26 May 2010

Three Cups of Bulls***

I have always refrained from saying too much when people have asked me if I read Three Cups of Tea.  I guess I do not want to get into a lengthy discussion (in reality rant) about how Mr. Mortensen made a bunch of huge mistakes and somehow came out with success (measured by an Oprah book club book about him).

The blog Double Negative took on the book this past January.  For the most part, I want to share the thoughts of the author and then add a little bit of my own to the end.

DN writes:

So why do I hate it? The dude, bless his poor lumbering heart, got ripped off. He ain’t no saint. He came to the same old conclusions all development professionals have known for years – invest in women, invest in communities, empower locals. Fight Islamic extremism in poverty alleviation and improved access to education. Talk to the locals.

----- (I love that DN just rhymed ain’t and saint)----

When you work in the field and you meet yahoos who have been inspired by this kind of book and have ditched everything to “DO something”; and have to stoop to the level of this book to discuss what you do…. you get a bit sensitive about this sort of thing.

I don’t begrudge Mortensen for doing what he did. Bully for him. Really. But please, don’t assume that the dude approach to development is how things should work.

One thing I always say about Mortensen is that he should be the template of what not to do.  He stumbled into a town, lost, and made a stupid promise to come back and build a school.  He, by luck, found one giant funder, went back to build the school and was asked to build more.  Thinking that he had already pulled it off once, he agreed to build more.  The experience allowed for him learn how to practice good development, but it took a massive amount of luck and bad decisions to get there.

What is most damaging is the fact that his story perpetuates the idea that wanting to help is enough to make everything alright.  We have the resources that others do not.  It becomes easy to think that we can drop in and save some lives.  There is some truth to that, but success must also be measured in terms of sustainability and continuity.  Creating an NGO that remains in one place for decades is a failure.  People need to hear that and they need to demand more out of the longstanding NGOs that have done little to remedy this problem.

I do not want to go too far into this because I feel wrong to tread on ground that has already been sown.  Tales from the Hood highlights and adds to a great post by Carla Murphy (no relation) that addresses what books like Three Cups of Tea help to continue.  I suggest checking out the links to read more. 

Here is just a clip from Miss Murphy’s post:

Do something, anything is like USDA grade D meat. It's the lowest standard of human intervention in the plight of another. But the American public accepts and nurtures it because our humanitarian value system is the run-off of a foreign aid project that, in large part, privileges donor wishes over the needs of the receiver. There are arguments to be made for doing so but none excuse the fact that morally, according to humanitarian precepts, this is wrong. Real world bulletin: some lives are more valuable than others. I say that with as much feeling and judgment as I'd say, the sky is blue. It's an unremarkable fact of human life. What I cannot tolerate though, is the pretense of doing more than we actually are. I cannot tolerate the dressing of a low standard in the purple robes of a high one.


HT to TalesFromthHood