In the second day of outrage over the fabrications in Greg Mortenson's bestselling book "Three Cups of Tea," pundits are beginning to look passed the alleged fraud (which Mortenson has partially owned up to) and more closely at the scandal's meaning for the war in Afghanistan, girls' education in that country and the media's reliance on "hero figures" like Mortenson. Here are the big takeaways that avoid flagellating Mortenson for his alleged lies:
Foreign aid in Afghanistan can't be a cash gift Anya Kamenetz at Fast Company says "Mortensen's bio confusion might be getting the most attention, but the problems at [the Central Asia Institute] should be the issue that is front and center." That's the charity Mortensen founded to provide schooling for Afghan children, which according to 60 Minutes, failed in its efforts considering that half of CAI schools CBS visited were either empty, used for storage or without support from the charity. Kamenetz talks to a development expert who says the big lesson is that charities can't build schools for Afghans they need to build schools with Afghans. The problem with CAI is that $3 out of its $4 million went to infrastructure instead of teacher salaries, school supplies or administrative support.
Mortenson changed the approach of the American war effort -- for the better Russ Baker at Business Insider is more concerned about how sentimental moments, like helping Afghan girls, can be used to distort issues like the war effort. He points to how Mortenson said he was originally critical of the war but then changed his mind. "The U.S. military has gone through a huge learning curve," Mortenson said. "They really get it. It’s all about building relationships from the ground up, listening more and serving the people of Afghanistan.” And Mortenson changed minds with this view. Baker points to an 2009 column by The New York Times' Thomas Friedman. "I confess, I find it hard to come to Afghanistan and not ask: Why are we here? Who cares about the Taliban? Al Qaeda is gone. And if its leaders come back, well, that’s why God created cruise missiles," writes Friedman. "But every time I start writing that column, something stills my hand. This week it was something very powerful. I watched Greg Mortenson, the famed author of 'Three Cups of Tea,' open one of his schools for girls in this remote Afghan village in the Hindu Kush mountains. I must say, after witnessing the delight in the faces of those little Afghan girls crowded three to a desk waiting to learn, I found it very hard to write, 'Let’s just get out of here.'" Baker says it's times like this when "we ought not simply treat matters like the Mortenson Affair as isolated cases, with the suddenly-embarrassing fellow hastily shown the door, nervous coughs all around."
The issue of educating women and girls in developing countries is not a fraud Michelle Goldberg at The Daily Beast worries that cynicism will set in about women's education in developing countries. "If this were just about one author’s reputation, the story would have few repercussions outside the publishing world," she writes. "But Mortenson is not just a memoirist—he’s also the single most famous champion of the transformative power of education for girls in poor countries. If his downfall leads to skepticism about his cause, it would be not just a scandal, but a tragedy." Anushay Hossain at Forbes agrees. "I think we need to stay focused on the fact that while Mortenson may be a con-artist, the plight of Afghan women and girls is very real."
Stop relying on sappy fundraising pleas for public policy solutions For Mosharraf Zaidi at Foreign Policy, the lesson Mortenson's scandal teaches is that emotional ploys for giving, like in Three Cups of Tea, have no place in solving public-policy problems. "When we allow emotions to overtake our intellect, we allow charlatans like Mortenson to construct fables that play with those emotions," Zaidi writes. "Charity and philanthropy cannot service the needs of a country that has more than 70 million children between ages of 5 and 18. Only a state-financed education system, with serious oversight and accountability instruments built into it, can address the challenge here."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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