Greg Mortenson certainly told a good story. When I was on the road for two months last year speaking about my work, I repeatedly encountered people who had read his books and were inspired by what he had experienced and accomplished. Yet there was always something about his story that bothered me, and now we know. It was too good to be true.
That Mortenson reportedly lied about his personal history in Pakistan and what his organization has done since to build schools in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan is, of course, sadly disappointing. Yet while many people are naturally backing off from supporting the Central Asia Institute, unfortunately the scandal will probably have negative consequences for other groups doing similar work. Yet that need not be the case, especially if we can find lessons to learn in Mortenson’s rise and fall.
Although it’s a strong temptation as a journalist, I firmly believe we should not be the hero of our own stories. By the same logic, we would be wise to be wary of anyone else who is.
If nothing else, it’s a difficult style to pull off successfully. Among those who have done it well, Ryszard Kapuscinski did it with particular panache. His essay “The Soccer War” remains a classic example of brilliant first-person coverage of an armed conflict, digging out the contradictions of class and race inherent in the regional war while simultaneously–and humorously–debunking the pretensions of journalists like himself. Not surprisingly, when he died in 2007 there were a lot of questions about how much he embellished his accounts. While other questions also linger, such as how much Kapuscinski’s Europeanism distorted his depiction of Africa, the guy nonetheless serves as a brilliant guide into the cultural and political mazes of history.
In Mortenson’s writing, he makes himself the hero, but that device doesn’t help the reader understand better the context of his work. If anything, it distorts it. How much of the blame for this rests on Mortenson and how much on readers who thirstily drank up his heroic accounts remains an important question. Jon Krakauer, once a true believer in Mortenson’s make-believe world, has written the definitive work of debunking, yet rightly turns the magnifying glass around:
During the past several months, as I came to grasp the magnitude of Mortenson’s deceit, I felt ashamed at being so easily conned. How could those of us who enabled his fraud—and we are legion—have been so gullible? Ted Callahan [an anthropologist and mountaineer once hired by Mortenson] attributes the uncritical acceptance of Mortenson and his shtick to the seemingly endless war raging in Central Asia. “The way I’ve always understood Greg,” Callahan reflects, “is that he’s a symptom of Afghanistan. Things are so bad that everybody’s desperate for even one good-news story. And Greg is it. Everything else might be completely fucked up over there, but here’s a guy who’s persuaded the world that he’s making a difference and doing things right.” Mortenson’s tale “functioned as a palliative,” Callahan suggests. It soothed the national conscience. Greg may have used smoke and mirrors to generate the hope he offered, but the illusion made people feel good about themselves, so nobody was in a hurry to look behind the curtain. Although it doesn’t excuse his dishonesty, Mortenson was merely selling what the public was eager to buy.
Part of what makes possible this compelling invitation to join in Mortenson’s grand adventure was his appeal to racism, although he obviously posits his narrative as anti-racist. Yet read again some of his encounters, ignoring for a moment whether they’re true or not. When kidnaped by the Taliban (which turns out not to be true), he writes in Three Cups of Tea that he’s taken to a house where men eat with “long daggers.” Mortenson fell asleep on the floor of the compound, only to be awakened in the middle of the night by a man dangling a kerosene lantern that sent
shadows lurching grotesquely up the walls. Behind the lamp, Mortenson saw the barrel of an AK-47 aimed, he realized, his consciousness ratcheting up a notch with this information, at his chest. Behind the gun, a wild man with a matted beard and gray turban was shouting in a language he didn’t understand.
Pure Hollywood! Let’s make “the other” really scarey by equipping a “wild man” with a “matted beard and gray turban” and have them shout “in a language [Mortenson] didn’t understand.” In a day and age when anti-Muslim sentiment is cultivated for all sorts of political ends, why shouldn’t Mortenson use the same tactic to raise money for his personal cause? Then he effectively tames the savage, inviting the reader along on an adventure of noblesse oblige that civilizes the wild other in a series of actions where the protagonist only grows more heroic.
