All things counter, original, spare and strange in Khujand, Tajikistan

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea/Three Cups of Deceit

This may be old news for some of you, but the big scandal in the world of relief and development also happens to involve some places not far from my location here in Tajikistan. Greg Mortenson, founder of Central Asia Institute and author of the best-seller, Three Cups of Tea–which I read not long before beginning my own adventure in Central Asia–has been accused of both fraud in the way he operates his organization and deception in the books he wrote.

The point-man for the Mortenson attack is none other than Jon Krakauer, of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild fame, who also happened to be a financial supporter of Central Asia Institute before becoming increasingly dissatisfied, and finally disgusted, with the way Mortenson ran the organization. Krakauer went so far as to do his own investigation on the matter and publish the results in an e-book entitled Three Cups of Deceit, which I read when I should have been making lesson plans.

Krakauer’s book breaks down into 3 accusations (the titular “three cups” I suppose):

1. In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson lied about his time in Pakistan in order to make the story more dramatic.

2. He subsequently engaged in fraud by misallocating large amounts of donated money.

3. His program’s model was unsustainable, leading to a number of “ghost schools” which are no longer in use, including one in the Wakhan corridor which had featured prominently in the plot of Mortenson’s second book Stones into Schools.

The first of these is the one most commented on in the media, though I think the second and third are far more troubling. But no one likes swallowing a tall tale, especially one as feel-good as Three Cups of Tea. Let’s be honest, Three Cups of Tea is very effective. It’s an inspiring story, with a great sense of dramatic timing and a flair for suspense. I couldn’t put it down. But sadly, some of the key events are apparently fabricated. Specifically, Mortenson claimed to have been nursed back to health in a village named Korphe after failing to summit K2. This event is central to the myth of Mortenson the humanitarian. But Mortenson’s porters and climbing partners contradict his story. It seems he actually never set foot in Korphe until after the K2 attempt, once he had already raised the money to build a school. The Korphe nursed-back-to-health story was a later fabrication to make CAI’s beginnings into a more exciting narrative.

Krakauer uncovers other apparent fictions in Mortenson’s two books, but even more saddening to me is the misuse of donor funds and the unsustainability of his program model. Krakauer accuses Mortenson of using funds donated to CAI in order to promote his books, definitely a fraud since the profits from both books go to Mortenson’s private account, not CAI. This is extremely disappointing, and reveals an incredible lack of accountability within CAI’s organization. According to a former CAI staff member quoted by Krakauer, Mortenson “regards CAI as his own personal ATM.” That’s hard to defend, and Krakauer makes his case persuasively.

The third accusation is that Mortenson’s organization is operating in an unsustainable way, building schools but not properly providing them with teachers or materials, thus leading to “ghost schools,” empty of both teachers and students.

It’s apparent that it is difficult to gain accurate information about CAI’s effectiveness. Krakauer alleges that one of the schools which features prominently in the story arc of Stones into Schools– a school in the village of Bozai in the Wakhan Corridor region of Afghanistan–has in fact been left empty. He also cites various former employees and a anthropologist doing research in CAI’s program area, who claim that many other schools are also empty, being poorly planned, underfunded, or not supported sufficiently by either CAI or the local communities. These allegations can only be cleared up by a full program assessment by CAI, which apparently has not been done, a sign that their manner of operations does not meet the standards of most major aid organizations.

All of this information is, of course, very disappointing. I loved Three Cups of Tea. But looking back, there were danger signs, if I’d been critical enough to recognize them:

1. Never focus on the white guy with the savior complex. The good things in the world of aid and development happen because dedicated local people work in cooperation with expats who have the humility not to act like they are rescuing the “natives” from ignorance.

2. Never oversimplify the situation. Having lived in Central Asia for almost a year now (which is certainly not enough to make me an expert), even I can see that Mortenson’s claim to be rescuing children from radicalized Islam is little more than a dramatic conceit. The regions CAI works in are generally peaceful and heavily Ismaili, a sect I’ve written about before, known for their tolerant, even pluralistic brand of Islam. Mortenson claimed to have a unique insight into Islam, but actually oversimplified the religious landscape of Central Asia.

3. Never expect results too fast. Mortenson’s meteoric rise as a public figure could only create false expectations of what his fledgling organization could accomplish. I hope that CAI continues to build schools, once they figure out how to overcome the baggage left by their charismatic but dishonest leader. But it will take time, research and investment to make a real difference in the education system in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan. This kind of thing does not happen overnight. A real functioning school is not bricks and mortar, it is a social contract made by a community. CAI should seek to facilitate this development, not just throw up buildings.

My final thought on this is that I hope this scandal does not keep people from supporting legitimate organizations which do good development work in the Muslim world. I know from my experience here “in the field,” that the real work of development can often look different from the promotional brochures. But the two organizations that I have spent time with here, MercyCorps and Operation Mercy, have both impressed me with the work they do on the ground. As a matter of fact, if you are reading this and you want to support an initiative that is doing real good in the area of health and education, contact me and I can give you the information on Operation Mercy’s HINT (Health Initiative for Northern Tajikistan) Program, which is currently seeking funding.

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One response

  1. hannah sartin

    I love the part about being cautious of a white man with a savior complex…I have pondered and wrestled with this over the last couple of years through readings and discussions

    May 22, 2011 at 9:42 am

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