Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Ray of Sunshine

It is easy to be very depressed these days. The economy is in the tank, congress can't seem to agree on the time of day, our country is in two costly wars that seem interminable, global natural disasters seem to occur almost daily, a number of world leaders are irrational and/or seemingly insane, and climate change threatens the future of the planet. In general, things are out of control and no one seems able to offer any workable, effective solutions to our problems.

Occasionally in all this gloom there is a ray of sunshine. One heart-warming example is in the work of a quiet, unassuming man named Greg Mortenson. Mortenson has dedicated the past 17 years of his life to helping people in Afghanistan and Pakistan better their lives in a way that costs very little money, is demonstrably effective, and probably has done more to blunt the power of terrorism than all the bombs and firepower we have expended in that area of the world.

Mortenson's approach is very simple: help local people build schools and train teachers to teach in them. "School" here is a modest 1 or 2 room structure that costs only a few thousand dollars. A local village supplies the land and the labor, and Mortenson's organization, the Central Asia Institute, provides the materials. It is a partnership that has produced 130+ schools, allowing for the education of 58,000 students, most of them girls.

The fact that most of the schools are dedicated to educating girls is remarkable, given that Afghanistan and Pakistan are Muslim countries. Contrary to our common perception that women are universally denied learning opportunities in Islamic societies, village elders have welcomed this and see it as a way to improve their communities. Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence that empowering women through education can be a very powerful positive force for change in third world countries. Mortenson has seen first hand the benefits -- for example in one case a young woman who attended one of these village schools was able to go on to obtain midwife medical training. When she applied her skills in her home region, the number of mothers dying in childbirth dropped to near zero.

Mortenson was initially viewed with suspicion and resentment, but is now highly revered throughout this area for his unselfish work and for his sensitivity to the culture. Last year Pakistan awarded him their highest civil honor, the Star of Pakistan, for his efforts to promote girls' education in rural areas.

Even our own military has come to appreciate Mortenson's unique knowledge and understanding of this region. Admiral Mullen, General Petreaus and General McChrystal have met with Mortenson and seem to be incorporating some of his ideas on how to win the support of the Afghani people. Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea, is now required reading for senior military staff and Special Forces in Afghanistan.

A ray of sunshine indeed.

You can watch an interview of Mortenson by Bill Moyers for a closer look at this amazing man.

1 comment:

PaddleDoc said...

What the world needs are more Mortenson!