NOTE: This talk is at the Arlington Theatre, not Campbell Hall as was initially reported.
Earlier this year, I traveled through India with Howard Schiffer, founder of Santa Barbara’s nonprofit Vitamin Angels, which was featured last week on the cover of The Independent (independent.com/india). As we discussed, literally, how to save the world, Schiffer kept referring to economist Jeffrey Sachs‘s book The End of Poverty. So when it came time to find someone to interview Sachs and humanitarian Greg Mortenson in anticipation of their May 13 talk at the Arlington Theatre, the obvious choice was Schiffer, whose globe-trotting work for the past 14 years gives him a unique and powerful perspective on the work of these two men. I think you’ll agree. What follows are the extended interviews that Schiffer conducted with each man, the condensed version of which were published in The Santa Barbara Independent on Thursday, May 1. – Matt Kettmann
In 1993, mountain climber Greg Mortenson got lost after failing to reach the summit of K2, wound up in a small Pakistan village, and ended up discovering his life. He founded the Central Asia Institute, which is responsible for building 70-plus schools and teaching 26,000 children in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the mission statement: “To promote peace by educating children, especially girls, who, because of poverty, isolation, gender discrimination, corrupt governments, and religious extremism are denied the right to learn.” That experience led to his writing the book Three Cups of Tea. I spoke on the phone with him recently for more than two hours.– Howard B. Schiffer
You came down from K2 in 1993, emaciated, exhausted, and disoriented after failing to reach the top, and were taken in by the people of a remote village called Korphe [in Pakistan] who nursed you back to health. After you recovered, you saw an outdoor school with 84 children sitting in the dirt. A girl named Cho-cho asked you to build a school and you immediately promised to do just that. The power of that impulse, what some might consider a “rash decision,” has had a profound impact on who you are today. What prompted that conviction?
Greg Mortenson: I grew up on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania from the time I was three months old until 14 years old [1958-1972]. So I had seen abject poverty and disparity – this wasn’t new to me. My father started a hospital and my mother started a school in Africa. It took my father a decade to raise six million dollars in the 1960s to build Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (KCMC).
When it came time to inaugurate KCMC, my father gave a speech and said that in 10 years, all the department heads would be local Tanzanians. The ex-pats and Westerners scoffed at my father for having the audacity to say that. My father died in 1981, but a decade after KCMC opened, all the department heads were from Tanzania and still are today 35 years later.
When a brave girl named Cho-Cho, sitting in the dirt, writing with sticks in the sand on a cold autumn day, asked for help to build a school, it was the most natural thing in the world for me to promise her I would.
It has now been 15 years since you first arrived in Korphe. How has the village changed?
The Braldu valley in the Karakoram mountain range has kept many of its ancestral ways. There is still no electricity, internet, TV, or phones in Korphe, but the community is not in a rush to get there. Wheat is still milled in centuries-old water mills, and yak dung is dried on walls to use for fuel. The communities have a deep sense of ecological harmony with their land. There is no garbage other than a few candy wrappers and cigarette boxes that Westerners have brought in. A newspaper does show up every few days, which is the highlight of the week.
Health care has improved, especially through a nutrition, hygiene, and sanitation program we introduced in the school about a decade ago. When I first visited Korphe, one in three babies born died before the age of one. The infant mortality rate now has been reduced by over 30 percent. The literacy rate has gone from under 10 percent up to 40 percent.
There have also been a few unforeseen results over the last fifteen years. When the children learn to read and write, they often teach their parents. We now have adult literacy programs.
The second thing is that one of my elder mentors in Pakistan, Haji Ali, warned me that when literacy increased, the people would lose their oral history. We have oral history programs now in our schools where elders come in and share their traditions, culture, and heritage with the grandchildren in school. This is an incredibly popular class.
The third unexpected result is that women write letters to their maternal families, which is a significant and empowering experience. Up until now, once a woman got married she essentially had no contact with her family.
I sometimes see women who are returning home from the market carefully unfold newspapers that their vegetables or produce are wrapped in and start reading the news. Korphe has a good Iman [village mullah], but some of the mullahs use illiteracy to control the people. When women have access to the outside world, hear the news, and read opinions, they can see it sometimes conflicts with what the mullah has told them.
