Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book Review (#5 of 2011)

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.
I mentioned many of my deeper thoughts on this book in a previous post. My mom bought me this book so, thanks, mom! But she has no idea the hare-brained ideas I get from reading these books.

Mortenson is impressive. He is driven with a singular purpose-- build schools, primarily for girls, where there are no schools other than radical Islamic madrasas.

One overall message I get from this book (and that Mortenson got to deliver to the Pentagon and Congress) is that the only way to win the war on terror is to build trust and promote education. Dropping bombs that sometimes kill civilians only serves to alienate people and deepen their resentment of the West. If the only American a rural Afghan sees is one carrying lethal weapons then we've lost the war on terror. Mortenson saw too many students in his rural villages become "collateral damage."

At one point the Pentagon offers to give Mortenson millions of dollars, covertly through off-shore accounts, to build schools. But he declines because the attachment to the military was too big a risk to take. I had read previous interviews and op-eds by Mortenson before reading this book, which had already shaped my views on the war. But the book isn't about the war, it's about improving the outcomes of thousands of kids that had either been neglected or forgotten.

Questions I asked while reading this book:
Why hadn't anyone done this before?
Why didn't the government build schools?
Why didn't private charities, Islamic or otherwise, or other NGOs build these schools?
Why didn't the locals, who built their own houses and often shared the wealth of the village, build these schools?

I think the villages didn't build these schools themselves because they had more pressing needs, or it was seen as a somewhat wasteful use of materials and labor. It took an outsider to put up the capital for the new investment to take place. And it took a commitment of ongoing funds from Mortenson's foundation to pay the teachers and provide supplies-- without which the buildings would be worthless. In some cases, maybe the idea had never occurred to them. Many were used to the idea that their children would never be able to compete with children from larger towns, so it never occurred to them to try.

Mortenson found ways to build these schools cheaper than the World Bank, the local governments, or an NGO ever could. There was basically no red tape for him.

I'd like to read his sequel.

4 stars out of 5. You have to assume the profound statements the locals make throughout the book, sometimes in uneducated English, were properly understood/translated. And you know they were edited for clarity. Sometimes assuming Mortenson somehow (almost magically) had the language skills to properly translate was a bit of a stretch of faith for me. But I trust the authors strove for accuracy and authenticity. It's an amazing story.

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