Headlines: Greg Mortenson, storytelling, and Pakistan's schools


Here's hoping this firestorm ultimately helps to move responsible education efforts forward. (Photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Greg Mortenson, founder of Central Asia Institute and author/subject of the books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, has been under an uncomfortable spotlight this week. Accusations that he and CAI aren’t what they seem have prompted big conversations about international development work, nonprofit governance, and more.

(In case you haven’t been following along, author Jon Krakauer recently released Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, in which he presents evidence that Mortenson fabricated portions of his bestselling books. CBS’ 60 Minutes featured a story called Questions Over Greg Mortenson’s Stories; Mortenson, who had declined an interview, issued a response earlier this week, as did the CAI board.)

Here are some follow-up headlines we’ve spotted this week.

Pakistan Does Have an Education Crisis Despite Questions About Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea – Rebecca Winthrop, Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution:

Good intentions do not necessarily translate into effective international development practices and NGO management. In the ongoing search for successful aid models, it is important to highlight that there are many professional non-profit organizations that do excellent education work in Pakistan. Many of them are Pakistani organizations, such as the Citizens Foundation and the Children’s Global Network. Community involvement and leadership are central to many of the work of these organizations, which is further supported by the education expertise of local staff and implementation of basic organizational management principles to track funds and monitor activities.

Eureka and Other Myths: A Reflection on Three Cups of Tea – Katherine Lucey for PeaceXPeace:

There is such a palpable desire for an origination story, an epic tale of good versus evil, a lost soul finding redemption or a single moment of inspiration…Real solutions don’t happen that way.

Three Cups of Tea and the Stories We Tell – Macy Halford, The New Yorker:

There’s a tacit understanding between the author of a book that draws attention to a social injustice while proffering a solution and the buyer of that book: the understanding is that the purchase is akin to a donation…Savvy authors of these types of books (like Rebecca Skloot), will tell the press exactly what they’re doing with it. Mortenson, if he is innocent, is going to have to do better than impassioned denials.

For many, many more responses, see the roundups at Good Intentions are Not Enough and zunguzungu.

What’s your take on all of this?

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Comments (5)

  1. Amy Potthast writes:
    April 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Julia: I’m glad you’re highlighting this issue. On the one hand, galvanizing support for Afghanistan is noble and important — but on the other, this issue highlights the importance of researching the organizations we are giving to and how they use the funding. It’s unfortunate that bad news from the international development sector and from overseas (in general) gets so much more mainstream press than the good news.

    That said, here’s a link to a thoughtful take on the Mortenson subject from Pete Hessler, an author and journalist who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China — and then stayed there for a decade writing about a China that most people rarely hear of.


    He poses the questions, how central is/should be the role of the Westerner in development in Asia, what obligation should Mortenson have to be educated and respectful of the country + people he writes about, and what is the role of well-intentioned donors?

  2. Mariedyth Gayas writes:
    April 22, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    I bought three more copies of the book after I have read it and gave it away to some friends and family for them to share to their friends and family. I wanted to share the “greatness” of the author and the people behind CAI. The greatness of the human spirit especially the kids who gave their pennies to help other kids they do not know and have not met. Makes me sad to know that it was a scam of sorts. What I am able to take away from reading the book though is the pressing need for education at some parts of the globe – vital education that would set the people free. Freedom from tyranny and oppression. Freedom from hunger and want.

  3. J. Valverde writes:
    April 22, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    Count me among the first to say that the media needs to investigate and uncover wrongdoing, fraud or corruption. In fact, I’d encourage CBS and other large media organizations with substantial resources to get a little busier and dig a lot deeper in investigating the U.S. Congress and how they conduct their business . . . that is business, not be to confused with public service! But to go after Greg Mortenson and the CAI? Really? C’mon! Whose idea was that? I believe Greg Mortenson’s responses speak for themselves. As do his books, his reputation and that of the CAI and all the amazing transformational work it is doing.

  4. Maggie writes:
    April 25, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Having worked in nonprofits both here and overseas for the last 35 years, it is sickening to read about corruption in our ranks. One high profile case brings suspicion down on every single one of the hundreds of thousands of hardworking social activists and humanitarian workers worldwide who spend their lives in service to others.
    I agree with J. Valverde. Let’s turn the lens on those who steal from us all – the multi-national corporations who make billions and pay no taxes; the congress who has sold our government and our trust to the highest bidders; the churches who collect their donations “in the name of the lord” only to spit out messages of hatred and oppression; the “legal” system whose mission is to protect the status quo at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised, and the media itself, ignoring stories that could hurt their access to power while supporting the stereotypes of the hard right.

  5. Stephanie writes:
    May 3, 2011 at 8:41 am

    I see the problem as people’s desire to idealize a story, then being shocked when the reality is messy, inefficient, imperfect. I’m unconvinced that Gregg Mortenson’s organization is corrupt, or a “scam”. After reading the “expose”, it seems to me that its an organization that is somewhat amateurish in its management, working in a part of the world where development is extremely difficult. They have still had a lot of success, and a lot of children, especially girls, have been educated who would not have been otherwise. The fact that some schools are underutilized, some funds misappropriated, some staff are unprofessional should not be a surprise. Have you seen what happened to the billions in development aid that the US has sent to Iraq and Afghanistan? Development work is difficult! Lets not be so simplistic as to paint Mortenson’s organization as all good, or all bad!

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