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Sunday Book Review: Stones into Schools

[ 2 ] July 25, 2010 |

This is the sixth installment of an eight part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  2. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  3. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich
  4. Huang Yasheng, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
  5. Walter Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe
  6. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools

Stones into Schools is Greg Mortenson’s follow-up to Three Cups of Tea, a book depicting his experience in southwest Asia building schools for girls.  In part because of his locale, Greg Mortenson’s efforts came to several US military spouse book clubs, which helped spread the argument to officers serving in Afghanistan.  The book continued to receive publicity (in part because of Mortenson’s speaking tours), and eventually led to Stones into Schools, a follow up volume.

You need to come to this book with certain expectation.  Although the subject matter is engaging, Mortensen is not a particularly sophisticated author.  Academics will find this interesting, but not very analytical; Mortensen starts with the assumption that women’s education will be transformative (a position that has some support in the academy) and doesn’t try to prove the argument or evaluate it in any very rigorous manner.  It would be wrong to say that Mortenson comes off as pompous, but there is a certain sense of self-importance, and the narrative is, of course, structured around the “white guy helps the primitives civilize themselves” idea.  All of this is forgiveable.  Mortenson has made an enormous sacrifice of his own time and money in order to help build schools in some of the world’s least accessible locations, and this has helped him produce a good book on development in southwest Asia.

Mortenson also includes some practical advice for non-governmental organizations.  In the wake of the Kashmir earthquake, for example, refugees received massive donations from the West, particularly the US.  Many of the donations included high end camping gear, which, while lovely, often caught fire when people tried to cook near it.  He also describes what can only be called the inefficiencies of frenzied disaster relief efforts.  I suspect that the response to the Haitian earthquake suffered from the same problems.

Mortenson has an instinct for negotiating local power structures.  He does a good job of identifying local power brokers, and isn’t bothered by the necessity to adapt to local cultures and decision-making practices.  His experiences indicate not only how difficult building relationship are in the area, but also how personalist.  One of Mortenson’s biggest deals nearly fails because of the illness and death of an important local powerbroker.  Indeed, Mortenson himself suffered a severe illness while traveling in Afghanistan, which was particularly troubling because many deals would have been imperiled by his death.

Mortenson is open about his failures.  Although most of his efforts at establishing schools have been successful, and few of his schools have been destroyed, he does detail several individual cases in which he failed to convince a family to send a young girl to school, or in which he was unable to bring together the resources needed to put a school in a particular area.  He also doesn’t describe the effort as likely to pay off in the short term.

In a couple of places, Mortenson discusses his relationship with the military.  Mortenson is impressed with the dedication of the US military, and at least its surface interest in humanitarian endeavor.  However, he’s skeptical of short term military success in Afghanistan.  This isn’t surprising, as his own work expects change on a much longer time frame. He also worried a lot about civilian casualties from air strikes.  However, Mortenson appears to have had good relationships with notable US military officers, including Mike Mullen.  Shortly before he was fired, Stanley McChrystal sent Mortenson a note, expressing the hope that Mortenson would continue his work even if McChrystal could not.

Mortenson’s book is both interesting and readable.  We don’t know yet whether Mortenson’s strategy will have any long term effect in Afghanistan and Pakistan, at least on the geopolitical scale.  We do know that peoples lives have been improved.  However, Mortenson’s perspective is particular; there are many questions of development and NGO operation that he can’t shed any light on.  This doesn’t make Stones to Schools less worthwhile to read, however.

Comments (2)

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  1. Thanks for this. I have some students that are planning to do dissertations on development and Afghanistan next year and want to use the Mortenson books (which I haven’t yet had time to read!) This is very helpful background until I get there.

  2. Mark Hansen says:

    Disclaimer: I served twice in Afghanistan with U.S. Army FOB, both times in Kunar province in 2004 and 2006.

    One correction to the article above: None of Mortenson’s schools have been destroyed, while more than 2,400 schools, mostly for girls have been destroyed by the Taliban since 2007. Many of these schools destroyed were built by western contractors or USAID or DOD (Department of Defense).

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