Three Cups of Obfuscation

21 Apr

By now, many will have heard about the precipitous collapse of the reputation of Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute. Mortenson, the author of the mega-bestseller Three Cups of Tea, faces accusations on two fronts – that, among other stories, the seminal tale he tells of stumbling into a poor Pakistani village after an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2 and promising to repay their kindness by building them a school – is fiction, and that some of the money he and CAI have received in donations goes to help him market his already lucrative book-and-speaker venture rather than construct schools.

For me, conflating and confusing the two is an error, and diminishes the most serious aspect of Mortenson’s deceit. It is one thing to learn that so much of Mortenson’s “inspiring” memoir, including being kidnapped by Taliban, is baloney — an unfortunately necessary device, I would say, considering the publishing world’s thirst for memoirs (and one I have never been able to understand or sympathize with). I have only just begun to read Jon Krakauer’s thought provoking debunking of the Mortenson myth – Three Cups of Deceit, available on and, a certain sense of schadenfreude aside, a very interesting read.

But it is the latter issue, I think, that is most egregious. Part of the problem is our affluent-nation tendency to think that anyone who decides to help the poor is some kind of hero or saint. Mortenson has, of course, spent years and efforts feeding that particular beast. At the speaking engagements for which he charges anywhere from $25,000 to $30,000, he plays on the heartstrings of his audience with his epic of personal virtue.

Yet various media have now pointed out that Mortenson actually used money donated to his Institute to pay for traveling his moneymaking lecture circuit. CAI considers this “outreach,” according to a study by charity watchdog American Institute for Philanthropy, which is odd considering that the wide acceptance of the book and attending publicity would already seem to accomplish this. And as the AIP itself points out, money from the speaking tours should then also be funneled back into CAI, but is not.

Nonetheless, for many donors, it is entirely natural that a privileged and wealthy person should manage the development efforts of the severely underprivileged. We see them as incapable of making decisions and managing money and improving their environments and their lives. We are convinced that they need someone like Mortenson – buoyed by our cheques – to set them on the right path to bettering themselves.

So there is actually no one from those communities of the poor in Pakistan and Afghanistan who play any decision-making role in the CAI and its budget. Rather, their role is to be passive and grateful for ‘our’ largesse, and to see a school established for them or not. This, of course, reminds me of the recent debacle of pop singer Madonna’s similarly protagonistic attempts to improve education in Malawi, one that saw an appalling $3.8 million go down the drain and not a single structure built. Here, rather than local Malawians—whose average annual per capita income is $200 — it was the boyfriend of her personal trainer given the keys to the giant cashbox. Rather than build a hundred small schools that might be more useful to local communities (although who knows because they are never consulted) Madonna’s foundation decided to build one expensive elite girls school.

Once again, “helping” the poor is just a hobby for the wealthy, and easy to do. No kind of dialogue, relationship or partnership is required with those they supposedly want to empower through education. Giving them control over either the process or the resources would be absurd, but giving it to the friend of a millionaire is entirely normal.

Indeed what strikes me most about Mortenson’s project is this: according to Krakauer, Mortenson originally received $12,000 back in the mid-90s from a donor and with that, believed he could build one simple five-room school. The CBS 60 Minutes report said that by fiscal year 2009, CAI claimed to have built 54 schools (some of which were in fact donated by someone else.)

Putting that detail aside, however, let’s say a school costs $15,000 to build. Would this not allow CAI – which has apparently received donations of at least $60 million by now – to construct not 54, but 4000 schools?

That shortfall underlines the truly egregious nature of Mortenson’s fraud, not the fanciful embroidering of his experiences, but the terrible and real cost of his control of the purse strings: the more than 3500 schools that simply don’t exist.

And for some odd reason, that issue doesn’t seem to be garnering much attention.


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