Will Alleged Three Cups Of Tea Fabrications Make A Difference?

Illustration for article titled Will Alleged emThree Cups Of Tea/em Fabrications Make A Difference?

60 Minutes and bestselling author Jon Krakauer have raised questions about the writing and charity work of Three Cups Of Tea author Greg Mortenson, whose focus has been on educating girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Will the millions of people who bought Mortenson's book and supported his charity, the Central Asia institute, care?

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Specifically, the charges are that Mortenson fabricated elements of his memoir, including saying he visited a village after a failed mountain climb when he actually visited a year later. (He now says he visited several times). The men pictured as his kidnappers deny being Taliban or being kidnappers. (You'll have to take their own word for it on that.)

More seriously for a charity to which President Obama donated $100,000 from his Nobel winnings, the American Institute of Philanthropy questions the organization having only produced a single audit statement in fourteen years, and the fact that "the non-profit spends more money domestically, promoting the importance of building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan than it does actually constructing and funding them overseas." That promotion looks a lot like Mortenson's book tour, despite the fact that "according to the financial statement, the charity receives no income from the bestsellers and little if any income from Mortenson's paid speaking engagements, while listing $1.7 million in "book-related expenses." The show also visited "nearly 30" of the 141 schools the institute says it built.

Some were performing well, but roughly half were empty, built by somebody else, or not receiving support at all. Some were being used to store spinach, or hay for livestock; others had not received any money from Mortenson's charity in years.

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Mortenson did himself no favors by evading 60 Minutes' requests for comment, and then bolting when the show ambushed him at a book signing. He's since issued statements which include the following post-modern analysis:

Although we would like the world to be linear, orderly, and peaceful, the reality is that our world is a dynamic, fluid place, often filled with chaos and confusion. In that space, I thrive and get the courage to help bring change and empower people.

As it happens, he's getting surgery this week for a hole in his heart. The Central Asia Institute's website isn't working for us, but there are apparently specific statements and responses here, here and here.

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who's visited Mortenson's schools and plugged his work in his column, posted on his Facebook page, saying, "I find this whole issue heart-breaking." The responses provided several glimpses into what people expect from memoirs, their devotion to being inspired by Mortenson, and their skepticism about the press. Although there was plenty of disappointment, there was plenty of shrugging it off or outright frustration. A cross-section, in ascending order of cynicism:

Why can't a reporter spend time giving a bank this kind of run down? Or a politician? Or any other entity that spends its time bilking people out of many more millions than Central Asia Institute ever could?

Yes these are serious allegations, but can't we get some serious allegations for something that actually affects people daily? (liked by 44 people)

So let me get this right, the guy builds schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That part is true, yes? What's the big freaking deal if the book isn't 100% exactly as it happened? The outcome has been good, education is being provided to girls in a part of the world where girls generally don't get educated. Isn't that what's important? Life rarely happens the way we recall it, what matters is what you do in the now. And he seems to be doing pretty good stuff for people who don't get a lot of good.

Let's get a hold of our emotions here. So what if he did lie? Sometimes the end justifies the means and if a little embellishment allowed him to reach an end state that helped educate young girls and make their lives better, why are we all getting our panties in a wad? If he did lie, I give him credit for being so competent at strategic communications and PR.

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Who said the American public wasn't sophisticated?

Meanwhile, Mortenson's publisher, Viking Press (part of the Penguin Group), has issued a statement:

Greg Mortenson's work as a humanitarian in Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided tens of thousands of children with an education. 60 Minutes is a serious news organization and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author.

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Questions Over Greg Mortenson's Stories [CBS News]
'Three Cups Of Tea' Update: Publisher Releases Comment [Shelf Life]
Nicholas Kristof [Facebook]

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DISCUSSION

I worked in Cambodia for a year and a half and when I got back everyone was recommending this book. I, on the other hand, felt like I couldn't say anything about my time there at the risk of being Debbie Downer. My time at the orphanage was great, the kids were motivated, teaching them English really was a useful skill considering the huge amount of tourists, and my director was awesome. But I also saw lots of empty schoolhouses, the school I worked at for money and sponsored my students to go to was a scam (but had a good name), and I realized that all the charity in the country kept the government from developing a workable education infrastructure. You either had a school like the one I worked for, which was 300 dollars a semester and whose syllabus was a joke (I worked to improve it but I've heard it's been discarded in favor of a contract with a book company), where the Khmer teachers were paid 2 dollars an hour to my 8 and the Filipino teachers (who actually had teaching degrees) were paid 4 and mistreated. Or you have village schools that are supposed to be free, and the underpaid teachers often solicit funds from students who can't pay them. Or empty schoolhouses.

I also tried to work on relocating families that were victims of a land grab— due to the Pol Pot years all titles and deeds were confiscated— all of them, and people settled where they could. Then the land got parceled off and it's really easy, if you want to build a mall or a hotel, to find untitled land people are settled on, pay someone off and tell them to GTFO. I tried to fundraise and I was disastrously unsuccessful. I talked to lots of Westerners who would come to church and talk themselves up at the podium (I'm not joking, like three people did this. They came to a Filipino church and thought they were talking to Khmers and talked about building houses and schools and said they felt so sorry for their situation— without realizing my fellow churchgoers spent their free weekends teaching at the schools they'd built and making up their own materials). I never got a cent from any of them— and I'm not saying I should have, since I had no idea what I was doing, I was just a bad fundraiser is what I'm saying.

Finally I used all my money to buy land— 5,000 for 100 square feet. The families said they'd break down their shelters and rebuild them on the land. But then I had to bribe the village leader, and then we found out we couldn't build more than one shelter so I had to pay another thousand to build them a house to fit everyone. I had to get bikes since it was a 20 minute ride out of town. And a well, and a shower. All my money was gone by the end and they needed more. One family stole all the temporary shelters and bikes. And I finally met someone towards the end who told me I'd probably done more harm than good— if I'd left the families to their own devices they would have found another support network. Now they were in a new place with no connections, which they were used to depending on for survival. They truly did not grasp that I had no more money. I was, in short, an idiot. I didn't understand the country, the people, or the culture. My conclusion from this whole experience was my time would have been much better spent spending that amount of time, money, and skills in America, and I would have made much more of a difference.

There is this whole dialogue about helping out in foreign countries. It seems all glamorous and adventurous— the local soup kitchen is banal in comparison, and the women's shelter is too depressing. And it's more appealing to people to try to improve the kind of (to our eyes) exaggerated situation that exists in more undeveloped countries. It's also too scary and depressing to see how it gets in our country, for our people. We don't want to pay attention to the homeless people in our streets because it's too close to home, or because we're so privileged we can't understand how it can come to this in a land of so many opportunities (for the lucky ones). I really think we need to stop throwing our money and naive idealism at countries we don't understand and turn it to ourselves, because God knows so many people here need help. It baffles me every time I hear a celebrity endorse some exotic new charity when Skid Row is in their backyard. Or maybe someone like me can write a book not about how awesome a humanitarian I was but how stupid and blind and inefficient I was.