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Greg Mortenson

Humanitarian issues, Journalism

Three Cups of Controversy: on the Greg Mortenson Fallout

A “60 Minutes” segment that aired on Sunday called out humanitarian and author Greg Mortenson on the factual accuracy of his bestselling books “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones into Schools,” and questioned the financial practices of his Central Asia Institute (CAI) charity.

According to the segment, Mortenson fabricated significant portions of his books, including his tale of being held captive in Pakistan by the Taliban. Most damning perhaps, are allegations that rather than supporting schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a significant portion of the CAI’s funds are used to foot the bill for Mortenson’s book promotion and travel expenses to his various speaking engagements.

Among Mortenson’s harshest critics to appear on the program is author and journalist Jon Krakauer, who has also written a digital exposé entitled Three Cups of Deceit, a 75-page takedown of Mortenson and his bestselling memoir, “Three Cups of Tea.”

Calling the book “an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact,” Krakauer says that the public persona Mortenson has created is “an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem.”

“Mortenson has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built,” Krakauer writes. “Three Cups of Tea has much in common with A Million Little Pieces, the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham. But Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn’t use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them.”

As a fan of Mortenson’s work in Afghanistan and Pakistan (I promoted one of his recent speaking engagements in an earlier post), I have observed the ensuing firestorm with interest, and was keen to get my hands on a copy of Krakauer’s book. Among some of Krakauer’s more disturbing accusations:

  • The men Mortenson identifies as Taliban kidnappers in “Stones into Schools” were actually hosting him during his stay in South Waziristan. One of  Mortenson’s supposed Taliban captors has come forward as Mansur Khan Mahsud, a Pakistani scholar and the director of Research and Administration at the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre, an internationally respected, nonpartisan think tank. According to Mahsud, in 1996 there weren’t even any Taliban operating near the area where Mortenson was staying.
  • When Mortenson travels to speaking engagements CAI foots the bill for his travel costs (including chartered jets and deluxe hotel suites), as well as expenses incurred by family members and personal assistants who often accompany him.
  • Rather than as fundraising or other overhead, CAI reports the millions of dollars it spends on book advertising and chartered jets as “program expenses.” Were they reported honestly, CAI’s fundraising and administrative expenses would actually exceed 50 percent of its annual budget.
  • The number of schools built in Afghanistan and Pakistan are less than Mortenson claims. Moreover, many schools stand empty due to a lack of ongoing funding. At least 18 CAI school buildings in Baltistan are not in use.
  • Upon realizing that something was amiss with the organization, a significant number of Mortenson’s employees has resigned. One former program manager discovered serious issues in Baltistan that contradicted what Mortenson had been reporting. After she revealed these problems to Mortenson, he ordered her to stay away from Baltistan.

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Humanitarian issues

Save the Date

Greg Mortenson will be speaking at the Marin Center in San Rafael on April 13 at 8 pm, and I encourage fellow Bay Area dwellers to go.

For those unfamiliar with him, Mortenson is the best-selling co-author of “Three Cups of Tea,” which tells of his efforts to build schools in Pakistan. He is also the director of the Central Asia Institute, which has helped construct some 145 schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.  To date, Mortenson’s schools have educated 64,000 students, including more than 50,000 girls.   

Because local communities are involved in every step of the planning and building process, the schools are spared by the Taliban, who are notorious for destroying schools in the region–particularly those that educate girls.

Nick Kristof has written about Mortenson’s work in Afghanistan and Pakistan in his New York Times column and  NPR ran a great segment on him a couple of years ago.

For more information on Mortenson’s talk at the Marin Center or for tickets, follow the link!

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