Philanthropy or agenda? - Aziz Ali Dad - Thursday, April 28, 2011

The controversy about the authenticity of projects undertaken by Greg Mortenson through his Central Asian Institute (CAI) in northern Afghanistan and Gilgit-Baltistan and the financial irregularities in CAI has created a furore in the international media. In the ensuing debate arguments of his votaries and detractors have focused only on Mortenson’s personality. Indeed, the controversy surrounding his philanthropic initiatives is a manifestation of global philanthropy and its discontents, which are a product of broader power relations and of the economic structure of the world dominated by a neo-liberal political and economic regime.

Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea is a New York Times bestseller. The author is accused of fabricating “some of the most dramatic and inspiring stories” in Three Cups of Tea and committing irregularities in the finances of the CAI. The impression he gives in the book is that he brought civilisation to the region of Gilgit-Baltistan to ward off the pernicious effects of Taliban ideology through education. Interestingly, the region, especially Baltistan, where he claimed to have set up schools, does not even have Taliban supporters, let alone the Taliban themselves.

Mortenson gives the impression that nobody had worked in this field before in the areas where he operated, and that he remained undeterred despite all odds and threats. That is why his representation of the region reeks of condescension. Amidst illiteracy and darkness the protagonist appears to be an emissary of civilisation who is bringing light to the dark spots of the earth. Philanthropic activities appear to be humanitarian, but there is a colonial mindset behind them. Mortenson reminds you of Western scholars who provided moral justification for their countries’ interventions in foreign countries during the colonial period.

There is no denying the fact that philanthropic interventions through soft initiatives can be used to defeat the scourge of terrorism, violence, ignorance and extremism. Unfortunately, the “soft” component of the counterterrorism strategy has become embedded within disaster capitalism. That is why initiatives of the soft component in development attract development professionals in droves to reap the benefits from reconstruction project in the aftermath of a war or disaster. No one can object to the opening of girls’ schools, but the question is: why it is always necessary to declare an area of intervention as being a land of obscurantism and ignorance, where the society is necessarily uncivilised? It is to provide a justification for the wiping out of all vestiges of the indigenous system and turning the society into a clean slate so that a neo-liberal economic script can be written with philanthropy used as an excuse.

In the case of Mortenson, the American Institute of Philanthropy reportedly stated that the CAI spent $1.7 million in “book-related expenses.” According to the Institute, this is more than the CAI spent on schools in Pakistan. He has succeeded in finding a niche as a bestselling writer and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize through his manoeuvring of the public-relations industry and the media. Most surprisingly, this non-scholarly book is required reading for American officers posted to Afghanistan and it is through it that they see and understand Afghanistan and Pakistan. The effects of such artificial philanthropy do not remain confined to economics. They also determine our perception of “the other.”

A real danger of the collusion of philanthropy with the neo-liberal agenda is that genuine philanthropic initiatives in future will be jeopardised when a bad precedent is set in a local setting. The events of Mortenson’s becoming a bestselling writer and his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize on the basis of false claims of development is an example of the modus operandi of the neo-liberal discourse which presents philanthropy as a viable solution to problems. Angela M Eikenberry and Patricia Mooney Nickel in their research about philanthropy in the age of fast capitalism and global governance say that “in its subordination of benevolence to money, the current texts of philanthropy stabilise the very system that results in suffering.”

To address the discontents of neo-liberal philanthropy, there is the need to harness passion for philanthropy to eliminate the social, political, cultural and economic injustices that create a condition for it on the one hand, and rejecting a philanthropy that creates a storm in three teacups of the development sector. Real philanthropy strives to finish its own reason of existence by eliminating conditions of need and poverty, whereas neo-liberal philanthropy sustains itself by feeding on the condition that the generate need for it.

The writer is a social scientist associated with a rights-based organisation in Islamabad. Email:

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