Three Cups of Tea Fallout

The media and nonprofit world is abuzz regarding the allegations against Three Cups of Tea author and Central Asia Institute founder Greg Mortenson. And they should be. There is no question that Mortenson has done a pathetic job of managing donor money. There is no excuse for his lack of financial accounting – I’m annoyed by his aw-shucks-I’m-not-a-nonprofit-professional-I’ve-never-done-this-before-therefore-I-get-a-pass attitude as anyone.

But that’s where my condemnation ends, at least for now. I think this is a nuanced story of misunderstanding, mismanagement and exaggeration – not just on Mortenson’s part, but on some others’ as well, including Jon Krakauer. Many of the accusations by 60 Minutes and Krakauer are as in dispute as Mortenson’s claims.

That facts and recollections are in dispute regarding events described in Three Cups of Tea, that one person’s kidnapping is another person’s hosting of a foreigner, isn’t surprising to me at all. It’s not even alarming. I worked in Afghanistan for six months. In that region, reality is in flux. Many people will tell you what you want to hear. That approach has kept many Afghan and Pakestani individuals, families and villages alive – but can make evaluation and reporting a massive challenge. This village member says such-and-such happened yesterday. Another says it happened last year. Another says it never happened. A perpetual real-life Roshoman. Although, really, I can’t single Afghanistan out for this behavior – have you ever watched Judge Judy?

It’s been revealed that a school Mortenson’s organization funded is being used to house hay instead of educate children. Some schools may not have been built. Some are claimed by other donors. None of that is surprising – I knew of a school funded by the Afghan program I worked for that was housing the local village elders instead of holding classes. I knew of a local employment project that had paid everyone twice – once by our agency and once by a military PRT, for the same work. Not saying it’s right, not saying you shouldn’t be upset when you hear those things, but you should know that in developing countries with severe security problems, widespread corruption and profound poverty, this happens ALL THE TIME. Humanitarian professionals are told again and again: give local people control over development projects. And we do. And a result is that, sometimes, local people double dip, or don’t do what they were paid to do, or exploit others. How do you stop that? Are YOU ready to go on site visits in remote regions of Waziristan every three months? Are YOU ready to be called culturally-insensitive or overly-bureaucratic in your efforts to ensure quality in development projects in remote places?

Let’s also remember that many people have criticized Krakauer’s own “facts” in his best selling non-fiction book Into Thin Air. 1. 2. I remain unconvinced that many of his accusations are true.

Do not confuse incompetence with corruption. It sounds like Mortensen was and is completely out of his depth of competency in running a nonprofit, and he deserves every ounce of blame for not remedying that situation when this was made clear to him – repeatedly! But I have yet to read anything that makes it sound like he, and his work, are completely fraudulent. Or even mostly fraudulent. By all means, call into question Mortensen’s accounting and call for a verification of results. I look forward to further investigations. But to dismiss everything Mortensen has said as fallacy is ridiculous.

Absolutely, let’s demand Mortenson and his agency adhere to the basic fundamentals of financial transparency and program evaluation. Let the line between his personal, for-profit activities and his nonprofit activities become thick and very tall (something Bob Hope never did, it’s worth noting – his USO tours and his Christmas TV specials were underwritten by the US government, and Hope profited handsomely from the television broadcasts). Let the Montana Attorney General’s office to do its job of investigating the finances of both Mortenson and the organization he founded. Maybe Mortenson should resign as Executive Director and become an unpaid spokesperson. Maybe he should pony up the salaries of one or two super-nonprofit-fixers to get the organization back on track (yes, those people do exist), and the board should hire a seasoned nonprofit, NGO or humanitarian agency manager to lead the organization.

Maybe when all the facts are in I’ll be calling for Mortenson’s head as well. But I’ll be waiting for the facts first.

Why does this concern me so much? This quote from Joshua Foust’s blog captures my feelings well:

Sadly, Mortenson’s good work is going to be overshadowed — possibly destroyed — by this scandal (albeit one that looks like it was largely of his own making). And the losers, besides wide-eyed Americans who’ve lost an unassailable hero, will ultimately be the people his schools were helping.

