by Joshua H. Liberatore
In Three Cups of Tea journalist David Oliver Relin and mountaineer-turned-grassroots education activist Greg Mortenson describe the positive change that can come, at impressively low cost, when dedicated and informed leadership tackles a thorny problem with efficiency, persistence, and the courage to work within local conditions and constraints. After an aborted attempt to summit K2 in northwest Pakistan, Mortenson stumbled, almost literally, into another formidable mission, which became his life’s work: to fund and build schools in the tribal villages that for decades have supplied support services and porters to the world’s elite climbing community. Mortenson’s promise began in the early 1990s in Korphe, a tiny Balti village of Shiite Muslims, where he recovered from his failed climbing expedition and whose grinding poverty and lack of opportunity made an indelible impression on him. Having grown up in a missionary family in rural Tanzania, Mortenson had watched his father organize and build a first-rate teaching hospital where there previously had been no medical services and knew that with sensitivity and patience, critical infrastructure could be developed in the world’s most impoverished and isolated corners. From that first project, built on just 12,000 dollars in privately raised donations, Mortenson went on to found the Central Asia Institute, which now boasts a record of over 80 fully functioning schools in the harshest climes of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
What’s remarkable about the narrative arc of Three Cups of Tea is to recognize that Mortenson was operating in regions now designated as terrorist safe havens before many Americans could confidently locate Pakistan or Afghanistan on a map. Mortenson proved a stubborn and careful student of the region he adopted as his vocation and was not naïve about the immense challenges he faced. His gift for languages and openness to local customs allowed him to integrate with indigenous peoples whom even the national governments in whose territory they reside have written off as intractable tribalists, not worthy of public resources or infrastructure. Mortenson learned that although successful programs had been developed to build schools in Nepal and other Himalayan territories where Buddhists were the beneficiaries, funding village education – for young children but principally girls – in Muslim strongholds brought controversy on both ends of the project cycle, among American audiences where he sought donations and support and among fundamentalist elements in the villages themselves. But Mortenson’s shrewd understanding of local politics and the many important connections he made through years of patient cultivation paid off, and slowly but surely, Mortenson’s organization was delivering basic education to tens of thousands of children in the region’s poorest localities.
What began as a one-man operation grew into a proper nonprofit with a board and small but loyal donor base, but always remained very lean administratively, relying on local suppliers, labor, and staff as much as possible, with the workaholic and solitary Mortenson providing all of the administrative manpower on the U.S. side. One board member faults Mortenson for keeping too much of the work to himself, maintaining an exhausting schedule in his basement in Bozeman, Montana, with no office or permanent staff, closing deals without accountability or traceable records, and not broadening his reach through delegation. The criticism seems plausible, but misplaced, given that Mortenson started building schools when he was essentially homeless, broke, doing shift work as a nurse in California to raise money for his first project, and continued more or less on that model as the enterprise grew to deliver maximum results at minimum cost. What made his efforts so effective, in fact, was their exemplary cost-efficiency. So many nonprofit organizations working overseas, however well-intentioned their programs, eat up half of their operating budgets in U.S. administrative costs, personnel overhead, and bureaucratic density. Mortenson’s approach comes at a considerable nonmonetary cost though: he lives many months away from his wife and two children, takes incredible risks in very dangerous places, and loses both sleep and general health in the service of his mission.
Overall, Three Cups of Tea illustrates a humane cause of heroic and noble proportions, but one small incongruity does deserve comment. In a chapter called “Shrouded Figure,” Mortenson describes his deep admiration for the life and work of Mother Teresa and even travels to Calcutta to pay his respects when she dies. Relin takes the trouble to note that Mother Teresa had been roundly criticized for accepting donations from “drug dealers, corporate criminals, and corrupt politicians” and that she believed that such money was “washed clean in the service of God,” but he his silent about Mortenson’s decision to turn down $2.2 million from Donald Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense, which by his own estimate, could have built 100 schools, as functional alternatives to the Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that have been widely implicated as hotbeds of terrorist recruitment.
Although Mortenson began his work well before the Taliban and Al Qaida became household words in the United States, his insistence on the primacy of education as the best long-term strategy for mitigating poverty and desperation gained considerably more attention after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Suddenly, Mortenson could add to his argument that proper education was the best bulwark against extremism and fundamentalist violence in the Muslim world. Bin Laden’s networks and local hosts in Central Asia have drawn their strength from exploiting the dire poverty and hopelessness of an ignored population. The relevance of Mortenson’s work is best summarized in the words of Pervez Musharraf’s personal helicopter pilot, on whom Mortenson came to rely for stopovers in remote villages, General Bashir: “Osama, baah! . . . Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is a creation of America. Thanks to America, Osama is in every home. As a military man, I know you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot at you once and then run off and hide while you have to remain eternally on guard. You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever” (310). In 2010, almost a decade into the feckless “war on terror,” we are still badly in need of reminding.