Are you still in touch with Cho-cho?
Cho-cho is now married to Ibrahim, one of our first male graduates. He owns a local store and she helps tutor children. They have three children and the older one is in first grade at the Korphe School which we built.
Have the people there now read Three Cups of Tea?
I’m working on translations in Urdu, Pashto, and Farsi, so it can be printed cheaply in Pakistan and Afghanistan so the masses can buy it to read. It’s a slight challenge with legal releases, but it will happen.
The media in our country seems to focus on the “volatility” of this region. What is your view on this concern from the village level in Pakistan and Afghanistan?
Americans are largely naive and misinformed about what people in Pakistan are like and how they think. If you ask a woman in a rural village about 9/11, the Twin Towers, Iraq, TSA, Homeland Security, B52s, she will not know what you are talking about. But she will be able to tell you that one in three babies dies before the age of one and she wants her children to get an education.
We work in really remote areas, some places where the Taliban is still operating. Our military is also there, the units are called FOB (Forward Operating Bases). I get one to two dozen letters every month from military people who are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lt. Col Chris Kolenda wrote me and said, “Without education nothing will change.” Everyone who is in this region knows that the most important thing for peace is building relationships. Chris wrote saying, “The thirst for education here is palpable. After 30 years of war, the people want a better future.”
What is amazing is that it is easy to get the Army to approve a $100,000 smart bomb to try to kill four Taliban soldiers, but they’ll deny a $2,000 request for a bridge that might serve an entire region and help make it much easier for the people to get their goods to market.
I’ve been speaking for the past 16 months probably to about 150,000 people. I always ask the same question: “Raise you hand if you are aware that today, in 2008, there are six million children going to school in Afghanistan and one-third of them are girls, and that, in 2000, there were only about 800,000 children going to school and almost all of them were boys. This is a seven-time increase in eight years.” And so far only about 35 to 40 people have raised their hands.
The publisher pushed for your original book to be subtitled “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations, One School at a Time.” Is the fear of terrorism the only thing that sells in America?
This was a big disagreement with my publisher. The original 2006 hardcover did not do well and sold only about 25,000 books the first year. When it went to paperback in 2007, the new editor Paul Slovak pushed for a subtitle change to, “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace, One School at a Time,” and won. When the paperback book came out, it was immediately number four on the New York Times bestseller list and has stayed there ever since. This month it is number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Everyone has been surprised that it keeps selling. We haven’t really received much major TV, no national NPR, or even book reviews in big city papers. It all make sense to me though. It’s about people in this country who are hungry for peace, and new solutions to the perpetual cycle of violence and “war on terror.”
After 9/11, you felt amazing sympathy throughout Pakistan – village army commanders, village chiefs, children, and women embraced you. You tell the story of meeting little old ladies who brought you eggs to bring back to give to the widows whose husbands had died in the World Trade Center. Then you returned to the States and received death treats and hate mail. Were you shocked at the contrast and the lack of information on who the terrorists really are?
I was in Pakistan for three months before and after 9/11. After it happened, the State Department and U.S. embassy advised me to go home immediately. I called up my wife, Tara, and she encouraged me to stay. She said, “The people love you, your work is important, and you need to stay.”
I finally came home on Halloween, October 31st. I landed in Denver airport and there were American flags everywhere. I called Tara and said, “What’s going on? It looks like the 4th of July?” She said, “Greg, our country has changed. Be careful, take time to understand what has happened, and don’t say much.”
I had never spoken out against the war, and only had said we should use restraint instead of lashing out in retribution and retaliation without knowing who we were striking at. This was a very complex situation that could not be answered in six-second sound bites.
Someone called my house and spoke to my daughter, Amira, who was six at the time and said. “I’m going to kill your Daddy.” It was upsetting for her. It was the only time I thought about quitting this work.
The real enemy, whether it is in Afghanistan, Africa, or America, is ignorance. And it is ignorance that breeds hatred. Fighting terrorism is based in fear. Promoting peace is based in hope.
You were kidnapped in Pakistan in July 1996, held for eight days, and were finally set free. The shocking thing to me is that you returned to this tribe and showed them photos of your family. How were you able to do this?
