An interesting controversy is erupting around Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI). A 60 Minutes investigation is alleging that part of his story in Three Cups of Tea is fabricated, and, that – more damningly – CAI has not accomplished all that it says it has and that the organization has been plagued by financial mismanagement. The 60 Minutes investigation sought to interview Mortenson, who declined. Apparently, though, they only contacted him at the very end of the production process and “ambushed” him after a talk to speak with him. In any case, this is bad news for Mortenson, who has been hailed as an inspirational figure for many years for his efforts promoting community-based education in some of the world’s toughest spots.
I don’t have cable and I can’t get 60 Minutes content in Canada, so I might not be able to watch it, unfortunately. There is no doubt in my mind that Mortenson’s organization is not perfectly managed. CAI’s 2009 financial statements show that $1.5 million was spent on advertising, while roughly $3.5 million was spent on actual “overseas projects” (H/T Saundra and Cynan). The statement also shows that only $35,000 went towards teacher salaries – with about 145 schools, if my math is correct, that is about $240 per year, per school for salaries. Even in a poor country, even if there is only one teacher in each school, that is not a lot of money. There are other red flags. For example, the 2009 statement seems to be the only publicly available one, and the 60 Minutes investigation points out that schools that CAI claims it built do not exist.
All of these allegations are really damning for Mortenson and CAI.
Here’s my two cents. I hope that there will be a real opportunity for Mortenson and CAI to explain themselves and offer reasonable explanations for the allegations put forth by 60 Minutes. This is also a great opportunity for the organization to improve its practices, and grow from the experience. Because, after all, while it may be true that some schools don’t exist (or, as this photographer notes, are not being used), while it may be the case that CAI has been badly mismanaged, the reality is that thousands of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been able to receive an education thanks to CAI. We can be cynical and critical, and demand that CAI explain itself and improve its operations and transparency, but we can’t take away these achievements. I hope that we can take a positive, constructive approach rather than a hostile one. I hope that the outcome of the 60 Minutes controversy is a better, improved CAI, and not a ridiculed and shamed Mortenson.
Update, Monday 04/18: This document outlines the responses of CAI’s board to questions asked by CBS producers. To me, most of the answers reflect an idiosyncratic management and governance style, not unsurprising for a small NGO. Fair enough. Two things though really stood out for me. One, is the board claims that they are “unaware of any organization qualified to undertake” and independent assessment of their work. How is that possible? Mortenson and staff must have – at the very least – ran into NGO workers whose job is to evaluate development projects. The board is either dishonest about this, or they are very worryingly uninformed and oblivious. Two, is the fact that said board only has three members, and one of them is Mortenson himself. There is no excuse for not having a more established board, other than being obsessive about retaining control over “your” organization. With a budget in the millions, and nearly two decades of existence, it’s unacceptable to have such poor governance and oversight. (H/T Saundra for noting the size of the board)
This post is in response to – or rather, a disgression on – Tom’s post a couple of weeks ago on his blog A View from the Cave. These are my thoughts, unadulterated, on the topic of whether “one person can create change.” I’m sure there are plenty of contradicting, conflicting ideas you’ll read below. This is a topic I care about and think about a lot, and my thoughts are still evolving. Please, please do comment and challenge me where you think I’m wrong.
Tom, over at A View From The Cave, recently wrote a post pondering why it seems (and sometimes is) so easy for aid industry outsiders to enter the aid world. This is part of a broader discussion which has been unfolding for a few months on Twitter (and elsewhere since forever), about the role of volunteers and non-professionals in humanitarian aid and development.
I generally agree with J. from Tales from the Hood that development and aid should be left to professionally trained and capable people. I also agree with nearly 100% of what is written on the superb “Good Intentions are Not Enough” blog. In Tom’s post, he wonders why it keeps happening – why do well-intentioned but untrained people think they can create change successfully?
It’s an excellent question, one worth asking in the age of E-Z charity. One thing that I find striking, though, when I peruse the reactions of aid professionals, is the general unwillingness to believe in the capacity of individuals to have not just good intentions, but also a valid framework for taking action.
As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on whether small-scale, grassroots initiatives and NGO entrepreneurs are qualified or able to make a positive impact. I’m always taken aback by how aid professionals so easily write off these efforts. Particularly given the huge diversity that this field represents, and given that they are often the same people who are the most powerful critics of their own industry. If change is so slow to occur within the industry itself, what’s so wrong with working on the periphery of it?
There is a paradoxical aspect to aid workers criticizing outsiders, since they often are the first ones to pick apart faulty projects and obsolete mindsets in their own industry. Recent, select thoughts from industry insiders:
“I don’t know of a major disaster where, six months later, commitments had been fulfilled and serious progress made. That alone should make it obvious that this is not a bug in the system, but a feature – and that feature is the persistent exclusion of affected communities even while the language of inclusion is spoken.”
