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Echoes Beyond Mortenson

Fabricated Philanthropy

by FARZANA VERSEY

It is being vilified as a yarn, for plagiarism, for making up the Taliban threats. Frothing mouths are expressing anger over being cheated. Cheated about what? A chronicler who took liberties in the telling of his story or one who embezzled funds from the charity he set up?

Let us go beyond the mountain story. Greg Mortenson, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, wrote the bestselling ‘Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time’ based on his experiences with the tribals after having lost his way on a mountaineering expedition and landing up in Korphe, a Balti village. It is possible that he exaggerated bits of the anecdotes, but surely he did not know that the Central Asia Institute charity he set up to fund schools in the region would turn out to be a cash cow? If, as the reports now reveal, only 41 per cent of that money was utilised for the charity work and the rest went on his book marketing, then we need to use another route of inquiry. There is hypocrisy in the manner in which it was promoted; the author was following the good old altruism trail. The reality and deception lie between the lines.

One report stated: "President Obama was so impressed with the book that he donated $140,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize money to education ventures it spawned. The US military made it compulsory reading for personnel deployed in the Af-Pak theatre. American kids emptied their piggy banks to give to schools the author claimed to be building in Pakistan."

Why was it made compulsory reading for army personnel and why humanise what is being demonised? Why did Barack Obama donate the money to this charity and not to any local one? Mortenson’s greater crime is one by default – of whitewashing the image of the US administration, even if to a small degree.

It has come to light that he was not kidnapped by the Taliban. In one of the photographs of 1996, his so-called kidnapper turns out to be Mansur Khan Mahsud, a research director of the FATA Research Center. After all these years, he now tells the Daily Beast that the author "just wanted to sell books because by 2006 everyone wanted to know about the Taliban and Waziristan…He thought this was a good chance to cash in". Going by this argument, he too is cashing in after the expose. Did he not recognise himself earlier in the picture?

There are many organisations that work in those areas and if one writer has conjured up stories about Taliban intimidation it does not mean they are entirely untrue. It isn’t, in fact, just the Taliban. The government agencies too keep track. There have been cases of some activists being poisoned, of phone calls being tapped, of attempts at conversion. This I have first-hand knowledge of. But many of them also understand that they could be seen as suspect. There are some who admit that being do-gooders can be a pampered job profile where you don’t socialise with the locals beyond three cups of tea, and return to the UN club for your dance and drink evenings.

The Mortenson story, as opposed to Mortenson’s story, is not as unusual as it is made out to be. Misappropriating funds from charity is a known racket. In this case an individual has been exposed. What about the conniving methods by respectable people who ride on the philanthropy bandwagon in needy societies?

Lady Gaga’s bracelet for Japan’s tsunami victims is less devious than what the two Williams had been upto in India. Gates and Buffett made the idea of aid a business enterprise. It is a shame that they are sponging on the Indian economy while pretending to be "cheerleaders" for the game of giving.
With evangelical fervour they went about tutoring Indian industrialists on philanthropy. In this manner they got to meet all the big honchos under one roof and make a sound investment, not just in the poverty sector but to further their own businesses back home.

Beneath the umbrella of donations, it is raining opportunities. Buffett, the third richest man in the world, even manages to get upfront about it: "India is now a logical destination for an investor. I am an enormous believer in global trade and the better the rest of the world economies do, the better the US economy will do."

So insular is the attitude that while flashing sympathy he commented on the two recent world crises – in Libya and Japan – rather callously: "Of course it is a tragedy for the people who have lost their loved ones. But for trade these events are just an interruption. Business will go on and this will not slow down world economic growth."

India’s poverty will work as a testing ground for experimental entrepreneurship and can also be a means of skirting bureaucratic stasis. Together with the vaccines, they will be pumped in "chewing gum and coca-cola". His company, Berkshire Hathaway, has a stake in Wrigley and Coca-Cola.

Bill Gates follows a similar principle when he says, "Giving and making money has a lot of similarities." It is, if seen in entrepreneurial terms. A minuscule portion of the growing individual wealth is channelised into a large nameless pool. But success is rarely shared by those who contribute directly and are seen as competitors.

It is easy to speak about the Third World black money that can be routed for such legitimate activities. Buffett made a startling comment, "A child receiving a vaccine is not going to question the source of the money." This could well apply to those coming from outside as well.

The plans for healthcare may set dangerous precedents. Bill Gates has been travelling through the villages of Bihar and while talking to NGOs, there is an attempt to educate and train the people. The simple fact is that such training will be quite useless, not because the rural folks are resistant – most do not question – but because it will be open season for the multinational pharmaceutical industry to dump their medical waste on us. This is not new and banned drugs even in urban areas are still prescribed and sold in India.

In a shocking bit of news a while ago, four Indian public-funded national universities entered into a pact with Nestle for nutrition awareness programmes for adolescent school-going girls in government-run village schools. This was kept under wraps because it has come to light that there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the two sides that stated: "This MoU, its existence and all information exchanged between the parties under this MoU or during the negotiations preceding this MoU is confidential to them and may not be shared with a third party."

When questioned on the basis of the Right to Information Act, the response from Nestle mentioned that the programme was"specially developed by scientists and experts to be used exclusively to carry out the set objectives of the MoU. The contents of the programme are of commercial and confidential nature and the disclosure of which may harm our competitive position." It is amazing that public institutions are being utilised for such competitiveness.

Our societies are also pulled up by the international philanthropist communities for spending on religion – people are more interested in building temples or donating to shrines. But when a huge tragedy occurs, it is the local NGOs and people who join in to help without waiting – the earthquake and floods in Pakistan, the tsunami in India. Except for foreign agencies, the Samaritan business community prefers to seek areas where they can spread their wings. This too is proselytisation.

Perhaps, it would make sense to talk about a preacher from Oakland, California. Harold Camping, an 89-year-old former civil engineer, runs a $120 million Family Radio Network, a religious broadcasting organisation funded by donations from listeners. He now owns 66 stations in the US alone.

There are many kinds of stories to be told and as many subterfuges. Greg Mortenson’s charity will be examined. He has, however, only fabricated the truth a bit. The real fabricators are the ones who delude people into believing that while they are emptying their pockets their motives cannot be questioned. They are not selling books. They are buying obeisance, these altruistic colonisers.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of ‘A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan’. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/