On April 17, the CBS investigative programme “60 minutes” revealed shocking details of alleged misconduct by Greg Mortenson, the renowned American humanitarian who builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan through his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), and who co-authored the top-selling book Three Cups of Tea, which chronicles his life and work. The program highlighted how Mortenson fabricated key stories regarding his personal journeys in Pakistan, and how his charity has been involved in serious financial malpractice. While these are critical concerns that demand further inquiry, the real scandal is far more insidious and goes beyond Mortenson.
Three Cups of Tea is not merely about Mortenson’s humanitarianism. It is the quintessential text through which Americans are seeing one of the longest wars in US history. Primarily set in Baltistan and northern Pakistan, the text is designed to nourish western stereotypes and white knight fantasies — the region is a wild frontier filled with extremist madrassas and the Taliban, where people are waiting to be claimed and tamed by Mortenson’s schools. Because an abstract template of poverty and danger is applied to diverse locations, one gets a sense that there are mobile, multiple enemies all around in Muslim places that are self-evidently poor and ignorant, and thus potentially violent and dangerous. In a narrative that is not only distorted but plain simple dishonest, the largely peaceful, Shia-dominated region of northern Pakistan is ridiculously depicted as the birthplace of the Taliban, and the large presence of government, private and community schools in the region is completely eclipsed to create a spectre of rural ignorance. Terrorism is then conveniently reduced to this manufactured Muslim ignorance, instead of being connected to the violence of US foreign policy. By erasing the devastating consequences of US interventionism and sensationalising American humanitarian work in the war zone, Three Cups of Tea provides a palatable and therapeutic account of the war on terror for the American public conscience.
More disturbingly, Mortenson has become deeply entrenched in the counter-insurgency projects of the US military, with some of his girls’ schools now being inaugurated by the military top command. This has helped to reinvent the image of the US military as a harbinger of humanitarian development. While Mortenson’s emphasis on books appears to be an alternative to bombs, it actually complements them by helping to justify and sugar-coat the war at home. Journalists like Thomas Friedman and Christiane Amanpour dwell on the Mortenson-military partnership as if the war has really changed and its key characteristic is girls’ education, not occupation. Let’s not forget: The discourse of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ has a long colonial history. Imperial power as the beacon of women’s empowerment and civilisation was precisely the rationale used by British and French colonisers in Egypt, India and Algeria amongst other places for explaining their occupations.
It is beyond doubt, of course, that girls need education and that CAI-created schools have been tremendously beneficial for local communities. Mortenson’s story embodies a moving account of a foreigner’s dedicated service to rural Pakistanis and has inspired many to undertake their own charitable endeavours. Yet, humanitarianism is not a license for disingenuous representation and action, and must be assessed within the larger politics that it reflects and perpetuates. What we need is an anti-colonial humanitarianism — one that acknowledges suffering as well as the relational histories that have produced it. Dr Paul Farmer’s Mountains beyond Mountains provides a fine example in this regard.
It is also striking to observe the responses to the CBS investigation. Many are gravely disappointed, of course, as Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian idol both in the US and in Pakistan. Several have been hesitant to criticise him, saying that “heroes are not saints and can make mistakes” and “mismanagement is there in all non-profits, it is ok if some CAI schools do not exist on the ground”. While my argument is beyond Mortenson’s financial practices and ghost schools either way, it is nevertheless interesting to note that such a lenient, sympathetic response would have been unimaginable if the humanitarian in question was a non-westerner. CBS has provided an initial opening. Investigations of accountability must now be made with regard to CAI’s work.
The saviour rhetoric of humanitarianism constitutes a powerful force that often claims unquestionable moral certainty and superiority, and therein lies its danger. All critiques of Greg Mortenson’s work can simply be silenced by saying, ‘he has made schools, you have not’. Hence, the bottom line for many people is that since Mortenson is doing good and making a difference in the lives of poor people, it does not really matter if there are errors in how he conducts himself because the targets of his action are basically happy to have schools. That is tantamount to saying that poor people do not have feelings or a right to due process and dignity. Ghulam Parvi, a key character in Three Cups of Tea and CAI operations director in Pakistan for many years, resigned from CAI last year partly in response to the book’s blatantly false depiction of Baltistan as Taliban-central. Several of my friends from the region who are deeply grateful for Mortenson’s services are nevertheless thoroughly disappointed that he would use his platform to spread fundamental misperceptions about their region. Others are suspicious of his work with the military. If the CBS report is indeed true, then the casualness with which the director of a Pakistani think tank is portrayed as a Taliban kidnapper in Mortenson’s writings exemplifies a form of imperialist abuse that cannot be shielded under the guise of humanitarianism.
Perhaps the lesson to draw is not about sharing tea; it’s about sincerity. It’s also about self-interrogation of American interventions abroad, humanitarian or otherwise. Finally, one hopes that Greg Mortenson recovers from his ailments soon. All the people whose lives he has helped to change will undoubtedly be praying for his good health.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2011.