Sunday, July 25, 2010

Three Cups of Tea

Posted by Chris at 12/18/2008 1:08 PM...

A couple of months ago I began reading books like Playing Cards in Cairo (see my comments here) and Three Cups of Tea as an effort to develop more of a feel for the cultures of different parts of the Middle East. Books like these get classified as "leisure" reading because they are so enjoyable to read, and I don't expect to have to pull facts and arguments out of them. In other words, there's no stress involved, unlike the other 90% of my reading load (try having to explain St. Augustine's City of God Against the Pagans after only six days to read it sometime).

Three Cups of Tea is the story of Greg Mortenson, a former mountain climber who experienced an epiphany of sorts following a failed attempt to climb K2. When he finally stumbled off the mountain, Mortenson was saved by the hospitality of villagers in Pakistan's Karakoram mountains. Overwhelmed by both the villagers' generosity and and their extreme poverty, Mortenson pledged to return to the village of Korphe to build a school for its children. The villagers, of course, didn't really believe him. Returning to Pakistan after raising money to build the school, Mortenson faced issues of corruption and making the contacts to get the work done. He also found that before building a school for Korphe, the villagers wanted and needed something even more basic - a bridge allowing communication between Korphe and Skardu across the river gorge separating them. A bridge would make it easier to bring supplies in to build the school, allow villagers to visit family on the other side of the gorge, and hopefully help Korphe's economy.

Over the next decade, Mortenson built fifty-five schools in remote areas, focusing on the need for education for girls. Along the way, he faced challenges from local imams opposed to educating girls, encounters with the Taliban, and struggles for funding. He ultimately turned down funding from the United States government to build hundreds of his schools after 2001 because he realized that the taint of government association would undo any good the schools could provide.

Ignoring the hagiographic nature of the text, which journalist David Oliver Relin wrote in cooperation with Mortenson, it contains several important messages for American efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The first is that there is no cookie cutter approach to dealing with these areas. The siting, size, and construction of the schools has to be fitted to the individual towns. Infrastructure and political groundwork have to be created in each village - like Korphe's bridge. Funding for upkeep and to pay teachers is also critical - one of the current criticisms with American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan is that schools and hospitals are built without providing supplies or staff. A second important, even critical message, is that personal relationships are the key to getting things done. A faceless bureaucracy of interchangeable staff won't do the trick. Mortenson developed the relationships that allowed his successes over the course of years of return visits. For this reason, relief efforts cannot by run from the United States. The responsible parties have to be onsite to ensure that things run smoothly. Finally, there is the question of government involvement. Even in these strained times, the U.S. government has the capability to organize and direct vast resources, but that involvement can also be counterproductive whe it comes to dealing with people in the remote reaches of the globe. This creates a conundrum for efforts to bring schools and clinics to rural areas - slow progress due to lack of funding and staff, or fast progress of questionable value.

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