Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Two Cents on Three Cups of Tea

I never read “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson.  I know it was a very popular book for quite some time.  First published in 2006, it has gone on to sell several million copies.  We think.  My impression of “Three Cups of Tea” was that it was a story that sort of paralleled “Seven Years in Tibet”, which is, of course, another book that I have never read.  So right off the bat I have no logical reason to be writing this post.  Whatever; at least I’m being honest.  Unlike some people.

Now not having read either book I get the impression that the two books do have some things in common: both take place in the mountains of Central Asia, both are autobiographical and adventurous in nature, and both highlight the plight of some of the poorer and “underdeveloped” peoples on the Earth.  Both books have a white protagonist living in a foreign, exotic land.  Both have numbers in their titles.  Prime numbers, even. 

However it would appear that there is one big difference between the two books: “Seven Years in Tibet” appears to be an inspiring and thought-provoking true story, and “Three Cups of Tea” appears to be an enjoyable and inspiring work of fiction, but passed off as non-fiction in order to promote a charity whose actions don’t quite measure up to their ideals. 

Once again in the interest of full disclosure I must state that I have not read “Three Cups of Tea”, and quite frankly do not know all that much about Greg Mortenson.  But one thing I have read recently is a little story called “Three Cups of Deceit” by modern day adventurer/writer/muckraker Jon Krakauer, which was featured on “60 Minutes” last week and basically accuses Greg Mortenson of being a cheat and a liar.  It’s been quite the news story in the past week, and I thought I’d add one post containing my two cents regarding the controversy surrounding three cups.  Jon Krakauer’s article is pretty damning stuff, and I find it difficult to defend what Greg Mortenson has done, but I do retain a modicum of sympathy for the man, having been in some similar situations myself in Ghana in the Peace Corps.

Let’s start by examining what Krakauer calls Greg Mortenson’s “Creation Myth”.  Apparently “Three Cups” begins with a very exciting story about how way back in 1993 (the year I went to the Peace Corps, incidentally), when Greg was 36 years old, Greg got lost in the wilds of Pakistan after an unsuccessful climbing attempt of the second tallest mountain in the world, K2.  Greg wandered into a village named Korphe, where he spent an extended period of time recovering from his failed expedition.  After getting to know the poor people of Korphe Greg decided that he would build a school for them to express his gratitude for their hospitality and also to properly honor his recently deceased sister Christa.  Exciting stuff!  And very much in the wheelhouse of classic “dark continent” adventure literature.  You know, Arrogant White Man goes somewhere adventurous to prove his manhood to the world and/or make his fortune.  Defeated White Man fails; gets lost, robbed, hurt, etc.  Ends up in a foreign place, all alone, at the mercy of his hosts, who may be Noble, or may be Nefarious.  But the hosts treat him well and nurse Defenseless White Man back to health.  They’re noble, then.  Grateful White Man decides to change his ways and do something to help out his Poor and Noble hosts.  This, in a nutshell, is Greg’s “Creation Myth”.  It’s a story that we never get sick of and with good reason; Greg’s Creation Myth combines daring-do, desperation, mystery, and redemption.  And adds just a hint of good old Beatific White Man paternal colonialism.

Karkauer does go out of his way to praise Greg’s ability as a storyteller.  But that’s where the problem starts.  This wasn’t supposed to be a story, per se, it was supposed to be fact.  Greg didn’t present this as a story, or an allegory, or a metaphor, but as real events.  Now some of his Creation Myth was factual.  He was in Pakistan.  He did attempt to climb K2.  He did, in fact, build a school in Korphe.  Which, incidentally, is quite a bit more school-building than I ever did in Ghana.  So hats off to Greg there.  But according to Krakauer, none of the rest of the story was true.  Greg didn’t get lost and separated from his climbing companions.  He didn’t end up crawling into Korphe clinging to the very final twist of his mortal coil.  The reality is that Greg, after coming back from K2 with his climbing companions safe and sound, decided to visit a completely different village named Khane.  In reality, Greg promised the Khane villagers that he would build a school for them.  He went back to the States and started raising money with which to build a school in Khane.  Greg eventually received a generous donation from one wealthy benefactor, and went back to Pakistan with what I presume to be honest intent to build a school in Khane.

