Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Greg Mortenson's lame reply

Here's Greg Mortenson's non-informational pity-gram, which only makes it worse.  What a shame.


I welcome and am used to facing criticism, which sometimes even turns into hostility and threats, over the important work we do in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As an introvert and shy person, it is also not easy to have to enter an arena of a media circus at the drop of a heartbeat. But, as those of you who know me and have supported my work over the years will recognize, the story being framed by "60 Minutes" to air in a few hours today - as far as we can tell -- paints a distorted picture using inaccurate information, innuendo and a microscopic focus on one year's (2009) IRS 990 financial, and a few points in the book "Three Cups of Tea" that occurred almost 18 years ago. Apparently, the CBS program is to be followed in the near future by a similar negative piece by Jon Krakauer in an unknown magazine, which I only recently heard about last week.


Here's an alternative from a friend:


I saw your first item today and I feel compelled to share about an organization that may help ease the pain of the Greg Mortenson disappointment.

Between teaching and grad school I worked for an organization - BuildOn.  They are the real deal.  They focus on getting students in the U.S.  involved in meaningful on-going service in their communities (mostly urban) and they help build schools in extremely impoverished countries (Haiti, Malawi, Mali, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Senegal).  Once a year they combine the two parts of their program and take students on immersion trips to villages to help begin the school construction process.  The construction process involves the signing of a covenant that guarantees girls can go to school.  Their buildings are made to have a 100 year life span.  Their founder is a charismatic, but not ego-driven guy named Jim Ziolkowski.  He too was inspired by a trip through the Himalayas, but you won't see his story all over their website. 

I will stop there for now, but BuildOn is a great non-profit - their honorary board chair is President Obama, who became involved well before he was in the White House.  They have built almost 400 schools since they began in 1992 - about the same time as TFA.  They were among the first to get schools built in Haiti because they were already there.

I hope this news boosts your spirits on this front.


And here are some comments from Nelson Smith, former President (and now Senior Advisor) of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (his email is:


This is one of those stories I might have ignored, except that I had the good fortune to go to Pakistan in February, for a conference in Lahore sponsored by the US-Muslim Engagement Project. This was right after the Raymond Davis incident and tensions were high , but a few of us did manage to get away from the campus where the meetings were held and see some schools (which looked exactly like the ones in the story) and meet some "real people" – all of whom welcomed us with open arms and offers of tea, which in one case came with freshly-squeezed water buffalo milk.  Mortenson's book was mentioned often by the Americans delegates, who included a former ambassador; it was seen as the definitive text on life in Pakistan. I suspect it will remain that, even if the specifics of his story are discredited, because so much of it is true. The public education system is a shambles, a joke. One school we visited had a single "headmaster" trying to maintain control of 160 kids with no teachers present - -there was no learning going on. At the same time there are some extraordinary Pakistanis (several of whom were at our conference) who have set up networks of private schools, with just their own resources and what they can get from fundraising, and they're actually providing hope for these kids.  I would put these folks in a class with our own best social entrepreneurs, and we're working on some exchange efforts between US charter schools and their schools. (I'm also trying to raise a few bucks to get some of their people over here for the national charter conference and would appreciate any suggestions!)


The worst possible outcome of the 60 Minutes piece would be for people to assume that nothing good is going on, and that Central Asia is such terra incognita that no one can be trusted. People who might otherwise get involved are already being scared off by the security situation, and the increased tensions between Pakistan and the US. But there are remarkable people on both sides who are trying to keep an eye on the long-run needs like basic education. In a way, Mortenson's celebrity may have obscured their work – I just hope this creates some kind of opportunity to shine a better-focused light.

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