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February 2017 posts

Development is Dangerous

By Jonathan B. Wight

I’ve been reading a stunning book about economic development in Central Asia, Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It’s a bit old (2006) but came recommended.

It’s the inspiring story of a K2 mountain climber (Mortenson) who is so moved by the poverty and lack of education especially for girls in Northwestern Pakistan, that he set up a foundation to help.  Amidst many hardships, including being kidnapped by the Taliban, our hero painstakingly fights against the enemies of ignorance to build more than a hundred schools in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

PakistanAs the book went on, my credulity began to suffer.  These stories seemed too grandiose, dangerous, and harrowing for any one character to have experienced.  Moreover, I questioned why physical buildings were used as the benchmark for development when so much else was lacking including books, teachers, and so on.  There is a donor bias for buildings that they can see and take photos of.  Hence physical structures are almost always overfunded relative to the programming and development costs.  I consciously decided to finish the book before doing any checking. 

But glad to check I was!  Turns out much of the story was exaggerated or made up, including the part about the kidnapping by the Taliban, according to various exposes by 60 Minutes and others.  Jon Krakauer published an e-book called Three Cups of Deceit (2011).

Peter Hessler in The New Yorker interviewed a development worker, who gave this insightful critique:

“[T]hat story is about quantity, about the number of schools built.” Rajeev [Goyal] said his own work had convinced him that construction projects are overvalued, and sometimes can even have a negative impact on a community. People might become dependent on outsiders, and corruption can become a problem.”

“Building materials and methods may be inappropriate, especially if money comes from far away and there’s little oversight. Foreign-funded structures have a tendency to overuse cement, which can change local construction patterns in environmentally damaging ways, especially in dry parts of Central Asia.

Rajeev believed that teacher training and other cultural factors often 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.”

There are plenty of other ethical issues with the Central Asia Institute that Mortenson set up.  Financing and spending were opaque and allegations of corruption (both in the U.S. and Pakistan) abounded.  The experience of reading this inspiring book (yes, I’m naïve) and then pulling back the curtain to discover the ethical dysfunction was thoroughly depressing.  Very sad to learn that the co-author, the respected journalist David Oliver Relin, committed suicide in 2012.  No one has suggested that he was involved in the duplicity, but he paid a high price for it. 

[Photo source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Neelum_Valley_Kashmir_Pakistan_3.jpg]