Now up to this point I really don’t see anything wrong, even if the story is made up.  Greg has a mission to do something good.  He wants to build this school, to do something meaningful for this village.  If that requires him to embellish a story about getting lost and all that in order to entice people to give him money, then, well, so be it.  The donors are paying for the story as much as the school.  Greg may have recognized that people want to participate in an exciting story, not a boring story.  So what if events didn’t transpire quite the way they were presented; the bottom line speaks for itself.  A school got built.  Good things were done. 

But were good things done?  Yes, a school got built.  But according to Krakauer, the school got built in the wrong village.  Greg promised to build a school in Khane, not Korphe.  But at some point the site of the school got changed to Korphe.  And Greg’s story got moved to Korphe as well.  Why did the school site get moved?  Krakauer doesn’t say.  Greg doesn’t say.  It could have been for a perfectly legitimate reason.  Maybe Kahne was in line to get a government school built before Korphe, thus duplicating efforts.  On the other hand, maybe the heads of the village in Korphe made Greg an offer he couldn’t refuse, via the carrot or maybe the stick.  Maybe they promised to build Greg two more schools if Greg just built the first one in Korphe.  Maybe they promised to throw Greg in jail, or worse, if Korphe didn’t get the school instead of Kahne.  Maybe they convinced Greg that Khane was not worthy of a school.  It was a competition for scarce resources, and Korphe won, and one has to feel that Greg got caught in the middle of something he was not prepared to handle.  To me this is a very interesting missing piece.  Here is the real story, the messy stuff, the grey area.  Why did the school site get moved?  If we learn that, maybe we learn a lot about how things get done in Pakistan.  Maybe we learn a lot about Greg.  Maybe we learn more about Greg and/or Pakistan than we would like to know.  It is natural as readers of Greg’s story to want everything to fit neatly into a perfect package.  What Greg is doing is so wonderful, building a school in Pakistan, that we want Greg to be perfectly wonderful as well.  Otherwise we might be a little more hesitant to give him money.  Certainly moving the site of the school without explanation puts Greg in a bad light.  Even moving it with an explanation puts some measure of suspicion on his motivations and character.  But if we never know, then what’s the harm, right?  So Greg moves the story to Korphe and never mentions Khane again.  His benefactor is none the wiser, and neither are the rest of us, until Krakauer comes along several years later.  When the speeches are made and the book is written, there is no mention of Khane; just Korphe.  I don’t know if Khane ever got a school.  If Greg can’t move the school to Khane, he can move the story to Korphe.   If the mountain won't come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain, right?

Ok, fine, whatever.  Believe me; worse things have been done in the name of international development.  It seems a little disingenuous, but still, good things were done I suppose.  The donor gets to participate in a wonderful story, a village gets a school, Greg does something meaningful.  I’d say with the exception of the children of Kahne, who have to be feeling like a homely date ditched at the dance for another, prettier girl, everyone is happy.  Khane gets the next school, I promise.

Greg is likely very happy, and excited, tempered perhaps with just a touch of dark shame, buried deep deep inside.  Flush with pride and courage over his accomplishment, he decides that he is going to build more schools.  One thing leads to another and he forms a charitable organization called the Central Asia Institute (CAI), whose mission is to “promote and provide community-based education and literacy programs, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan”.  This organization was formed back in 1996.  Three Cups of Tea was not written until 2006.  In the intervening 10 years Greg gets to work, traveling across Pakistan and Afghanistan, raising money back in the States, building schools, and treating the charity like his personal ATM.  All good things.  Wait.  What was the last bit?

