Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Three Cups of What?

You may have seen some reporting done on Greg Mortenson and his organization the Central Asia Institute. 60 Minutes, supported by Jon Krakauer, is accusing him of some unsavory doings: namely, that not all the schools that the CAI claims it built were either built by the CAI or exist at all.

Mortenson's publisher states that it plans to extensively review both the accusations and the book with him. CAI denies all charges.

Here is a quoted tidbit from Krakauer's statement: Using CAI funds, Mortenson has purchased many tens of thousands of copies of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, which he has subsequently handed out to attendees at his speaking engagements. A significant number of these books were charged to CAI's Pennies for Peace program, contrary to Mortenson's frequent assertions that CAI uses 'every penny' of every donation made to Pennies for Peace to support schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rather than buy Mortenson's books at wholesale cost from his publisher, moreover, CAI has paid retail price from commercial outlets such as Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. Buying from retailers allows Mortenson to receive his author's royalty for each book given away, and also allows these handouts to augment his ranking on national bestseller lists. (Had he ordered the books from his publisher, Mortenson would not have received a royalty, nor would bestseller lists reflect those purchases.) According to one of Mortenson's friends, when he learned that Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love had bumped Three Cups of Tea from number one down to number two on the New York Times paperback nonfiction list, 'Greg was furious. He started buying books like crazy, with the CAI credit card, to try and put Three Cups back on top.' "

Here is a link to the full 90 pages of the Karakauer piece: http://byliner.com/

I'm not sure what to think. It's always sad to hear that someone you admire for their humanitarian works has feet of clay. I do think that Mortenson's book has raised awareness of the educational issues in that region, and that his point about educating girls and providing an alternative to religious indoctrination is a good one. It is a viewpoint more likely to induce long-lasting change than bombing is. I don't think I can form an opinion at this time about the money management or lack thereof, or the possible ego involved. I'm sure we will find out lots more in the near future.

Regardless of possible financial shennanigans, I think that Three Cups of Tea has done good in the world. I would be sad to find that charitable dollars have been mismanaged. That's often the way of things, I guess. The important thing, though, is to continue to have hope for change. Without that, we are powerless to change anything.


  1. I agree with you. While I respect Karakauer, Mortenson has had
    a huge positive impact for good. Otherwise, why would Pakistan
    give him that impressive medal? Did the entire country of Pakistan
    get duped by Mortenson? I think not. Mortenson makes it clear that
    he isn't the most organized guy in the world but whether he has
    had a hand in building 10 or 60 schools, like you say, he has bettered
    the lives of children.

  2. By his own admission, he is a poor money manager, but has been an amazing school builder and money raiser for his mission. He doesn't live "high on the hog", and to berate him for making money from his books is disingenuous, especially from Krakauer who has made loads of money from his books, and just came out with a new book on Amazon called "Three Cups of Deceit". Speaking of deceit, Krakauer had to backpedal when some of the "facts" in his books have come into question, especially timelines! This is really a case of "the pot calling the kettle black".
    I've met Mr. Mortenson, and watched him speak. Yes, I heard him as well, but watching him come onto the stage and up to the lectern you see he is a shy person who is going against his grain to speak before a large audience. He does it because he must to do the good work he feels in his heart is important. I have traveled in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they are poor countries. I do not mean any disrespect, but there are many many poor people who will tell you anything you want to hear for a few dollars.
    Much of what Krakauer has said was based on comments alleged to have come from Scott Darsney, his climbing partner. Mr. Darsney recently came down from a climb, and when he got into Katmandu heard about this uproar, and the things he was to have said. He has basically said Krakauer either misunderstood him or mis-heard him, and that it is basically a load of rubbish!
    Too bad 60 Minutes gave so much credibility to Krakauer. It won't hurt Mr. Mortenson anywhere near as much as the kids (especially girls) in Pakistan and Afghanistan for whom some schools may not be built. If that is the result, it will truly be a pity. Perhaps 60 Minutes should have considered this possible outcome.
    Lastly, Oliver Rellin actually wrote the book based on notes and travels with Mortenson. His taking literary license to compress events for a smoother or more exciting read is mostly on him, yet he isn't suffering this abuse, and neither is the publisher! Frankly, this whole business is a tempest in a teacup in my opinion.