I made a mistake. I wandered into a tribal area, the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) on the Afghan border, alone and without permission. I was put in a dark earthen room and feared that I would be executed anytime with a bullet through my head. Two men with AK-47s who were smoking hashish guarded me day and night. After three days of getting depressed, I realized I needed to befriend my captors, and asked them to read the Koran and teach me about their Islamic faith.
After six days, I told them my wife was going to have our first baby – a son (not accurate, it was really a daughter) – and they started to warm up to me, and offer better food. The birth of a first born son is life’s greatest event for Pathan tribal men and cause for great celebration. On the eighth day, they freed me.
A couple of years later, they wrote me, apologized, and asked me to come back – they also wanted to build a school. I decided to revisit Waziristan, even though it was a little frightening. Under centuries-old traditions, I returned under their code of Nenawatay, or right of refuge. They lavished incredible hospitality on me, and fired hundreds of rounds of bullets in the air to celebrate when I showed them photos of my family. Even though they realized I actually had a daughter, it was fine.
Do your children travel with you in Pakistan?
My wife and children travel with me to Pakistan. They don’t go everywhere with me, but they love it there. My daughter Amira teaches children in the school, and my son is adept in local children’s games.
You are involved in long-term solutions. The United States talks about “nation building,” but the real interest looks like a rush to hang up the “Mission Accomplished” sign. What does the long-term investment and commitment in these communities look like?
Ultimately, the only way to peace is to have dialogue and build relationships. Politicians will never bring peace, but people will. Many Americans want to briefly foray into Pakistan and Afghanistan and do a little good work. Unless it’s a long term commitment, nothing changes on the ground in rural villages.
An example is that we helped an eye doctor and team come to Northern Pakistan in 1998 to do about 60 cataract surgeries. It cost us about $26,000. Then we realized there was the need for more surgeries and preventative care, so slowly over the next four years we helped a local doctor, Niaz Ali, get extensive opthamalogical and surgical training in Pakistan and Nepal. His total training cost $4,000. Since 2002, he has done over 4,000 cataract surgeries which cost less than $10 per procedure.
Did you have any heroes when you were growing up?
I grew up without TV or movies. Albert Schweitzer was my hero. At around seven, I read about his philosophy called Reverence for Life, which says that all living things are sacred. That really stuck with me.
Another childhood hero was Mother Theresa, who helped set up an orphanage in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania, which I once visited. I mostly admired her humility and was blessed to touch her hand before she was buried in Calcutta in 1998. What struck me most was how tiny her hand was, how such a small person is one of the greatest visionaries and examples of our time.
What do you want to be written on your tombstone? What is your hope for this world your children are growing up in and what do you want your legacy to be?
I’ve told my wife Tara to put “He loved all beings, and died a happy man.” What I want most for our children and the world is peace and that the perpetual cycle of violence, wars, nuclear arsenals, terrorism, abuse, and disregard for our planet will cease.
Perhaps best known as the person who inspired Bono to focus on global health, Jeffrey Sachs has long been playing a key role on the world’s stage, helping countries such as Bolivia and Mongolia revitalize their economies, directing the Earth Institute at Columbia University, advising the Secretary General of the United Nations, and heading up the U.N.’s Millennium Project. Considered the leading international economist of his generation, the very busy Sachs also authored The End of Poverty and, most recently, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet. I caught up with him over the phone as he was in a taxi on the way to the airport. – Howard B. Schiffer
Last month, World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that 33 countries are now on the verge of social upheaval because of rising food prices [the price of rice has doubled since the start of 2008]. Was this predictable and could it have been avoided?
Jeffrey Sachs: I don’t think that the specific timing of the increases was predicted by very many people – certainly, I didn’t predict it. What is predictable is the fact that there are a lot of very vulnerable people whose vulnerability could be reduced. We should have been acting well before the crises to address the problems of hunger and greater food production. When you look at what’s happening right now you, can understand it even if you can’t predict it.
What specifically could have been done so that we’re not responding to a crisis? How can we be proactive so people are not so vulnerable?
I think the main thing is that we know that there are nearly a billion people in the world who are in chronic hunger – not just when food crises happens, but who are hungry day in and day out because their food systems in the countries where they live are just not productive enough to be providing the food supplies robustly. There are also extremely poor people who just live on the margins in the cities as well.