Apparently Greg was not keeping up with his expense reports during this time.  Krakauer goes to great lengths to explain that much of the money that the Central Asia Institute was collecting was not properly being accounted for.  And he details how Greg refused to submit expense reports to the charity.  CAI simply had to pick up the tab.  Clearly Greg was a gifted fund raiser and story teller.  But again it seemed as though Greg had trouble knowing when to stop embellishing the truth to make his story more compelling.  Krakauer explains in detail a trip Greg took with “Mr. Kahn” into Waziristan.  In Greg’s telling, he was kidnapped, held at gun point, and nearly executed by fanatical Muslim extremists – you know, Talibans – perhaps for mucking about in their lands, trying to build secular schools to compete with their Muslim schools. 

But the reality appears to be that Greg was never held captive, never threatened, never in danger.  He was treated with civility by his Muslim hosts.  They wanted Greg to help build schools there.  But an endless procession of banquets and cups of tea doesn’t inspire donations, particularly after the Taliban-orchestrated World Trade Center attacks in 2001.  It seems like Greg, consciously or otherwise, tapped into a powerful feeling among Americans after the 911-attacks.  Near as I can tell, Greg’s message was this; I am trying to build secular schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  A secular education is a good alternative to a Muslim education for young boys and girls.  Secularly educated children will not grow up to be Taliban terrorists.  Muslim-educated children may become terrorists.  Therefore, by giving money to my charity, you are helping to fight the war against terrorism without firing a shot.

You know what, that line of reasoning may be plausible.  Certainly poverty plays a role in transforming Muslims into Taliban insurgents, and education is a good way to help reduce poverty.  I'm not sure if I agree with the notion that a Muslim education vs. a secular education will produce a higher rate of terrorists, but the argument was palatable to many who were sickened by the 9/11 attacks, but weren’t so sure that invading Afghanistan was going to solve the problem.  Giving money to the CAI was a way to feel good about helping poor Pakistanis and Afghans, but still be a patriot.  I’m certain that CAI would have received some donations even if the story was told truthfully.  But the story is so much more compelling and effective if it is spiced with tales of armed-captivity, near-executions, and suspicious-Taliban chiefs.  Greg tells us that he is literally risking his life to get these schools built for the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and therefore for the future of us all.  But he lied, according to Krakauer.  And it worked.  Americans ate it up, we started contributing a lot of money to the CAI for school-building.  And really, if the story needs to be embellished in order to get more charity money, what’s the harm, right?

Two things; One, remember the personal ATM bit?  Well CAI was still having a lot of trouble accounting for all the money that was coming in, and now there was a lot more money coming in.  Krakauer gave $75,000 to the CAI.  President Obama gave $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize winnings to CAI.  CAI took in over 14 million dollars in 2008 and again 2009.  And yes, schools got built.  Good things were done.  Not enough good things, though.  According to Krakauer, over 50% of CAI’s budget goes towards administrative expenses.  This includes Greg’s mystery expenses, travel budgets, and fund-raising costs.  CAI claims to spend only 15% on administrative expenses, and 85% on building and staffing schools.  The discrepancy exists because CAI doesn’t count things like book advertising and promotion as fund-raising expenses but as actual charitable work.  That doesn’t hold water with me.  I think most people would expect when CAI says that they are spending 85% of the money on “program expenses”, that means 85% of the money is going directly towards building and staffing schools.  CAI is either really really inefficient at building schools, in which case maybe they should be doing something else, or perhaps Greg doesn't feel like he needs to play by the same rules as a legitimate charity.  This misuse of charitable funds is in my opinion an inexcusable offense.

