Philanthropy reconsidered

Published: April 18, 2011
The writer is Professor of Environmental Studies and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His books include Islam and Education: Conflict and conformity in Pakistan’s madrassas (Oxford University Press, 2009)

The writer is Professor of Environmental Studies and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His books include Islam and Education: Conflict and conformity in Pakistan’s madrassas (Oxford University Press, 2009)

As a Pakistani-American, I try to follow the work of American philanthropists on the ground whenever I am back in the region. In recent years, I have tried to follow some of the work of mountaineer Greg Mortenson, whose book, Three Cups of Tea, has become a media sensation. This week, an exhaustive journalistic investigation by CBS News revealed what I had suspected for some time — that the western obsession with one man and his organisation in solving the intractable problems of Pakistan and Afghanistan was misplaced at best.

The investigative programme “60 Minutes” uncovered a range of fabricated stories in Mortenson’s books, most notably his claim to have been kidnapped by the Taliban. This revelation is also embarrassing for Pakistan’s government, who gave him a Sitara-e-Imtiaz without properly vetting all his claims.

Ironically, it was the author’s hubris for self-glorification which led to some of these charades being revealed — for example, a photograph in his second book, Stones to Schools, supposedly showing Taliban captors whom he claimed to have “befriended”, were actually tribesmen in Waziristan who had been his hosts and escorts — including a well-respected research analyst who has even authored reports for the New America Foundation.

What is most troubling about these revelations is how they show a dangerous conflation of pomp and circumstance with philanthropy. Often, the easiest way to secure funds from the public is through theatrical melodrama rather than simple, honest hard work. There is tremendous insularity within the circuits of philanthropy where the initial success of a book or a film can propel an individual to fame, crowding out far stronger but silent players. The networks of the elite philanthropic glitterati, from Bill Gates to Bill Clinton to Bono, are hard to penetrate, but once you are able to get through — usually via a carefully orchestrated media campaign — meteoric rise is assured.

Such sudden fame is seductive and propels the ego of the philanthropist beyond proportion. I suspect that is what happened with Mortenson, who might have begun his work with noble intentions.

No doubt some good may have come from the $60 million dollars which were lavished on him by honest book buyers and donors, but when funds for good causes are so hard to come by, the mere thought that only about 30 per cent of these funds actually reached those in need is shocking and sad. Those who are now defending Mortenson, are skirting the allegations. Instead, they are claiming that ‘well some good came of this work’, regardless of the wastage. Yet, a fundamental betrayal of trust was committed regarding the veracity of his book as well as the level of funds actually meeting the intended targets. This is absolutely inexcusable. In contrast to Mortenson’s celebrated charities, the Aga Khan Foundation has done far more for rural education in remote parts of Pakistan, yet they have instead been marginalised through sectarian innuendo. Recall the Aga Khan educational board controversy from only a few years back.

Also, consider the work of Mukhtaran Mai and her charitable schools. After her harrowing experience at the behest of medieval tribal practices, she continues to work on rural education in Punjab. Has she received the same respect from our own Pakistani philanthropists? How many politicians have come to her assistance in recent months when local politicians in Muzaffargarh repeatedly threatened her activities and her life? Instead of helping such noble indigenous activists, we are beguiled by celebrity endorsements which fall flat on modest scrutiny.

Philanthropists have a duty and accountability to their donors, which is far greater than any other occupation, because there is a social contract of human trust at play. Philanthropy must be decoupled from celebrity. With the help of responsible media organisations, the public will need to be far more discerning about such matters. Let’s also hope that Mortenson and other celebrity philanthropists sip their tea with a healthy serving of humble pie.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th,  2011.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (30)

  • RK
    Apr 18, 2011 - 11:16PM

    Oh, keep quiet. What have you done for anybody?Recommend

  • Beyg
    Apr 19, 2011 - 12:04AM

    academicians have became ‘like’ journalists by exploiting situations for their own good. Please suggest solutions not criticisms. Recommend

