22 April 2011 ~ 2 Comments

The Mortenson Situation: Reminding us not to hero-worship in the social sector

When I first read Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, I loved it. It was 2007 or 2008, I had just spent a few years beginning our work at PEPY, an organization which had started with our own school construction story in 2005. The story resonated with me. I loved that he was talking about building schools in a place where we had recently only heard about building wars. I was onboard.

Over the past few years though, I have looked back on my own actions when starting PEPY, and realized that we made a big assumption in our work: that school buildings equated to improving education. You’ve heard us say this before at PEPY, but here it is again: We learned that schools don’t teach kids. People do. (And from this recent Mortenson fallout, I’m glad to read that other people feel this way too! “Why Three Cups of Tea Are Not Enough” – TIME Magazine)

We began shifting our focus away from building structures and towards building human capacity. We realized that we’d rather see kids studying under a tree with a great teacher than sitting in a beautiful empty building. Now, if we could have BOTH, that would be fabulous, but focusing on the human aspect of education was where we realized the dearth of effort lay.

As we began to focus on people, I became more judgmental of organizations selling “things” as the educational solutions to donors. Donors, who had grown accustomed to being able to donate a set of books, a uniform, a bike, or a school with their name on it were asking us how they could do the same with PEPY, and I realized that our first few years of selling donors the perceived ability to make changes in human’s attitudes and actions through giving them things was flawed. We were fighting a losing battle by focusing on the wrong investments.

This realization made me question Greg Mortenson’s school building work: although schools were definitely better than guns, weren’t teachers better than schools? In other words, I realized that I admired many things about Greg Mortenson’s work with the organization he co-founded, Central Asia Institute (CAI), but that revering him as infallible hero would not leave room for a view that his work, like all work, could always be improved. I began to realize that some criticism, both from ourselves and from the outside, is always needed to continue to strive towards higher goals.

I was just as shocked as anyone to hear the news of the 60 Minutes report this week about unethical behavior from Greg Mortenson and the CAI team. I had a lot of reactions: I was sad that so many people’s hearts were broken, glad that I had never donated to CAI when I had considered it in the past, angry that so much money has perhaps slipped through the cracks when it too could have been used to further education, and worried about what the impact of this news might mean.

My first reaction though, like so many others, was “If you can’t trust him, who CAN you trust?” And this is when I realized I too had bought too much into the hero worshiping of an NGO rockstar. I had only read the book that he himself had written about his work, yet I somehow believed I had received the full picture of his story. If Pol Pot had written an auto-biography after the Khmer Rouge, I wouldn’t read it and assume it was the only side of the story I should read, but when a person is doing “good” work, or “aid” work, they somehow become beyond question in our mind.

Because someone is “doing good” we assume everything about them is good, and visa versa. I have met a few people over the years who said they liked Pol Pot. One woman told me stories of having lived in the area where he was from and how he was good to them, how he took care of people, and how she had respect for him. When I hear these things my mind immediately refutes them as exaggerations or untruths. How could someone I have categorized in my mind as so “evil” do anything good? “And who cares if he did do some good things, he is still EVIL,” I would think to myself.

Once we have decided if someone is “good” or “bad”, rather than just “medium” and therefore capable of both extremes, it is hard for us to change our opinions.  I have heard many people react to the news about Greg Mortenson with opinions like “but all of the good he is doing still outweighs the bad” and “it must be an exaggeration as there is no way these allegations are all true.” These defensive views were my natural instincts too. Why? Because so many of us had put him in our “hero” category. Because we had mentally stood beside him and checked his name on our ballot for the “good person” poll. And because if we find out that WE were wrong, that he is not 100% good, that he is capable of anything bad and therefore no longer infallible, we don’t want to believe we have made a wrong vote. I believe that part of this reaction is in our own self interest – not wanting to be wrong and not wanting to use the effort it takes to make a mental shift of our own perceived realities. If we had miscategorized one person…. what about the rest? “If we can’t trust him, who CAN we trust?”

The effect of a large collection of people having to make this mental shift can have some far-reaching results. Being disappointed by someone makes it harder to feel as confident in our hero worshiping of others we might have viewed as thoroughly altruistic. I am of two minds about this news: The majority of my initial reaction is worry about the fallout the news about Greg’s fallibility will have on the NGO sector as a whole. Another part of me is glad that we are having to receive this type of news about an NGO “hero” and that we are all forced to go through the arduous task of mental resifting which inevitably leaves us feeling more vulnerable in the future. My fear is that the majority of that vulnerability will translate into inaction: people wanting to “help” when they come across an injustice they see, a goal they have for our world, or a problem they want to see fixed but feeling stuck and unable to take action for fear of being “tricked” again by someone selling a solution they might later find out is flawed. My hope though is that some of this vulnerability will translate into action for self-improvement on the part of donors.

Some people get mugged and then go out into the world with more fear. Others sign up for a self-defense class and perhaps emerge more confident than before. Let’s hope there’s more of the later.

