Greg Mortenson has been one of clearest and most far-reaching voices in the effort to educate girls worldwide. His wildly popular book, Three Cups of Tea and the follow-up best-seller Stones Into Schools told compelling stories of heroic efforts to get schools built in some of the remotest villages on the planet.
Through his name, the books, and the generosity of everyone from President Barack Obama to thousands of schoolchildren all over the country, millions of dollars have been raised, supposedly for the construction of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Problem is, many of Mortenson’s most compelling stories are grossly exaggerated — if not, allegedly, outright false. Furthermore, some allege that too much of the money that has poured into the Central Asia Institute goes toward promoting Mortenson’s books than in actually building anything.
Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes investigated the accusations that Mortenson embellished the stories in Three Cups of Tea (and, related to that, the children’s version of the story Listen to the Wind). Kroft also looked into whether the CAI, a charity your child may even have raised money for through Pennies for Peace, has helped achieve the stated missions.
The Three Cups of Tea story starts with how Mortenson attempted and failed to climb to the top of K2 in 1993 to honor his sister who had recently died. He writes that he was separated from the other members of his expedition. And that, cold, sick, hungry and dirty, he fell into the village of Korphe. There, villagers took care of him, generously feeding and clothing him, until he had recovered.
Before he left the village, he noticed children writing their school lessons in the dirt. One young girl asked him to build them a school and, on impulse, he promised he would.
So he sets out to raise money; his story is so heartwarming some $60 million pours in.
Problem is, the story is false, not just according to his critics, but to Mortenson himself (the pre-Three Cups of Tea version of himself, anyway).
Mortenson also writes about being captured by the Taliban, one of the tensest moments in the book and also reference in his follow up Stones Into Schools. There’s even a picture of him with his captors. According to 60 minutes, one of the “Taliban captors” was Mansur Khan Mahsud, the research director of a respected think tank in Islamabad and has produced scholarly articles published in the U.S.”
In another photo, his abductors are, according to Mortenson’s critics, actually his protectors.
Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, and one of Mortenson’s first major backers, told Kroft that, among Mortenson’s exaggerations are the number of schools that have been built. He told one news show that in a particularly difficult area, there were 11 schools when, in reality, there were only three — an accomplishment in itself!
But OK, an embellished story to raise money for a good cause — is that such a bad thing? It’s an old story in non-fiction narrative, so let’s focus on the “good cause” part:
60 Minutes’ Kroft talked to Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a rating agency for non-profits, more of the donations towards Mortenson’s charity is spent on promoting his books and himself as a speaker. Sure, outreach is a big part of any non-profit’s budget, speaking fees and royalties go directly toward Mortenson’s personal income and not to the charity.
Mortenson wouldn’t talk on camera with 60 Minutes, but he issued a statement [pdf]. The board of directors also defended the charity and Mortenson’s role [pdf] while also acknowledging that its own attorneys have warned that, if audited, they’d likely be found to have violated IRS regulations on excessive benefits.
Viking, the book’s publisher, issued a statement this morning say it would review the book’s content.
Mortenson has said that some of the books events have been condensed in order to tell the compelling story. As a reader (and a writer), I understand that. But what I’m interested in is some of the outright falsehoods others claim he made: saying one was abducted by the Taliban and offering images of ones protectors is not only misleading and wrong, but it’s harmful to those who were pictured. And mixing personal profits with charitable giving is unforgivable, in my opinion. Americans tend to be generous givers of their money and time. That’s likely because we trust that institutes collecting the money are spending it in the ways advertised or implied. To break that trust with one group is to cast suspicion on other non-profits and that’s unfair to those whose books are clean.
Did you read Three Cups of Tea? Have you given to this charity? What do you think about it now?