Thursday, April 21, 2011

Three cups of tea, gone rancid

Okay. So I confess I have been obsessed with the whole Three Cups of Tea/Greg Mortenson sham since it first broke. I watched "60 Minutes" and I've read the Central Asia Institute Board response, in addition to Greg Mortenson's response. After mulling over what I'd read and seen, I suspected that "60 Minutes" and Jon Krakauer were making mountains out of molehills and while some of the stories might have stretched the truth in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, surely Mortenson's disorganized approach and right brain mentality led to these inaccuracies.

Mortenson reading to schoolchildren
I've been trying, desperately, to reserve my judgment on the issue and to give what appeared to be a huge-hearted humanitarian the benefit of the doubt. Nicholas Kristof writes a part defense of Mortenson in his column today, "Three Cups of Tea, Spilled." He talks about his decision with his wife not to start a foundation while writing Half the Sky, "partly because giving away money effectively is such difficult and uncertain work."

Kristof says this about Mortenson:
"The furor over Greg’s work breaks my heart. And the greatest loss will be felt not by those of us whose hero is discredited, nor even by Greg himself, but by countless children in Afghanistan who now won’t get an education after all. But let’s not forget that even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will."
This is true, and this is why I so desperately wanted to believe in him despite what I was reading. (He has done wonderful things for girls' education, even if he is a self-serving fraud.)

I also read Mortenson's answers to the charges in an interview with Outside magazine. He essentially throws his "coauthor," David Oliver Relin, under the bus. He places the blame for the inaccuracies in Relin's lap, even though Mortenson has top billing as author (Relin actually wrote the book). Relin submitted a draft to the publisher and got the galleys back with Mortenson's name on it as a coauthor (this must been quite the insult to Relin, who suddenly became the afterfact).

Then I read Jon Krakauer's extensive investigation of Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute. You can download it here. It's 89 pages long, and is vastly more damning than the short "60 Minutes" segment or any other news article I have read. If you are interested in this topic, I urge you to read it.

It's filled with page after page of testimony from people who knew Mortenson extremely well and worked side by side with him--personal interviews, e-mails, and documentation. Not only does Mortenson come across as a narcissist, but he also appears to be a pig-headed bully. Board members, associates, and employees over the years have urged him to submit receipts, document what he's doing, and follow audit guidelines. Many have tried to confront him on what they have felt were dishonest, unethical business practices. In instance after instance, they have left the organization either voluntarily or involuntarily. Even the wife of his first benefactor left the board in disgust.

The research Krakauer did was exhaustive and convinced me that Mortenson has allowed the fame and attention to go to his head. He has let so many people down, including thousands of schoolchildren both in the U.S. and in the Middle East. For example, as Krakauer writes: 
"In 2009, schoolchildren donated $1.7 million to Pennies for Peace (P4P). But Central Asia Institute's (CAI) total 2009 outlay for the things P4P is supposed to pay for—teachers’ salaries, student scholarships, school supplies, basic operating expenses—amounted to a paltry $612,000. By comparison, in 2009 CAI spent more than $1 million to promote sales of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, and another $1.4 million to fly Mortenson around in chartered jets. Donors unknowingly picked up the tab for all of it."
President Obama even gave CAI $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize money.
Most convincing to me was the detailed account of the major exodus from CAI's board in 2002 because of their mutual disgust with Mortenson. This all happened just as Mortenson was becoming famous.
Krakauer comments:
"It might not be too late, though, to salvage the wreckage of CAI...but if CAI is to be pulled back from the brink and rehabilitated, the organization must sever its ties with Mortenson."

Krakauer invested $75,000 of his own money in CAI before he started to smell something fishy. As he started uncovering these details, he felt ashamed at being so easily conned.

Tom Hornbein, former ally of Mortenson's and the board director who resigned in disgust, told Krakauer: "With one hand Greg has created something potentially beautiful and caring (regardless of his motives). With the other he has murdered his creation by his duplicity.”
No one, least of all Krakauer, denies Mortenson's good intentions when he launched CAI and decided that girls' education was the path to peace. But he lost his ethics, humility, and integrity along the way.


  1. Marie, It seems that one has to pay to read this report now. It was free before the 20th. Do you happen to have saved it to pass out to folks?

  2. Unfortunately, I didn't save a copy. I should have! You can download it for $2.99, and Jon Krakauer is donating the profits to charity.