We can't go on together with suspicious minds; and we can't build our dreams on suspicious minds.
MAY 18, 2011: Greg Mortenson's best-seller, “Three Cups of Tea,” prompted thousands of people to donate millions of dollars to his organization, the Central Asia Institute, so he could build hundreds of elementary schools in rural villages of Pakistan.
But the CAI is now unraveling after Mortenson was asked a very reasonable question: Where did all the money go?
The answer is pending, but CAI's fundraising days may be over based on press reports of shuttered schools in Pakistan and a financial investigation being launched by the attorney general of Montana, where Mortenson lives.
“Three Cups of Tea” and three words “accountability, transparency and sustainability” came to mind frequently last week while I attended a two-day conference near Mzuzu, Malawi, with representatives of Presbyterian churches in Europe and North America, and foundations that provide funds for faith-based educational and medical efforts. I was joined by Howard Kelly, director of the Capital Corridor Trade and Tourism Initiative for the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority.
Millions of dollars from these church groups — and thousands of dollars from Watertown First Presbyterian Church — has been sent to the Synod of Livingstonia, which oversees health clinics, schools and churches in northern Malawi.
And all of these organizations are asking the same question of the Synod's leaders: Can we see an audit from last year to find out where all the money has been spent? For instance, can you provide documentation to show donors in Toronto, Charlotte, Aberdeen and Belfast that the money they gave us to buy anti-malaria drugs actually bought anti-malaria drugs?
In our case, Northern New Yorkers who have been sending money to Malawi to help build the Mchangautuwa Church and Chivumu school can be assured their money is accounted for. Compared to the Church of Scotland, for instance, we're sending chump change to Malawi, and chump change is pretty easy to track.
After the conference ended, Howard and I toured the church and school where our money goes, and I was pleased to see continued progress since my visits in 2007 and 2009. The school is completing the construction of a headmaster's home, and plans to build an adjacent soccer field are taking shape. The Mchangautuwa Church has grown to 6,000 members since we helped provide funding for the roof.
But all is not well elsewhere. Church and foundation executives in Scotland are holding in escrow the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than releasing the money to the Synod right now. Myers Park Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, which gives $1 million a year to missions worldwide, has for several years been sending additional money and people to Malawi to help the Synod develop professional accounting methods. So far the effort has produced no audit.
A representative of the Presbyterian Church in Canada warned Synod leaders that money is going to stop coming if questions aren't answered soon. Western nations, he explained, have instituted more stringent accounting requirements since 9/11. It is no longer good enough for a church to simply say that money was sent to another continent for missions; governments now require charities to account for a donation's final destination.
But in Malawi, the answer is always the same: If we get money designated for a financially struggling hospital in one region, and there is famine in another region, we must send the money to the greater crisis. There will be no audit.
The legendary Dr. David Livingstone traveled and worked in the region that today is known as Malawi. References to him, including the Synod's name, are everywhere. The inspired work of Scottish missionaries beginning in the 1880s has led to a modern statistic: Today there are more Presbyterians in Malawi than in the U.S.
And yet after 150 years of Presbyterian presence in Malawi, relationships are strained, in large part because extreme poverty is an expert at ambushing and then killing good intentions. Most villages still have no clean drinking water; most kids still have no shoes; most expectant mothers never see a doctor.
In another region of extreme poverty, Mortenson's audacious plan built — he claims — 141 schools in 15 years in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But a recent "60 Minutes" program visited 30 of the schools and discovered 15 were closed. Donations for schools had gone to book tours. Harrowing stories of rescue were created out of whole cloth.
And so despite all the good that CAI has indeed accomplished, Mortenson's program is about to collapse in less than 20 years because of a lack of accountability, transparency and sustainability.
Back in the day, Christians had simple marching orders: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19-20)
Today, if you go to a Malawi church service just once, you figure out pretty quickly that if anybody is going to make disciples of anyone else, Malawians ought to be missionaries to America.
Thus, the First World church now works under these marching orders: "But whoever has the world's goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 John 3:17)
And that's why First Presbyterian Church in Watertown, and other denominations and foundations elsewhere, continue the fight against the ravages of extreme poverty, even though the books will likely never balance.