The Magical Myth of Instant Development

Jon Krakauer goes into the Greg Mortenson story at much greater depth than CBS could.  The picture that emerges is not good.  I mean, I'm notoriously bad with my expenses, but the errors tend to run in the direction of forgetting to file for meals and coffees, not refusing to hand in any documentation, and double-billing both my employer and my speaking engagement for "travel costs".  The lack of financial control at the foundation, and the persistent habit of telling completely unnecessary lies, are very disturbing.


Krakauer's on weaker ground with the schools--he documents "ghost schools" that don't seem to exist, or aren't being used as schools.  I don't necessarily think that this is evidence of malfeasance--schools can close, be seized, or even be destroyed in an area currently rife with conflict.  But I do think it's evidence that Mortenson's focus on building schools, rather than running them, was deeply problematic.  A building is the least of a school's needs.

Timothy Burke has a typically thoughtful reflection on how Greg Mortenson could get away with running a foundation--and a writing career--this way for so long.  It is, he says, a product of our desire for messianic development projects and neat stories with happy endings.

If I gave you an unlimited line of credit and carte blanche to run everything your way, do you think you could make a single secondary school work? I mean, really work so it was beyond reproach, was by almost any measure superior in outcomes and character and ethos to any alternative? Now what if I took away from you the choice of where your school was located and restricted you to pupils who lived within 30 miles of your school? Now what if I required you to obey all relevant national and local laws addressing education? Still confident? Now what if I made you operate within a budgetary limit that was generous by local and national standards but not unlimited? Getting harder yet? Now what if I put your school in a location with very little infrastructure and serious structural poverty?

The point here is that when one crucial task like that is hard enough, we should be deliriously happy to see a person dedicate their life and money and effort to make that task work. One. When we keep our checkbooks closed and our frowny-faces on because that's not enough, not nearly enough, we create a situation where development messianism is inevitable. We invite not mission creep but mission gallop: make a hundred schools! change gender ideology! eliminate poverty! Under the circumstances, looking back, you have to ask how that was ever creditable, why anyone cheered and hoped and wrote checks.

The most awesome development project I've ever seen personally was a former small businesswoman in the Peace Corps who was teaching a handful of small business owners in a small African city how to do double-entry accounting with handwritten ledgers. The smart insight here was that most of them didn't want to hire anyone who wasn't kin because they couldn't track the flow of money through their business, and that most of them couldn't really invest anything they accumulated or expand their business for the same reason. I'd have given her a donation. The most awesome educational project I've ever seen in Africa is Ashesi University because it's working hard to make one institution work well, looking to the future, laying the groundwork for longevity, and the people involved are soberly aware that this is very much a big enough project all by itself.

Tie a string around your finger, write a cheat sheet on your wrist, whatever it takes: when you see a lone crusader telling you that he's dedicated his life to comprehensively fixing some faraway place, don't believe it.

There's a reason it took centuries for the west to evolve modern economies, the kind where basically everyone is rich by global or historical standards.  This stuff is really complicated.  The simplest product you buy could not have been brought to your market without a thousand institutions and systems, from double-entry bookkeeping to anti-fraud statutes to telephones and commodity brokers and universal literacy and rail rights-of-way.  This stuff cannot be developed overnight, and it cannot be developed by one person, one group, or one plan.  And in the end, there is no substitute.

If we refuse to fund anything but the most ambitious products, we are vulnerable to con men, or starry-eyed optimists who don't understand what they're up against.  We can't transform the lives of the global poor overnight.  We can make them better.  But only if we are clear-eyed about the projects that we undertake.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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