I care about Afghanistan, and I not only chide Mortenson for putting support for children there in danger, I chide people and publications like 60 Minutes and the Nonprofit Quarterly for making a judgment without all the facts yet.

UPDATE: New York TImes‘ NIcholas Kristof also offers a caution on claims that everything Mortenson has done has been a lie. “I’ve visited some of Greg’s schools in Afghanistan, and what I saw worked. Girls in his schools were thrilled to be getting an education. Women were learning vocational skills, such as sewing. Those schools felt like some of the happiest places in Afghanistan.”

18 thoughts on “Three Cups of Tea Fallout

  1. Julie Z.

    Thank you for your perspective on this, Jayne. I have wanted to ask you about it and have watched for your feedback. Having just recently read Mortenson’s story, I was troubled by the news of this week. Your experience in this field, and in this area of the world so very different from ours, is valuable! Thanks again! Julie Schrecker Ziegenhorn

  2. Anonymous

    Ah, Julie, that *really* means a lot from me, coming from you. Thanks so much! By the way — with TWO such German last names now, you may be even more German than my German husband!

  3. Jonathon Danes

    While I am very interested to see all the facts come out, to chide 60 Minutes for doing investigative reporting seems completely unjustified. It is likely that all the facts would not come out without some outside pressure. Mortenson has known of the issues since 2005 – five years seems a little long to wait for him to take corrective action on his own.

  4. Anonymous

    When journalists don’t investigate allegations – merely report them – they deserve to be chided.

  5. Sharron Rush

    @Jonathon Danes I serve on the board of an investigative magazine and appreciate your comment. However, it is important to think about priorities. Is this really the most valuable contribution that 60 Minutes could make if they are trying to expose injustice and malfeasance? Even if you accept all of the "allegations" it seems the guy mismanaged, made the unfortunate choice (in my view) of taking the speakers fees as personal reimbursement rather than as contributions to the mission; and exaggerated some of the outcomes and timelines of his story. In terms of harm done to others, how does that stack up against say former politicians who cash in on their connections? or former bank CEOs who retire with their bonuses after pillaging the investments of their constituents? or munitions companies? or nuclear power advocates who lie and get their plants subsidized? or US VPs who have major holdings in war profiteering companies? And finally the guy did more to help poor and disenfranchised people than most of us will ever do. I guess ultimately I am baffled as to why NPO mismanagement causes such a much greater furor than the constant assault on economic justice and on people’s health and well-being that is perpetrated by the capitalist war machine every single day.

  6. Jonathon Danes

    Jayne – I find your comment curious – 60 Minutes sent reporters to Afghanistan to interview people in places not easily accessed. They attempted to talk to Mortenson himself. They did not merely "report" Krakauer’s allegations but went far beyond that. I think that is exactly what an investigative reporter does. As to Sharon’s comments I would completely agree that there are far more examples of more reprehensible behavior by politicians and corporations. However, that does not diminish the need for our sector to be held as accountable as we would expect others to be. Maybe iNGO mismanagement causes more furor because it is less common than what we see from politicians and corporations. At least we can hope that is true.

  7. Sheikh Aweys

    I thought Mortenson was a self-important, self-promotional cock when I first read Three Cups of Tea, playing on the the naivety (and generosity) of the easily taken in, American population. He comes across as a sickeningly samaritan type. Every tear-wrenching story is actually all about Mortenson. Isn’t he such an amazingly thoughtful, brave, and selfless guy!! I am amazed that people are still defending him. Whether he built schools and brought education to thousands of children, he has been exposed as deceiptful, manipulative, selfish, self-centred, untrustworthy, wasteful. He has betrayed people (friends, donors, supporters), treated people (his staff) with derision, undermined his board of directors. He capitalised selfishly on a good start, and then really has lost his way. No sympathy here.

  8. Anonymous

    "They attempted to talk to Mortenson himself." This is as in dispute as some of the schools Mortenson built. We need MUCH more information about this before we can say, yes, 60 Minutes really did try. Because from what I’m reading and seeing, they did NOT try hard enough. Sheikh Aweys – you obviously didn’t like the book. You didn’t like the tone. But not liking someone’s tone in a book is hardly evidence of mismanagement.