Pretty sexy story. Trouble is, it has nothing to do with making real change happen.
I’ve been to Pakistan several times, and photographed a number of schools, including schools for Afghan refugee children and schools specifically for Pakistani girls. I’ve done that because a couple of the agencies I work with have been doing it for decades. The predecessors of United Methodist Women, for example, set up schools of girls in what’s today Pakistan more than 100 years ago. I’m sure there were mixed motives for that, 19th Century mission being what it was, but the schools have morphed into Pakistani-owned and run institutions that do incredible work of providing education with a secular character to girls of all religious backgrounds in an environment which is today torn by religious factionalism. The UMW also supports schools run by the Church of Pakistan and other competent national groups. (The same history applies to neighboring India.) Church World Service is doing the same thing, and their Pakistan-Afghanistan office is one of the best around, run entirely by local folks, responding quickly and agilely to emergencies, while at the same time understanding the real task of economic development and political empowerment. Over the years I’ve written about the work by both groups, from helping freed slaves get started as farmers in the Lower Sindh River Valley, to empowering women to leave behind sex work in the Punjab, to helping Afghan refugees survive in an environment where their presence wasn’t really appreciated.
I spoke about Mortenson in October during a presentation to a conference in Nashville on the future of mission. I compared the work he was doing with that of United Methodist Women and Church World Service, and said that while Mortenson’s work clearly wasn’t as comprehensive or valuable, his ability to sell it was far superior. I suggested that we needed to learn from Mortenson that a compelling narrative is attractive, and do a better job in describing what we do. Yet we don’t have to get carried away. There’s no need to exaggerate in the process.
There’s a big problem here: well-grounded work for change doesn’t always sell well to U.S. audiences. If the hero motif isn’t available, then it’s a pretty lucrative gig to peddle misery. Changing that, messing with the psychology of marketing change, is daunting. Look at the example of CARE, which a few years back switched their marketing from one centered on pictures of poor, dark-skinned kids with flies in their eyes to a dramatic depiction of proud poor women and girls with the message “I am powerful.” I thought it was a breakthrough for marketing that actually caught up to best development practices. Rather than being the object of marketable pity, women became the strong subjects of change, and prospective donors, rather than being approached with a message that appealed to their sense of guilt, were simply asked to become partners in the process of empowerment. I’ve urged UMW groups, for example, to look at it as something we can emulate, as we’re unfortunately often too stodgy in how we tell about our work. Yet there’s one thing that’s troubling about the “I am powerful” campaign: it didn’t work. People weren’t motivated as well by it as they had been by traditional messages of paternalism. That sucks. But like Greg Mortenson, it tells us a lot about ourselves.
Part of Mortenson’s success grows out of a perception that big development and relief groups are inefficient and even corrupt, simply because they’re big. Hence the spread of DIY aid groups, praised by people like Nick Kristof yet routinely debunked by folks who know what they’re talking about.
In the work I do covering emergencies, I appreciate the professional capacity of groups like the members of the ACT Alliance. They’ve been there before and they know what they’re doing. Sure they make mistakes, and I could spend all day griping about bureaucrats, especially the security advisors who don’t want to let me go wherever I want to photograph the action, or child protection advisors who think I shouldn’t take a photograph of a child running through a refugee camp without first getting informed consent and a signed release from the child’s parents. (Don’t get me started!) But the bang for the disaster buck such agencies produce is pretty good, especially compared to some of the DIY players, often mom and pop relief groups. Granted, a few of these DIYers quickly morph into capable players; Sean Penn’s management of the Petionville golf course-turned-tent city is a fascinating example. But much more common are DIY groups that muddle along, accomplishing not much with the bucks they raise from their neighbors back home. They are often somewhat benign, though they do tend to steal funds from legitimate organizations and often contribute more than their share to a culture of dependancy. In the worst cases, they are criminals–witness the Idaho “missionaries” who came to Haiti after the 2010 quake to steal children.
