Making sense of Mortenson

All day long I have been utterly fascinated with the revelations about Greg Mortenson’s falsehoods and mismanagement of his organization, the Central Asia Insitute, which he created to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I vowed to write a lengthy essay tonight to get out all the thoughts this episode has provoked — but it’s 1:00 AM and I still haven’t finished the esteemed Jon Krakauer’s 75-page exposé, “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way.” Thus, I offer just a few disjointed comments, pending my completion of the article and, ahem, the book.

First, let me suggest a partial reading/watching list, which my Twitter feed should continue to augment in the next few days:

  • Ideally, at least one of Mortenson’s books, especially Three Cups of Tea. In fact, I haven’t read them, though they have been recommended and gifted to me on numerous occasions.
  • The 60 Minutes episode from Sunday, 4/17/11.
  • Mortenson’s response in an Outside magazine interview.
  • CAI/Mortenson’s response to 60 Minutes’s questions (I believe they came too late to make it into the program).
  • A blog of the Economist parsing of one of at least two insidiously racist assertions in Mortenson’s Outside responses: that the “archaic” Balti language makes locals unfit to retell the dates of his arrival in their village. As a friend who is an anthropology professor specializing in this region wrote to me: “I find that claim to be rather dubious. Even if their language is an archaic dialect of Tibetan, Baltis have been Muslim for centuries and are presumably well acquainted with the Islamic clandar. Also presumably there would be at least one or two teachers or officials in even the smallest village who would be invested in being modern. Or there would be in China at any rate…”The other insidiously racist passage (and shameless passing of the buck) is Mortenson’s suggestion that there is something called a “confidence trick” in “Africa and Asia” whereby local staff take advantage of donors after years of gaining their trust. While certainly possible, this is not limited to Africa and Asia (dude, I’ve heard about some stuff working for the San Francisco city government, believe you me), and is just a lazy reference to a trope, which is an artifact of colonial times, about the dangers of the wily native.
  • Finally, and most importantly, read Krakauer’s article (downloadable for free for about the next 48 hours). It’s astonishing —  even if I haven’t finished it yet — not least because the CAI/Mortenson fabrications occurred in plain view for a decade and a half.

This affair illuminates an intersection of many social and political issues. It’s about much more than the individual, Mortenson. I’m thinking here of the narratives of GWOT; the fundamental problems with accountability of private nongovernmental work overseas; the unquestioning of the American public when we are spoon-fed facile stories of foreign lands populated with casts of wild-eyed fundamentalists, noble savages, and their helpless babies, who need us oh so much.

More deeply, it makes me suspicious of charity as a solution to complex problems. The violence and inequality in regions such as AfPak — and indeed the world — are political in origin and demand political solutions. To the extent that we can ameliorate problems with charity, without also reforming the power imbalances, laws, and crippled economies beneath them, we sometimes risk simply whitewashing, and we will necessarily create cases like Mortenson/CAI.

And the truly saddening thing is that a lot of evidence shows we want to continue believing fairy tales like Mortenson’s rather than face the difficult necessity of reforming our relationship with the world. A saccharine story and a donation are exponentially easier to digest than the systemic reform that is truly needed for any lasting change.

Take the fan base’s responses to Krakauer and 60 Minutes. Monitoring the comments to the articles above and the #Mortenson Twitter feed, it is easy to see that many, many people are ready to forgive Mortenson, without further ado.

His heart was in the right place. He really raised awareness about the need for education. Sure, some money was wasted, but a lot of it ended up in good places. The media is sensationalist. It’s a beautiful vision.

Please, please, don’t take our easy, breezy bedtime story away from us…

Echoes of colonialism in war strategy

Statue of General Charles Gordon, the British "martyr" of the Sudanese River Wars. Photo: Brian Herrington Spier.

I hate to beat the same old imperialism horse over and over, but come on, now. Revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book — about Obama’s military strategists’ push for a bigger war commitment in Afghanistan — are hard not to read without thinking about the West’s long colonial history in Asia and Africa. (See WaPo article.) Some of the comments could be taken out of Winston Churchill’s memoirs of his swashbuckling pre-politics days in Africa. Witness, attributed to Petraeus:

You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.

In other words, long-term occupation of foreign lands is necessary for their — and our — advancement? Sounds a little too familiar.

On Planet Money’s “just give the oil money away” report

Photo by Jonathan Wheeler. Used with a Creative Commons license.

My favorite podcast, Planet Money, had a great report last week on a novel idea for avoiding the resource curse: just give the revenues away to a country’s citizens. The report was prompted by the announcement of huge deposits of precious minerals in Afghanistan and the discovery of oil in the last couple of years in Ghana — a country that desperately wants to avoid having its economy or government end up anything like Nigeria‘s, where there’s been a decades-long oil bonanza.

It’s easy to see the potential benefits of giving money away to poor people, if you’re at all sympathetic to the idea that welfare systems work to stimulate economies. Giving disposable income to people with pressing needs is great for boosting a country’s economic growth — a poor person who gets $100 will immediately inject it back into the economy by spending it on pressing needs, whereas a rich person might stick it in a savings account. Also, individuals may be better suited to decide what their needs are — and use money for innovative ventures — than bureaucracies, NGOs and government contractors (who might very well have corrupt relationships with those handing out the contracts).

