Montana’s Attorney-General has found Greg Mortenson guilty of “financial mismanagement” and fined him a million dollars. Mortenson is the charismaticauthor of the international best-seller “Three Cups of Tea”and the
founder of the Central Asia Institute, an organization dedicated to building
schools in destitute villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mortenson’s fall from grace is indeed a tragic fall, destroying his reputation and seriously disillusioning donors who had contributed $60 million to enable him to carry forward the work that he had so compellingly described in his memoir. Tragically, the disillusion he has created may harm many worthy development organizations and programs.
The first school that Mortenson built in collaboration with Pakistani villagers during the 1990s was a five-room structure which cost $12,000, or $2,400 per room. This provided the project model that he now began to market across North America. It epitomized cost-effective, appropriate development on an ambitious but manageable scale that could be carried forward “school-by-school”.
Mortenson’s model was eminently practical. I know this from personal experience in another poor country, The Gambia in West Africa.
In 1988 I secured $1,000 from a Halifax Rotary Club to enable a middle school in Gunjur village to generate income to pay for instructional materials. The villagers proposed using the $1,000 to establish a“broiler chicken industry” for the local market. They ordered a few dozen“starter” chicks and organized work teams to construct a formidable chicken coop, with a thick cement floor, high cement walls, a strongly supported corrugated metal roof and durable wire mesh from wall to roof to keep out predators – hawks, rats, bush cats, pythons.
However, the project lasted but two cycles; some of the chicks matured, had offspring, grew into broilers and were sold at a good price. But most of them died. When I visited the school in 1990, the chicken coop had become a classroom, the sturdiest, coolest, most spacious –easily the best – in the school. When I reported on the transformation of the chicken coop at a Rotary luncheon in Halifax, the members laughed,“That’s great! $1,000 for a classroom! Whatever works!”
By contrast Oprah Winfrey lavished $40 million on a luxurious residential school for 450 carefully selected impoverished girls in South Africa, from which there have been, after four years, 73 graduates –girls who Oprah hopes will become leaders in a country with
a tragic history of elitism and privilege.
Oprah’s $40 million, spent differently, could have funded 20,000 sturdy classrooms in poor villages across Africa for half a million students.
How do I know this?
I know from municipal government records that in 2010 a local contractor in rural Ghana could build a decent 6-room primary school for 200 students, with an office, staff-room, store-room, latrines and toilets for less than $40,000.
Unlike Oprah, Mortenson was not building schools for villages but with them, contributing money and materials – and sometimes his own sweat – to supplement their voluntary labour. Unlike Oprah, he was not taking a select group of children away from their families and their peers and putting them
through some kind of exclusive finishing school, but working with their families
to have whole villages of children educated together. The children attended
classes with their peers and lived at home with their families. There were no
pre-selected elites among them. Leaders would emerge naturally.
That, at least, was his plan – and it was a good one, until his memoir was published, donor money poured in, and hubris overwhelmed judgment.
But Oprah’s project, however generous and well-intentioned, is a travesty of development and a symbol of profligacy and an extraordinary hubris that, unlike Mortenson’s, has gone critically unrecognized.
By contrast, Greg Mortenson was initially well-grounded, practical, close to the people, non-elitist and inspiring. We have a lot to learn from him. His approach to development was – in the beginning – exemplary.
That is why his fall from grace is deeply tragic.
Burris Devanney is a Canadian educator, development worker