Three cups of (fabricated) tea

Let’s be real, philanthropy is kind of my thing. I’ve written about my honors thesis – TOMS Shoes and Millenial Trends in Charitable Giving – in previous posts. When possible, I try to tie my interest in philanthropy to my identity as a feminist, and through this tied passion have monetarily supported womens’ organizations like Susan G. Komen, Girls on the Run, and individual female entrepreneurs through Kiva.org.

A lot of international philanthropic money goes toward humanitarian efforts, and most of these efforts directly or indirectly affect women. As Nick Kristof addressed in his book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,

It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine “gendercide” in any one-decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world. (Page: xvii; Introduction)

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) summed up the mounting research this way: “Women’s empowerment helps raise economic productivity and reduce infant mortality. It contributes to improved health and nutrition. It increases the chances of education for the next generation.” (Page: xx;Introduction)

Clearly, women’s empowerment is crucial to the further advancement of developing nations. Unfortunately, this just in: Greg Mortenson, failed K2-climber-turned-girls’ education activist is being investigated for money mishandling and fabrication of his story. Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson’s debut novel, depicts his experience building dozens of schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the span of two decades with the assistance of his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), and many individual donors. Now, what’s being questioned are loopholes in his story; his introduction to the village Korphe, porters have told 60 Minutes, was much later than he wrote in Three Cups of Tea.

 AbcNews reports:

According to the website of the Central Asia Institute, which was co-founded by Mortenson and Jean Hoerni, the nonprofit has established more than 170 schools and helped educate more than 68,000 students, with an emphasis on girls’ education.

During its investigation, “60 Minutes” said it found that several of the schools CAI said it had built and funded were empty or built by others, while several school principals said they had not received money from CAI in years.

Mortenson has declined interviews, but in a statement released Friday through CAI, he began to point some fingers. As reported by AbcNews:

Mortenson also pointed to sexism in the countries where his organization had built schools as a cause of the controversy. “Afghanistan and Pakistan are complex places, torn by conflicting loyalties, and some do not want our mission of educating girls to succeed,” he said.

I don’t disagree with this perception; truly, the struggle for girls’ education is a battle fought by many countries, facing lots of opposition against tribal patriarchal systems. However, many of Mortenson’s testimonies seem to be of the “poor-me” type, and whether or not these claims are found to be true, let’s not forget who the truly afflicted are: the girls whose schools lay in jeopardy as the American public loses faith in Mortenson and donor dollars decrease. We often put figures like Mortenson on a pedestal and label them with titles like “savior” or “angel.” This inflamed popularity can swell their heads and cause the focus of the organization to stray from its real purpose (girls’ education or empowerment)  to making money or selling books. What’s more important is not putting these figures on a pedestal in the first place.

Mosharraf Zaidi over at National Post takes a different stance:

No matter how important their contribution may be, however, charity and philanthropy cannot service the needs of a country that has more than 70 million children between ages of 5 and 18. Only a state-financed education system, with serious oversight and accountability instruments built into it, can address the challenge here. Mortenson may have been wrong to tell lies and make up tales. But those who believed he had the answers to Pakistan’s problems were not fooled by Mortenson. They were fooled by their own thirst for easy solutions to cold, hard, and complex problems.

The warmth of our emotions will never solve public-policy problems of the magnitude and scale that exist in Pakistan. Only an effective and accountable state will. Fact or fiction, Mortenson’s cups of tea were never going to deliver such a state. Only the Pakistani people can do that.

Ideally, in Zaidi’s view, a perfect government would be one which takes accountability for the education of its girls. So, maybe more humanitarian efforts should be geared toward changing governments. In the meantime, grassroot work like Mortenson’s, however flawed, is what we’re working with in the moment.

So, what’s a bleeding-heart philanthropist to do? (yeah, you can be one, too! It’s not just a label for oil barons or heirs to the tobacco industry or other, Southern old-money types. I’m lookin’ at’chu, girlllll.) My thesis literature review showed that millenials (the 18-22 age demographic) are one of the most responsive demographics to charitable giving. So if you’re a student looking to make a difference whether through a $10 donation or a $500 donation, where should you turn? Zaidi suggests:

So what are the lessons from all this? There are a few. The first is that giving to charity without reading the fine print is tantamount to throwing your money away. Charity and philanthropy have an important place in a post-global world where our interconnectedness, from Kalamazoo to Karachi to Kyoto, is undeniable. Charity humanizes us and (hopefully) humanizes the recipients of our magnanimity. But you have to read the fine print.

So the next time you’re about to pick up a copy of the next big bestseller, do a little research into the sponsor’s cause. Don’t buy stories at face value. By being an educated consumer, you can also become an educated philanthropist and spend your hard-earned feminist dollars wisely!

I leave you with Nick Kristof’s suggestions for female-focused charities, for your perusal.

Happy Thursday, JMU Feminists!!

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