The Failures of Tea and Guns in Development

"Machine Gun Preacher" movie poster

On September 23, 2011, the world was introduced to Sam Childers, a gun-loving, motorcycle-riding, bad boy who found the light of God and went to Sudan to save the child soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Yes, the typical development crusade. Remember Three Cups of Tea? Different story, same concept. Some guy ‘unexpectedly’ finds himself in poverty and/or conflict, sees that nothing is being done and decides it’s up to him to put a stop to it.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Childers, he is a former member of the notorious Hells Angels biker gang and a drug addict who changed his life around after finding religion. Through a church mission trip, Childers traveled to Uganda and soon learned of the LRA’s use of child soldiers. Shocked by the lack of adequate aid response, Childers decided to take things into his own hands. His life is now being made into a movie, titled the “Machine Gun Preacher”.

Sam Childers

It’s not hard to see why people find his story compelling. However, despite several major problems found in his story (storing arms in his Nimule orphanage, selling them to the Sudan People’s Liberations Army (SPLA), killing POWs, etc.), media reception of Childers’ story has been largely positive. Since its inception, Childers charity, Angels of East Africa, has generated $1 million annually (which is expected to increase with new support drawn from the movie). Criticism can primarily only be found in blogs and the occasional USA Today article. Many news sources have ignored recent news that Childers’ orphanage has shut down as a result of lack of oversight and resources. Matthew Wilson, an American doctor, commented that upon visiting the orphanage in 2009, he saw no adults, including Childers, present. The children were left with no supervision, no food, and no medicine. This allegation was later confirmed by the senior local government inspector in Nimule, Alphonse Irenge Lesur, who inspected the orphanage in July 2011. The locals have expressed that they want him out of the area.

Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, was initially heralded for his work as well. However, it was not until five years after the book was published that a 60 Minutes report exposed inaccuracies in the book and critical failures in Mortenson’s NGO, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). Of the $60 million donated to the charity, the majority seemed to be used for “book tours” rather than building schools abroad. The report included an investigation into 30 of the 141 schools built by CAI. Half of these schools were found empty and some were used merely for storage. Mortenson’s charity did not seem to take into consideration what to do once schools were completed. Without teachers, resources, and students, these “schools” are essentially useless. They need continued support from the charity in order to get off the ground and be a sustainable source for education and the community.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson

While the impact of these charities is questionable, the stories behind them have brought tremendous support and awareness for these causes. In response to the Three Cups of Tea controversy, Roxanne Krystalli, of Stories of Conflict and Love, explained, “I understand that the recent revelations suggest the story is problematic … [But Mortenson’s] work and life story still ignite something inside me.” These stories resonate with and inspire people to take part in a cause they may not have previously cared, or even known, about. However, these people are being misguided into thinking that their contributions are making a positive impact. In the blog, Wronging Rights, Amanda Taub and Kate Cronin-Furman explain that, “Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before.”

Many people are under the misconception that doing something is better than doing nothing. While doing something is all well and good, if you don’t have the proper knowledge base or training, how much good are you really doing? While the intentions of Childers and Mortenson may have started out good, they have not had a positive impact on development.

Of course, there are two sides to every story . It should also be noted that there is still speculation over the validity of CBS’ claims against Mortenson and his NGO and until these accusations are found valid or not, the future of the CAI remains unclear. The problem remains that there’s been a lack of project oversight and transparency in the NGO. Neither Mortenson’s nor Childers’ charities seem to have a sustainable structure in this way. Their focus has shifted to getting their cause to the public rather than fulfilling their promises. If done effectively, both charities could use donor support to make real, long-lasting benefits. Perhaps one option could be to restructure their charities to cooperate more with the local community and insure that once schools or orphanages are stable, management can be passed on to locals with continued support by the charity when necessary.

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