I confess I have 2 Mortenson books at home- passed on to me by my mother that I have not read (well, I think I read two chapters). But she tells me that the books are very popular with teachers and have inspired many children in North America.
So the recent 60 Minute expose has me very worried. So many people see Greg Mortenson as a hero. I can only see a few outcomes from this expose… denial that something is wrong or complete disillusionment. Neither are good.
I don’t care so much about Mortenson making up his stories- except that he has photos of his alleged Taliban abductors! What incredible disrespect for the people in those photos. Those are real people and it is not our right to manipulate the truth to suit our means or to tell a good story. Mortenson is certainly not the first to do this. In fact charities do this on a daily basis to convince people to donate to them.
What worries me as well is the complete lack of financial accountability to the people he claims to be helping (not to mention the donors). Schools built and left empty, poorly constructed additions to schools, and schools that have not received funding from Central Asia Institute in years.
So what can a donor learn from this?
1. Start with how the charity portrays its recipients.
You can’t determine whether a person is Taliban or not. But you can choose charities that are respectful of how they portray their recipients. Charities love to tug at your heart strings- using bloated bellies, flies, and tears. I ask myself a few simple questions before I put any photo on my website- would I be comfortable using this image if it was my own child? What does this image portray- hope or despair?
2. Stop getting reeled in by the story!
We love the big stories- the drama and excitement. We love building things too. Sure there may be cases where a school doesn’t exist. But my experience is there are also many existing schools that don’t have a library, don’t have electricity, don’t have proper latrines, don’t have science equipment, don’t have enough money to pay the teachers…
3. Think about the long term.
Speaking of the point above… We are so fixated on the idea of building something new, we forget to think about the long term. Who will pay the teachers? Who will maintain the school? What happens to the existing school down the street that loses its students to the flashy new one?
4. Realize this is not about us.
Really it is not… There is nothing wrong with feeling good about donating money or helping out. But make sure there is local input into the program. Many projects fail simply because the local community does not take ownership of it. They are the ones who will ensure the success long term, long after we have moved on with our lives. If there is local ownership, then there is a better chance that school will be thriving for years to come.
So what questions can you ask before you donate?
- Why did you decide to start this project?
- What does the local government think of what you are doing?
- What does the local community think of what you are doing?
- Have you assessed what is already available in the local area?
- How will you work towards local ownership?
- How will you work towards long term sustainability?