The revelation by some quarters that Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea was based on semi-fiction, rather than fact, has sent shock waves among Pakistanis, particularly its elite. The elite, because the book hasn’t exactly been the most accessible to the actual subjects that it portrays, i.e. the impoverished families and girls of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Despite accusations that 41% of donations collected by Mortensen and his Central Asian Institute (CAI), have not gone to aid the education of young girls, many in Pakistan still support the author. Their argument is simple. So what if he lied about some things? At least he has helped those in need, which most Pakistanis can hardly admit to themselves. Or, as Mortenson’s avid supporter journalist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times said in an opinion piece on April 20, “Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will”.
It is true that one cannot out rightly deny Mortenson’s contribution to girls’ education in the remote northern areas of Pakistan and regions of war-torn Afghanistan. Many of the stones he has converted into schools, do exist and educate young girls where Pakistan’s own government has not been able to do so. In a country where officially at least, only 45% of females are literate and girls’ schools are regularly targeted by militants, Pakistan’s record in education, especially girls education, has been miserable for decades. So much so, that in a desperate attempt to prop up its weak image, a state of “education emergency” was recently declared, thanks to yet another glossy report commissioned by a non-governmental Education Task Force.
This sudden interest in education and the controversy surrounding Mortenson raises several issues, ironically none of which are actually related to girls’ education. Instead, they are indicative of an insecure state of mind that Pakistanis are perpetually in about who they are.
Pakistan has regularly been caught out for misrepresenting facts and embezzling resources meant for others. But we have always been quick to our own defense, citing “weak leadership” or “a lack of accountability”. An easy way of saying, we are at the mercy of others.
There have been several education programmes such as the Education Sector Reforms and debt swaps that have spent millions, perhaps billions of dollars, on building schools, increasing enrollment, developing curriculum and training teachers - the end result of which have been an even weaker education system. Rarely, have these failures been brought to task by those who have been quick to jump to Mortenson’s defense.
At the same time, there are several local philanthropic initiatives in Pakistan that have been perhaps even more successful than Mortenson’s personal attempts.
Herein lies the problem. Does “doing good work” mean that doing a bit of bad shouldn’t really be an issue? Does more of one override the other? Granted that Mortenson is still innocent until proven otherwise, but the issue here is not just whether he misused funds or made up stories to sell his book.
So when the revelations were made public, this controversy was yet another nail in the coffin for a country that has and continues to be burned for its malpractices and used by others for a “greater good”, i.e. ridding the world of terrorists.
Reactions to the controversy have also shown how we, as a nation, love to be validated by foreigners rather than by ourselves. Pakistan and Afghanistan needed a Greg Mortenson to tell us through Three Cups of Tea, that we were essentially good people who somehow didn’t have the resources to bring about good. And so for us, he is still a hero, because he did what we couldn’t.
But we still don’t ask why we couldn’t, which is perhaps the biggest disappointment of this saga.
Mortenson’s supporters, including Kristof, are also ignoring the fact that philanthropy is not just about being selfless, it's about sticking to being selfless all the way. It's about what money can do to a person or what a person can do with it. Putting Mortenson or anyone (rival accuser Jon Krackauer perhaps?) on a pedestal, does not exonerate them from being accountable either. Otherwise, what’s the point of constantly crying for accountability and transparency?
But we still refuse to openly question, authenticate, instead challenging only selected discrepancies in our society, letting ourselves be exploited by others.
It is true that the matter has yet to be investigated and can turn out to be completely false itself. But Mortensen’s supporters in Pakistan have already declared him innocent without even waiting for a verdict.
HUMNEWS contributor Themrise Khan is a freelance social development consultant based in Karachi who occasionally dares to venture into the Pakistani media.