  • Nizam Mahfooz
    Apr 19, 2011 - 12:34AM

    RK is too kind. The author, a typical pompous intellectual filled with his own vapid self importance is too busy riding the flavor of the day to realize that the journalism he lauds is a wafer thin rackety structure of innuendo, insinuations, and unstated assumptions. If Greg Mortenson was solely interested in making millions, he would have sold the movie right to his books, something he didnt do out of concern for his students. And having made the big time, he certainly didnt have to keep coming back to Pakistan, away from his family for months at a time. Something which this all knowing pseudo intellectual from Vermont isnt keen to do.Recommend

  • Apr 19, 2011 - 2:52AM

    Instead of attacking the author because of personal predelictions read the full argument. Film rights have absolutely been discussed by Mortenson. The best philanthropy is where others recognize you rather than a marketing firm — consider Eidhi or Paul Farmer. As for my own charity I would rather do it quietly and have no desire for accolades from anyone. Recommend

  • Mokhtar Sadok
    Apr 19, 2011 - 4:13AM

    I personally don’t think that coupling philanthropic activities with marketing tools is bad or wrong. At the end of the day in a media society that is what is needed to bring attention and funds to your cause. What troubles me, and I agree with the author on this point, is the intellectual dishonesty of the philanthropist who makes up stories and conflate facts with fiction as that betrays the trust and faith of the public and may end up being counterproductive.Recommend

  • RK
    Apr 19, 2011 - 5:05AM

    There is no coherent argument in this article. It is repeatedly self contradictory towards the end. Pretty much the same mudslinging and obstructionism that people like Mortenson as well as Mai for that matter, face all over Pakistan and other developing countries. One would hope that an academic would actually be capable of discerning himself from the illiterate minor chieftains of questionable intentions/repute. I don’t proclaim Mortenson a saint, but such disinformation demoralizes and knocks the wind out of the most passionate of hearts. Remember Mortenson doesn’t need to do anything. Meanwhile people like the author wallow at how “civilized” they are by doing nothing notable in the guise of anonymity.Recommend

  • macro
    Apr 19, 2011 - 6:52AM

    What rubbish, the author has bought all the rubbish he can chew. He has fallen for the “responsible investigative reporting” of 60 minutes!!! and quoted it as fact….lolRecommend

  • Apr 19, 2011 - 7:54AM

    Being an avid trekker, I have travelled extensively across the Northern Areas and have been a witness to some of the good work done by Greg in one of the remotest and most backward parts of the world. That his book may have an element of sensationalism is pardonable in that, after all, it is only a novel, which by the way is still a lot more real than the autobiographies written by many a venerated personalities. I would be more than willing to gloss over minor inconsistencies in ‘Three Cups of Tea’ as long as the profits arising from the sale of his books went to his charitable work. While Greg –like all of us- needs constructive criticism to prevent him from faltering, it is much easier to sit in an ivory tower (like the author of this article) and carp than doing one-hundredth of what Greg has already accomplished. Greg’s foibles do not detract from the tangible work he has done and continues to do with exceptional fervour and commitment.
    While constructive criticism is welcome, vainglorious pontificating, as embodied by this article, to deprecate someone’s extremely palpable and significant humanitarian accomplishments cannot be welcomed. Our Northern Areas are better off with one Greg rather than a thousand critics of Mr/ Ali’s ilk.
    Very simply, the reaction to this article and to another piece published under the name of Greg, in the same issue of this newspaper, holds a mirror to the author of this article.Recommend

  • Imran Khalid
    Apr 19, 2011 - 8:57AM

    Why are posters on this story so quick to jump to conclusions about the author. This is quite strange, considering that it was Mr Mortenson who used and abused the good will of Pakistanis, Afghanis and Americans to fulfill his obsession with celebrity. I am all for critical analysis of articles. But that can be done without personal attacks on the person of the author. In doing so the posters make a statement less about the topic at hand or the author and more about themselves.