  9. Emily

    Both of them apparently tried to contact Mortenson only at the last minute, which is something that journalists will do when they are after a pro-forma denial, rather than an interview to ascertain truth or even get another side of the story.

  10. ccsf

    Please go to: to read many formal and informal statements released to address the allegations made by Jon Krakauer in his distorted report.Also see: David Relin was interviewed in 2008:Question: Three Cups of Tea wasn???t a co-written book, but you share a byline with the main character, Greg Mortenson. How did that come about?Relin: That???s been the only negative thing about this whole adventure for me. After I turned in the manuscript, I received a galley back from the publisher with two names on it. It was published that way over my objections.And take a little time to read this:

  11. Theron Fuller

    As Goeth observed, "…misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent." Or, as Hanlon’s Law states, "Never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity." Or, as Forrest Gump observed, "stupid is as stupid does."You make sort of "the ends justifies the means" argument. Gee, Mortensen lied in his book, he uses his institute more to his personal benefit than to the benefit of those it helps, the institute doesn’t come anywhere near accomplishing what it claims to accomplish. But gosh, Mortensen’s efforts have had some positive outcomes. And besides, criticizing Mortensen for his fraud and greed will harm efforts to educate Afghan children.

  12. Anonymous

    "You make sort of ‘the ends justifies the means" argument.’" Not at ALL. Theron, you need to re-read the first paragraph of my blog. And I’ll say it again – my point is that many of the accusations by 60 Minutes and Krakauer are as in dispute as Mortenson’s claims. I don’t believe Mortensen is a criminal. I do believe he’s put Afghan children at risk by being disorganized and arrogant. I don’t believe everything he’s said is a lie. I do believe truth is an ever-shifting thing in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  13. Theron Fuller

    <html><head><style type=’text/css’>p { margin: 0; }</style></head><body><div style=’font-family: Arial; font-size: 12pt; ‘><P>1. Mortensen’s institute spends over half its income promoting Mortensen and his books. At the same time, Mortensen profits tremendously from this promotion and none of Mortensen’s income from this promotion goes to the Institute.&nbsp;Except for televangelists, if&nbsp;any other nonprofit organizationth&nbsp;spent over half its income on promoting its director’s persoal activities the nonprofit community would almost be unanimous in calling for Mortensen’s resignation and a full and accurate accounting of CAI’s finances.</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P>2. Mortensen himself admits that certain events he cites in his book are "condensed". What does it matter if Afghan culture concepts of time make it difficult to determine precise dates and times&nbsp;when events Mortensen describes in "Three Cups of Tea" happened? Surely Afghan culture can distinguish between events that happened and events that didn’t. If Mortensen’s guides on the K-2 expedition say he never got lost and went to a different village after the K-2 descent, shouldn’t their account be considered as accurate as Mortensen’s? What does it matter if CBS or anybody else can establish a precise time line for Mortensen’s account? Mortensen himself has already admitted his account doesn’t present an accurate time line.</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P>3. What does it matter what Mortensen’s motives are, or those of the producers of 60 Minutes, or&nbsp;those of the guy that outed the Mortensen/CAI? The situation is pretty clear. CAI spent over 50 percent of its income promoting Mortensen. CAI&nbsp; isn’t transparent in its operations. Mortensen has profited tremendously from CAI’s support.</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P><BR></P></div></body></html>

  14. Anonymous

    Thanks for posting, Theron. Still looks like you don’t at all understand the point of my blog. Nothing more I can do about that.

