Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Turns Out The Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

Pennies for Peace 
(Image credit: Amy Frost for The Oklahoma Daily)

"L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs" - Bernard of Clairvaux

Pennies for Peace? I've heard about that, you're saying? Sure you have. At your child's school, on the news... hey, you've even heard about it right here.

I'd told my stepmom and my husband a few weeks back that it was going to take a lot to get me out of my writer's block/depression/weariness with the woes of the world/anger at the US political scene/pain from arthritis in my hands and a herniated disc enough to post. The terrible destruction and nuclear problems in Japan didn't do it. The heinous flogging death of a 14 year old Bangladeshi rape victim at the hands of a Sharia-loving village that thought her an "adulterous woman" didn't do it. Ever charming Koran- and Torah-burning Reverend (and I use that term with no small derision, since there is so little to revere there) Terry Jones's actions instigating killing mobs didn't do it. No, the incendiary device was potentially bigger than those. Bigger because it involved killing a dream, and potentially killing the trust of millions of people, many of them children who will long remember that their first experience with philanthropy or altruism was all a sham. It was a sordid little tale of a man who encouraged children to give up their lunch money to help build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Who traveled the world telling people that the way to end terrorism was to provide education to children, especially female children. A man who has evidently snookered children, politicians, the wealthy, the famous and who even got $100K of President Obama's Nobel money. What did he do with that money? Some of it when to schools and children, some of it went into empty buildings in Pakistan and Afghanistan, some of it went to fundraising ("outreach") and a whole lot of it went for travel and private jets and a fancy lifestyle.

How, you may ask, can I possibly compare what Greg Mortenson has done to the epic, raw disaster in Japan? How, I ask you, are we ever going to convince people who were so openly giving, and at such a young age, to look at anyone asking for help in quite the same light? Three Cups of Tea and Stones into School, along with the Pennies for Peace school charitable giving program have been presented in a compelling fashion at schools all over the country, if not all over the Western world. All with the idea of making young people look outside their world, beyond themselves and to give, even if modestly, to help other children. The damaging 60 Minutes episode on Mortenson, along with Jon Krakauer's even more damning 89 page document at Byliner are a veritable tsunami, with the potential to have wiped away a sense of altruism and the desire to make a difference, from millions and millions of children. Not just the children that gave are affected. Their peers who will see and hear how the children who gave were ripped off are, as well. They'll potentially think, like some freshly minted cynical teens I know, that none of it was worth it. That nothing much really changes anyway, so why bother to give at all? That people with a cause for good, in some far-flung corner of the world, are probably just liars and con artists. And then they start thinking about just spending their money on themselves. Before you know it, that whole idea of caring about others becomes a little more remote. Except, maybe when something is big and splashy about your trust getting burned, it's not such a little bit. (You can follow the yellow brick road to the place where maybe your tax money shouldn't help people who can't afford to pay for their own healthcare, or hey, why should you care about people who are disabled or homeless? Let their families take care of that. It's all about taking personal responsiblity, people!)

Ah, Mr. Greg, Mr. Greg... From the elaborate fabrications to the fraudulent financial statements to the fewer-than-claimed built, but then woefully unfunded and teacherless empty school buildings, it all just takes my breath away. (Just look at page 7 of Krakauer's article, with claims that Mortensen's charity Central Asia Institute has issued overtly fraudulent financial statements and that a former treasurer on the CAI's Board of Directors resigned saying "Greg regards CAI as his personal ATM." Unless you've read Mortenson's books, it probably wouldn't be worth it to recount some of Krakauer's interviews, including the particularly devastating interview with Mansur Khan Mahsud, a Pakistani Think Tank scholar, who was among those purported to be "Taliban kidnappers" who went on a congenial trip with Mortensen into Waziristan ('kidnappers' who, I might add, can present photos with him holding an AK-47 according to the 60 Minutes episode.)

As Krakauer notes in his Three Cups of Deceit, Greg Mortensen has done some good. He is (was? because I doubt we'll be seeing much of him from here on out...) a tireless advocate for girl's education. And yet he also says baldly that Mortenson has "recklessly betrayed (this) trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair." 

So what, you say, lots of charities commit fraud or exhibit appalling waste of funds. But you know what? Lots of charities don't go into schools all across America and tell kids that they should skip lunch and make a difference in the life of another child. And they don't have those kids sit down after Sunday dinner and watch 60 Minutes and have their trust so shaken.

Sure there are worse things than ruining the trust among young people, who will be facing a hard future with waning resources on this planet, negating their hope that someone will take their money and do the good they promised with it. No, the immediate risk is to the potential perception that organizations that aid learning for girls and young women, are not worth your giving. As Michelle Goldberg puts it, fraud by Mortensen raises doubts for all similar programs in the minds of the giver. And it's a tough economy in which to be asking people to give.

Goldberg reports Shalini Nataraj at the Global Fund for Women said, sadly, of the revelations about Mortensen “It raises cynicism about the role of nonprofits in general, because I think that all of us who are in this space now are going to have to prove ourselves or do that much more to re-engage with our public, especially those who are not already donors.” Adds New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, author of the empowering Half the Sky, said “It's probably true that advocates sometimes exaggerate how easy it is to help. But I worry that the latest round of sour news will leave people thinking it's almost impossible to help.”

Evidently I'm in good company, then, for wondering who will pick up the slack in the sector of educating Pakistani and Afghani girls. I contributed to CAI on a modest level (I'm sure Obama, Krakauer and quite a few others have way more to steam about.) And I sponsor Fatima, a 41 year old Afghani woman, married mother of 12, through Women for Women International. While I'm glad to think she will learn a trade and some financial skills and be eligible for a microloan, I'd like to think her daughters, as well as her sons, of course, might learn to read and write in Pashto. That just got a little bit less likely after Sunday night. It just got a bit harder.

The children of Pakistan and Afghanistan that were to have been helped by CAI, and those who might have been recipients of charitable contributions for their education to other organizations deserved so much better.

Mr. Mortenson, I would have been quite happy with modest truths to further your cause, similar to those you began with at the American Himalayan Foundation in 1994. And I, like Tom Hornbein, who as a true believer, was on the Board of CAI until he resigned in 2002, and Jon Krakauer, Barack Obama and so many others who were carried by the beauty of your mission, mourn the potential for loss of what that mission promised. Hornbein put it best in a note he wrote to Krakauer and with which Krakauer closes his article:

“My transcendent emotional feeling is grief for the loss
of what might have been,” Hornbein wrote. “Like you, I feel
as if I was stupidly conned, wanting to believe in the cause
and its value and Greg’s motivations. Part of me still wants
to believe that there was/is something sincere in what he was
setting about to do to change the world a bit for the better.
Another part of me is just downright angry at his irresponsibility
to the cause with which he was entrusted, the lives of
so many whom he sucked in and, in effect, spit out, and not
least Tara (his wife) and their kids and other loving bystanders to
the play…. I wish I understood the pathology that has compelled
the unending need to embellish the truth so flagrantly. With
one hand Greg has created something potentially beautiful
and caring (regardless of his motives). With the other he has 
murdered his creation by his duplicity.”

But then I guess that killing of dreams thing is a story as old as time, isn't it? Recently I was joking with the other Comtesses that Cynical Nymph was misnamed and that she ought to be something like Inspiring Nymph. I, on the other hand, have reached new depths of cynicism. Perhaps I should change the name of the blog to Cynical Crone?

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

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