While Mortenson’s writing played off that fear of large organizations, his fall from bestseller grace only underlines the need for bureaucracies, audits, planning, evaluation and transparency–the boring stuff that make development and relief work effective at saving lives and nurturing empowerment, of equipping the poor to become heroes of their own histories, rather than objects to be saved by some dogooder from the outside riding a white steed into the fray.
One of the symptoms of DIY aid is an edifice complex–a focus on building stuff. This is one of the unattractive traits of the booming Volunteer in Mission (VIM) movement in the United Methodist Church and other U.S. denominations. Because of their distrust of large organizations and the professional missionary class (the latter is not always an inappropriate suspicion), people want to go themselves to the place of need. And they want to feel useful, so they often end up building something, whether it’s needed or not. When I lived in Guatemala, I saw lots of examples of church groups coming south to build clinics in rural villages, with no investigation at all into who was going to run the clinics and how they’d be financed once the foreign group left town. By ignoring the software of development in their obsessive focus on hardware, these groups really did more harm than good. But they went home with great stories about how they helped the people “down there.” Never mind that they gave little or no thought to how their clinic might mesh with existing national health care systems, much less ask if there were any national health care systems for the poor, and, if not, why not?
The landscape of many Third World countries is littered with clinics and schools built by outsiders only to end up being abandoned because there was no sustainable way to provide health care personnel or teachers to make the places run. Not only is this typical of donor-driven international aid that doesn’t empower local folks to make their own decisions about what’s necessary (witness the thousands of unused latrines sitting primly across the countryside in Central America), but it also belies the fact that a well-motivated and inspiring teacher can change pupils lives whether the class is held inside a brick school or under a leafy tree. While Mortenson was chartering private jets to fly around the U.S., his NGO couldn’t find the bucks or the ability to staff some of his schools. Mortenson has unfortunately led millions to believe the building is more important than the teachers.
There’s a lot that goes into making a school work. In South Sudan, for example, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) builds schools in communities where people have come back to live after years on the run or in refugee camps in Uganda. With ample funding from the U.S. government, UMCOR pays to have the bricks put together into a school. Yet it also trains the teachers, helps organize and train a local parent-teacher association, and provides school furniture, latrines, water wells, notebooks, pencils and uniforms. It also provides sanitary napkins to girls so that when they start menstruating they won’t drop out of school. It’s a complicated dance of putting together people and materials into a functioning entity that will be sustained in the long run by the enthusiastic involvement of the community. Where Mortenson did that in places, his group deserves kudos. Yet in many places, that didn’t happen even if a school got built. And the embarrasing bottom line remains: even if he built all the schools he claimed, he wasted a lot of money on other stuff. If my kids had worked hard to gather “Pennies for Peace,” I’d be mighty upset.
For groups that do development and relief work well, the challenge is therefore to tell our story more effectively, and without stretching things too far in our desire to raise money. Take UMCOR. It’s a medium-sized agency that does solid work in several places around the world. It’s reputation is a powerful asset when it comes to fundraising, as seen by the more than $43 million it raised in the wake of the Haiti quake, even though it didn’t operate in Haiti at the time. So the first thing it did was set about opening an office and finding partners with which to work, and after some fits and starts is slowly finding its way. The recent appointment of my friend Jim Gulley to head its operations there is a good sign.
