Friday, December 4, 2009

Stones Into Schools: Greg Mortenson in DC

Last night, I had the good fortune of being able to hear Greg "Three Cups of Tea" Mortenson speak at the Historic Synagogue in DC. Greg spoke about the work of his Central Asia Institute which has now established 131 schools in Pakistan and 48 in Afghanistan, most in extremely remote areas of those countries. Greg was in town promoting his new book, Stones Into Schools.

The work has changed over the years, including a growing collaboration with the U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan. Greg's first book, Three Cups of Tea, is now required reading for officers going into that region.

Greg analyzed the way outside forces, both Americans and allies and the Taliban and religious extremists, have caused Afghanistan's traditional social structure to unravel. He says that the keys to a peaceful future in the country are: 1) building relationships; 2) putting the elders back in charge; and 3) education. In an aside which we received warmly, Greg said he didn't buy the "God is on our side" argument. To the extent that God is on anyone's side, he said, He is on the side of the widows, the orphans, the disabled veterans, the victims of war. He mentioned that in patriotic parades in Afghanistan, these victims parade first, followed by the active duty military. It puts things in perspective.

Greg's work has emphasized educating girls who had been neglected by the public education system and the Islamic schools. He argues that "when you educate a girl, you educate a community" and mentioned that women's education has been linked to lower birth rates and infant mortality rates. He specifically mentioned the case of Aziza, a woman from the Charpusan Valley in northern Pakistan, who trained as a health worker with support from CAI. That area had a maternal mortality rate of 3-5 women per year. Since Aziza started to work in 1999, no woman has died in childbirth.

Educated men tend to leave poor communities while women stay on, Greg argues. Educated girls will read to their illiterate mothers -- even basic things like the newspaper wrapped around the produce they have bought in the market. An additional benefit is that educated women are much less likely to permit their children to become jihadists and a good Muslim son or daughter will not go against their parents' wishes. This is why the Islamic extremist groups have opposed educating girls.

Greg talked about his children's program Pennies for Peace and noted with pride that several charities led by young people have emerged from PFP "graduates", including the Little Red Wagon Foundation (homeless children in America), Peruvian Hearts (orphans in Peru), and Fund a Field (building soccer fields in poor communities in Africa).

Since 2007, Greg said, UNICEF reports that over 800 schools in Afghanistan and 650 in Pakistan have been destroyed by the Islamic extremists but only one of Greg's schools has been attacked. Greg attributes this to the willingness of the communities to defend these schools in which they have invested their own resources and sweat equity. But the gains have been far greater. In 2000, 800,000 children were in school in Afghanistan, almost all of them boys. In 2009, 8.4 million children are in school in that country, of which 2.5 million are girls.

While Greg did not comment about the surge and other recent changes in U.S. policy in the region, he has given a couple of extensive interviews recently on that subject. His main advice? Listen to the local people for a change.

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