Aid shares features with pretty much any other professional field of activity:
A powerful, resource-rich industrial complex exists at the center. It includes state actors (donor governments and development agencies) and non-state actors (large INGOs; the UN and its agencies). Together, they form the “establishment.”
The existence of a well-established industry inevitably give rise to reactionaries; people for who innovation and risk-taking outside the boundaries of their world are heresy because they threaten the status-quo.
People both within and outside the establishment are seeing cracks in the system’s architecture: whether it be ill-conceived projects, lack of transparency, mis-allocation of funds or outdated operating procedures. As a result, innovation (good and bad) occurs at the margins.
Interestingly, it is often the same people who are the harshest critics of their own industry who are also the ones who dismiss outsiders’ efforts to break free from the prevailing M.O.
I should be clear that I do not – at all, ever – condone amateurish work. Whether it be in aid or any other field, it’s difficult to think of instances where dilettantes are better equipped than trained professionals. I think we need large, well-established professional NGOs with the resources (financial, human, institutional and otherwise) to do things that no single person or entrepreneur can accomplish on their own. So, with this caveat, let’s talk about why I think entrepreneurship in aid is important and why efforts in that space should be encouraged.
Sure, no single person can create long-lasting change, and successfully developing an aid project or organization takes a special kind of person and a real commitment. But if we stifle the creativity and wherewithal of entrepreneurs before they even have the opportunity to try – and potentially fail – then change isn’t going to happen, at all.
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that when a bunch of crazy French doctors decided to create Doctors without Borders during the Biafra war, everyone around them must have thought they were absolutely off their rockers.
What about Henri Dunant, the idealistic businessman whose disgust with the horrors of Napoleonic wars lead to the creation of the Red Cross? (Did you catch that? Henry Dunant was a businessman with no experience in anything remotely connected to humanitarian aid)
There are several types of aid entrepreneurs; a fact that sometimes seems to get lost on critics and supporters of NGO entrepreneurs alike. Not everyone is an Henri Dunant, Bernard Kouchner or Greg Mortenson, obviously – there are also the Jasons of this world, the soles4souls and and one of my personal favorites, little pillow dresses. These are the types of initiative that are, essentially, purely fueled with good intentions. No research or real thought has gone into creating these initiatives. I have yet to see an aid professional be involved with one of these initiatives, and whenever they do chime in, aid workers are scolded for being elitist and belittling the pure motives of said initiative.
But then there are also many brilliant, creative, intelligent people who hail from various backgrounds and industries who have jumped into the fray. To name a few organizations who emerged from the efforts of non-aid workers but who distinguish themselves from the aforementioned amateurs by their quality:
Solar Sister: Founder Katherine Lucey was an investment banker for 20 years before starting to work on how to empower women through market based solutions
The GO Campaign: Founder Scott Fifer was a Hollywood TV and film screenwriter and former Wall Street attorney and U.S. Senate aide. The GO Campaign funds local, grassroots projects in Africa that have a direct impact in communities.
Forge: Founder Kjerstin Erickson started this NGO when she was a junior in Stanford. FORGE has implemented over 60 community development projects that have served more than 70,000 refugees in the four refugee camps in Zambia & Botwana. An official Operating Partner of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), FORGE works in Zambia, hand-in-hand with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.
This question of the value of NGO/non-profit entrepreneurs is something I think about every day and affects me personally. About three and half years ago, towards the end of my masters program, I spent two months volunteering in a refugee camp in Ghana (gasp! horror! are you still going to read the rest of this blog, or have I been catalogued as a poser?)
In spite of the fact that I had no training in community health, I was asked to create a health education curriculum for children ages 5 through 18 who were students at the Carolyn A. Miller school, the only tuition-free school in a refugee settlement of 40,000. I remember feeling ill equipped to handle the task I had been assigned, and that’s a real understatement, trust me. Thankfully, by relying on the expertise of local doctors, nurses, health workers and community members, I was able to develop a basic health curriculum that the school I was assigned to was able to implement. After two months living and working with this community, when I left, I felt compelled to continue being engaged with them.
I never set out to create an NGO; it wasn’t part of my plans. I wanted to find a way to continue working with a community that really touched me and I felt close to. I didn’t want to just give money and hand-outs; I wanted to avoid creating the situations of dependency which I kept coming across, over and over again, during my time there. Along with my friend Celina Guich, we set out to develop a model that would allow us to work with the community we had grown close to.
Fast forward three years, and I’m the director of a small international NGO, The Niapele Project. We partner with community-based organizations and local leaders in Liberia to help them implement programs that seek to improve the livelihoods of war-affected youth. You can learn more about our work here, here or here.