Two, how did Greg’s Pakistani companions feel about being portrayed as gun-toting Taliban extremists when in reality, at the time Greg met them, they were nothing of the sort?  At worst, Greg reduces these men to an ugly stereotype simply to make the story more compelling and raise more money, and perhaps make himself look more heroic.  In doing so, Greg manages to reinforce America’s worst stereotypes about the Pakistani people, and ironically, America’s worst stereotypes about ourselves.  Intentionally or not, Greg plays to our fears in the same way the government plays to our fears when they tell us Americans that the only way to prevent more terrorist attacks is to start two wars and wiretap everything in sight.  Two totally different approaches to combating terror, but born of similar fears.  In this context contributing money to the CAI becomes another front in the war against terror.  But is that the only way we can convince Americans to part with their hard-earned cash, by scaring them?  I’d like to think we can be motivated by more than just base emotion.  And to be fair, I’m sure the majority of people who contributed to the CAI did so because they were inspired by Greg’s story and by what he was trying to accomplish.  It is sad, really, that Greg felt like he needed to make the story so perfect that he was willing to throw the very people he was trying to help under the bus to provide a compelling narrative.  And look, I know that Waziristan is an insanely dangerous place to visit, particularly today.  I give Greg a lot of credit for going there.  I just wish he hadn't lied about the particulars of his trip, that's all.  It wasn't necessary.

Speaking of that narrative, “Three Cups of Tea”, as we know this book was a huge success.  So much so that Greg has more or less been on a constant book promotion tour since it came out in 2006.  Which brings up another unfortunate issue.  According to Krakauer, none of the royalties from “Three Cups of Tea” actually go to the CAI.  All the royalties go to Greg Mortenson and his co-writer, David Oliver Relin.  That’s not exactly what I expected, but ok, CAI didn’t write to book so not much you can say there.  What is odd, however, is that Greg charges all book promotion travel expenses to CAI.  One could argue that the book promotes the charity, and therefore the charity benefits when the book is promoted.  CAI does probably get a good return on its investment.  I’ll let that one slide.  However Greg also gives out many thousands of copies of “Three Cups of Tea” to schools and speaking audiences.  And the budget for that also comes from CAI.  And Greg requires CAI to purchase these copies through retail channels, not wholesalers.  This does two things that I find distasteful.  One, buying the books via retail means CAI has to pay an inflated price per book.  This is money that could be going to building schools in Pakistan.  There is no return on investment here.  The only reason to do this is to help keep the book on the best seller lists.  Books bought wholesale do not count for best seller numbers.  Books bought via retail channels do count.  This seems in some ways even more distasteful.  Greg could argue that by keeping the book at the top of the best seller lists, that it keeps the visibility of CAI higher than it otherwise would be.  I don’t buy it.  Sounds to me like Greg is just letting his ego run amok in this instance.

Finally, the schools.  I keep coming back to “but schools were built, right?”  And yes, schools were built.  Not enough schools, given the amount of money pouring into CAI, and in the wrong towns sometimes, but at least something is getting done.  Again, it’s more than I’ve done.  But it’s also more than I’ve wasted, too.  And although many schools were built (170 schools according to CAI), many of these schools are not being used.  I don’t have hard numbers, but again and again Krakauer points to the fact that many of the schools CAI built currently stand completely unused and in a state of neglect.  Remember my story about wanting to build a basketball court for my school, because it was what I thought my school needed?  I wonder if Greg and CAI are falling into the same trap.  Just because one village needs a school, and can staff it, that doesn’t mean that every village in Pakistan and Afghanistan will be able to use a school.  I’m sure many villages simply do not have enough teachers, or even people who can teach.  If you were to build a new school in a village that could not staff said school with teachers, then I think you can imagine what would happen to the school.  It would probably eventually become a barn or a storage warehouse.  Again, the problems come in twos:  One, Greg didn’t listen to what each village needs.  Not every village needs a school house; some need a well, or a road, or something else.  CAI should either be more selective when choosing sites for schools, or allow them selves to do other things besides just build schools.  Two, when building a school, CAI needs to make sure that there is a plan in place to staff the school and get students to the school.  Just because a school is built doesn’t automatically mean that the school will have teachers.  It doesn’t even mean that the school will have students!  There aren’t enough trained teachers to go around, and the children can’t spend the time at school when they are needed in the fields, for example.   