  15. Michael Kirkpatrick

    This particular case epitomizes why a certain segment of of blogosphere writes about the effectiveness of aid programs and charities. Most DIY aid organizations don???t like partnerships or collaborations because they are afraid of scrutiny. They want to create their own standards and rules to follow. Everyone wants to be a hero. The founders of these DIY organizations fear that someone else may get credit for their ideas and accomplishments. I call this the ???Nobel Syndrome???. Being transparent might jeopardize their egotistical dreams of standing on a stage in Oslo and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding contributions toward humanity.These are some of my observations regarding the subject.Slactivism in Africa | Independent Global Citizen

  16. Anonymous

    Those are some very big, sweeping generalizations, Michael. I know a lot of folks who feel just the opposite: that these smaller NGOs are the ones that get things done, quickly, without the endless committee meetings and powerpoint presentations and career bureaucrats more interested in seeing their pension someday than actually *doing* something. As for me – some are good, some are bad. I’m not at all ready to condemn them all

  17. Kristin

    I am sad to hear these issue, I read his book ‘three cups of tea’ and its really touching and inspiring. Most of us only know in giving comment of what other people done. This is such an supporter of foot ball game when watch the game giving an advise, critics or even condemnation as he think he is better than the gamer. May we question ourselves first what have we done or can we do such that?Of course in every project/program there are some fails even within an huge, well known humanitarian agency! can you imagine that a well known development aid had built a small school in 3 years instead of 6 months or 1 year the last? can you imagine how much the budget to keep paying staff during that period of idle activity? Huge, a lot! more then the school budget itself!Can you imagine that a clinic center which was build by the well known development agency become a frogs, mosquito and other bugs house as it had never been used by community or even the government? Yes, that true and I saw it myself!Mortenson is the real aid worker! we, who are working with a big organization, include myself, are just doing our job behind the name of the organization and still looking for comfortable and convenience in the midst of poor people we are assist.Many of expatriate who are working with humanitarian organization in my country, Indonesia, recognized as tourist within national staff as they have no passion as aid worker and fail to deliver the program.So do your part! when something goes wrong as it always happen give idea in return and make it become a lesson learn!

  18. Donald Milligan

    Kristin, I couldn’t have said it better. I’m not an expert, but from what I have read and the countless people and organizations who have worked with and benefitted from Greg Mortenson’s efforts, I believe that he has done more for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan than many others. It is very easy, and I’m sure many people actually feel some sense of satisfaction, to sit in judgement of someone who has spent the last 18 years devoted to this cause. Maybe he didn’t do it the way we wanted him to, or sign the right papers, kiss the right asses, but he did it! Many people have a future, instead of an early grave, or slavery, and what do we do, vilify the guy because he doesn’t have sound business practices. Let’s not forget that these charges are largely baseless at this point. You can make Greg Mortenson your pinata for the week. Obviously some of us are still so worked up by Taking down Osama Bin Laden, that we need a new target. Maybe we feel guilty that we don’t do enough in our own lives to help the less fortunate, so when we see someone who not only takes some time to help, he devotes his adult life to it, we wait for that inevitable criticism, or worse character defamation, so that we can figuratively string him up and parade him through the online community. As Kristin said, what matters is that as Americans we do not use this as a convenient excuse to ditch the the hopefull Pakistani and Afghani youth. When they see how fickle and judgemental Americans can be, is it any wonder that they would harbor Bin Laden for several years, simply out of fear that we would leave them in his vengeful hands? Truth be told most of us simply have no concept of how brutal and precarious life is over there. When is the last time any of us were the victims of severe psychological and physical domestic violence. How would we feel if the police came to investigate our abuser, told him/her how we cooperated with them, gave him a $500 fine and left. How do you think our abuser would treat us after the policeman left? What would our lives be like following that event? Would some of us be beaten possibly to death, or just horribly disfigured? How would it feel to KNOW that no one was going to help us. Then imagine a few people who have trouble managing their finances, but also have a genuine desire to help us, actually help us rise above our domestic situations, give us options to succeed. The only people who half-way give us hope. For Americans Greg Mortenson is currently a pinata to be poked, prodded, and abused for our collective egos. For the children and future of Afghanistan and Pakistan, he is one of a few truly open doors for them to enter, and maybe experience true freedom and opportunity. For anyone out there so brazen as judge Greg Mortenson at this stage, I ask you this. If you tear him down, who among you is brave enough and ready to pick up where he left off?


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