Don't Let 'Three Cups of Tea' Controversy Discourage Giving

The dramatic fallout of 60 Minutes' investigation into Greg Mortenson's stories in Three Cups of Tea and Stones for Schools and his Central Asia Institute's questionable practices are making all of us think harder about what inspires us to give and how our dollars are spent. While it is crucial that Americans stay engaged with providing foreign aid for children in impoverished societies, the tremendous amount of criticism risks demoralizing current and future donors.

This issue is now bigger than aid delivery in just Afghanistan and Pakistan; it applies to charities worldwide. However, this episode also brings profound opportunity.

For those of us involved in international philanthropy, we need to keep this renewed spotlight fixed on children's education, while intensely reviewing and sharing our best practices on fundraising, management and programming. As for the millions of Americans who donate their money, they need to be conscious of the different strategies charities take.

Greg Mortenson's model was to plant multiple seeds throughout a region for education and let them grow. Central Asia Institute claims to have built 141 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but CBS reports that of the 30 they visited, roughly half were empty or used as storage space. In one school in the far-flung Afghan province of Badakhshan, Mortenson announced that 200 children would benefit, a claim strongly refuted by the province's resident anthropologist, Ted Callahan. Many aid professionals intimately involved with Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and with global education development -- were similarly skeptical. That kind of instant impact is rare, if not impossible. However, the narrative that it was easy to help 200 children with one building made a complex task in a complex land tangible for Americans.

One skeptic was Jacob Lief, who repeatedly questioned the Central Asia Institute's model during conferences on best practices for international education development. In 1999, Lief co-founded the Ubuntu Education Fund, which focuses on planting a seed and ensuring it grows.

In Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Lief applies a holistic approach to education. Just building schools, he says, is like "Putting a Band-Aid on a giant axe wound." You must address the dynamics that can drain a child's ability to learn, such as untrained teachers, poor health and/or abusive homes. For children to be successful, Lief argues, "They need a pathway, that doesn't just address a chalkboard and a desk, but one that tackles nutrition, mental health and a safe home."

Lief has therefore created an intensive model to ensure that children can move beyond mere survival mode and thrive, just as children living in the richest parts of the world. His mantra to New York City donors is that the children in Port Elizabeth deserve just as much investment as children living in New York City. He challenges potential donors to imagine if all we did for a child's education in the U.S. was to build a school and expect everything else to fall into place. Without nurturing, just dropping a seed does not work. His concept is to take a child from infancy to a university education through paying the salaries of over 80 dedicated, local professionals to directly manage community development.

This model, however, requires pouring an enormous amount of money and resources into a seven-kilometer radius. In a world where millions and millions of kilometers are void of the basic human right of education, is this enough? Would it be better to quickly provide the space and means for children's education and then move on to the next deserving area?

Two other organizations build educational institutions in multiple countries and, while they do not address the surrounding community's needs, they do supplement their schools with training, materials and on-the-ground support. Pencils of Promise (PoP) is in three countries -- Laos, Guatemala and Nicaragua -- and has established 23 schools since 2008, with 20 more planned. PoP works with the local Ministry of Education to design education programs and empowers local women to lead routine education and check-ups on children's sanitation, hygiene and nutrition. Room to Read, which promotes literacy and tries to instill in children a love of reading, spans nine countries in Asia and Africa. Since 2000, it has built over 1,400 schools and 11,000 libraries, and distributed 9.4 million books. While Room to Read does not focus on the child's overall health, local directors are in each country to strengthen the schools' and libraries' administration.

Going as deep as Ubuntu or more broadly like Pencils of Promise and Room to Read is not an either/or question. We should strive to both maximize the amount of opportunities for children's education, health and security, while also ensuring that those opportunities are sustainable. For this to happen, it will take the collaboration of children's charities worldwide and an open exchange of best practices. Americans are breathtakingly generous. In 2009, during the height of a recession, individuals gave a total of $13.3 billion to international charities. In the post-Mortenson fallout, we need to ensure that Americans do not lose their motivation to give. Americans need to make sure, in their gut, that giving to a certain charity makes sense to them, but to also educate themselves on that charity's finances, management and impact. (Central Asia Institute had only one audited financial statement in 14 years.)

Mortenson's idealism energized and captured the imaginations of thousands of Americans. As Jon Kraukauer even acknowledged in his 60 Minutes interview, he inspired people to care and to do something about girls' education in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We should not hold the good work that Mortenson did hostage to his tendency to exaggerate numbers. There are still plenty of heroes with magical -- and true -- stories about the impact, big and small, they are making everyday.

As for those of us working to make global issues "cool" and "applicable" to mainstream Americans, it is our duty to make sure that our donors can believe in us again. This comes with examining what we have done right and wrong and rigorously applying lessons learned -- especially what we have learned from this latest debacle.