No one can take from Greg Mortenson that he worldwide created increased understanding about the importance of education in the developing countries, and indeed in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is not a regular A-4 guy, but an innovative and creative crusader in cultural understanding and education for girls and boys. His book titled Three cups of Tea became a bestseller, especially in America. His second book, Stones into Schools, has also done well. They are books mainly about the northern areas of Pakistan. They are about girls’ and boys’ education. They are about the importance of aid workers not being arrogant and aloof, as diplomats, the UN staff and other “Besserwissers” can be. They are books about people at the grassroots and about Greg himself, a quite ordinary man, with a big heart, trying to do what is decent to do, notably help fellow human beings in need to do better in this world.
I believe people must have become envious of Greg, a modest man from a missionary family. His parents served at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the continent’s highest, snow-capped mountain. They established one of Tanzania’s most prestigious hospitals, KCMC, in Moshi. I have seen it, and it is impressive even after some recent lack of maintenance. It is one of the few good hospitals for ordinary people in the region. Greg has taken with him to Pakistan what he learned as a child in Tanzania. He learned to be respectful to everyone and work in cooperation with the local people. After all, most of the work is always done by the locals themselves, not by aid workers.
Young Greg came back to America only as a teenager. He completed his secondary school there and went on to become a nurse and laboratory technician. He lost his father due to cancer not long after the family returned to the US. He got a job and he began wondering what he could do in this world. He worked part-time and could not afford an apartment so he slept in his car for some time, but managed to keep afloat. If it had not been for his wife-to-be, he might not have gotten back on track. But he - they - sorted out the existential and daily life issues, and the development aid work was finally founded and took off. I am deeply impressed - and I am a long time aid worker myself, in education and refugee work. But I can only show a tiny fraction of my work as compared to Greg’s huge achievements.
Why then are Americans suspicious, and some Pakistanis, too?
True, some of the facts in his books are not entirely accurate and may sometimes be exaggerated, written by him or his ghost writer. Some of the about 150 schools he has helped establish may not be running like clockwork. So what? Have you not listened to Ambassadors’ and UN heads’ glossy and far from accurate stories about aid projects? And how many development aid projects, costing ten-folds of the amount of Greg’s projects, have you seen running 10 or 20 years on? If 50 of the schools are not running, to have helped establish 100 schools in remote and conservative areas of Pakistan, and some in Afghanistan, is also not bad. Don’t you agree? How many schools have you and I established? None, probably!
The same goes for many, if not all of Greg’s critiques: they have done nothing themselves, perhaps not even read the books, but they feel they have the right to criticise someone who tried, yes, who can also show results. Maybe, his work was not perfect. But at the same time, much of what he did was better than any desktop aid worker could have ever planned and implemented. Maybe he challenged them, and maybe that is also part of the reason for the criticism.
All this is interesting in a broader sense. There are so many aid workers, well, office workers, diplomats, UN staff, NGO heads, and others, who somehow feel they have the right to speak about innovative and untraditional aid workers like Greg Mortenson. All the accountants and bookkeepers may not quite like him. One of the reasons is that he managed to get the results that they never got, in spite of all the money they spent on “planning, monitoring and evaluation.” I recently checked what an average donor country’s aid diplomat costs. You would not believe it! He or she costs in the range of Rs 100,000 per working day. What they do, in spite of being busy and bossy, is often difficult to understand. If Greg had that kind of money for a month or two, he would probably be able to build another school, add a library to the existing facilities, build separate latrines for the girls, a library and an office unit, and so on, and keep supplying books and stationery to schools in remote and mountainous areas. He would work with the elders, the young fathers and mothers, who want their girls and boys to go to school and have a less strenuous and uncertain life than they have had in the harsh climate near the Himalayan mountain peaks.
In aid projects, we do wish that we could have all report details in meticulous order. Alas, few of us are perfect, and if all the details are seemingly right, we probably miss out on innovation and creativity. There are few people like Greg. Most of us are A-4 guys and girls, who don’t really do the unexpected and impossible. We don’t dare take risks. We take the broad highway, not the twisted footpath. Greg is not an A-4 guy. Thank God, such people still exist!
Some decades ago, the story goes that a Norwegian-born Bishop in Pakistan had received some financial support from the Norwegian government for social work. He never submitted any financial or other report, so the Norwegians wrote a letter to request it. The Bishop felt a bit insulted and accordingly his reply was short: the money has been received and made good use of. Regards, Bishop Rudvin.
I don’t know if the story is true, and if the good reverend got away with it. However, the story depicts a different way of working, in a different time. Perhaps, we have become too petty and technological today? After all, development, which always includes human beings, can never become a technology. The bureaucrats seem to have begun to realise this in recent years, when they are less keen on using the Logical Framework Analysis (LFA) - a poplar planning and monitoring tool for project managers in their offices.
True, we need plans, control, accounts, and so on. We need accountability and check how humanitarian aid organisations collect and spend their money. We need to know that it is a clean business meant to reach those people they say they want to help. That also goes for the bilateral and multilateral donors, who are so good in covering their tracks that we rarely discover their flaws in their convincing reports. We also need to give room for people, who sometimes are larger than life, but reach higher and wider than any of the regular bookkeepers. I believe the UN agencies, the World Bank and all the fat cats in the development aid industry would do much better work, if they focused less on bookkeeping and more on being development evangelists and preachers. And then, I hope that more of the aid money and the control can be left to the recipients themselves. They are in the end the only ones who know if help has reached.
If we ask the great people in Korphe and other areas in the northern outposts of Pakistan - where Greg has help build schools - whether they think the assistance has helped, I am certain they would stand behind him in thankfulness. When one of Norwegian aid’s unsuccessful fisheries projects in a large lake in the semi-desert area of Turkana, Kenya, flopped, the Norwegian government aid workers were ridiculed. I was an aid worker in East Africa myself that time. But nobody could take from us that we had tried to do the right thing; that is, all we can do. The project was not a success, but when we in a research project 20 years later asked the poor people what they thought about the aid, every person was positive: it was the only time somebody had bothered to help them, they said. I would give Greg Mortenson, and other unique people like him my wholehearted support. They are needed to get results and to teach the bookkeepers in us all that it is the result that counts, and the goodwill and the optimism created by the good men and women who try their best - in God’s name, but only God is without fault.
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.