And a media feeding frenzy too

But educating girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan remains a worthy aim


Greg Mortenson, the former climber and author of the bestselling Three Cups of Tea,   a 2006 memoir about building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been attacked, on both sides of the pond, for inconsistencies and alleged fabrications in his book (which has sold 4 million copies).  US generals  have admired the book as has Laura Bush. US president Barack Obama even donated part of his Nobel prize money to the CAI charity run by Mortensen.  However, Jon Krakauer, a writer of popular mountaineering books and an early donor to Mr Mortenson’s charity, CAI, levelled the charges  last month in an e-book called Three Cups of Deceit. The deceit lies allegedly in three areas. First, writes Mr Krakauer, the narrative that opens Mr Mortenson’s book is untrue. In 1993, Mr Mortenson claims, he turned back from an attempt to climb K-2, lost his guide and wandered into a desperately poor mountain village. What he did subsequently was informed by his wish to repay villagers for saving his life.  Mr Krakauer says he didn’t see that village until much later. Second, says Mr Krakauer, Mr Mortenson fabricated an account of his kidnapping at the hands of the Taliban. Third, he inaccurately describes his schools as being on the “front lines of the War on Terror”, when the parts of Pakistan in which many are found are relatively calm. (Pakistans border with Afghanistan -calm? Come again!) An airing of Mr Krakauer’s charges on the US  Sunday evening television news show 60 Minutes,last month , has brought  what is termed ‘the scandal’ to the attention of people who may not have known much about  Mr Mortenson’s book to begin with. Mortensen claims, and there is irrefutable evidence that this is the case,  to have opened many schools focused on educating girls and young  women, often where no formal  education had been available to them before . There has been a feeding frenzy  in the press about untruths, half-truths, exaggerations and unreliable chronology. He has been accused among other things of neo-imperialism and spending too much of donors money on marketing his book and promoting the Mortensen brand. But it is clear that Mortensens organisation, CAI, has delivered many new schools, with local community involvement.  The fact is that despite his many obvious flaws and naivety (which comes across in his book) here is a driven man who has helped establish schools in very difficult, backward and dangerous areas, often where no schools had been before. He was an infidel amongst Muslims, who clearly put himself in personal danger in pursuit of his mission.  His book’s basic message isn’t to do with championing an American brand of imperialism, as some have claimed . It is altogether much more straightforward. That by building  schools – especially girls’ schools – in Afghanistan and Pakistan  local people, and particularly moderate tribal elders, can rescue and protect their people from extremists and the influence of fundamentalism, while fostering sustained local economic development, better health and quality of life – not least because educated women are powerful agents and catalysts for change and progress. All this can be achieved with a bottom-up approach, largely avoiding local bureaucrats, politicians and the military, who tend to be either inefficient, brutal or corrupt, or all three. Hopefully his book, which is an uplifting read and (was) a much-needed antidote to cynicism, can still, when the smoke clears, demonstrate these essential truths.

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