Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Greg Mortenson and international development aid

By now the story about Greg Mortenson's sins at the head of the Central Asia Institute has spread like wildfire. 60 Minutes did an expose on allegations of story fabrication and financial mismanagement on the part of the famous (co-)author of "Three Cups of Tea" and "From Stones into Schools". At the same time, an ex-collaborator of Mortenson's recently wrote a mini-book on his misdeeds.

Anyway, seeing as I can't keep up much with this sort of viral news, I only found out about the hullaballoo when my cousin sent me a Kristof Op Ed in the NYT, commenting on his confusion at the whole issue. I have not read the original Krakauer expose, nor seen the 60 minutes piece, but my interest was peaked enough to look at a New Yorker commentary on the affair by Peter Hessler.

It seems there are two major issues at play here, plus a less important third aspect. First is the question of financial mismanagement. Kristof seems to think (or wants to think) that perhaps Mortenson's sins were more due to incompetence than to avarice. He posits a guy that got into something that was outside of his competence, and too big to handle, and who has accordingly bumbled his way into financial wrongdoing. Not having read Krakauer's in-depth expose, I don't know the details of the situation, but I can see Kristof's view as plausible.

My wife and I work a lot with management of outside resources for projects of development and research, and have seen our fair share of mismanagement. Sometimes there is real, lawless greed operating, though usually in small things like a professor trying to comp himself excessively with travel costs or something. But more often the source of the problem is a mix of ignorance, financial and accounting illiteracy, and especially flaws in the structure of outside funding itself. Basically grants from government, contests, private resources, and the like involve a lot of slow bureaucracy. You often apply for funding for a given project starting on a given date, do everything right on your end, and still end up waiting because the funder doesn't comply with its own deadlines and schedules. So either you wait to start or advance on the project while the funding arrives, or you start anyway. The latter option entails either working some time without pay, or shifting finances around from other sources in the meanwhile, or a mix of both strategies. It's the second possibility, when you start temporarily shifting money around from one source to another, that you get into trouble, because usually money from a given source is legally required to be spent only on that source.

My point here is that my wife's and my experience working on development projects in a poor country has exposed us to a fair amount of financial mismanagement, and it is usually not a clear case of willful misconduct on the part of the perpetrator. Who knows if the conditions in Afghanistan are similar to those in Colombia? I would imagine so, because the funding for projects often comes from similar rich-world sources, with similar bureaucratic issues. More importantly, I don't know Mortenson's motivation or thinking in the case of his organization's financial misdeeds. Either way, the law is the law, and regardless of whether his recklessness with donated money is a result of incompetence or greed, it needs to stop. In my wife's and my case, usually the people we see doing financial no-nos are our friends and collaborators, so we give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn't mean to do wrong, but we insist that they fix their problems immediately, and we help them in doing so. In Mortenson's case we're talking about a huge charity with donations from lots of farflung strangers. So the process of fixing CAI and its finances will have to be less personal, less forgiving, and more official, and may result in some people being punished by the law.

Anyway, despite the longwinded commentary above, what interests me most actually isn't the financial side of the matter. It's the questions brought up by Hessler in his New Yorker piece. Essentially Hessler differentiates at least two types of international development work. On the one hand is the small-scale, culturally-sensitive work that he admires and ascribes to, and on the other is the bombastic celebrity philanthropy of people like Mortenson who promote big causes, big impact, and their own big fame.

On the latter point, I share Hessler's distaste with and distrust of huge-scale philanthropy. I appreciate that guys like Bono may have read a lot and studied firsthand many issues of development, but I'm not sure they should be the ones garnering all the attention or holding so much sway in discussions about international development. Even people like Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Clinton, who are perhaps more justifiably global figures in the development world, seem to be better at making big noise than making lasting development impacts. Look for example at Clinton's ineffectiveness in actually improving life in Haiti, despite his outsized pulpit and excessive influence in Haitian development. Or what ever happened to Sachs's Millenium Villages, which caused a big stir in the development world after his hagiographic autobiography, "The End of Poverty"? The Millenium Villages are still around, and seem to be doing well, but they are far from the wide-ranging, universal solution to African poverty that they were initially slated as. The STEPS center has been doing good in-depth research on this trend of celebrity philanthropy and its offshoots (like campaigns to buy consumer stuff that donates money to charity), and has more informed, nuanced contributions than I can offer.

