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.