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?
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.”