What we ought to be doing as a very general matter is helping the poorest of the poor escape from the poverty trap, as well as helping poor farmers to become more productive, both to the feed themselves and thereby get out of the poverty trap themselves, but also to be able to feed their countries more effectively. Both of these things are possible. We can break the poverty trap through a variety of actions and we certainly can help low-production farmers, especially in Africa, to grow more food, earn more income, and break this cycle of impoverishment.
President Bush, recently talking about the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, stated that the military “can have all the time they need.” You’ve stated that one day of the U.S. military budget could supply Africa with mosquito nets [to fight malaria] for five years. What could have been accomplished with the one trillion dollars we’ve spent in Iraq to date?
It’s almost unbelievable what we could be doing. We could be fully funding our own health systems. We could be addressing the scourges of malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, water stress, food production in Africa, and we could be paying down our national debt so we weren’t in such a ferocious financial crisis. The money that we are squandering on this war is simply mind-boggling and the idea that we have all the time in the world to waste – all of the blood and money in the world – is shocking.
You keep focusing on 0.7 percent – the amount of the Gross National Product (GNP) each country in the developed world would have to donate to eradicate extreme poverty. This equates to only $34 per person. Can we motivate governments to come forward to do the right thing or are we better off going directly to the people?
I think we have to do both things. I see three ways to do this. One is to engage the general public. That’s happening now, it’s starting to increase, and a lot more can be done. But people are excited all over our country to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Second, we could go just to the billionaires of the world. These 1,100 individuals have $4.2 trillion of net worth. They certainly could set aside a small percentage of their wealth and form foundations. This could generate $100-200 billion a year, enough to solve the problem.
A third way would be for us to end the war in Iraq and end the Bush tax cuts for the rich and use some of these savings, which would be over $450 billion a year, to reach a 0.7 percent commitment. This would be enough to get the job done and we would be so much more secure in the end – a more prosperous world and a much safer world.
Is part of the problem people not being willing to commit to the long-term solution? It’s interesting in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War that many people forget that the last part of Charlie Wilson’s fight was advocating for schools to be built in Afghanistan. Are we often stopping our efforts in developing nations before the real work is done?
It’s a great point because when the Afghan war with the Soviets ended with the Soviet retreat, there was an opportunity to help rebuild that country. The U.S. said, “Nah, we’re not interested, let’s get out of there.” And that opened the way for the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and 9/11 and returning in this very expensive, NATO-led war and continuing bloody occupation. We don’t follow through.
We always think that development is the soft thing and somehow the military is the hard real thing. But the military approach doesn’t result in long term solutions. We don’t invest in ways that will get to the core of the problem: addressing the needs of ending extreme poverty, helping to create jobs, having kids in school, having adequate water, and safe sanitation – essentially helping people be able to meet their own basic needs and be empowered enough to have economically productive lives.
After World War II, the Marshall Plan helped rebuild a modern Europe and generated enormous goodwill for the U.S. Many have said that after 9/11, we were in a perfect position to assume global leadership. Given our poor image abroad today, is there a new Marshall Plan, a new opportunity for US leadership?
I’m even looking for something a little more modest. Not even U.S. leadership, but just U.S. partnership. Let’s find partners around the world who are ready to work with us, who are desperate for the U.S. to be back in the problem-solving mode rather than in the military mode, so that we can cooperate and solve these problems.
I’m not even pitching the idea that the U.S. should finance this like we did in the Marshall plan. The world today is multi-polar; there’s a lot more wealth around. I think China should put up some of the money, Europe should put up some of the money, along with the United States and other countries.
The problem isn’t our lack of leadership – it’s that we aren’t meeting the standard of being a basic partner with the poorest of the poor. [The world is lacking] our collegiality, our readiness to say, “Yes, we understand your vulnerability, your hunger, the risk of your children dying and we’re ready to work together with you.” Because that would not only solve problems, it would buy us security and goodwill around the world. The world would be so relieved to have the U.S. back in a constructive approach.
You’re one of the only people on the planet who is not afraid to ask for billions – the real cost for turning this world around.