I saw this first-hand in Ghana.  Heck the reason I was in Ghana in the first place was because Ghana did not have enough high school math and science teachers to fully staff their own schools.  The Peace Corps served me up as a volunteer to fill one of those positions.  In concept it was a noble and wholly correct thing to be doing.  Also my students frequently had to leave school for extended periods of time, mostly to go home and help out at the farm during harvest.  A farm kids education can be spotty and incomplete as a result.  Things that we can do to help keep kids in school go a long way towards getting them a good education.  Better roads, harvesting equipment, irrigation, and communication infrastructure are all things that can be built that are not specifically schools, but indirectly help to keep kids in school for longer periods of time.  By limiting their field of vision to school building only, CAI dooms them selves to be only partially successful.

So what have I learned?  I’m still not interested in actually reading the book, mind you, but that won't stop me from having an opinion on matters.  Let’s enumerate the shortcomings of Greg Mortenson, and see what comes out the other side.  Nefarious or Noble?
  • Lied about getting lost and staying in Kophe:  Embellish a story?  Heck I’d probably do that.  I’m probably doing that now.  Minor infraction. 
  • Built that first school in Kophe, not Khane:  Leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Major infraction, but minor scope.
  • Shoddy expense reporting:  This is a charity and the money should be treated with respect.  Major infraction.  
  • Reducing Pakistanis to gun-toting terrorists:  It’s offensive to the Pakistanis and to the Americans as well.  But it helped raise money.  Medium infraction. 
  • Only 50% of CAI money goes towards legitimate program expenses:  Come on, only 50% of the money is actually going to Pakistan?  Major infraction.  
  • No book royalties go to CAI:  It belies a lack of commitment to CAI on the part of the authors, but they did write the book so they deserve something.  Minor to medium infraction.  
  • Requiring CAI to foot the bill for book promotional activities, and requiring CAI to purchase books at retail:  This is why only 50% of CAI’s money goes to Pakistan.  Major infraction. 
  • Building schools that never get staffed:  Development aid is an inexact science, and lots of mistakes are made.  One would hope that CAI is learning from their mistakes and getting better.  Minor to medium, actually.  
What dooms Greg Mortenson in my opinion is not that he made up stuff and passed it off as fact.  It's not that he ended up building schools that are not staffed.  Those things I can accept.  What I can not accept is his careless attitude towards the finances of CAI.  This is a charity and all efforts should be made to spend the money wisely.  I hope they get themselves straightened out because I'm sure they are doing good things in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  But they may have to do it without the services of Mr. Mortenson going forward.

And I suppose there are are couple of lessons for me as well.  Make sure I investigate charities before contributing to them.  Also if it seems too perfect, too good to be true, it probably is.  Life is messy, people are not perfect.  I'd much rather have truth than perfection.


  1. Great post, Scott. I've read Three Cups of Tea, love Krakauer's work, and Ginny has worked for several years for social service agencies, nonprofits, and in fundraising, so this is very relevant. She hates organizations like the United Way that take huge chunks of donations away from their stated purpose.

    I agree that is the biggest problem here, bigger than his lies. Although my issue with the lies are that what's been uncovered may be only the tip of the iceberg...it raises questions about Mortenson's character in general.

  2. I haven't read Krakauer's article or seen 60 minutes, but I did read 3 Cups. Now I understand why Mortenson went to Waziristan - he was invited. When I read the book, I thought he was naive and an idiot to go alone into such a dangerous area. Especially since he seemed to have great connections and be making good progress in the area where he was working. It didn't make any sense to just go to another region out of the blue.

    The co-author writes as if Mortenson is almost a god and the fawning language did get old fast. Now I see that he was building a legend to help fund schools and line Mortenson's bank account.

  3. Mortenson may be the most exposed and worst of the lot, but he is one of countless many who abuse nonprofit work for their own agenda. I don't condone what he does, and I am happy for the exposure of his deeds and motives. But, he is one mere lesson. Unfortunately, I doubt if it has made even a ripple in a whole industry that milks a white cow from all angles. It fathoms me to watch how this all continues to happen, condoned by the powers that be, without a shred of conscience for the very people who suffer the harsh realities of world's social ills.