Three Cups of Tea, the story of Mortenson and his extraordinary school-building initiative in a remote part of Pakistan, provokes many interesting lines of inquiry. In this outline it is proposed to address the question of why we give. What compels someone like Mortenson to take on an enormous and selfless act? And how effective are the most effective individual acts of goodness?
Why do we give? First, there is the “humanitarian imperative”; we help because we can. The obligation to assist arises from our ability to do so. Second, we assist because we are conscious of belonging to a single community of mankind. Mortenson gave with no expectation of reciprocity. Third, we make these gestures because they show us in good light, both to ourselves and to others. Fourth, we make this effort because we believe that reinforcing economic and social basis of society promotes peace and stability. There is a whole philosophy of “functionalism” based on the idea that an educated, prosperous society is also a peaceful society. Fifth, Mortenson may not have been aware of this but gestures like his soon attract support from other sources whose motives may or may not be as pure as the original gesture. The motive might be national interest, economic interest, or security or political influence . . . etc.
Each of these five points is subject to serious questioning and doubt. Take the humanitarian imperative. We feel an obligation to help because we can help. If you cannot swim there is no obligation to dive into the water to save someone. But note, often our humanitarian impulse is seriously compromised or constrained by problems of access. The greatest need is in the most remote parts of the world and Mortenson’s achievement is that he was able to overcome, at least to some extent, the problem of access, both geographical and cultural. The international humanitarian response to Haiti has so far been seriously constrained by problems of access.
Secondly, we assist because we are conscious of belonging to a community. But in a real community there is give and take. In all human societies, receiving assistance is made acceptable by the thought that one day we can do the same. In other words, reciprocity is very important. But in most international giving, there is no reciprocity. What can the people of Haiti give us in return? If they cannot, then receiving our assistance gives rise to feelings both of gratitude and of embarrassment and eventually of resentment. It would be good to review Mortenson’s story keeping this point in mind. How much of the resistance that he encountered was due to the fact that he was an outsider wanting nothing in return? The story glides over this point; his motives are not questioned, except by religious bigots.
Thirdly, we give because it is said that giving shows us in a good light: the more disinterested we are the more effective we are. It would be interesting to examine how Mortensen made sure that...