On the other hand, I can't entirely reject large-scale development out of hand. If the goal of economic development is to improve as many people's lives as possible, then it's only reasonable for people to seek scale. In fact, the examples we are most aware of of successful development projects tend to be the large-scale ones. The US's rural electrification campaign, the GI Bill, the Homestead Act, these were large-scale government projects that were largely successful. Farther afield we see examples like China's impressive lifting of hundreds of millions out of abject poverty over the past decades, or Korea's transition from a poor country to a prosperous one. While the first examples are all of a country developing itself and helping its own people, the latter case of Korea, as well as other cases like the Green Revolution (which was an effective development project, despite its flaws), had important contributions from outside funders. Today much of the funding for development, even for the small-scale local development projects that Hessler and I believe in, comes from big entities like the World Bank, regional development banks, the Gates Foundation, etc. So I don't think we can totally discount the importance of "big development", though perhaps we can agree that the big actors in the development industry should focus on funding, and leave on-the-ground work to smaller, more local groups.

Another part of Hessler's commentary that I can't jump on board with is his seeming focus on personal qualities and personal motivations (this focus is also shared by Kristof in his NYT piece). Hessler posits that Mortenson is a "deeply disturbed individual", based on the recent reporting on his organizations. I don't know if this is the case or not, but frankly I don't give a damn, and I think it's a silly flaw of modern pop culture that we are always looking to psychologize celebrities we don't know (though I did much the same in a blog post some time ago on Pedro Sanchez and Jeffrey Sachs). I assume the point Hessler means to make with his assessments of Mortenson's persona is that usually the big personalities behind big charities are most interested with their own aggrandizement, to the detriment of their work. Big, grand thinking often doesn't get into details like knowing enough about a local reality to really know how to make a lasting impact there. I agree with this point, but Hessler's preachy tone and focus on cultural sensitivity sound almost like a self-righteous scolding, a paean to the humility and wisdom of Hessler and his local development-minded brethren. This detracts from what to me is the pertinent issue at hand: cultural insensitivity and a focus on heroic Western philanthropists isn't just ugly or not politically correct, but ineffective and wasteful of resources. In a sense Hessler could make the point that charities headed by people like Mortenson that focus more on book sales and fast, noticeable projects are inherently doomed to a bright, short trajectory leading to their ultimate failure. His focus on Mortenson's personal flaws distracts him from this central argument.

My last remark on the Hessler piece deals with what alternatives there are to Mortenson's model of development. The author doesn't tell us much about Rajeev Goyal, the person he starts his article with, but it seems that Goyal has implemented a number of small but very effective projects in a poor region of Nepal. This is one alternative to Mortenson's style. I would offer others--Paul Farmer's Partners in Health is an NGO that started small and local in Haiti, but has sort of joined the ranks of the international philanthropy celebrity scene. I don't know what Farmer thinks of his newfound fame, but I feel that his NGO is a good example of work that stays local and relevant in a number of places in the world, while taking advantage of growth and large-scale funding.

But I would also offer a warning. Where Mortenson's bombastic style is so culturally insensitive as to become ineffective, there are also many examples of projects that focus so much on the intangibles of "capacity-building" and "cultural sensitivity" that they too become irrelevant, basically a sort of outside-funded navel-gazing. I have often lamented the lack of hard, effective job opportunities in agricultural development (as in this essay on Kenneth Galbraith, who seems to favor the type of cultural development promoted by Hessler, as opposed to hard investments in infrastructure and buildings). Go to any development jobs site and you'll see mainly positions for things like "gender mainstreaming" or "governance". While these are important, they often deliver hazy, vacuous results, and I have met many local people in poor countries that are sick of outsiders focusing so much on these "soft" issues. They just want some cash or help to grow and market their produce!

Hessler states, "Mostly, I don’t believe that problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan stem from a lack of money or a lack of school buildings. There are deep-rooted cultural issues, as there are in any part of the developing world, where obstacles tend to be complicated and localized". To me, a dweller of the supposedly culturally-backward developing world, this seems like bullshit. Here in Colombia at least, most people's poverty has little to do with their own cultural shortcomings and more to do with large landholders and paramilitary groups that keep them from owning productive resources like land and water, or organizing themselves into unions. You could argue that Colombia's landholders and paramilitary groups are then the "complicated and localized" obstacles to which Hessler refers, but that's sort of a tautological definition of culture, whereby you can argue that everything and nothing is due to culture, from economy to politics. And the local-culture explanation of poverty is even weaker in Afghanistan. Afghanistan in the 1960s didn't seem to have any deep-rooted cultural issues preventing it from having doctors, schools, agricultural development, and the like, but everything went to shit after a series of wars involving the USSR, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and US rent the country into pieces. So aside from the high-up power struggles since the 1970s between monarchy, Communists, and lackeys of foreign powers, I don't see what Afghanistan's deep-rooted culture has had to do with the lamentable state caused by decades of war.