As I said, UMCOR does good work. Yet some feel the need to turn it into something it’s not, and a refrain I’ve heard more and more frequently has promoted UMCOR to a first-responder par excellence. The operative phrase is usually that it “arrives even before the Red Cross.” I thought this was just boosterism from the pews, but then I read that Lynda Byrd, an assistant general secretary for UMCOR’s parent organization, the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, had said in a speech in California that UMCOR “arrives in places of disaster around the world in many instances before the Red Cross.” Intrigued, I wrote to her asking for some examples of that. She didn’t answer. I asked my colleagues at UMCOR, and they politely demurred from Byrd’s claim. And now, in a March 21 open letter about the crisis in Japan, Cynthia Harvey, the new head of UMCOR, set the record straight. “UMCOR staff generally does not go into disaster areas as first responders and we are working through trusted partners who have existing networks on the ground in the affected areas,” she wrote. Sounds like someone who knows how to leverage their relationship with other agencies already on the ground into an effective emergency response, rather than try to reinvent the wheel every time a disaster strikes. That’s good practice, and something we should support financially, without feeling a need to exaggerate the good work that the agency already does. If not, we only hurt its credibility. If you don’t believe me, ask Greg Mortenson.
Howard Heiner, in memorium
I saw Howard Heiner in Ashland, Oregon, a few weeks before he died, and he was proud that his trademark bushy eyebrows hadn’t suffered the same fate during therapy as most of the hair on his head. It was typical Howard, making light of his own discomfort, wanting to talk about something other than himself. He knew his prognosis wasn’t very cheery, but he made clear that he’d lived a great life and had no regrets. He was thankful for the life God had given him, and he was at peace with wherever his journey was about to take him.
I had the privilege of first getting to know Howard and his wife Peggy during their sojourn in Olympia, Washington, when we invited them to come talk about mission in a congregation I served. They were charming and their passion for mission was intoxicating; a few years later, I was serving as a missionary alongside them in Nicaragua. Having Peggy and Howard as mentors was reassuring; whatever hardships I faced usually paled by comparison to the stories they would tell about their own experiences.
Back in the sixties, they had arrived in Bolivia with four children for their first assignment as Methodist missionaries. On the way into La Paz from the airport, their church hosts asked them to lie on the car floor so no one would see their pale gringo faces and attack the vehicle. Political instability prevented Howard from fulfilling his assignment to teach forestry, so he ended up working as an assistant to Bishop Mortimer Arias as the church struggled to keep faith in the midst of uncertainty and turmoil.
Before leaving for Bolivia, Howard had been a staunch Republican in Libby, Montana. A former Air Force fighter pilot with endless stories of plane engines quitting at the most inopportune moment while he served as an engineering test pilot, Howard was a forester. He headed south as a missionary to help the church proclaim more viable models of environmental stewardship.
In 1973 the Heiners traded the frequent coups of Bolivia for Chile, where once again Howard planned to teach forestry. Yet they arrived just weeks before the CIA-sponsored overthrow of President Salvador Allende, and before long Howard and Peggy were helping feed hungry families and support people fleeing political repression. Howard was eventually arrested and spent months under house arrest.
Eventually Howard and Peggy took their kids back to Olympia, where Howard bought a building supply store. But his heart was still in mission, and by the early eighties he and Peggy were off to Somalia, where they spent a year managing a refugee camp for Church World Service. Howard helped plant trees around the camp for shade and firewood, and Peggy put her skills as a nurse to work in an environment where suffering and death had become routine. Although living conditions were harsh, questions about their personal sacrifice would only yield funny stories about the huge camel spiders that shared their tent.
Then they moved to Nicaragua in 1983, Howard helping a young government establish sustainable models of forest management. But soon a war subsumed much of the country’s energy, and Howard and Peggy had friends and colleagues martyred by the U.S.-backed Contras. The two missionaries could be found in front of the U.S. embassy every week, maintaining a protest against their own government’s terrorism. Always believing that the truth could convert even the hardest hearts, the Heiners used their living room to host visiting members of the U.S. Congress for talks with ordinary Nicaraguan church folks. Yet Howard’s patience had limits; once when hosting Dick Cheney and Henry Hyde, Howard threw a U.S. embassy staffer out of his house because the guy kept insulting a nun doing human rights work.
