23 April 2011

Why Didn't You Say So?

I guess it is easy to say this, but I had hopped not to write a post that reflects on the Greg Mortenson and Central Asia Institute blow-up. I thought plenty have written excellent articles and posts already. However, something keeps nagging at me. Why are so many people coming out and saying, "I knew it," after the story broke?

Amanda Taub at Wronging Rights said:
When I first heard about 3 Cups of Tea and CAI, I wondered if they were actually running schools, or just building them. The emphasis on the latter seemed weird. Buildings are nice, but surely "lack of freestanding dedicated structures" wasn't the main barrier to education in poor, rural areas that lacked infrastructure and transportation links? I actually read the book, ages ago, in the hope of finding out how CAI was handling teacher recruitment, salary, and curriculum issues. It did not answer my questions, but at the time I didn't see that as a sign of foul play. I figured that either (a) such bureaucratic details had been sacrificed in service of narrative, or (b) they were just building buildings, which is kind of lame.
Peter Hessler of the New Yorker had heard concerns before:
Last September, when I was researching a profile of Rajeev Goyal, an American development worker, I asked what he thought about the book “Three Cups of Tea.”

...Rajeev paused for a moment. “It seemed to be mostly about the author, about everything he accomplished,” he said slowly. “And that story is about quantity, about the number of schools built.” Rajeev said his own work had convinced him that construction projects are overvalued, and sometimes they can even have a negative impact on a community. He believed that teacher training and other cultural factors have more value. “A good teacher sitting under a tree can do more than a bad teacher in a new building,” he said. “That’s why I don’t want to do school construction anymore. It might have been a mistake. It’s a good instinct, as you want to help, but maybe it’s not the best thing.”

I asked about his impressions of Mortenson. “I kind of felt sorry for him,” Rajeev said. “That was my reaction reading the book. He must have low self-esteem.”
In Foreign Policy Alanna Shaikh:
The whole CAI model was wrong. But here's the truly awful thing: Looking back, it's clear that everyone knew that that CAI's approach didn't work. It was just that no one wanted to talk about it...

Mountaineers, it turns out, have also known all along that the origin story of Three Cups of Tea was a myth.
So, everyone knew that the origin myth and knew that the CAI model had problems. Yet, writers like Nick Kristof took to the New York Times to fawn over the great work being done by CAI. How come nobody said anything? Alanna thinks that it has to do with the narrative and what we hope in international development.
We wanted to believe that sometimes, international aid really is that easy, that a clueless amateur with a heart of gold can bring change in a region that has defeated the experts. If an amateur could pull this feat off, just think what professionals could manage in the future, doing things right. Nobody wanted to pay too much attention to the details because it would have ruined a good story.
OK, I buy that for myself since I read the book before really knowing anything. However, it sounds like some people knew the whole time and either did not say anything or went unheard.

I recently saw a large chuck of the bad film Valentine's Day. There is a scene where Ashton Kutcher's character runs into the airport to prevent his best friend, played by Jennifer Garner, from getting on the plane to surprise her new boyfriend who turns out to have a wife and family. Having just been dumped by his fiancée, Kutcher's character is distraught to hear all of his friends say that they knew it wasn't going to work. He tries to prevent it from happening to his friend, saying:
That's what I'm doing here. Because apparently everyone and their mother felt that way but nobody had the guts to tell me. And now, I'm left with some stupid ring and an empty closet and an ache in my gut the size of Texas because nobody told me.
I think this sums up the way that many people feel after hearing the allegations against Mortenson laid out by Krakauer and 60 Minutes. In the scene, Garner eschews the advice of her friend and gets on the plane.

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So how do we prevent this from happening again? I think Alanna is right that people want simple stories and heroes. We want extraordinary but possible. Mortenson's story was unique but sounded like one that anybody could have done if they worked hard enough and had the dedication to a cause.

Sadly, people knew better from the start and this is why I think that aid blogs matter and should improve. This is the place to work out ideas and share constructive thoughts. It has worked to prevent a bad idea (1 Million Shirts) and failed to prevent a similar one (100K Shirts). Concerns can be brought up and discussed through this space long before it gets to this moment with Mortenson.

Maybe there are readers who want to share something they know. Use the space. This is where information can be distributed and it is not limited to saying that someone did not actually stumble into a village after failing to climb K2. This is where you can share what has worked in your personal experience so that others can learn from your lessons.

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To finish this meandering post, I want to share something that was told to me today. I have been conducting interviews with the Knowledge Management team with UNICEF and the one today go to discussing the access of information. I was struck when the gentleman I was interviewing said, "There are hundreds of offices and thousands of people in UNICEF. Any idea that I come with has likely been already done by 50 people and better than what I had imagined." We need to access this information and share it with each other so that a story like this will not go the same route.

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