Foreign Affairs One School at a Time

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Without getting too political, I’m not very happy about the war in Iraq. In total, 3,866 confirmed US deaths and 4,170 total “allied” deaths as of this morning. On top of this, over 28,000 US wounded. Not very pretty numbers. A few more targeted IEDs and we could hit 4,000 before the ball drops in Times Square.

I mention this as a precursor to a more important-but-related discussion. Traveling the world to education-related conferences, there tends to be a fair amount of dialogue about the US-led invasion of Iraq. Over the past four years of my international travel, I have yet to talk with one non-US person who is supportive of the effort. In fact, the discussion is usually of some level of futility and argument of why we are over there. I am left, often, to argue the Administration’s position on this, although I don’t agree in any manner. After 9/11, we had the world in our hands; I can remember 9/12 and the number of emails and phone calls from our German and other friends overseas. Everyone was affected. But the tides have reversed, regardless of what the new French President has to say about his love for America. Much of the world loves America; they just don’t always like us very much.

Eight years before 9/11, a gentleman named Greg Mortenson attempted to summit K2, the second highest mountain in the world. This is relevant, because that signaled the beginning of a one-man effort to change the world, one school at a time.

Mortenson didn’t summit that day back in 1993. In fact, he had to be rescued off the mountain by a porter named Mouzafer Ali. While resting back in the small Pakistani village of Korphe, Mortenson noticed that the town did not have a school. In fact, he watched 82 students—and only 4 girls—kneeling on the frozen ground outside, using sticks in the sand for their blackboard work. And they did this largely without a teacher. At the time, a teacher in Pakistan cost about $1 a day. The Pakistani government didn’t provide one, so Korphe had to share a teacher with two other communities. On the days that the teacher was not there, the children still showed up for their classes, 800 feet above the little town of Korphe.

It was at this moment that Mortenson, an American raised by missionary parents in Africa who built the first teaching hospital in Tanzania, decided that he needed to build a school for the people of Korphe, those who helped save him from the treacherous K2.

The story of Mortenson’s efforts to build that school is well documented in the bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Mortenson last week at Old Dominion University. While I was present to receive an honorary award from the university, I must admit, I felt “little” in comparison to what this man has done for the world. Since 1993, Mortenson has built 64 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, mainly for girls, because the educated boys leave the village while the girls come back. He has done so as a lone wolf, so to speak, and by learning the local customs and working within the constructs of their society, not by imposing ours on theirs.

The term “Three Cups of Tea” comes from the following Pakistani saying, as quoted in the book: “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.” Mortenson has achieved the third level in dozens of communities in the Middle East, and has achieved something we have not been able to do through our foreign affairs efforts: he has earned the respect and reverence of the local people, who understand that Americans can be good, even though our bombs sometimes drop and kill their families.

We need to learn something from Greg Mortenson’s efforts, which will likely, and hopefully, earn him a Nobel Peace Prize. The message to us is that the humanitarian aid is perhaps the best mode of foreign affairs in our arsenal.

For perspective, consider this: while the US provides about double the amount of foreign aid than any other country, it provided only 0.17 percent of GNI (Gross National Income) in 2006 to foreign or development aid, far under the 0.7 percent level set by the United Nations or the 1.03 percent achieved by Sweden, the 0.89 percent by Norway, or even the lowly 0.30 percent by Canada. We need to do more, and Mr. Mortenson is showing us how much difference a small amount can make: $1/day for a teacher; $12,000 to build a school. The newest high school in Arlington County, outside of Washington, DC, cost $77 million to build in 2005/06. Twelve grand seems like a bargain. Even if a school cost $25,000 to build in Korphe, we could build a hundred of them for $2.5 million, or 3,100 for the coast of the new Arlington high school.

Perhaps our best foreign efforts lay in the humanitarian efforts provided through USAID and other, non-governmental organizations. Building schools, helping communities “learn to fish” on their own, illustrates our best intensions.

Next week marks the US Thanksgiving (November 22) and also Canada’s non-official national holiday (the Grey Cup game on November 25). While enjoying your family or whatever you are doing, I strongly encourage you to take the time to read Three Cups of Tea. It may change your perspective of the world, especially with consideration of the volatility of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and rekindle the belief that each one of us can make a difference if we choose to act rather than think.

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