Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Three Cups of Tea

Well I finally did it, I read Three Cups of Tea. Took me long enough, since it has been one of the hippest books for young world-changes to read since it was first published in 2006. Not to mention the fact that Greg Mortensen spoke at LC’s graduation two years ago. At the worst this book dips into mild glorification of Mortensen and his work without seriously considering alternatives to his approach to education, at the best the incredibly painstaking attention to detail of coauthor David Oliver Relin effectively communicates valuable lessons about development and provides a rare view of normally closed societies in the Central Asia.

Coline (who has yet to read the book) and I take issue with the fact that the book focuses on Mortensen and his NGO the Central Asia Institute (CAI, not to be confused with CIA), perpetuating the idea that anyone with enough motivation can up and start their own NGO. Don’t get me wrong, I am hugely impressed by the work that Mortensen has done and I think it is much needed. I also recognize that many of the villages that Mortensen worked in were neglected by other NGOs and aid projects simply because of their geographical location. And it is hard to say without being on the ground, but I hesitate to say that starting a new NGO is the best solution to development problems such as his. As the number of NGOs seems to be booming worldwide, a major issue is duplicity and redundancy in projects. How many resources are wasted simply because they aren’t pooled? I find myself asking what the funds of CAI would have done in the accounts of already well-established organizations in the same regions. As aforementioned, it is true that Mortensen has been working mostly in isolated locations that are seldom reached by other aid, but does that automatically mean the project sites he have chosen are more deserving than those that would be chosen by other development organizations with more experience? And how many aid projects can’t be started in such locations simply because of a lack of funds? And how many hard lessons did Mortensen have to learn, using up time and resources, because he lacked experience in development? Except for a handful of occasions mentioned in Three Cups of Tea, Mortensen managed to completely circumvent the vast wealth of experience built up by aid professionals over decades of work (this in some ways makes his accomplishments all the more amazing).

Part of the answer to these questions is Mortensen himself. As Relin portrays him, a veritable force of development, he is unique and able to accomplish what few others could. Partly because of this, as we learn in the book, CAI becomes totally dependent on Mortensen. He controls all and is for the most formative years the only, and then one of only several, paid American staff members. This is not to say that the staff members need to be American (in fact if one looks at the Tostan model it is advantageous to have overwhelmingly local staff), simply that there was nobody able to succeed, or even complement him. During this period CAI would have died instantly without Mortensen, a highly unsustainable model especially when he kept traipsing through war zones. History is rife with more unsustainable development projects than sustainable ones and UN directories overflowing with names of brand new NGOs who undertake such projects. CAI seems to be on more solid ground now, with a more sustainable organizational structure –to their credit the CAI board had been calling for it for years- but I can’t help but feel that Mortensen’s potential, particularly his expertise in the region he knows best, could be best used helping to train a new generation of aid workers who could take the lessons he learned and apply them to even more projects. Successful development is about sharing knowledge and experience, not going off and doing your own thing. The book Three Cups of Tea is a step in the right direction.

The book is deceptively long, but as it reads so much as a narrative of Mortensen’s personal life (underscoring the Mortensen-centrism that is the approach to development promoted by this book – his work is hopelessly intertwined with his personal life) it is relatively engaging and easy to pick up again after you’ve set it down. I also was thrilled to find that in the first part of the book Mortensen’s home base is Berkeley, California (my backyard). It was fun to recognize and have spent time at all of the places where Mortensen did too.

In some ways this book gives me a new appreciation for the work of buildOn, which has a much more original model. By engaging American high school students to volunteer in their own communities while simultaneously learning about international development issues and fundraising to build schools abroad the
 organization is creating a new generation of informed global citizens. The kind who will go out and read Three Cups of Tea and, I hope, think critically about it.