I haven’t read 3 Cups of Tea, and I don’t really have any intention of doing so. (I haven’t yet seen any compelling argument for why I should read the book.) However, I did read another book in the genre, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, by the founder of Room2Read. I was interested because we became involved in a project to support a library/informal school in India while making our last film, and I wanted to see if I could learn anything from the book. While it was mostly about what a great guy the author is (I guess that is a requirement for this genre), I did like the fundraising model they use—in which local communities are expected to buy-in to the project. We are working on trying to replicate that on a smaller scale in the library project. (If you have any relevant experience and would like to help – please contact me.)
I tend to be very skeptical of such efforts, but I think anyone who sees the film will understand how important the library is to the community – and we wanted to have some kind of mechanism in place so that when the film cames out people could support the library. But we’ve also learned that it is important not to go too fast or try to do too much. For this reason, I really liked Timothy Burke’s piece on the 3 Cups scandal:
If I gave you an unlimited line of credit and carte blanche to run everything your way, do you think you could make a single secondary school work? I mean, really work so it was beyond reproach, was by almost any measure superior in outcomes and character and ethos to any alternative? Now what if I took away from you the choice of where your school was located and restricted you to pupils who lived within 30 miles of your school? Now what if I required you to obey all relevant national and local laws addressing education? Still confident? Now what if I made you operate within a budgetary limit that was generous by local and national standards but not unlimited? Getting harder yet? Now what if I put your school in a location with very little infrastructure and serious structural poverty?
The point here is that when one crucial task like that is hard enough, we should be deliriously happy to see a person dedicate their life and money and effort to make that task work. One. When we keep our checkbooks closed and our frowny-faces on because that’s not enough, not nearly enough, we create a situation where development messianism is inevitable. We invite not mission creep but mission gallop: make a hundred schools! change gender ideology! eliminate poverty! Under the circumstances, looking back, you have to ask how that was ever creditable, why anyone cheered and hoped and wrote checks.
But enough about saving the world. You’ve all waited patiently for some juicy postcolonial critique and I don’t intend to disappoint you. The best place to start is Aaron Bady’s excellent round up of online commentary on the subject.
One of the pieces listed there is Nosheen Ali’s article [PDF] (originally linked to by Carole McGranahan on Twitter) published in Third World Quarterly before the recent scandal broke. The article challenges the narrative of fear and danger which pervades the book:
The most troubling irony is that the focal region of Mortenson’s work—the Shia region of Baltistan with its Tibetan-Buddhist heritage—has nothing to do with the war on terror, yet is primarily viewed through this lens in TCT. While it has madrassas aﬃliated with diﬀerent interpretations of Islam, the Northern Areas more generally is not a terrain teeming with fundamentalist madrassas and Taliban on the loose—the deﬁnitive image of the region in TCT, especially on its back cover, in its introduction and in its general publicity. Hence, despite the now characteristic token statements like ‘not every madrassa was a hotbed of extremism’, the subtext of TCT remains rooted in a narrative of fear and danger.
She also challenges the “taken-for-granted assumption that an American individual can casually talk about ‘changing the culture’ in places where culture and life itself has already been radically transformed through US support of the military and the militant.” Both important points to make.
In July 2010, The New York Times reported on the popularity of Greg Mortenson’s 2006 memoir Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time among the US Military high-command. The report described General McChrystal and Admiral McMullen using the text as a guide to their civilian strategy in Pakistan. Mortenson’s book quickly became required reading in military academies (the report hinted at the role played by the wives of senior military brass in promoting the title) and Mortenson has since spoken to the US Congress and testified in front of committees. Mortenson himself, though a selfless worker for the most disenfranchised of Pakistan’s northwestern citizens, possesses no deep knowledge of the region’s past or present and is avowedly “non-political” in his local role. Still, his personal story, his experiences and the work of his charity are now widely considered to be a blueprint for US strategy in the Af-Pak region.
Both Stewart and Mortenson illustrate one particular configuration of the relationship between knowledge and the American empire – the “non-expert” insider who can traverse that unknown terrain and, hence, become an “expert”.
The HTS argument would be that what we need is simply better experts, ones who actually know something about the local culture (although from what I’ve read about HTS it seems that this is not always the case). Ahmed challenges the Niall Fergusonesque notion that we simply need to learn better ways of managing empire:
There is no better way to do empire. The condition of asserting political and military will over a distant population is one that cannot sustain itself in any modern, liberal society. The efforts to understand, will inevitably lead to the understanding that the people of Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iraq desire the power to make their own decisions – without the imposition of governments or militaries sanctioned and placed from afar.
I started by discussing how I liked the development model used by Room To Read. It involves treating local organizations as full partners in the development process. Just as thinking through power relationships is an essential part of effective anthropological collaboration, I think it is an equally essential part of development work. The problem with the approach taken by the US military and 3 Cups is that it wants us to think about culture without thinking about power, and I don’t think that can ever work.