Going to school on Afghans' problems

Greg Mortenson

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: This recession has been global. Lost jobs and lower incomes all over the world. Bad as it's been in modern economies, though, it's been worse in developing countries and war zones -- where people were in need even before the economy collapsed. That's made the work of charities and their donors more critical than ever.

Our philanthropy series today has us looking overseas. To a place the president was talking about just last night. In Afghanistan, millions of people are hungry and homeless and jobless. Steve Henn told us at the top of the broadcast, along with those 30,000 troops, the U.S. will be sending more aid to the region as well. To push back against the Taliban and make things more stable.

Author Greg Mortenson -- the best-seller "Three Cups of Tea" was his first book -- has been in and out of Afghanistan for almost 20 years. He says the solution to Afghanistan's problems should start with education.

GREG MORTENSON: I grew up in Tanzania for 14 years and there I learned a proverb that says, "If you educate a boy, we can educate an individual; and if we educate a girl, we can educate a community."

The organization Mortenson founded, the Central Asia Institute, has built more than 130 schools, mostly for girls, in the most remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. His approach to delivering the aid, and how he decides where to put the schools, puts him apart from most other aid groups.

MORTENSON: I learned both from my father and a wise old village chief ... let the people make the decisions. And that's the basis of all our efforts. We provide skilled labor, materials, teacher training, but the community has to provide free land, free resources, free sweat equity, meaning 2 to 5,000 days of free manual labor. But they also make the decisions.

Ryssdal: So that they have skin in the game, right?

MORTENSON: Yeah.

Ryssdal: Where does your group, the Central Asia Institute, get its money? Where do you get your resources?

MORTENSON: We're a private nonprofit. Ninety-four percent of our money is private. From day one we've never taken a dime of federal money. It frees us up so we're not perceived as an instrument of the U.S. government. So we can freely talk with the U.S. military commanders or the Taliban or anybody that we want to.

Ryssdal: But here you are in the midst of a horrible recession, and globally at that, and you have to convince people to give you money, how do you do that? What's your sales pitch?

MORTENSON: We basically don't have any sales pitch. I've gone to marketing schools, and they say how can you go out without asking for money. We do write about what we do. But I think the key, at least for us, is -- although it might sound fairly insignificant -- is children. We have a program called Pennies for Peace, and that's a program where children learn about philanthropy. They're also encouraged to do things on their own. And last year we raised $1.4 million just from Pennies.

Ryssdal: Quantify that for me. What can $1 million do for your institute?

MORTENSON: You could build 40 to 50 schools. And over the term of maybe 20-30 years educate about 100,000 children.

Ryssdal: Make the connection for me between education and peace.

MORTENSON: I really think the key to peace in the world is education. But what it is, is it's really about ignorance and hatred. And to overcome that what we need is education, we need tolerance.

Ryssdal: As a guy who has spent years and years and years in Afghanistan, and given the level of political attention that that country is getting here today, what is your perception of how Afghanistan is doing?

MORTENSON: Well, there's still reason to be optimistic, and there's still hope. One of the most exciting things to me has been to see the huge learning curve in the U.S. military. I was actually fairly critical. I'm a veteran but I was fairly critical of the military in my first book "Three Cups of Tea." I called the soldiers laptop warriors because there was no boots on the ground. They were running around with their high-tech gear and really not understanding any cultural nuances.

But I can say now, having been on the ground and met with thousands of servicemen, I really think that they really get it. The reason for that is a lot of the strategy now is based on first empowering the elders -- these are the shura, these are the tribal leaders -- the ability to listen more, and number three, basically having more tea, building relationships with the elders.

Ryssdal: Greg Mortenson is the founder of the Central Asia Institute. His first book was called "Three Cups of Tea." His new book is called "Stones into Schools." Greg, thanks a lot.

MORTENSON: Thanks, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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