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.

Reactions to the “60 Minutes” segment appear to be divided between those who view Mortenson as on par with Bernie Madoff, and those who argue that a few exaggerations in Mortenson’s book do not detract from the valuable work he has done to promote education in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“That’s factually accurate that his institute has built a large number of schools where those schools previously did not exist–and he has empowered girls in the process,” Parag Khanna, Senior Research Fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, noted in a CNN blog post.

“…I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Nick Kristof, who has promoted Mortenson’s work in his widely-read New York Times column also came down on the side of Mortenson, noting that inconsistencies may stem from Mortenson’s general disorganization.

“…even if all the allegations turn out to be true,” Kristof writes, “Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”

Others are less forgiving.

“I watched the 60 Minutes episode and was left angry, upset and with the realization some liars can truly pop your balloon of ‘hope’,” read one of many scathing comments to follow a recent Daily Beast article about the scandal.

“Leave aside the morality of it for the nonce–aren’t people afraid of getting caught?” demands Megan McArdle in an Atlantic post.  “In this day and age, how can you hope to get away with passing off a photo of an Islamabad think-tanker as a terrorist who kidnapped you?”

On Tuesday, the Montana Attorney General’s office announced that it would conduct an investigation into Mortenson’s charity, just a day after Mortenson’s publisher said it planned to review the book and its contents.

Although I prefer to reserve judgement until all the facts are in, the allegations are troubling. Jon Krakauer is hardly a tabloid journalist, and he backs up his findings with hard statistics and compelling interviews. If anything, the story underscores the need for greater accountability and oversight within charitable organizations.

If the allegations against Mortenson turn out to be true, how is that that the organization’s misdeeds were able to fly under the radar for so long? How often and how thoroughly do humanitarian journalists check out the charitable organizations they report on?

It never occurred to me to question CAI’s practices, because I too was seduced by the story and the message. With so much coverage and so many high-profile supporters, I took for granted that if something were off with the organization, it would have come to light long ago.

What troubles me most, however, are the repercussions the scandal may have on those who benefit from international aid. Regardless of how this will play out, the negative press surrounding Mortenson and CAI could result in donors reconsidering future investments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the public viewing the work of international charities with cynicism rather than hope.

A bitter brew indeed for young girls seeking an education.

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  • Reply Kate May 23, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Thank you for your post, I found it balanced (rare for this controversy). I am wondering if you have considered what Jon Krakauer could be getting out of this bon fire? He said the proceeds for “TCD” would be given to a Nepal charity to stop sex trafficking (strange charity for him to be associated with) but since he gave “TCD” away for two weeks, and it was copied world-wide, I doubt many people paid the $2.99 he chared for it.

    However, within 24 hours 50,000 people had clicked on the website “” which his good friend and former Outside editor just started up. So the controvery certainly helped his friend earn money, by diverting web traffic to that site.

    He also has a book to sell. By discrediting his “competition” another writer who writes about Afghanistan/Pakistan kept his name and book in the media which would result in increased sales of his book.

    He claims they used to be friends. Obvioulsy there was a falling out (Krakauer claims this happend in 2004) and that he never read “TCT” until May, 2010. I find that hard to believe.

    What do you think?

  • Reply Erin June 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Hi Kate. Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

    From what I gather, Krakauer was a onetime friend of Mortenson and donated a significant amount to his charity each year. To hear him tell it, he felt betrayed and defrauded. Could there be more to the story? Possibly.

    Some people have questioned Krakauer’s decision to go after Mortenson when there are other larger individuals/organizations suspected of corruption on a much bigger scale.

    In short, I don’t think his sole motivation was to discredit his competition, earn money for his friend and boost his own book sales, but I do wonder if the personal vendetta goes deeper than Krakauer is letting on.

  • Reply kevin February 5, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    krakauer has integrity. it`s pretty obvious Mortenson does not. And why is he flying on achartered jet when that money would go a long ways towards the schools?

    • Reply Erin February 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm

      Hi Kevin, thanks for stopping by. Good questions. I am thinking of doing a follow-up to this post. Sort of a “one year later” look at anything new that has turned up. I understand Mortenson’s charity was to be investigated by the local authorities, and I am curious as to what the status of the investigation might be.

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