Sunday, February 15, 2009

Beyond FINESSE: Greg Mortenson of THREE CUPS OF TEA Fame

This year has started out on a new curve for me with little exercise, much more work as a freelance editor, and (a bonus!) lots of determined reading. I credit Lisa Kenney with inspiring me to read every spare minute. Since finishing Snow by Orhan Pamuk during the first days of January, I’ve read six books in six weeks, a record for me. The latest: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

A bestseller that’s sold 2.5 million copies in 29 languages since its publication in 2006, Three Cups of Tea has just been released in two kids’ editions: one for young readers (like my nine-year-old, who’ll soon receive her own copy) featuring an afterword by Mortensen’s daughter, and a picture book for children. In 2008 alone, the amazing story of “Dr. Greg” was featured in USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Not bad for a guy who not so long ago slept in his car. Then again, Greg Mortenson—a former mountaineer and night nurse who refused to ignore what most tourists refuse to even notice when traveling abroad—is on a mission that demands everyone’s attention.
Three Cups of Tea is a third-person account of Mortenson’s failed attempt to summit K2 in 1993 and everything that spiraled out of that failure over the next remarkable ten years. Early on, Mortenson learned a critical lesson from a beloved father-figure friend, a diminutive Pakistani chief of a remote village: “Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”
This lesson came during the construction of the first of 78 schools Mortenson has somehow managed to build to date in Pakistan and Afghanistan, schools that teach thousands of students in politically volatile regions in which education has failed so many. Mortenson realized early the importance of educating girls at his schools: “Once you educate the boys,” he noted, “they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities. But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.”
Another of Mortenson’s main goals is to provide boys a moderate education to combat the radical focus of some schools for boys which “seem to exist only to teach militant jihad.” In 2001, a World Bank study “concluded that 15 to 20 percent of [these] students were receiving military training, along with a curriculum that emphasized jihad and hatred of the West at the expense of subjects like math, science, and literature.”
According to USA Today, Mortensons’ “non-profit foundation, the Central Asia Institute, has built 78 schools serving 28,000 students…and runs nearly 50 others in regional refugee camps. Nearly all of its $2.8 million annual budget is funded by modest, individual donations.”
“The former Army medic, 51, who will receive Pakistan’s highest civil award [in] March, has even been tapped by the U.S. military. He has lectured at the Air Force, Naval and West Point academies, and he has shared his philosophy of curtailing Islamic extremism through education with such Pentagon brass as Gen. David Petraeus.
“‘When Gen. Petraeus read Three Cups of Tea,’ Mortenson says, ‘he sent me an e-mail with three bullet points of what he’d gleaned from the book: Build relationships, listen more, and have more humility and respect.’
The Wall Street Journal noted a few more details about Mortenson’s work with the U.S. military that reveals as much about our military’s apparent willingness to consider new approaches to working with countries in the Middle East as it does about Mortenson’s ability and determination to base decisions on values he holds dear:
“In recent months, Mr. Mortenson has begun a second career as a guru of sorts for the military. In November, he was invited to the Pentagon for a private meeting with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In December, he flew to Florida to talk to senior officers from the secretive Special Operations Command, which directs elite units like the Army’s Delta Force.
“Mr. Mortenson’s popularity in military circles stems from a shift in thinking about the war in Afghanistan. In the war’s first years, top commanders focused on working with the Afghan central government. But with the insurgency worsening and the Kabul government struggling, many senior officers have begun to seek Mr. Mortenson’s advice on how to build stronger relationships with village elders and tribal leaders.
“Several of the officers said they have also come to share Mr. Mortenson’s belief that providing young Muslims with a moderate education is the most effective way of curbing the growth of Islamic extremism.
“‘Education is the long-term solution to fanaticism,’ says Col. Christopher Kolenda, who commanded an Army brigade in a part of eastern Afghanistan where Mr. Mortenson founded two schools. “‘As Greg points out so well, ignorance breeds hatred and violence.’
“The long counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have forced the military to transform itself from an organization focused mainly on killing enemies to one that devotes equal attention to rebuilding war-shattered societies. U.S. troops in the two countries run jobs programs, provide medical assistance, and work to rehabilitate captured militants. ‘Nation-building,’ a phrase once scorned by many senior officers, is now a central part of the U.S. strategy.
“Mr. Mortenson said he respected the military’s willingness to admit past mistakes and seek new ideas about how to accomplish its objectives in Afghanistan and in the broader war on terror.
“‘I get criticism from the NGO (non-governmental organization) community, who tell me I shouldn’t talk to the military at all,’ he said. “‘But the military has a willingness to change and adapt that you don’t see in other parts of the government.’
“Last year, the Pentagon offered Mr. Mortenson $2.8 million, which would have doubled the foundation’s funding, but he says he turned it down.
“‘The conditions would have stipulated that they could decide where the schools go, and I couldn’t accept that,’” he said.