By donor action, my hopes are that this news will result in:

  • people taking the time to educate themselves more about the issues they are looking to effect change in and the best practices in those areas
  • people becoming less likely to donate simply based on the hero story with less money going into projects whose impacts were overlooked due to more focus on the novel than on the reality of the NGO work
  • donors asking more of the NGOs they support, not in terms of more heartbreaking books or more GPS coordinates of the things they give away, but rather more transparency and follow up on the impact of their donations
  • board members asking more questions, pushing for audits, and requiring financial transparency from their teams
  • and most importantly, more people realizing that NO ONE is a hero all the time (except maybe Mother Theresa…. Oh wait! Woops, hero-worshipping again – she is human!)  and therefore, that each of us are also capable of creating (perhaps obliged to create?) extreme good.

Perhaps it is good to continually remind ourselves that we are all human. By remembering that even Pol Pot was capable of good acts and that a man who helped build schools was capable of using donated funds for chartered flights to book signings for personal gain reminds us that we too are capable of both extremes. Perhaps this is the most difficult part of swallowing this reality. If Greg Mortenson isn’t some kind of “natural born altruist”, if he isn’t innately “good” at his core, if he is flawed like the rest of us and just as capable of self-interested pursuits, then it means he is human, just like us. And it therefore means that he was capable of that selfishness the whole time, yet he choose good very often (and it seems he choose poorly often as well). And if he is capable of that and not a “hero”, therefore, so are we.

He’s just a guy – and he could, and SHOULD, strive to be better. We too should strive to be better. We should strive to ask better questions and not hero worship someone so much that we allow them to go 14 years with only 1 audit. We should give our money to places we research and then follow up on our impact. We should strive to close the feedback loop and know where our money goes. And most of all, most shocking, and most hard to imagine: we should realize that there aren’t “good” and “bad” people. We are ALL capable of choosing heroic, challenging, phenomenal, life-affirming acts EVERY day. Those who choose to act heroically, those who were in our hero vault, were not wired differently than us after all – they are human too. So, you too can be, and are, a Greg Mortenson – capable of all aspects of the work he has done, both the good and the bad.

Choose to do with that what you like. I hope we all choose to dig deeper, aim higher, and strive for our most altruistic self from this news. I hope that each of us, including Greg, continues to strive daily for self-improvement to create our own TRUE hero story and then live out the results with integrity, transparency, and the constant quest for the good we are capable of ourselves.

  • Claire Mandarin

    Thanks Daniela. I also hope that audiences can reassess their values in a positive way, rather than just being disillusioned. There is a passage in the Krakauer book that has a similar message to what you say here:nn”During the past several months, as I came to grasp thenmagnitude of Mortensonu2019s deceit, I felt ashamed at beingnso easily conned. How could those of us who enabled hisnfraudu2014and we are legionu2014have been so gullible? Ted Callahannattributes the uncritical acceptance of Mortenson and hisnshtick to the seemingly endless war raging in Central Asia.nu201cThe way Iu2019ve always understood Greg,u201d Callahan reflects, u201cisnthat heu2019s a symptom of Afghanistan. Things are so bad thatneverybodyu2019s desperate for even one good-news story. AndnGreg is it. Everything else might be completely fucked upnover there, but hereu2019s a guy whou2019s persuaded the world thatnheu2019s making a difference and doing things right.u201d Mortensonu2019sntale u201cfunctioned as a palliative,u201d Callahan suggests. It soothednthe national conscience. Greg may have used smoke and mirrorsnto generate the hope he offered, but the illusion madenpeople feel good about themselves, so nobody was in a hurrynto look behind the curtain. Although it doesnu2019t excuse hisndishonesty, Mortenson was merely selling what the public wasneager to buy.”

  • Wonton

    Very interesting thoughts.nnMy initial reaction was doubt, I’m not used to seeing American TV-journalism and found the whole thing laid on a bit too… strong. But the facts seemed irrefutable and I was prepared to take it at face-value. I was more struck immediately I think by Jon Krakauer – a writer I respect – who seemed to be fuming. I found it hard to reconcile his obvious raw emotion with the fact that he’s presumably known this for some time, considering he’s written a book on it. And also rather odd that if he’s upset about the thousands just like him who’ve been conned, why he didn’t make this public straightaway, instead timing his book release to fit in nicely with the news coverage surrounding the 60 minutes programme.nnMy reactions to Mortenson are more blurred. I remember the book being passed around the PEPY office in 2008 and being really taken away by the whole action-adventure-as-philanthropy thing. Krakauer himself noted that Mortenson is responsible for massively popularising the need for girls education around the world, not just in Afghanistan but elsewhere. His own reaction that the furore over the factual aspects of his book and his accounts will do nothing to aid this is valid. nIt seems likely (without having read Krakauer’s account) that he grew frustrated at the pathetic reactions he was getting trying to make an impact and when he started embellishing the truth and getting away with it he contined. A shame for him maybe but it would be terrible if the ideas and work he put in motion were abandoned.nA solid reminder to keep things in perspective; people, their goals, and their impacts. And another reason to support the type of organisations who are transparent and open: to criticism, advice and input from locals, peers and specialists alike.n