The Significance of a $12,000 School

A perfect read for the season, Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, helps make sense of current events in Pakistan. The book tells of:

"...the unlikely journey that led Mortenson from a failed attempt to climb Pakistan's highest mountain, to successfully building schools in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. By replacing guns with pencils, rhetoric with reading, Mortenson combines his unique background with his intimate knowledge of the third-world to fight terrorism with books, not bombs, and successfully bring education and hope to remote villages in central Asia. THREE CUPS OF TEA is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world; one school at a time..."

The connection to our readership is in the philanthropy that underlies the story. Greg Mortenson builds schools in Pakistan for $12,000 a piece through his nonprofit, Central Asia Institute. The book chronicles how:

"...In an early effort to raise money he wrote letters to 580 celebrities, businessmen, and other prominent Americans. His only reply was a $100 check from NBC’s Tom Brokaw. Selling everything he owned, he still only raised $2,000. But his luck began to change when a group of elementary school children in River Falls, Wisconsin, donated $623 in pennies, thereby inspiring adults to take his cause more seriously. Twelve years later he's built fifty-five schools."

After he builds schools in Pakistan for a few months, Mortenson comes back to the United States and scrounges for another $50,000 or so in charitable donations to go back and do more. We've lamented in past postings the inadequacy of the average grant size in this country of $36,000 to achieve impact, but that amount will get you three schools with CAI (assuming someone else is covering the operating expenses, which most foundation grants do). The significant of a $12,000 school in Pakistan or Afghanistan may be that foundations are right to expect the sector to do more with less.

Or the significance of a $12,000 school may be the light it sheds on the bit players being described in coverage of the Bhutto assassination , the so-called Qaeda-linked militant and Taliban training grounds in northern Pakistan. Thanks to this well chronicled story, one comes away with a clear understanding of the significant differences in the cities, regions, tribes and peoples of the region. Viewing them otherwise does a great disservice to the country.

Or it may be that the significance is, as the book argues, in the comparison of the impact of $12,000 investments in schools relative to hundreds of millions in weaponry for fighting the root causes of terrorism. While military doctrine is clearly out of our domain of expertise, it appears that this may be one more area where philanthropy is blazing a new trail in filling gaps in government policy, vision and spending. After shock and awe, our government has proven it has no systematic way to get basic services and infrastructure up and running in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Is this a role for philanthropy? We'd like to hear your thoughts.

Carla E. Dearing

Posted at 11:50 AM, Jan 01, 2008 in Education | Global Philanthropy | Peace and Justice | Philanthropic Strategy | Scaling Philanthropy | Permalink | Comment