Builder of Schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan Does It One Brick at a Time

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January/February, 2011; Source: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs | The accomplishments of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute, run by author Greg Mortenson (“Three Cups of Tea”), seem almost too good to be true. He has established 145 schools in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan that provide education to 64,000 students including 52,000 girls.

Mortenson's commitment to educating girls in these regions seems to have been due in part to his time in the village of Korphe, Pakistan where he was nursed to health after trying to climb Pakistan's K2 peak. He decided to follow a mission of promoting peace "one school at a time."

On face value, the achievements are pretty remarkable when you consider that from 1996, when it was founded, through 2005 the organization regularly raised less than $1 million a year in revenues, some years much less. In 2006, the revenues jumped to $1.6 million (with expenses of $1.4 million), in 2007 they increased to $3.8 million (with expenses of only $2.6 million, leaving a fund balance that year of $1.2 million), and in 2008 and 2009, the annual revenues were $13.1 million and $14.3 million with expenses of only $5.1 million in 2008 and $9.7 million in 2009.

Annual fund balances that are larger than the organization's annual expenses catch one's eye. Beginning with a minimal budget, Mortenson, not unlike many personal, mission-driven start-ups, apparently eschewed some of the niceties of nonprofit management and finance, according to the American Institute of Philanthropy. For example, until the 2009 financials, CAI didn't have audits or respond to AIP's financial inquiries and was more than a bit unclear about how it dealt with the income from Mortenson's books, which may well be the organization's most significant source of support (it's hard to tell).

Presumably the 145 schools, their teachers, and operating expenses are paid by the local communities, as Mortenson's organization seems to be dedicated to building these schools brick-by-brick in these often isolated rural mountain communities. The model may not be focused on educational quality and curriculum, but in these communities, simply having a school is a major advance, especially one that serves girls.

A friend of mine suggested that Mortenson's nongovernmental approach to creating what in some cases are one-room rural schools may be as much community engagement and community building around the rights of girls as they are about providing education to girls where the very concept of girls in school is anathema to much of the local population.—Rick Cohen