education is more than a building

No more cups of any kind, number 3s, or beverage references. Let’s talk about root causes.

“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”

To build on this wonderful old adage (which was all too easy to add before writing anything original): If you give a community a school; they have a nice building until it decays. If you invest in an education system; they will have education for generations.

In a recent response to the Greg Mortenson controversy Rebecca Winthrop, Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institute, gave a thoughtful response and criticism of Mortenson’s engagement methods on providing education.

As I had written yesterday, my biggest take away from the book was the idea that it is necessary to build relationships and community connections before entering into any international project. However, Mortenson may not have followed his own advice. Like many development critics, I don’t see the benefit of building a school structure without engaging teachers and education systems. There are many accounts of corporations and notably oil companies that have built schools for communities where they exploited resources – but those structures remain empty. A school is no good if there are no teachers or if the local education system is not consulted or included in the process.

This has been noted to be an all too common problem in development projects and one that I saw firsthand during my experience in Nicaragua. The US based non-profit that I worked for utilizes the same method as Mortenson’s CAI: increasing education by building schools. During my trip to Nicaragua the organization was actually building a concrete school structure next to an existing wood school. Granted this old structure wasn’t the most amazing, but the root cause of the lack of education opportunities in this community was not due to a lack of a school building, rather it was a lack of dedicated teachers and adequate training among other issues.

The Nicaraguan education system didn’t have much influence in rural communities. There was no accountability to the community school or to any educational body for that matter. Some teachers choose to come whenever they pleased and others had never been given any formal or informal teacher training  even though they displayed incredible dedication.

We need to address structures that perpetuate the problems that we see if our work is going to have a real impact for those we seek to help. By asking communities what solutions  work best, we can change the way “development” has been done in the past and focus on our own accountability.

Recommended articles:

Three Cups of Deceit” by Jon Krakauer (on Byliner)

Three Cups of BS” by Alanna Shaikh (on Foreign Policy)

Photo credit: James Warden / S&S (from Empty Schools, Dashed Hopes Stars & Stripes)

four cups of tea

I had always been skeptical of Greg Mortenson’s work. Anyone who runs around the globe as a sole actor doing good works is opening themselves to lot of potential criticism. The Central Asia Institute seemed to be colonial in nature and mostly all I had heard about was how great Greg Mortenson was not about the level of success of his work. Working and studying international development, Three Cups of Tea was regularly suggested as recommended reading, but I held on to my skepticism and never ventured to read it. It wasn’t until I was working for a US based non-profit with the goal of building schools in developing countries and my older sister gave me the book for my birthday that I began to read Mortenson’s book in Nicaragua while building a school in a remote community.

It was on that trip that my fears of good intentioned non-profits that build schools came true. I witnessed first hand the manipulated stories told to better “sell” the non-profits’ good work. I saw a horrible lack of community engagement and understanding when the founder over stepped our welcome to reprimand the village leaders as if they were school children. I was appalled at the lack of respect for community members that occurred as well as the disempowerment of community members when it came to decisions related to the school building. As I was reading Three Cups of Tea I took away the powerful idea that it takes three cups of tea (or more) to really understand a community, its needs, and find the place where you can help without being an overbearing outsider. Mortenson did well to articulate the point that he went on multiple trips and met with many local stakeholders before starting construction of anything.

If nothing else I hope that Mortenson’s fame and best selling books spread this idea among the general population of people who would like to “do good” around the world. It is a complex task to take on development work and one that can’t be done lightly. Making a difference in the world takes time and patience. You have to develop relationships, meet with leaders and elders, and build credibility among a community as well as better understand community dynamics before you make a large donation let alone build a school or other structure.

Sadly there are many organizations doing more harm than Mortenson that pass under the radar because they know how to look good. Many international development non-profits can easily put on a good face by telling stories and publishing reports, but some are just as worthy of criticism as Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. We can’t continue to have organizations that seek to recreate the exotic travel and heartwarming “good” experiences over and again for their founders’ benefit. How can we better empower communities to work for themselves? How can we better educate future leaders to avoid these pitfalls of international development work? How can we learn to be quiet benefactors?