I’m a macroeconomist, so my specialty is knowing how many zeros it will take to solve a problem and how much our spending is. Let me give you an example. This year we will spend more on the Pentagon than the entire world, in all of modern history, has spent in aid for Africa. One year’s Pentagon spending is greater than all the aid in the history of Africa.
People say, “Oh, we throw money down the drain in Africa.” They say that because they don’t know. They have certain preconceptions. They say, “If these people are poor, it must be because they squandered all the money.” It’s kind of doubly blaming Africa. First you don’t give them help and then you blame them for wasting the money they never got.
I’m trying to remind people that we spend $1.9 billion every single day on the Pentagon. So if one asks for $1.5 billion dollars for five years mosquito net coverage [to prevent Malaria] for all of Africa, that’s not outlandish, that’s less than one day’s Pentagon spending. You could ask for a few hundred million dollars for something and keep in mind that we spend $1.14 million every minute at the Pentagon. We’re taking a military approach that isn’t working and then complaining that we have no money to solve the problems of people dying of extreme poverty. I think there is a much better way.
Many of the models for relief and humanitarian work follow a “push” [top-down] model, whereby a program is developed at the top and then “pushed” down to the village level. This is common to health care systems around the world, yet your Millenium Villages seem to be following a different strategy. Can you talk about these different models?
Let me say that I believe in top-down and bottom-up. If you want to eradicate smallpox, we succeeded by using a top-down model and a very worthy one. Right now, I’m arguing that we need a top-down malaria control model. Everybody living in a malaria transmission zone ought to have a bed net and have access to very fine medicines called Artimisinin combination therapy. With these medicines and the bed nets, you could bring the malaria deaths down by about a million a year.
Bottom-up models are a different matter. If you want to improve farming, there are some general principles, but what do you grow? What crops work? How can you make the land more productive? How to manage the water? That has to be bottom-up because it’s different in every place. How will the local culture work effectively to support the education of children?
Whether it’s receiving bed nets top-down or whether it’s getting children into school from the bottom-up, you need communities engaged. You better have the communities understanding why the bed nets are so important and how they can be used. It’s a mix of strategies that reflects the local needs and the scientific reality.
Within the Millennium Villages, you are bringing multiple resources to improve conditions, not just bed nets, but water, improved agriculture technology, medicines, and education. How is this working?
We’re seeing something very thrilling, which is communities that were without hope are now being returned to vibrancy and fullness, partly because they’re better fed. They’re growing more food through specific interventions that are being done on food productivity. We’re seeing healthier people because they have malaria bed nets and medicine.
Yesterday, in our project meeting, we reviewed the conditions on school feeding programs. It was just wonderful news how across the Millennium Villages, the kids are getting mid-day lunch at school. This is tremendous because it’s good for nutrition, good for energy at school, and good for their attendance. It’s really happening.
The idea is a holistic approach whereby you approach health, education, agriculture, and infrastructure. You give hope to these communities because you empower them enough so that they can break out of poverty.
Why don’t most people in the U.S. even know about the Millennium Development Goals? Is this just poor marketing on the part of the U.N.?
I don’t blame the U.N. The U.N. has a hard enough time just operating with all of these countries squabbling and with the U.S. often disempowering the U.N. I think that the President of the United Sates might have done a better job explaining to the American people that we are signatory with the rest of the world to reach objectives to fight poverty, hunger, and disease and we just have not been at the table. These goals were set in September 2000.
I know of only one time in the whole Bush administration where President Bush even refers to the Millennium Development Goals: September 14, 2005 at the United Nations because I happened to be there. He’s probably said “the war on terror” thousands of times, and he only said “Millennium Development Goals” once, so how can people know?
Of course, I want people to know despite the diversion of attention in Washington. I’m trying through my books to nudge that process along, but I think it would be good if we had national leadership that helped the American people to understand what has been signed in our name, what could be done, and what we are not doing. I’m hoping to see the Millennium Development Goals in the inaugural address of the next President. That to me would be a marker that we are back in the real partnership process.
Greg Mortenson and Jeffrey Sachs appear together to speak more on these topics at the Arlington Theatre on Tuesday, May 13, at 7 p.m. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets.