What The Scandal Of “Three Cups of Tea” Author Greg Mortenson Is Really About

Forget lying in a memoir, we should be talking about what it means that Mortenson’s Central Asia Institutes in Pakistan and Afghanistan are failing.

Greg Mortenson with Admiral Mullen


The 60 Minutes expose of much-lauded author and social entrepreneur Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea; Stones into Schools) is rocketing around the web. Best-selling author Jon Krakauer has even devoted an entire e-book to excoriating the man he once supported. Forget the complaints about the memoir tarted up to make a more exciting read, the important part of the scandal is what’s happening at Mortenson’s charity and why the schools it has built are sitting empty.

“What surprises me most about the story is not that yet another development demigod turned out to be a human,” writes Laura Freschi of the Aidwatchers blog. “What surprises me most is the way Mortenson’s charity–embraced by the U.S. military and admired by President Obama, Oprah, and literally millions of Americans–has managed to avoid scrutiny of its spending priorities for so long.”

With just a glance at the books, CBS News found that Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), spent more on “education and outreach” in the U.S. (including full-page ads in The New Yorker for Mortenson’s own book, proceeds of which did not go back to the nonprofit) than it did on building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And upon visiting 30 of the 141 schools that CAI claims to have built, they found half of them were empty, being used for storage, or hadn’t received any outside support for years. But while that’s deplorable, it’s not simply a function of CAI focusing on Mortenson’s publicity instead of development. This happens to many development projects around the world, no matter who is building them.

Adam Braun, whose charity Pencils of Promise has built and maintains 23 schools in Southeast Asia and Central America, says, “The schools that aren’t being used are usually those built for locals, rather than those built with locals. Education is much more complex than just putting up four walls, so those that only focus on the build itself will see higher rates of school abandonment.” And, as Freschi points out, most of the money CAI spent on schools–$3 million out of $4 million–went to building, not teacher salaries, school supplies, scholarships, or followup. CAI–and other organizations–are just dropping schools into Afghanistan and hoping teachers and students show up. It’s the If you build it, they will come model of development, and it doesn’t seem to work. Braun adds, “It’s also extremely important to have a monitoring and evaluation system that’s maintained by a local staff on the ground. As part of our system we have a full team that maintains a student database where we track every single student in our schools and survey both parents and students several times a year to ensure the quality, not just the quantity, of our impact. The reality is that school tracking in poor, rural areas of the world is difficult and not particularly sexy, but it’s an essential part of the process to ensure long-term impact.”

Mortensen’s bio confusion might be getting the most attention, but the problems at CAI should be the issue that is front and center, leading to some important conversations about what it takes to do
effective development work–namely, intense local involvement and careful oversight at all levels.


[Photo of Mortensen giving Admiral Mullen some tips on how to not relate to the Afghan people, from Flickr user Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.