Up Front

Pakistan Does Have an Education Crisis Despite Questions About Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea

Rebecca Winthrop

For the millions of people who read and were inspired by Greg Mortenson’s books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, Sunday’s revelations by CBS News’ 60 Minutes that much of his story was at best vastly exaggerated and at worst fabricated, came as deep disappointment. For the thousands of Americans, including school children, who donated to his foundation, the Central Asia Institute, to build schools in the some of the most remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, their disappointment is coupled with disillusionment that their money was probably not well spent.

As I travel around Pakistan this week and look at education issues across the country, including in the Federally Administered Northern Areas where Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea was set, I am struck by the bitter-sweet effect of these revelations. On the one hand, Mortenson’s book hid one of the country’s biggest educational success stories and promulgated a model of education assistance that has been proven time and again to be ineffective. On the other hand, his story captured the hearts of millions, bringing needed attention to the very real educational needs of Pakistan’s children and articulating the very important role good quality education can play in reducing conflict risk.

What is the real story of education in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, or Gilgit-Bultistan, as it is now called? How do we make sense of the damaging revelations about the Central Asia Institute that is dedicated to what many believe is still important work?

The Real Education Story in Gilgit-Bultistan

Contrary to the Three Cups of Tea portrayal of Gilgit-Bultistan as a place with little educational opportunity, it is one of the regions in Pakistan that has demonstrated true educational transformation over the last 50 years. In 1946, just prior to partition from India, there were an estimated six primary schools and one middle school for the entire region. Today there are over 1,800 primary, 500 middle, 420 high schools, and almost 40 higher education institutions. Girls are often noted to be outperforming boys and staying in school longer. It is true that community leadership and civil society organizations have played a major role in this transformation; it just was not Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. When I asked the governor of Gilgit-Bultistan, Pir Syed Karam Ali Shah, how this education transformation came about, he was quick to point to the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a network of private, international, nondenominational development organizations, an assertion with which other education experts concur. Led by His Highness the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, the concerted focus on improving education, and especially girls’ education, started in 1946 and has continued, led by community members, for decades. Initially starting in the Ismaili communities in Gilgit-Bultistan, the work spread quickly to other non-Ismaili communities in the region, when the clear economic and health benefits of educating girls were seen by neighboring communities. Many civil society organizations, government interventions and public-private partnerships have developed over time, helping to increase levels of human capital and capacity through heavy investment in education, particularly of girls. According to Mehnaz Aziz, member of the national Pakistan Education Task Force, if the rest of Pakistan could only follow in the footsteps of the people of Gilgit-Bultistan, the status of education in Pakistan would be greatly improved.

Yes, There Is an Education Crisis in Pakistan

Despite the education success story of Gilgit-Bultistan, there is a serious education crisis for large numbers of Pakistani children across the country. The underlying message of Mortenson’s book and his related advocacy – that investment in education is greatly needed in Pakistan and it is an important part in promoting peace – still holds true, despite whatever factual inaccuracies in his book. One in 10 of the world’s primary school-age children who are not in school live in Pakistan, making Pakistan one of the top two countries in the world with the largest numbers of out of school children. Only 23 percent of Pakistan’s youth are enrolled in secondary school. At the current rate, the province of Balochistan will only be able to enroll all its children in school by the year 2100. With half the country under the age of 17, this poor state of education is a significant economic and security liability. Increasing access to quality education is likely to reduce Pakistan’s risk of conflict as cross-country estimates show that increasing educational attainment is strongly correlated with conflict risk reduction. Last month, a national campaign – Education Emergency Pakistan 2011 – was launched to spur country-wide dialogue on the need to prioritize educational investment and progress.

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Despite the importance of Mortenson’s message on the education crisis in Pakistan, the effectiveness of his Central Asia Institute remains questionable. Good intentions do not necessarily translate into effective international development practices and NGO management. In the ongoing search for successful aid models, it is important to highlight that there are many professional non-profit organizations that do excellent education work in Pakistan. Many of them are Pakistani organizations, such as the Citizens Foundation and the Children’s Global Network. Community involvement and leadership are central to many of the work of these organizations, which is further supported by the education expertise of local staff and implementation of basic organizational management principles to track funds and monitor activities.

Stop Just Building Schools

One of the weaknesses of Mortenson’s work on the ground in Pakistan is the education approach he used. “Several of the schools I have seen that he has built in Gilgit-Bultistan are very good structures,” says one senior Pakistani NGO leader, “but his strategy of just building a school and then not providing any other follow up support is one that I think will be unlikely to succeed.” Indeed, Mortenson is neither the first nor the last person to try and solve education problems by building schools. The developing world is littered with school buildings waiting for teachers to be deployed and students to attend. Far greater education minds than Mortenson have fallen into this same trap. In one West African nation I visited, a major World Bank and Ministry of Education project to improve education infrastructure led to new school buildings standing vacant for months and months while teacher deployment and student enrollment systems tried to catch up. Given his almost singular focus on building schools, it is not surprising that some of them appear to have fallen into this same fate. A recent report by McKinsey & Company finds that in the effort to improve education, far too much focus has been placed on inputs such as school buildings and far too little on the improvement of the teaching and learning process.

It is unfortunate that the 60 Minutes expose has called into question the accuracy of Greg Mortenson’s books. Without defending Mortenson or whether the facts in his memoirs are accurate, I can say truthfully that there is indeed a very serious education crisis in Pakistan. The international community should not lose sight of this and the real needs of the Pakistani children and youth seeking to improve their lives.