[It’s always interesting to see how people react to Niapele. A majority of regular civilians (read: non-aid/development crowd) are very supportive, and generally “impressed.” This is something which has been written about in Tales from the Hood before, but this feeling makes me a bit uncomfortable: I don’t feel like I’m a saint or really all that amazing or creative for doing this. There are tons of other people out there whose creativity, passion and talent exceed my own and are involved in some truly impressive projects on the periphery of the aid/humanitarian industrial complex (see the few examples mentioned above).]
What I’m asking for is that we, as the aid/development community, recognize that innovation outside or on the periphery of the established industry is a good thing. For every successful initiative, there will be ten really crappy ones. But that’s how it works – entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and it’s not because one thinks they have are a good entrepreneur that they actually are one. But we have to accept these negative dimensions to reap the benefits of change brought about by the entrepreneurs who know what they’re doing.
What’s the alternative? Let it be known that even though the aid industry has profound flaws and is fundamentally unsustainable, innovation on the outside is discouraged?
Not every new idea is going to be a good idea, of course. There are plenty of duds out there, and stupid people with bad ideas aren’t going away any time soon. What’s apparent to me is that social entrepreneurship is a reflection of people’s desire to DO something, and do something more than write a check or send old shoes/blankets/books/etc. It’s also a product of (sometimes legitimate, but not always) frustration both within and outside the aid system. This is why we see ideas like 1 million shirts crop up. Well-intentioned people, but without the practical or theoretical knowledge needed to drive a successful initiative, will give it a go. This is inevitable.
The real question, for me, is how do we support the kind of innovation that does create positive change, all the while weeding out all the useless and potentially harmful amateurish initiatives?
I completely understand why aid amateurs irk the professionals. I’m lucky to have a vantage point at both the micro level, outside the humanitarian/aid/development industrial complex, and within it. I’m constantly surprised by how often I come across seriously flawed ideas, shoddy implementation and pure self-interest and aggrandizement. And let it be known that all this happens with large, established NGOs and the smallest initiatives.
– On Monday March 1st, reports surfaced about violent incidents occurring in Liberia near the border with Guinea, allegedly pitting Mandingo (primarily Muslim) against Loma (primarily Christian) people. It’s absolutely impossible to understand what actually happened, as every single news story contradicts the other, and often are peppered with inaccuracies (as a side note, this speaks to the importance of strengthening local media organizations there, because their job is crucial, and people cannot possibly be well-informed when headlines read things like “Lofa Explodes – Religious and Tribal Tensions Burst in Flames and Death“). Shelby Grossman attempts to piece it together here. Sadly, the international media coverage simplifies the issue as Christians against Muslims – while this is obviously part of the story, it’s only one dimension of a very complex pattern of conflict and cohabitation between these groups in northern Liberia. Don’t be fooled by oversimplifications and intellectual shortcuts… Continue reading “This & that”→
The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has thus far raised $30 million, which is a really impressive number, especially given the slump that all charitable organizations went through since the financial crisis began in earnest in September 2008. A person who works very closely with the Clinton Bush Fund told me recently that these funds were being donated to 23 reputable organizations in Haiti, including Partners in Health, Save the Children or Habitat for Humanity. He noted, however, that they were hoping to save a lot of these funds for long-term investments in health, education, and economic empowerment, and not allocate all $30 million to emergency needs. Indeed, while Haiti needs a lot of help right now, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, as many, many have observed, the real challenge will be to assist Haitians in (re)building their country’s infrastructure, improving social and basic services and expanding access to jobs and economic opportunities.
Going back to the spreadsheet linked above, it is easy to see that the more long-term concerns are the most difficult to fund. If we rank categories by amount of funding available, we see that food is by far the m0st-well endowed, with $117 million. (By comparison, human rights/rule of law activities only garnered $6 million.)
Meanwhile, however, some emerging trends in giving have caught my attention, and have caused wincing among many a developmentblogger. Or, more accurately, trends in giving that don’t always reach the MSM or the public consciousness have been given attention as of late. First, is all of the efforts to send used things to Haiti: used shoes, used yoga mats, breast milk, infant formula, blankets, used shoes, and more used shoes. I don’t understand why so many (well-intentioned, surely) people think that shoes are what people in Haiti need… I think part of the answer lies in the fact that people are far more likely to give when they can see (or think they see) a causal relationship between their donation and the need on the ground. So, for instance, giving a pair of shoes to someone who undoubtedly lost at least a pair of shoes seems like a good idea. Given that a huge majority of people do not work for humanitarian agencies, development organizations or aren’t privy to the intricacies of appropriate, relevant aid, it’s not very surprising to see so many misguided good intentions.
Also worth noting here is the desire to help Haiti’s “orphans”. I’m using quotation marks, because our concept of what an orphan is does not necessarily match the reality of what it means when a child loses his or her parents in other countries. From experience working with Liberian abandoned children and “orphans”, I know that determining who the best care taker is for a (seemingly) parentless child is no easy task. The story of the 10 American baptists charged with accusations of child trafficking in Haiti is a seething example of good intentions gone wrong. I really believe that this group – similarly to people donating shoes, blankets or breast milk – had the best of intentions.
