All Cups, No Tea

Another humanitarian hero has tumbled off his pedestal. It remains to be seen whether Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling “Three Cups of Tea,” will be able to avert a total reputation meltdown. But last Sunday's 60 Minutes broadcast and a thorough exposé by Jon Krakauer provide convincing evidence for some serious allegations:

  • That some of the most important, inspiring stories in Mortenson’s nonfiction books—stories that provide the foundation for his whole mission—fall somewhere on the spectrum between greatly exaggerated and completely invented.
  • That Mortenson's charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI) lacks sufficient transparency and oversight.
  • That some not insignificant number of schools Mortenson claims to have built in Afghanistan and Pakistan either aren’t being supported by CAI, aren’t being used as schools, or don’t exist at all.

Mortenson refuted the allegations in a letter to his supporters, saying that the story “paints  a distorted picture using inaccurate information, innuendo and a microscopic focus on one  year's (2009) IRS 990 financial, and a few  points  in  the  book ‘Three  Cups  of  Tea’ that occurred almost 18 years ago.” But the rebuttals he’s provided so far do little to counter the weight of evidence against him.

What surprises me most about the story is not that yet another development demigod turned out to be a human.

What surprises me most is the way Mortenson's charity—embraced by the US military and admired by President Obama, Oprah and literally millions of Americans—has  managed to avoid scrutiny of its spending priorities for so long. While the charity claims to spend 85 percent on “program activities,” less than half of that is spent where you might think it would go—to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The majority ($4.6 million in 2008) is actually spent on “education and outreach” in the US.

Of the money that does go abroad ($3.9 million in 2008), most goes to building the schools themselves: supplies, materials, labor and transportation ($3 million), rather than to teacher salaries and school supplies ($800,000) or scholarships for students ($40,000).

This allocation of resources might go some way towards explaining why, when 60 Minutes visited 30 of Mortensen’s schools, it said it found major problems with half of them, including new schools that were struggling without any financial support from CAI, and schools with no teachers and no kids. Time Magazine observed:

…Be it a charter school in Queens or an elementary school in Sarhad Broghil (where I first saw a Mortenson school), a school is just a building if it doesn't have teachers.

In Mortenson’s second book, the construction of a school for Kyrgyz nomads in a remote corner of the Pamir mountains was featured as a major, triumphant success. But according to Krakauer’s account, that school has never been used. The community would have preferred a road or a health clinic to a school, and in any case it’s too far from where the nomadic community camps during the seasons when it’s warm enough for the children to attend school.

The Central Asia Institute’s 2009 IRS filing provides a list of 141 schools that it says are helping tens of thousands of students get a better education and avoid of a future of poverty and terrorism. But with only one audited financial statement in 14 years, and no attempt at any evaluation of CAI’s work, Mortenson is basically asking us to take his word for it. Because of a charismatic leader with a great story, and Americans’ eagerness to believe something good can happen where we’ve waged war in Afghanistan and Pakistan—millions of his supporters did.

But after the disclosures of this week, Mortenson’s word probably won’t be enough.