Saturday, April 23, 2011

Accusations and Repercussions

I have to chime in on the discussion about CBS’s 60 Minutes accusations towards Greg Mortenson’s accuracy of Three Cups Of Tea and Stones Into School – of which I have only read the former.

Yes, it is heart wrenching if Mortenson made up stories about his experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yes, it is unsettling if he exaggerated how many schools he built with the money he was given, because people believed in his vision and it would definitely be wrong to use that money to promote his books.
But before we throw stones, let’s just wait until these facts are cleared and while we wait, lets look at what he did, as much as what he didn’t do.

As Nicholas Kristof puts it in his NYT Op Ed “…helping people is more difficult then it seems…”. I concur. It is very hard, and I believe no one sees it coming when inspired by a specific cause. No one goes around wondering where and whom they could help; most likely you get involved because you encounter people and causes who inspire you. At least that is my experience.

Thanks goodness I was naïve and enthusiastic enough when I met Baaskaa in 2008. He needed support and had a plan of which I thought I could help to implement it. Excited by the initial success I thought that the positive results exceed the efforts and I developed a program to help more children. It took me two years to realize the full consequences of these decisions.

I don’t regret anything; seeing the kids bloom and become independent is a reward I will cherish forever, but oh boy, it is a lot of work.

You start out as an enthusiastic humanitarian to find yourself being a director of a board (not to mention your role as treasurer, receptionist and cleaning woman), asking, begging and pleading for money to keep your program going. The constant pressure of having to perform and deliver for your cause AND your supporters is tremendous.

The success with my first group of kids allowed me to ask for support. But now I have to take on more and more kids and produce results in order to maintain the funding for the original kids, as success will be measured in quantity more than in quality. Soon you find yourself hiring staff to do the work that you loved to do, that you set out to do, while your time is spent fundraising.

And then you get a chance to write a book. But none wants to read about the hours spent with a calculator or organizing logistics. People want to read the inspirational stories, the stories with emotional value. I’d love to write a book, because I want to give my children a voice, rather then talking about them (which is why I made a film), but I wouldn’t mention the exhaustive undertaking of daily tasks either, simply because it’s boring and no one would buy the book.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to excuse Greg Mortenson, but I am afraid of the repercussions this might have for all of us who are involved in humanitarian efforts. The expectations towards good people are so much higher and the pedestal they are put on crumbles so much faster. Good people fall harder than bad people.

Not long ago I was in Afghanistan and it’s obvious that there is a lot of money and where it is spent – but the criticism is tamed because there are too many people involved to pin blame. Xe, formerly Blackwater, is still operating, making millions, with our tax money. And the list goes on and on.

The fact is Greg Mortenson has built schools and helped children to get an education. He might have built a school in a spot that rendered the school useless - people who do unprecedented projects make mistakes. While showing us those images, 60 Minutes could have also interviewed the children who are attending a functioning school every day, or the parents who couldn’t afford to send their kids to school otherwise.

Before you throw a stone, think about how big you want it to be and which direction it should fall.


  1. Lots of good stuff to ponder. Well said Martina! Thank you for all of your good work. xo Tina

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