Third, natural disasters are conducive to mobilizing public and private resources and generate sympathy, empathy or pity. As I mentioned above, when the need seems obvious (medicine, food, blankets, medicine, shoes (?)), people have an easier time loosening their purse strings than when they are asked to contribute to an effort which has a subjective dimension. Haiti is not a newly poor country – it’s been lagging behind every country in the Western hemisphere for decades, and the plight of its people is nothing new. However, prior to the earthquake, no one seemed to care too much about the future of Haiti. What’s interesting to me is that people across the world all of a sudden paid attention to Haitians – the same people they probably knew nothing about, or simply didn’t think about, until January 12th 2010.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, mud slides, hurricanes: these events have an objective quality about them which makes giving much easier than say, giving to an organization that works to help small holder farmers access new markets. To a certain extent, donors need to “buy in” to the notion that a) small holder farmers are a sector of the economy worth supporting, that b) assisting them in accessing new markets is the most effective way of helping them and that c) the organization they are donating to knows what they’re doing. That’s a far, far cry from the need for antibiotics and morphine for people wounded in the earthquake: there is no philosophical question here, just a very objective need for a very specific item.
The other dimension to this is that donors are much more likely to give after a natural disaster than after the end of a civil conflict, for example. In speaking with both aid and development professionals and non-industry people about this, it seems that it’s much more difficult to encourage generosity when the cause of a disaster is not natural. It’s very uncomfortable – for me, at least – to think that outside of natural disasters, there is a (seldom acknowledged but existing) belief that poor people brought poverty upon themselves, that they are guilty of their circumstances, while natural disasters are indiscriminate and are – truly – nobody’s fault. This means that contributing to emergency relief efforts in the aftermath of an earthquake is much easier, much less political of an issue than contributing to the same efforts in the aftermath of a violent conflict.
I like to think of these instances of “good intentions gone bad” as issues of “E-Z charity” – at the heart of the problem, is the well-meaning donor’s lack of understanding of people’s needs and the implicit notion that giving to a survivors of natural disasters are somehow more worthy of our resources than survivors of violence or conflict.
One of the reasons I was moved to blog about the issue of E-Z charity was after a trip to the grocery store the other day. At the check-out counter, while waiting for my transaction to process, I saw that there were two transparent plastic donation boxes, where people could drop loose change. One was for Haiti relief operations, and the other for an organization taking care of children with disabilities in Ontario. The former was full – to the brim – and the other stood with about three coins, or approximately 50 cents in change. I jokingly told the cashier: “I guess no one cares about the disabled kids anymore!”, and she told me that she put the three coins in there, because she felt badly that no one (not.a.single.person) gave to that cause. I mentioned survivors of violence and conflict above, as well as more subjective causes such as supporting small-holder farmers or other economic empowerment initiatives – however, I found it truly unsettling that a local organization working with children with disabilities (not a particularly controversial cause!) didn’t generate as much empathy or generosity as Haiti.
It’s difficult to blame individuals, however, given that the mainstream media coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake was a 24/7 mishmash of confused, sensationalized images and stories. We rarely see 20 minute segments about disabled children on the evening news, and CNN’s Situation Room wonks usually don’t spend their time discussing the issues associated with the world’s leading fatal illnesses for children: diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria.
People’s willingness to give and their generosity is, objectively, a good thing. It reminds me that we do care about one another, to a certain extent, that we do feel empathy for those less fortunate – if we only we could use this opportunity to create a new culture of giving. But as my two donation box example mentioned above shows, we’re a long way away from making text message donations and adding a dollar to your grocery bill mainstream, regular activities.
I Am African is a project developed by BHF Magazine. This project is devoted to photographic work by various African photographers. Photographs are displayed in a gallery that documents and celebrates diversity through the lenses of African people worldwide. The photographs are selected based on originality, creativity, professional or semi-professional quality and of course, their power in reflecting the African diversity.
This immediately reminded me of an ad campaign you (fortunately) might have missed if you weren’t in NYC towards the end of 2006. I remember having heated conversations about the “Africans” below….
And, yes, the campaign was raising funds for a good cause, but it’s problematic to me that people who are probably comfortable dropping $10,000 on clothes for fancy parties have the balls to call themselves “African”. I don’t think it’s appropriate for non-African celebrities — no matter how big their heart is or how genuine their feeling of “sharing a common bond” with Africans (…what about the rest of humanity?…) is — to call themselves African. What does that have to do with anything? Why is that even necessary to raise funds? Awareness? I’m still baffled.
I’d so much rather see initiatives like BHF Magazine’s series, where the individuals portrayed are – actually – Africans, and have something to share about their heritage.