WHAT MORTENSON GOT WRONG Posted by Peter Hessler
- APRIL 21, 2011
Last September, when I was researching a profile of Rajeev Goyal, an American development worker, I asked what he thought about the book “Three Cups of Tea.” Rajeev and I were walking through the hills of eastern Nepal, where he had organized a number of projects over the past decade, including the construction of five schools. “Three Cups of Tea” is one of the bestselling books by Greg Mortenson, a mountaineer whose Central Asia Institute claims to have built or significantly supported more than a hundred and seventy schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Rajeev paused for a moment. “It seemed to be mostly about the author, about everything he accomplished,” he said slowly. “And that story is about quantity, about the number of schools built.” Rajeev 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 dependant 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.”