Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Mortenson: A Correction, and the Broader Message

by Isobel Coleman
April 22, 2011

Afghan girls attend a class at the Ishkashim high school for girls in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, April 23, 2008 (Ahmad Masood/Courtesy Reuters).

Earlier this week, I received a reprimand from ISAF offices in Kabul over a quote of mine that appeared in the Daily Beast about Greg Mortenson’s relationship with the U.S. military, and in particular with General David Petraeus. 60 Minutes recently did a devastating expose on Mortenson, his best-selling book Three Cups of Tea, and his Central Asia Institute (CAI), which has built numerous schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the report, aspects of Mortenson’s remarkable personal story in Three Cups of Tea are not in fact true, and some of the schools that CAI has claimed to have built are not operational.

Before moving on to Mortenson’s predicament, let me address my comment in the Daily Beast. I was quoted as saying that General Petraeus has been a big fan of Mortenson (which he has), that he recommends the book to people (which he does), and that he has made public appearances with Mortenson and “opened schools with him.” According to the email I received from Hal Pittman, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy serving with ISAF in Kabul, these last two points are incorrect. General Petraeus (of whom I am a big fan) has never made a public appearance with Mortenson (although they have met privately) and has never opened a school with him. Indeed, Petraeus has never seen Mortenson in Afghanistan. On these points I stand corrected. My apologies to General Petraeus and my thanks to Rear Admiral Pittman for setting the record straight. My larger point was that Mortenson, as reported in places like the New York Times and USA Today, has had a lot of contact with the military over the years. He met many times with General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan when McChrystal was running operations there, and senior brass like Admiral Mike Mullen have visited CAI schools in Afghanistan. It has also been widely reported that Mortenson’s book was required reading for soldiers heading to Afghanistan.

The allegations against Mortenson sadden me deeply since the work he has been doing is not only courageous but also extremely important. As a passionate advocate for girls’ education for many years, I know well the importance of getting and keeping girls in school. I also know how hard that is to do in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where culture and tradition work against girls in so many ways.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban committed educational suicide-both by prohibiting girls from attending school and by prohibiting women from working. They decimated the country’s teaching ranks. In 2000, there were only 800,000 Afghan children in school, all boys. Today, there are more than 8 million Afghan children in school, and about a third of them are girls. Still, extremists do their best to terrify parents into keeping their girls home: they throw acid on girls walking to school, burn down schools, and even attack them with poison gas.

Pakistan too is an educational basket case. UNICEF reports that just over half of Pakistan’s 19 million children of primary school age are enrolled in school. Some sixty percent of the country’s female population is illiterate.

This is the terrain that Mortenson has been navigating. While the allegations against him are serious, they do not diminish the importance of working to get girls in school. Nor do they invalidate his message of how critical it is to engage local communities to do just that. When I travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan, I talk with parents and always hear that they want their daughters to attend school. The demand is there, although the challenges are great. Three Cups of Tea, read by millions of people around the world, has arguably done more to bring attention to the promise of girls’ education in that part of the world than any other book. Let’s hope that message survives.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Bill Wiley

    The world is not a better place due the so called expose; it’s worse. I would like to see an expose of the lives of all those who participated in making the show. And, then compare their misstakes to their good works on behalf of any aspect of humanity. It is another example of the shame which is today’s “journalism.”

  • Posted by ben orbach

    A thoughtful piece that sees the big picture. I agree:

    Ben Orbach
    Director, America’s Unofficial Ambassadors
    Creative Learning

  • Posted by BH

    It appears that you too are not concerned with the facts, given your Petraeus oops. This is a big deal and, as a former supporter of Mortenson’s, terribly disappointing. I fear it can be disastrous–not to mention completely selfish–what his inaccuracies may do for the cause as a whole. That is both with regard to empowering girls through education, as well as getting buy-in from prospective funders and the general public that idealistic visions are worth their time and money – that they do work. Mortenson’s overstated claims, whether intended or not, are a slap in the face to the world of nonprofits.

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