In his New Yorker profile of Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, George Packer writes:
Afghanistan—mountains, deserts, ungoverned spaces—has always seemed to offer a blank slate for utopian dreamers: British imperialists, hippie travellers, Communists, Islamists, international do-gooders.
Jon Krakauer’s trenchant takedown of the Greg Mortenson Three-Cups-Of-Tea myth in Three Cups of Deceit offers a depressing confirmation of this claim. Except that Mortenson, the supposed do-gooder, builder of schools for Afghani children which would magically combat ‘terrorism,’ and founder of the Central Asia Institute (“from which he was forced to resign as executive director following an investigation by the Montana attorney general”) does not even come across as particularly utopian, but instead as a plain old grandstander and crook.
There is a familiar pattern here: international traveler goes to distant land, regarding it as testing or proving ground for himself or herself, as a zone for self-discovery and/or self-realization, and resolves to not stop there; this land must now receive the benefits of his journey of self-realization. In this vision, the land and its peoples turn into mere pawns to be moved around, lied about, turned into characters in the traveler’s own charade, all while money and fame accumulate thanks to the largess of those who buy the legend hook, line, and sinker. For his part, Mortenson abuses the hospitality of the Afghanis who sheltered him, escorted him through unfamiliar territory, and acted as interpreters and liaison officers in establishing local relationships. He also embellishes his own adventures, describing himself as a man who bravely confronted dangerous armed men, the dreaded “jihadis” who apparently strike fear into the hearts of all Americans, even as it is made clear most of his purported adventures involved no such contact, and were instead confined to the safest parts of Baltistan.
Unfortunately, there will be more folks like Mortenson in the future, just like there will continue to be places like Afghanistan. Charity work like his claimed to be brings with it two particularly attractive inducements¹: you acquire the halo of a saint, and you can dip into the coffers of the tax-exempt non-profit organization you set up. (Krakauer’s detailing of the various devices by which Mortenson fleeced the Central Asia Institute makes for particularly infuriating reading.) Fame and wealth? Show business might bring you that same package, but you won’t get that nice halo in the bargain.
In the end, as might be expected, Mortenson merely loses a bit of his reputation–for you can rest assured that some will continue to believe his story–and will continue to live in some comfort in the US. But back in Afghanistan, the empty, non-functioning schools that his ‘charity’ built will continue to provide damaging testimony to the local folks that their troubles can only be enhanced when ‘outsiders’ come visiting, spinning fairy tales of deliverance, all the while casting themselves as saviors. Distrust and suspicion and hostility are only reasonable responses to this state of affairs.
Note #1: The Clinton Foundation’s activities are particularly instructive in this regard.