounts the story (with the help of journalist David Relin) of Greg Mortenson, an American male nurse with a passion for mountain climbing. Mortenson grew up in Tanzania where his missionary parents worked to improve local health and education.

The story begins with Mortenson’s failed attempt in 1993 to climb K2 in Pakistan, the second highest mountain in the world. Mortenson loses his way and almost his life. As he stumbles back toward his camp he takes another wrong turn and ends up in the poor village of Korphe where he is nursed back to health by the village chief Haji Ali. Out of gratitude to his host Mortenson promises to return to build a school for the village.

While this is a wonderful example of human solidarity and a joy to read, quickly the story changes from one of mutual giving and mutual respect to the story we have become all too familiar with: namely, the donor/helper “one-man show”! The front cover of Three Cups of Tea even proclaims that Mortenson’s story is all about “One man’s mission” and “one ordinary person” who can really “change the world”.

Sociology, psychology and pedagogy (if not plain common sense) have taught for decades that the poor and disadvantaged, no less than the rich, need to be shown respect if they are to develop (or maintain) self-esteem and to see how their lives can make a meaningful contribution to the world.

However, despite so much talk by development NGOs and “think tanks” about empowerment, participation and partnership, donors/helpers still determine what the poor need. The involvement of local people in their own development happens only when and to the extent foreign donors and helpers decide. The compassion the latter show, while genuine, too often masks feelings of superiority and lack of respect for those receive help. It is difficult not to conclude that this book, too, falls into that category.

Why do I say this? To begin with, it is Mortenson who decides what needs to be done (put up a school building in Korphe, Pakistan) and then goes about planning it singlehanded without any consultation with the beneficiaries (the folk in the village). If you have read the book you might remind me that Mortenson does, later on, listen to Haji Ali, the chief of Korphe.  The important point, though, is that Haji Ali is in a very different position in relation to Mortenson than anyone else: Haji Ali took in a sick and vulnerable Mortenson nursing him for an extended period when the latter had nothing to offer in return. Haji Ali’s hospitality came before Mortenson’s good works and is the inspiration and reason why the latter thought of the work in the first place. No other person could take the liberties Haji Ali takes in correcting him.

Let me mention three places in the story that I found particularly shocking:

The first is where the narrator states that Mortenson has “assembled an American board and a scruffy Pakistani staff” (p.190) Among these “scruffy staff” was one Ghulam Parvi who “had served as the director of…SWAB, Social Welfare Association, Baltistan. Under his leadership SWAB had managed to build two primary schools….before the funds promised by the Pakistani government dried up and he was forced to take odd accounting jobs.” (p.137) Why are such local people who helped make schools in Pakistan a reality through contributing land, work and expertise considered “scruffy” in comparison to a distant American Board?!

Secondly, despite knowing Parvi’s expertise in building schools, Mortenson accepted the position of Director of the Central Asia Institute (an American project to build village schools all over Central Asia). He also accepted an adequate salary for himself while “he offered Parvi a small salary to supplement his income as an accountant.” (p.146)

Thirdly, when Parvi is later made the director for Pakistan of Mortenson’s expanded institute  Mortenson allowed Parvi to address him with honorary titles such as Dr. and Dr. Sahib (even though he was not  a medical doctor), while continuing to follow his own ideas instead of encouraging the latter’s leadership. Listen to the following exchange:

“For a long time, I’ve been worrying about what to do when our students graduate,” [Mortenson] said. “Mr. Parvi, would you look into what it would cost to build a hostel in Skardu, so our best students would have some place to stay if we give them scholarships to continue their education?”

“I’d be delighted, Dr. Sahib,” Parvi said, smiling, freed finally to organize the project he’d been advocating for years.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Mortenson said.

“Yes, Dr. Greg, sir.”

“Yasmine would be a perfect candidate to receive one of CAI’s first scholarships. Can you let me know what her tuition would be if she went to private high school in the fall?”

Yasmine, 15, was Parvi’s daughter, a straight-A student who had obviously inherited her father’s fierce intelligence, and just as obviously inspired his fierce devotion. “Well?”

For a rare, elongated moment, Ghulam Parvi, the most eloquent man in Skardu, was struck silent, his mouth hanging open. “I don’t know what to say,” he said. (p.305)

This is not a relationship of equals. The Big White Chief is dispensing largesse to the natives. If such an unequal relationship is to be redressed, the donor has to relinquish decision-making in favour of the other, not put the latter in a position of perpetual, subservient gratitude.

Instead of admiring the Lone Ranger who “takes on the world” and “brings about change”, we should be making serious efforts to identify local people such as Ghulam Parvi who are  already busy making changes and, drawing alongside, simply support their efforts.

Richard Sennett is a world-famous sociologist who has taught at the London School of Economics and at New York University. In his book entitled Respect, he recalls his early childhood in the late 1940s growing up in Cabrini Green, a notorious post-war housing project in Chicago. Cabrini Green was an ambitious, well-intentioned attempt by social engineers and architects (none of whom actually lived on site) to combine an experiment in racial and social integration with low-cost housing.

Sennett  sums up his experience of what went wrong with Cabrini Green, repeating a truth that has been amply demonstrated all over the world:

“These projects denied people control over their own lives…they were rendered spectators to their own needs…were mere consumers of care provided for them….they experienced that peculiar lack of respect which consists of not being seen, not being accounted as full human beings…” (Respect, Penguin 2004, pp.12-13, my emphasis)

Three Cups of Tea is not easy to criticize, because Greg Mortenson is such a sacrificially committed and very likable person. Also good things done by Americans for Pakistanis and Afghans are very encouraging to witness.

Mortenson is right to participate in relief and development. He is right that we who have more than enough ought to give sacrificially and participate in making a better world. But we from the West really must be determined to do this respectfully! Will we ever learn? Will we ever be willing to give up fame and that exhilarating sense of personal achievement that comes with “taking on the world” by ourselves?



December 2009