One of the central themes that’s emerged in the fury over Greg Mortenson and the exaggerated, and perhaps blatantly false, claims he made in his wildly popular book Three Cups of Tea (and the related charges that he may have misused some of the millions that came pouring into his foundation, the Central Asia Institute) is how this reveals ‘international development’ to be no place for amateurs or outsiders.
I think some people might be willing to give Mortensen the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was taking more than a few liberties with the truth. Perhaps his organization was poorly run even to the point of gross mismanagement and malfeasance. Still, it remains that for many the big lesson is that this is another chapter in how outsiders need to know that ‘real’ development is slow, hard, and difficult, and amateurs and populists and celebrities ought to stop deluding the rest of us into thinking that there’s a magic solution or quick fix. For instance, in a recent article for Foreign Policy, Alanna Shaikh, the seasoned development expert and well-known development blogger, writes:
While much of the uproar has been over the lies Mortenson peddled, I can’t help wondering: Why, exactly, did we ever think that Mortenson’s model for education, exemplified in his Central Asia Institute (CAI), was going to work? Its focus was on building schools — and that’s it. Not a thought was spared for education quality, access, or sustainability. But building schools has never been the answer to improving education. If it were, then the millions of dollars poured into international education over the last half-century would have already solved Afghanistan’s — and the rest of the world’s — education deficit by now.
These are reasonable questions. I don’t want to defend Mortensen. I think the evidence against him looks pretty damning, and it’s a fair question whether his reputation – or his institute – will survive this attack. Let the chips fall where they may.
Still, I think the criticisms that have been lodged against him – aside from a certain kind of delight that comes from seeing the popular and mighty fall – suffer from a blindspot. As Shaikh’s observation makes clear, the ‘foreign aid industry’ itself has been guilty of some of the same problems that have been seen with respect to Mortenson’s approach to education. Twenty years ago the international community committed itself to a world declaration on ‘Education for All,’ but it was quickly criticized as all rhetoric, no action. When, in 2000, ‘universal primary school completion’ was reaffirmed as a part of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, it was criticized for being just about expanding school enrollment, not improving educational quality – ‘butts in benches’ is how one development expert characterized the approach to me. The World Bank recently announced its new ‘Education 2020 Strategy’ that takes up ‘learning’ as its centerpiece, as if this were a major insight – even though experts have been saying all along that expanding education without focusing on quality and learning wouldn’t amount to much. Mortenson’s schools, in other words, aren’t the only ones that are failing due to an unsustainable approach to development. It’s also true of education projects that are designed and implemented by more ‘legitimate,’ mainstream development organizations. For these organizations, projects typically focus on and finance activities with 3- to 5-year outcomes, but they too have been criticized for not doing much to ensure longer-term sustainability, follow-up, or carry through – especially once the funding dries up and attention turns elsewhere.
There’s no disagreement that development is slow and hard, but mainstream development organizations – much less lone entrepreneurs and celebrities like Mortenson – haven’t been immune to a desire for showy successes and quick fixes, some vastly more costly and wasteful than anything coming out of Mortenson’s organization. The defense that some of Mortenson’s supporters have offered – his intentions were good, even if the management needs to be tightened – isn’t acceptable, but how different is it from the kind of self-justification that development organizations put forward to legitimize their own activities. ‘We’re emphasizing the right things,’ they maintain, ‘even if we need more transparency, coordination, and accountability.’ There’s no doubt that mainstream organizations are much more accountable than Mortenson’s Central Asian Institute, which seems to have been remarkably lacking in reasonable supervision even for a stand-alone charity. But this kind of ‘procedural’ defense or argument that professionals sometimes offer against outsiders and amateurs seem to me rather unsatisfactory.
What seems to be the major difference is that when it comes to individual entrepreneurs we’re able to make direct attributions of praise and blame, whereas with the professional organizations it’s much more difficult to assign responsibility for specific failures, which instead recede behind the “complexity’ of development and the systemic, organizational ‘deficiencies’ or ‘inefficiencies’ of the field itself. Another way of thinking about this whole kerfuffle, I think, is that in certain fields like development the gatekeeping for amateurs and outsiders tends to be retrospective rather than prospective. You don’t have to jump formidable professional, educational, or training hurdles to ‘enter’ the field – as long as you have drive, motivation, and a certain talent for fundraising and self-promotion, you too can ‘make a difference’ in the lives of others. But the complexities of doing development are likely to drive you out before very long, and consequential missteps such as the ones committed by Mortenson may not be survivable. It’s rarely an issue that mainstream organizations have to worry about, although the recent catastrophe suffered by the Academy for Educational Development may give one pause for thought.