Two Cups Short of a Full Service

Jon Krakauer’s lengthy take-down of Greg Mortenson adds a lot of detail and bite to the expose aired on 60 Minutes this past week.

Reading across a lot of message boards, I think it’s fair to say that a great many folks are pretty much sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling, “I don’t HEEEEEARRR you” in response. Or angrily blaming the messenger rather than harkening to the message. With Mortenson offering up shopworn orientalisms like “The Balti people have a completely different sense of time” and as of this morning, the beginning of a “my co-author is the guy who screwed up” line of defense, I think eventually they’ll have to come out of the bubble.

Other folks are wearily copping to having believed wholly in the Mortenson story as it was given out in the past, and promising to be more cynical next time.

I don’t think cynicism is the issue. The thing we all really need is a sharper understanding of the development industry and a wiser appreciation of how our own desires for sweeping messianic transformations are as much of a target market as any other consumer demand. I don’t know that we can blame people like Mortenson for giving us what many of us want. Nor should we be surprised when people like Mortenson raise millions of dollars before anyone thinks to ask skeptical questions either about the concrete organizational principles involved or about the accounting. Well-meaning, smart young people all around the world who get involved in philanthropy, NGOs, community service, development work and the like frequently find that good intentions, passion, and a dollop of appropriately couched ideological genuflection to the audience for a given pitch are the equivalent of picking up the “Pass Go and Collect $200” card. There’s little incentive to spell out plausible limits, models of organizational sustainability, or to downplay the potential positive impact of a project. Often it’s the opposite: the more messianic the rhetoric, the more likely the pitch is to succeed.

Other bright and capable young people are often the folks who then get handed a project that’s been sold in these terms, and they’re the ones who end up knowing full well both that the project is impossible and that the money will be siphoned off by a thousand middlemen on its way to the site of its supposed implementation. Not that the more organizationally sober end of the development industry is secured against against projects that don’t really make much sense when you get down to the local level, or against various transfers of funding away from the site of a project. But it’s worse with messianic projects that operate at large scales of ambition and funding.

If there is anything good in Nicolas Kristof’s “DIY development” model, two crucial limits have to be in force: the money and scale of a project has to be limited, and there can’t be even a whisper of messianism involved.

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.

The most awesome development project I’ve ever seen personally was a former small businesswoman in the Peace Corps who was teaching a handful of small business owners in a small African city how to do double-entry accounting with handwritten ledgers. The smart insight here was that most of them didn’t want to hire anyone who wasn’t kin because they couldn’t track the flow of money through their business, and that most of them couldn’t really invest anything they accumulated or expand their business for the same reason. I’d have given her a donation. The most awesome educational project I’ve ever seen in Africa is Ashesi University because it’s working hard to make one institution work well, looking to the future, laying the groundwork for longevity, and the people involved are soberly aware that this is very much a big enough project all by itself.

Tie a string around your finger, write a cheat sheet on your wrist, whatever it takes: when you see a lone crusader telling you that he’s dedicated his life to comprehensively fixing some faraway place, don’t believe it. No knock on that guy: he may well be nice, he may well be sincere, he may well have suffered for his cause, but it is never going to pan out. Put your faith in the small, the focused, the modest.

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5 Responses to Two Cups Short of a Full Service

  1. Doug says:

    Nitwise: It’s double-entry bookkeeping, isn’t it? Or maybe two-column?

    I’d seen a little of this tempest, but hadn’t realized the author of the print piece was Krakauer. Yowza.

    Query: Once you (individually) see small, focused and modest that works, do you (collectively) try to scale up?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Oops, right–will fix.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    On the bigger question, I think you find a way to make what you’re doing available as a model, which every development project ought to do anyway–be as transparent as possible, create an information trail that is less about promoting the project for donors and more about a day-to-day documentation of how the project is going, what went wrong and what went right, etc. I should be able, if I’m curious or thinking of doing something similar, to look online at that kind of detailed information footprint of a specific project as it happens, not just in some carefully massaged report published a few years later shot through with World Bank-ese. If that was the standard, then ‘scaling up’ would always be a possibility: other projects could look at something that was working, done modestly, and try to reproduce it in whole or in part.

  4. Western Dave says:

    In my experience (strictly K-12 education), scaling up rarely works well. Specific projects that are successful in one context get scaled up but often essential elements of local culture that make it work get left out and teachers aren’t given the freedom to adapt to their local cultures.

  5. frothymaltybeverage says:

    This reminds me of my own experiences as a scientist involved in cancer research. Most advances in the field are tiny incremental steps won only after years of tedious work and hundreds of dead ends. The collective sum of our increasing knowledge is leading to better treatments, but for various biological reasons there will never be a real effective cure for cancer. Everyone in the field knows this. However, when speaking to lay audiences the researcher will often not so subtly imply that his or her research may be the elusive magic cure- pending the crossing of a few technological hurdles in future years (usually it is left unsaid that these are Everest sized hurdles, such as finding a way to make your drug kill the cancer cells and not the patient.)

    Of course, no one wants to explain to all those people out running the “race for the cure” the complicated nature of the disease and our limited ability to treat it, and none of them want to hear it.

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