Last week while I was in New York City, rumors about the founder of the Central Asia Institute Greg Mortenson, began to float about like trash on city streets when it’s windy. Like Nicholas Kristof said in his New York Times column I decided to reserve judgment. Mostly I thought, this is nonsense. After all I’d interviewed the man about 8-years ago before he’d published Three Cups of Tea. He was friendly, interesting and an easy interview. At the time, he was just starting out on his mission of building schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. My feelings were the same as others: what a good guy. What a great purpose. I hope he succeeds. What can I do to help?
The accusations are that he fabricated several key parts of his best selling memoir, Three Cups of Tea, co-authored by David Oliver Relin, and had not followed through on the building or staffing of many of the schools. As well, it is reported that he may have mismanaged millions of dollars of the CAI money.
The story on 60 Minutes this past Sunday, and Jon Kraukauer’s concurrent article Three Cups of Deceit have made a lot of people squirm in the non-profit worlds. This is especially in communities such as the Wood River Valley, of Idaho, which sponsored the building of a school through the Central Asia Institute, in Kanday, Afghanistan.
Mortenson has disputed the claims made by 60 Minutes accusing them of chasing audience ratings. Mansur Khan Mahsud, one of the men Mortenson identified as a Taliban member is talking of suing him.
Elizabeth Schwerdtle of Hailey, Idaho spearheaded the fund-raising for the Khanday school, and has remained on top of the issues ever since.
Here’s her story of dealing with Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute that appeared on the comments page of the New York Times on-line edition.
“In 2003, our community raised $25,000 to fund a school through Mortenson/CAI. I spearheaded that effort. In advance, I fact checked CAI and Mortenson with Parade Magazine, (which had written a cover story about Mortenson), the widest circulation magazine in the country. In addition, I met with CAI Co-founder Jean Hoerni ‘s widow, Jennifer Wilson, who lives in our community. I also spoke with a member of the CAI board, who had visited some of the schools, as well as someone else in our community who’d funded a CAI school. They said Mortenson was doing what he said he was doing. Short of getting on a plane to Central Asia, I was satisfied he was reputable.
Over the course of the next couple of years, I began to have questions about Mortenson’s compulsion to play fast and loose with the facts. For example, the number of schools he had built never seemed to be clear and there seemed to be serious questions about whether schools were in fact being built with local labor, as Mortenson says they are. He always seemed to be losing staff members from his Bozeman, Montana office, who were always tight-lipped about their reasons for leaving. Then there was the matter of his relentless self-promotion of himself as ‘humble hero’—telling the same subtly self-aggrandizing stories over and over again.
After Three Cups of Tea was published, it was clear to me that Mortenson was a serious self-promoter–just one look at the schedule from his website will tell you where his priorities lie. Building and sustaining schools in Central Asia was supporting that focus, not the other way around.
Soon after our community raised the $25,000 for a school, CAI began relentlessly courting our community’s donors through direct mail campaigns. I attempted to tell some donors that I had some concerns and that there were other groups out there that I felt were more worthy of support but it was a too-late story. The facts represented a gray area that few wanted to hear.
The silver lining in the CAI story is Mortenson focused millions of people on the importance of women’s education and empowerment, particularly in Central Asia, but also all over the world.
Budd MacKenzie was also directly inspired by the mission of CAI, (but who became disillusioned by Mortenson himself), and went on to found Trust in Education. This organization is actually following through on CAI’s mission. There may be others. Their stories are not be as smooth and neatly-tied-up-with-a-ribbon as Mortenson’s were, and their websites might not be as polished… but they and their accomplishments are real… They are changing girls’ and women’s lives.
Perhaps Nicholas Kristof could do a story about the importance of not becoming disillusioned in the messy world of international charity (where not even the best fact-checking always works)–but persevering–when you know the cause is an important one? That seems like the real lesson here.”
Schwerdtle’s follow up to me:
“The story of Mortenson is a minor footnote to the larger issue: empowering and educating women is the number one issue of our time. Mortenson, as flawed as he was, did more to make the world aware of this than anyone else. Do you even remember this being talked about in a general way before he burst on the scene? I don’t. So that has been Mortenson’s value—he delivered a very important message that will determine our collective future—and that deserves our attention and action…and perseverance. Especially us women.
On the subject of the school in Khanday that our community funded, I made sure the school got built by badgering Julia Bergman (Jennifer Wilson’s cousin and formerly on the CAI board) for information and evidence of progress. She went over there for the groundbreaking, and made sure we got pictures back of the school as it was built.
After that–not being willing to get on a plane to a virtual war zone and observe for myself how the school was doing, (like Budd MacKenzie, incredibly, did, with the school his community built through CAI)—I began helping/supporting Budd, who is all about following through. He was the featured speaker who I brought here a few years ago—and is doing the work that Mortenson/CAI promised, but sometimes didn’t entirely follow-through on.
And Budd is really doing it, consistently, selflessly, quietly, and methodically—empowering and educating girls and women, village by village. (I jokingly I told him he should write The Fourth Cup of Tea that would take up where Three Cups of Tea left off on the importance of following through.)
It’s easy to get jaded—but that’s a trap. The issue is so significant, and the women and girls are real. They want the same things as we do: dignity, a voice, health care and equal rights. Can you imagine life with none of these things—or the paralyzing dysfunction of a society without the participation of women? I can’t.”