No, for me, it's precisely a lack of money, a lack of land title, a lack of school buildings that makes us poor in Colombia and many other places, so Hessler's statement seems like sophistry of the same order as Mortenson's admittedly "exoticizing", "infantilizing", "disrespectful" treatment of Pakistani and Afghan culture. In this aspect both Hessler and Mortenson remind me of a group my wife worked with, which justified its own mediocrity, its own lack of results in an indigenous zone by saying that the Indians were very difficult to pin down, so much so that the work group couldn't even hold the meetings they were supposed to, much less achieve the programmed results in collaboration with the local people. Really the group was just too lazy to get out and do what they had to do; as exotic and different as the Indians were, they were more interested than anyone in sitting down with outsiders to improve their lives.

Most of all, I'm sort of surprised at Hessler's treatment of the Peace Corps. He was a volunteer in China in the 1990s, and seems to have a generally positive impression of the experience. I, on the other hand, have often felt that Peace Corps is the worst manifestation of precisely the type of large-scale, ineffective development that Hessler condemns. Peace Corps is an arm of US foreign policy, and as such can never be expected to prioritize local development above all else. It is subordinate to US aims. Beyond this, most of the Peace Corps volunteers I've met were either overly confident about their impact (mini-Greg Mortensons, if you will), or despondent and disdainful at the stupidity of local people and of the Peace Corps projects. Indeed, what is the intended utility of teaching English to people in remote villages in Chad, or sending suburban 20-year-olds with a gender studies major from Sarah Lawrence College to teach farming techniques to Vietnamese who've been farming for millennia?

Hessler seems to believe in Peace Corps's value in opening up cultures to outside influences. He claims that contact with the outside world is the most important step towards development. There are of course many definitions and ways of envisioning economic and cultural development, and I see the historical sense in Hessler's vision of contact as the doorway to development, but it's a very problematic vision. Did France develop economically thanks to its contact with other countries and cultures? If so, why did France remain a backwards feudal society during thousands of years of contact with other countries in Europe and North Africa? I would assert that the economic development of most countries had to do with industrialization (which was an autonomous invention in many cases), and a phase of conquering and pillaging other countries, which allowed an infusion of capital and raw materials. Of course contact with the outside world, for better or for worse, also played its role in the birth of new ideas and ways of organizing society in many places, but the idea that development can only arise from contact with other countries is too contentious for Hessler to throw it out as if everyone agreed on it.

Above all Hessler apparently values the Peace Corps for the small-scale cultural exchanges and goodwill that occur between volunteers and local people. He's probably right--I believe this was much of what Kennedy had in mind when he founded the Corps. But most Peace Corps volunteers I've talked to have said that the experience was mostly of use to them, and much less so to the people they were supposedly helping. I'm not sure that we should be using public funds to subsidize the self-discovery of elite private school graduates on their way to an internship at a Washington Senator's office, before they go on to become lawyers that contribute no tangible net economic benefit to society as a whole. And I imagine the villagers "aided" by these Peace Corps volunteers, as much as they may like them personally, would probably rather that the US had spent the money there on an irrigation pump or a milk processing shed or something.

The last, minor issue that seems to be at play with the whole Mortenson affair is that a lot of people feel duped. This is something my mother helped me realize. She has read both of Mortenson's books (though she admits to skipping some of the longer passages of heroic mountain-climbing in "Three Cups of Tea"), and was an admirer of him. She has shared his books with many friends, and now feels betrayed by someone she believed in, as well as culpable for passing on the lie to others. The majority of people in the US are not development experts, and do not spend inordinate amounts of time like I do parsing the minutiae of development news and discourse. They are hardworking people with good hearts that would like to share the fruits of their labor with others, so aside from working in their local community, we in the US often donate to groups working abroad. There is a general awareness that different NGOs are differentially effective in administering money and creating impact where they work, and surely we're aware that all charities, like any business, engage in a certain amount of media manipulation, engineering a public image to boost donations (for what they believe is a worthy cause). Mortenson's sin for donors or admirers then was the degree of inefficiency in its work and the degree of dedication to media manipulation, both of which achieved a level that is unacceptable to most of the public. Having read Hessler's piece, and having thought more about it myself, perhaps it should be (or should have been) obvious that a charity with flashy books and a larger-than-life saint at its helm is not to be trusted (I exempt Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, whose fame seems to have arrived without their own volition). But if my mother, who is particularly savvy about development and charity work, and even I, a self-proclaimed expert on agrarian issues, were duped by Mortenson this time, who can be safe? I guess we'll know next time. Perhaps effective development work is like when Elijah goes to the mountain to hear God. God wasn't in the earthquake, or the dashing wind, or the great consuming fire, but rather a small voice, inaudible to those caught up in the big noise.

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