But as you’ll see when you listen to the podcast, the idea is incomplete. Probably the biggest flaw is the fact that there are many collective ventures — schools, roads, hospitals — that individuals are in no position to take on, no matter how much extra income they have. (The advocates of the system would tax the transfers to pay for this, but it doesn’t seem like enough.)

Still, it’s funny to hear a Nigerian oil official in the podcast claim that individuals would do a bad job of allocating their payouts — it’s hard to imagine the situation getting much worse than it is when it comes to squandering the Delta’s riches.

It seems to me there’s a strong argument for having a big portion of oil revenues — but not all — earmarked for cash transfers. Whatever the solution to ending the resource curse and improving revenue transparency in extractive industries around the world, one important element is going to be getting more good journalism like Planet Money’s — but even more from local media — on the topic. Once again, I will shamelessly plug the report I wrote with several classmates on this subject: There Will Be Ink. Great title, huh?

“It’s different when they’re Muslims”: the GWOT narrative is still alive

In many ways, the Sunday New York Times long article on Anwar al-Awlaki — the American Muslim cleric who they say inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the underpants bomber and Faisal Shahzad — is excellent journalism. It tells the complicated story of a man who was once considered a model, moderate Muslim after 9/11, decamped to Yemen as GWOT amped up, and is now said to be abetting Al Qaeda. The story is thorough and nuanced, and the breadth of sources is impressive.

But there’s something that concerns me about the whole premise of our collective inquiry into what drove Shahzad to try to bomb Times Square, and it’s encapsulated in this front-page story. There is an assumption that the driving force behind Shahzad and others’ turn to violence is powerful and poisonous rhetoric. This ignores the many other factors — many of them material, not ideological — that likely contribute to radicalization. We thus miss the full explanation for why so many angry men are attracted to the idea of waging random violence on Americans.

The Times story focuses on Awlaki as a man with a power of persuasion rooted in his total comfort with American culture (he was born in New Mexico) and his “beautiful tongue,” as one person described it. I have not watched the man’s sermons, but it seems probable this is an accurate assessment.

The interesting thing, though, is that law enforcement — and to some degree the newspaper — draw the conclusion that Awlaki’s charm and power as a speaker make him exceptionally dangerous, and a prime cause of individuals’ radicalization. His sermons alone are said to have the power to “brainwash.” The article suggests that there is a break — sometimes fuzzy, but very real — between Awlaki’s “benign” early sermons and his (malignant, I guess) later material.

The analysis of Awlaki’s character and influence is flawed for two reasons. One, it implicitly describes two versions of Islam in a special way that Western commentators reserve only for that religion. Two, it mostly ignores all the material and social pressures that are creating terrorists, and thus deceptively and erroneously elevates Awlaki’s power. Let me treat these two main flaws in turn. Continue reading

Afghanistan: Ain’t no time to wonder why

On a sweltering day at Woodstock in 1969, the band Country Joe and the Fish did something that every Eighties Baby born to hippies knows well.

First, they led the crowd in a rousing chant of the word “fuck”, just for the heck of it. Nowadays, when soft-porn club bangers saturate the radio, the fact that shouting “fuck” was a show-stopper seems downright quaint.

But Country Joe’s second moment of lasting fame—a rousing, angry anthem condemning the Vietnam War—should continue to give us pause today.

“Ain’t no time to wonder why,” he sang. “Whoopee, we’re all gonna die!” Continue reading

Afghanistan: why ask why?

The dedication of 17,000 more troops — with no real explanation about what they are to accomplish, or what the long-term plan for Afghanistan is — is possibly my first real beef with Obama’s policy.

The news comes at the same time that we are learning NATO has killed an astounding number of civilians in Afghanistan in the last year (not to mention Pakistan). In fact, NATO forces have killed nearly as many civilians as the “Taliban insurgents”. If our mission in Afghanistan was not already shaky enough, these facts certainly blur the morality of our presence there even more.

What I want is for people to ask why. Why are we sending thousands of young people abroad with guns to a rural country with a widespread insurgency that we still seem to barely understand? What can we accomplish with bombs in a country that has already been bombed into submission a million times? How can we fight militants who are clothed, fed and sheltered by civilian populations, militants who apparently enjoy some kind of broad support base that allows them to keep coming back? How long will we be there?

What’s our plan for Afghanistan?

It’s time to start hearing some questions like these in our press. We didn’t ask them sufficiently before Vietnam, or Iraq. And look what happened.

Sometimes Afghanistan is just like Gaza

‘In a statement, Colonel O’Hara said, “[F]orces exercised great restraint and prevented any civilian casualties at the same time the enemy placed the whole village in harm’s way by operating the way they do.”’

Besides the fact that O’Hara is an unlikely last name for an Israeli colonel, it’s hard to tell whether this statement applies to Gaza, Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, it’s part of an American response to accusations that U.S. Special Ops killed 13 civilians in a raid on an Afghan village this month.

As the world (rightly) remains outraged at the destruction in Gaza, it’s good to remember that the U.S.A. continues a similar campaign in Afghanistan. The parallels should not be overstated–after all, Afghanistan is not our neighbor as Gaza is Israel’s. But these Afghan civilian deaths seem to take place further from the world’s attention than those in Gaza.

Let’s keep our eye on them, and keep pressuring Obama to make changes to his policy in addition to his rhetoric.