Mortenson’s fall from grace has hardly come as a surprise to the people in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, who spotted some of the flaws in his organisation early on
I have to admit I enjoyed reading Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, a couple of years ago when I visited Gilgit-Baltistan and was encouraged by the locals to pick up a copy. After all, a relatively unknown American had written about their remote mountainous region and put them on the global map.
I found it to be an adventurous tale, often moving at times. However, there were several glaring holes in the story – what persuaded him to venture into the tribal area of Waziristan (strictly no foreigners allowed) where he is allegedly kidnapped by the Taliban? Then there were all the truckloads of materials that had to be loaded in Rawalpindi to be heroically taken up north via the dizzying Karakoram highway to build the schools. How strange, for in Skardu, the nearest big town to the mountain K-2, one can get anything from bunsen burners to bags of cement.
But perhaps the most obvious omission as Mortenson pursues his “one-man mission to promote peace … one school at a time” was that there was no mention at all of the Aga Khan Development Network that has quietly built more than 280 schools in Gilgit-Baltistan since the early 1980s. This mountain region is home to a sizeable population of Ismailis, who regard Prince Karim Aga Khan (who is based in Chantilly, outside Paris) as their spiritual leader. He founded the AKDN several decades ago and regularly visits the region. The Aga Khan was last in Baltistan in 2009 to inaugurate the picturesque Shigar Fort Hotel, which ploughs its profits back into the community.
Today the Gilgit-Baltistan region has one of the highest literacy rates inPakistan. The Aga Khan schools are mostly English medium, where children learn from teachers trained at special centres set up by the Aga Khan Education Services. Nowhere is this covered by the book, which makes it sound like Mortenson had to tackle this problem single handedly, in the educational wilderness of the Hindu Kush/Karakoram mountain ranges.
I had quietly thought to myself then and wonder aloud now, why didn’t he just plug himself into their large and competent network? Why did he not partner his schools with them, thereby ensuring a better chance of success in the long term? He could have continued to build the schools and they would have provided the teachers, solving many of the problems he encounters in the book. He must surely have heard of them, you can’t drive for a couple of miles before running into a sign proclaiming the presence of the AKDN in the area.
“Education is not promoted by the building of schools, you need a whole infrastructure and organisation to support it,” says Izhar Hunzai, the head of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, while agreeing that Mortenson did indeed build several schools in the high-altitude villages and inaccessible valleys of Baltistan.
Given the backdrop of the extensive work done by the Aga Khan’s network in health and education in the area, the local people did not exactly regard Greg as their hero or saviour. That was the yarn sold to the unaware American public. Mortenson had a good story to sell and he sold it well to a gullible western audience. They bought his books, earning him the large profits that are now going to be scrutinised by the attorney general in Montana (where Mortenson lives), among other sources of funding.
Back in Gilgit-Baltistan, Mortenson’s fall from grace has hardly come as a surprise to the local people. According to Gohar Abbas, an investigative journalist from the upper Gojal region of Gilgit: “Perhaps the biggest problem with Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute was that there was no proper organisational structure in place.”
During his investigations into the girls hostels set up by the institute in Rawalpindi last year for students displaced by the large lake that has formed in Gojal after a landslide blocked the Hunza river, Abbas discovered that the sole person in charge of the hostels was a 23-year-old whose father happens to be working with Mortenson as director of operations. “The people of our area, which has an almost 100% literacy rate, are familiar with the work of NGOs and expect very high-level work done in a professional manner,” he explained. “This was more like a one-man show.”
Mortenson’s one-man mission is now floundering as accusations pour in and few rush to defend him, not even in Pakistan. Perhaps his heart was in the right place, but his approach was clearly flawed. Perhaps the money could have been better used – but it might be too late to change course. Greg Mortenson has unwittingly endangered the few schools that he has built in Pakistan’s remote mountain valleys – I hope, for the sake of the local people, that his schools find a way to keep going.