Saturday, January 16, 2010

Three cups of Tea will get you a Marmot

Whenever I, as a development worker, return “home”, I have to deal with well meaning commentary on the profession from neighbors, friends, and Billy Bob the local supermarket checkout clerk.

In America, this usually involves a discussion about why America spends “so much money” (I won’t bore you with the oft quoted less than 1% of the budget stat) on developing countries when we have so many needs in the good ol’ US of A, and someone gazing at me dewy deer eyes saying how “brave” I am for doing such good work. All of this is annoying, but manageable.

And then Three Cups of Tea was published. Suddenly, suburban book club members and NY stockbrokers alike are instant experts on development. One person can make a difference! Now I am confronted with conversations along the lines of “why should we believe an organization can ever make a difference when one man did it all alone up there in Pakistan drinking tea with the natives”.

Yes, I said it. I’m a development worker who hates Three Cups of Tea. Sound the alarm. Call Oprah – this is newsbreaking!

If you haven’t read it please don’t. For the curious, here is the propaganda website:

It sounds like an amazing story, doesn’t it? So heart warming. So human.

So why do I hate it? The dude, bless his poor lumbering heart, got ripped off. He ain’t no saint. He came to the same old conclusions all development professionals have known for years – invest in women, invest in communities, empower locals. Fight Islamic extremism in poverty alleviation and improved access to education. Talk to the locals.


The mass appeal of this book is based on thee things:

  • anti government/big organization backlash: why should the American tax payer pay TAXES to help countries develop when people can do it themselves? While drinking tea?
  • People would like to believe that they too have the potential to become the great white hope and save the world with no instruction manual.
  • The Lebowski factor. The guy is an oaf. A big, strong, lumbering American who probably speaks with a lazy twang. Do not tell me that if he had been a quick talking Chinese- American anyone would have liked the book as much. It just ain’t so. We want our cowboys, this book provided one.

Actually, there is a resemblance between the Dude and Mortensen:

(It’s a comfort knowing the dude is out there somewhere, isn’t it? The dude abides).

When you work in the field and you meet yahoos who have been inspired by this kind of book and have ditched everything to “DO something”; and have to stoop to the level of this book to discuss what you do…. you get a bit sensitive about this sort of thing.

I don’t begrudge Mortensen for doing what he did. Bully for him. Really. But please, don’t assume that the dude approach to development is how things should work – or I may have to throw a marmot into your bathwater.


  1. LMAO. might have to read the book now though....

  2. It seems that Three Cups Of Tea is not necessarily the problem, but the superficial, knee-jerk reaction to it. You're right--suburbanites and stockbrokers get to feel better about the world (and of course, about themselves) without having to get their hands dirty. But, I will also say this. I once (very briefly) met Mr. Mortenson and he is neither an oaf nor does he speak with a twang (yes, I know that was hyperbole). He is a big white guy, and a very soft-spoken one at that. His book has surely been overplayed and his conclusions, as you stated so well, are nothing new. But his work seems to have come through a commitment and a devotion that is less common.

    I am reluctant to blame him for the public reactions to his story. Let the Oprah minions have their self-satisfaction. If just one out of one hundred thousand who read his book are inspired to get their hands dirty--really do the work--then the book has done something indeed.