    I am willing to bet that the posters such as RK, Beyg and Mehfooz not only cannot name any of the books written by Mr Mortenson but also have neither seen the 60 minute story nor read Mr Krakaeur’s expose.

    The author did take Mr Mortenson to task but also highlighted other success stories such as the AKF and Mukhtaran Mai who have made a difference without much ado about their programs.

    My only hope is that individuals who read this or any other writing do not jump to conclusions and take the time to be critical of the substance rather than criticizing the person. That’s the proper way.Recommend

  • hkapadia
    Apr 19, 2011 - 9:52AM

    You claim to follow his work yet you don’t report any facts about the number of schools he has “claimed” to have established and how many of those you have seen on the ground. Even if they are 50% of what he says, I think he has done a good enough job.

    Yes Mukhtaran Mai is a figure who can do something, but only because she is that figure. She herself has no idea about education because she herself has no or little education, which will easily lead to more corruption within her circle without she even being aware of it. The Aga khan board has done some amazing work, but their political vendetta behind the work always demurs their image.

    Greg knows what education looks like, since he has lived in the west, and thus is far more qualified to run the schools. Plus, he takes into account local values in his systems. What more can one ask for? Recommend

  • sophia ahmed
    Apr 19, 2011 - 10:49AM

    What you are suggesting is baseless too. Why does a media investigation make this true? Let it all come to light. Even if he built one school and wrote a story on it, he is entitled to royalty.Recommend

  • Saad Durrani
    Apr 19, 2011 - 10:50AM

    Let’s see if the event is based on the author’s “imagination” and not on real-time experiences, then allow me to tell you that even as a piece of literary fiction, this book helped.

    Secondly, it is not our problem. Not many Pakistanis would be writing checks to Mr. Greg. It is basically your problem to get the accounts audited.Recommend

  • Zohra S. Khan
    Apr 19, 2011 - 11:38AM

    “In contrast to Mortenson’s celebrated charities, the Aga Khan Foundation has done far more for rural education in remote parts of Pakistan, yet they have instead been marginalised through sectarian innuendo. Recall the Aga Khan educational board controversy from only a few years back.”
    The point here is clear. we tend to let go our celebrated pride for foreign aid which takes more than giving back. We ignore and let go the gems that work within the society. Aga Khan Foundation is ignored for sectarian reason as well as for the fact that local people are engaged and local people are benefiting from the project sprouting from communicty level and extending to regional upliftment. One example is see the self help based electricity plant in Ahmedabad, Hunza which is supplying electricity to own area and then to neighbouring villages. While here we are stuck in IPPs and still falling back to fill up our own needs. This is just one example. Media is also to blame for creating hype around mediocre efforts foregoing local heros. Recommend

  • Zohra S. Khan
    Apr 19, 2011 - 1:16PM

    @hkapadia: come off the political agenda controversy.
    Havent you had enough of these silly baseless and hollow conspiracy theries in the last 60 years. Conspiracy of christian, jews and now even Sir Aga Khan, the one who actually worked for creation of Pakistan and the ones who were the first official representative of Pakistan in UN. Get a life, come out of your drawing room, smack down the ‘mullah minded investigation’ reports and go yourself and compare the people in Gilgit Baltistan to people in Punjab, sindh and baluchistan. you would see the difference. Also see the condition of people of Chilas who refused the assistance of AKDN and now are left out empty handed, illiterate, being used by Taliban due to the same assertions as yours about stupid silly political agendas when there is none. Besides ask anyone there and they would love to have a political leadership aspiring the developmental work of AKDN and happily ditch the current mainstream as well as current local leadership. Recommend

  • Haq
    Apr 19, 2011 - 6:30PM

    When I attended a talk by Mortenson a few months back as a part of his tour across the states, I wondered how he got away with saying the kind of Pro-Islam and Pro-Pakistan and Afghanistan things that he did. Clearly he cannot. And the repercussions of ruffling the increasingly Islamophobic right wing’s feathers seem to be coming to surface.Recommend

  • Nizam Mahfooz
    Apr 19, 2011 - 7:52PM

    Imran Khalid, if you had really bet me a dime, you would have lost it.

    I’ve read both books. I’ve read JK’s hit piece in its 89 page PDFed glory. And I’ve seen the 60 Minutes segment.

    At the end of the day, I’ll stand by Greg. As someone else said, he doesnt have to do a damn thing for us (in Pakistan). We (in America) have enough problems. And espousing the cause of Pakistan or Muslims is about as popular as espousing the bubonic plague.

    Has he built schools?
    Did he do so to meet promises he made to his villagers?

    Those facts are pretty much undisputed. Whether he has cultivated a cult of personality or enriched himself, or used his money effectively IS disputed.

    Well, I’ve met the man, and he’s painfully shy. He does what he does, despite its painful qualities for him, because he believes in what he does.

    Remember, he toiled for a decade in obscurity. The book was largely ignored till 2006. He was away from his family for months at a time.

    And he did it for fame and fortune? You and the author seriously propose that?Recommend

  • RK
    Apr 19, 2011 - 8:23PM

    @Imran Khalid:
    You just lost your bet….Recommend

  • Apr 19, 2011 - 11:22PM

    Saddened by the anti-intellectual tone of these comments. Academics work in the field as well and certainly I have always tried to work through example. The readers dont even know me and are resorting to ad hominem attacks rather than considering the main thrust of the argument. Yes, some good was done by Mortenson but the resources were used very inefficiently. The same money could go much further with indigenous organizations which we often discount because we are caught up in a celebrity culture. Mortenson started with noble aims no doubt as I acknowledge in the article but he too became a victim of this celebrity culture which is being perpetuated by vacuous defense of this matter. He should simply apologize for mismanagement and move on to do the good work he intended. And we should move on and spread the wealth based on merits whether it is Mukhtaran Mai or Aga Khan or Citizens Foundation or CAIRecommend

  • AG
    Apr 20, 2011 - 12:11AM

    Imran Khalid is the author, duh.Recommend

  • RK
    Apr 20, 2011 - 3:25AM

    Saleem/Imran, so you have acted as the judge and the jury and proclaimed Mortenson guilty based on what you saw on TV and concluding that as fact. I raise issue with this particular line of thought. In your last post you have also issued the punishment decree….What could be more anti-intellectual than that. If you want to highlight the accomplishments/contributions of other reputed organizations like AKF, then write specifically about them, and don’t try and piggy back off of the headlines.Recommend

  • Apr 20, 2011 - 5:09AM

    This particular case epitomizes why a certain segment of of blogosphere writes about the effectiveness of aid programs and charities. Most DIY aid organizations don’t like partnerships or collaborations because they are afraid of scrutiny. They want to create their own standards and rules to follow. Everyone wants to be a hero. The founders of these DIY organizations fear that someone else may get credit for their ideas and accomplishments. I call this the “Nobel Syndrome”. Being transparent might jeopardize their egotistical dreams of standing on a stage in Oslo and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding contributions toward humanity.

    These are some of my observations regarding the subject.

    Slactivism in Africa | Independent Global Citizen

  • Apr 20, 2011 - 5:31AM

    @AG I have responded as the author using my own name. Imran Khalid is NOT me.

    What I find particularly troubling about the Pakistani defense of Mortenson is that it is often due to his perceived opposition to India. Why are we so politically immature to give a pass to our own philanthropies and defend wastage of precious donor funds just because of like this guy as a person or because we like his political views? Over and out.Recommend

  • Reddy
    Apr 20, 2011 - 5:46AM

    Sad, very sad.
    I enjoyed this book for a lot of reasons.
    The mystic, the danger and the beauty that is synonymous with that part of the land and the fact that some good was coming out for the people there, was reason enough for me to buy the book and relish it.
    But lets look at it from a different angle and not be judgmental about it.
    60 million was collected by the charities from people in the west.
    Now, really how does it matter that only 30% came back to where it should have.
    The American donors were short changed, weren’t they ? Should anyone bother, other than those donors themselves ?
    I say, as long as there aren’t any attempt made at ” PROSELYTIZATION “, let whatever aid that comes in, come in.
    It is for a good cause.
    I am very sure that the Aga Khan foundation does better work and so does Muktharan Bai.
    Maybe they dont want the pomp that is available with charity work nowadays.
    Maybe they want anonymity and thats okay.
    I am an outsider and this is my opinion.
    While reading the book I felt empathy with those people and still feel a bond and therefore my 2 penny worth.Recommend

  • Afridi
    Apr 20, 2011 - 7:23AM

    Saleem Ali

    Your readers do know you. Your actions scream so loud that we cant hear what you’re saying. Your thin skin in response to a handful of comments on an internet board is in remarkable contrast to the strict standards to which you hold Greg.

    No, there is guarantee that anyone else could have raised the same funds that Greg did. He “put it there” in a way neither I nor anyone else did. And he didnt have to do anything, because he was a foreigner, not a Pakistani.

    Complaining that Mukhataran Mai, TCF et. al. is changing the topic. And need I remind you that similar charges were leveled at Mukhataran Mai too?Recommend

  • Apr 20, 2011 - 7:27AM

    Please visit to learn more about the region where Mortenson started his school projects. We the natives of Gilgit-Baltistan, a region of former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir do have lot of respect for him for providing education to girls in that area. The region has one of the lowest per capita incomes and one of the lowest literacy rates and without support of NGOs like CAI and AKDN, education would be a dream for the majority as more than half of the locals live below the poverty line. Since Pakistan government has failed to provide for the educational needs of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, it is people like Mortenson who became the hope for usRecommend

  • Faiz Shah
    Apr 20, 2011 - 1:26PM

    Interesting how the real issue gets side-tracked as we read down through the comments. “Three Cups…” and perhaps less so, “From Stones…” are an excellent read, leaving one with respect for Mortensen’s work and his empathy for his hosts. Clearly it is uncomfortable for his supporters to see 60 Minutes and Krakauer, one of Mortensen’s early backers, question his integrity. Particularly when there is evidence of good having come from the effort. If Mortensen has lied, his credentials as a champion of social responsibility stand tarnished. The way out is for him to own up. Pakistanis are large-hearted enough to forgive and forget. Edhi is known to have done so and bounce back. So, whether people choose to get personal with the author for expressing his views is up to them. But the fundamental question remains that of integrity. Mortensen’s not Ali’s. Recommend

  • RK
    Apr 20, 2011 - 2:58PM

    @Saleem Ali:
    Newsflash….Mortenson or CAI are NOT “our own philanthropies” and nobody has defended wastage of precious donor funds yet. The overwhelming support has been derived from the results and not from the expense ratio. As an overwhelming amount of financial backing is rooted in the US, donors here may ask for clarification. Not the recipients.Recommend

  • RK
    Apr 20, 2011 - 3:28PM

    ….and certainly not those people who were neither the donors nor the recipients.Recommend

  • Haq
    Apr 20, 2011 - 5:25PM

    Mr. Ali,

    You are running on a lot of assumptions. First the assumption that the reporting in 60 minutes is accurate, the assumption that because Mortenson is celebrated he himself craves celebrity status too, the assumption that people who are commenting here opposing your views are unintelligent and are not being rational by not accepting your views and finally the new assumption you just posted in a comment about Pakistani’s only supporting Mortenson because he opposes India? Where are all these juvenile comebacks coming from? There is no logical coherence to anything you are talking about. You are running with your imagination and your assumptions without stating any facts or statistics. A little maturity in reporting is expected by the readers and that’s all they are complaining about.Recommend

  • Apr 21, 2011 - 2:52AM

    @Afridi and dear critics. I welcome your comments no matter how scathing. Unlike most authors of articles, I enjoy engaging with readers and take the time to read and respond on the blog because I dont want to simply pontificate but rather see the process of argumentation refine and develop opinions — one of the great joys of technology that we are able to do so in this mediumRecommend

More in Opinion