A letter to United Methodist bishops that Howard and Peggy co-signed with Lyda and me sparked the ire of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, which demanded the four of us be recalled as we were obviously “unfit for mission service.” Howard and Lyda traveled to the U.S. to debate the situation in Nicaragua with representatives of the IRD in front of a meeting of Global Ministries directors, who in turn unanimously passed a resolution praising the “heroic service” of its mission personnel in the war-torn Central American country. The brouhaha attracted the attention of Bill Moyers, who went on to produce a 90-minute documentary for PBS about the work of U.S. church personnel in Central America. Howard was one of the stars; Moyers’ interview with him took place in the middle of a former cotton field where Howard supervised the planting of thousands of trees.
In the nineties, Peggy and Howard moved to Washington, D.C., where Peggy worked with the General Board of Church and Society and Howard lobbied on international forestry policy. They later retired to Ashland, Oregon, where both were pillars of commitment and activism in their local congregation.
Howard’s passion for mission often overcame his patience with narrow-minded mission bureaucrats, and he was a founder of the United Methodist Missionary Association, a sort of missionary union that quickly provoked the ire of some leaders of Global Ministries. Howard rightly believed that missionaries, given their unique perspective, deserved a voice in devising mission policies and strategies, and he served as UMMA’s feisty chairperson for many years. Howard had turned over the leadership of UMMA to others in recent years, yet the fact that UMMA today has a seat of sorts at the table of Global Ministries decision-making is a testament to Howard’s pesky passion for helping the institution go on to perfection.
Howard felt no need to pretend to get along. If he had a problem with you, he told you. I speak from experience: he told me several times. Looking back, he was most often right. But he also easily let that stuff go, and his friendship was something that I’ve cherished for years. And he believed in things passionately. The deck of my house in Eugene is something that Howard helped build. Along with two other friends, we spent a week measuring and digging and cutting and drilling and pounding. Sometimes we disagreed on how best to do something, and Howard’s voice would swell as he passionately argued for a certain way to hang the joists or pour the footings. No matter the passion he brought to the argument, whether he won or lost wasn’t ultimately that important to him. Once the discussion ended, he threw himself into the work with the same passion, all of us looking forward to the next break when we’d coax him into telling more stories of his life’s adventures. That was a defense against overwork; Howard was far older than the other three of us, but he worked the hardest. Howard’s passion for the everyday details of life–whether it was planting trees in Central America, changing mission bureaucracies in New York, or choosing which nail was most appropriate for a particular job—was infectious. It made us all believe more strongly in what we do and who we are. There are people all over the world who, like me, have been nurtured by Howard’s passion for life and thirst for justice. And there are the trees, all over the world, that celebrate Howie’s life.
You will go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills, will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field, will clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)
In mid-May I’m off again over the pond; stay tuned for details. Meanwhile, I’m home for a couple of weeks after assignments in the midwest of the United States, including interviewing and photographing women who are in transition housing programs after lives troubled by prostitution, substance abuse, and mental health challenges. I was also in Minneapolis at the same time as a protest against a local radio station for playing songs that made fun of Hmong culture.
Finally. . . One of the pieces of evidence that undercut Greg Mortenson’s story of being kidnapped by the Taliban was a photo of him and his “captors,” all smiling, with Mortenson cradling an AK-47. Kinda doesn’t fit the narrative. So I couldn’t help but end this post with my own image from Pakistan of me and two members of a special forces squad that protected me during several days in the northern mountains. There had been threats against foreigners working with some NGOs, and I was told these guys and their colleagues would have to accompany me. I wasn’t crazy about the idea, preferring in general to not associate myself with men with guns, but I grew to appreciate their concern for my safety, and became convinced they were really there to keep me alive, and not to be my minders. We worked out ways I could interview people without them listening in, but other than that they stayed close. They took their job very seriously. I suppose I could make up some great story about them holding me for ransom, but someone would find this photo and undercut my shtick. By the way, I’m the one with hair on my head.