Storytelling and narratives
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Three cups of tea and compassion

Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea came into my life just before my first project “in the field.” I – appropriately – read it at Teaism, whose wooden benches I miss on nostalgic days “in the field” now. There was a lot I loved about Mortenson’s book: the emphasis on women and girls’ education in Afghanistan, his commitment to the significant involvement of the local population in his development projects, his ability to tell a story in a magnificent enough way to attract attention (and donations) to a worthy cause.60 Minutes recently questioned the veracity of that story.

As a reader and storyteller, I was disappointed and felt that if the allegations were true, Mortenson could be discredited. Following the airing of the 60 Minutes segment on Three Cups of Tea, many have drawn attention to the need for more robust Monitoring & Evaluation processes for aid projects, more accountability, more transparency and more funneling of funds/donations directly to projects as opposed to maintaining high overhead expenditures. Saundra of “Good Intentions Are Not Enough” is kindly compiling related links into a single post. I could not disagree with those claims and not only support these practices for the organization in question, but also consider them sound guidelines for any aid project out there.

Yet, it is another aspect of this controversy that has most affected me. Disappointed as I may be in Mortenson, the Central Asia Institute (CAI) or anyone responsible for the inconsistencies, I am even more saddened by the response the 60 Minutes segment has generated. In my eyes, the recent revelations do not detract from the way in which Mortenson’s vision and the CAI initiatives have impacted the lives of women, girls, families and whole communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am saddened by the joy in the tone of some, journalists and colleagues alike, who are celebrating that “it was too good to be true all along” and they had “called it” first. Before anyone else says it: I know. I know misconduct occurs in the aid universe, just as it does in the military and in government, and that we should draw attention to it in order to learn. There is, in fact, a wonderful website encouraging organizations to do just that — head over to “Admitting Failure” and browse some reflections on the shortcomings of aid and development work.

For now, I know this: I have not built hundreds of schools or educated thousands of students. I have not crafted an eloquent vision, developed an elaborate model for education and community development, or told any story of that magnitude that would generate this extensive an appeal. I understand that the recent revelations suggest the story is problematic and parts of the underlying model may be as well. Mortenson is, rightfully on some counts, getting de-idolized and I find the idolization itself problematic in the first place. In light of the other pieces of the puzzle though – the positive ones, the ones that inspired me and many others – I resolve to extend some compassion to Mortenson. His work and life story still ignite something inside me.


  1. InkyTwig, I am glad you brought up Jon Krakauer. As a lot of people have said in this debate, it is very important to read his 90-page criticism of Three Cups of Tea to understand this issue. I also completely agree that the financial mismanagement, lack of transparency and bad managerial practices are more disconcerting than the inconsistencies in storytelling. Desiree Adaway wrote a compelling post on exactly this topic:

    Akhila, I’m with you: message continues to resonate, the practices do not. It’s a sad story all around and, like you, I hope both this organization and others can learn from these mistakes.

  2. I agree with you – despite all the allegations, I still believe his message is an important one. On a theoretical level, he understand the need for proper community involvement and ownership on aid projects, and this is an important lesson we should take to heart. The problem is he has not been able to implement it and his schools are largely ineffective because of lack of teacher training, salaries, management, community ownership. But his message continues to resonate with me. I only hope that other good organizations pop up to put this into place, more effectively.

  3. My biggest issue and also as Jon Krakauer does say- that yes, he has done a lot of good, he has helped a lot of people and shed light on an area we might have otherwise overlooked. However, the fact that he is lying – that he is misusing funds that people GIVE to that charity HAS to be examined. People who give to such charities have the right to know that their money IS actually being used for what it was intended. As Krakauer says, why say you built 11 schools when you built THREE? Three is fantastic. So why embellish? The biggest issue is that ALL the good this man has done, he is blemishing with his deceit. I feel badly about this. But there has to be accountability. I haven’t read “Three Cups of Tea” so I cannot comment any further other than to say I am disturbed by the fact that he fabricated the story. Especially when it has impacted so many. Thanks for posting your take on this Roxanne.

  4. Danny, first of all, it’s a delight to see you around here — I am so glad you stopped by! I agree that Morteson and the CAI should determine clearly whether the book is a tool of the organization (for awareness-raising, fundraising or other purposes) and then treat it accordingly in their financials. Let’s wait and see indeed.

    Kim, I am glad you brought up the James Frey analogy. There are actually articles popping up suggesting “Greg Mortenson is the James Frey of 2011.” You bring up another very valid point: To what extent was Mortenson’s story pushed to the edge in response to editing needs? Ultimately, I think he is still responsible for the story he tells and for the veracity of it, but – as in the James Frey case – I can see how the peer pressure and need for a particular reader response prompted him to recalibrate.

    Michelle, I completely agree with you, both on the ways in which media builds up personalities who then “fall from grace” and about the unfortunate use of funds for the so-called ‘security firms.’ As you yourself said, the fact that this occurs does not mean we should not investigate Mortenson and the potential wrongdoing of his organization, but at the same time, rarely have I heard Afghans/local organizations complain about all the schools building this guy is doing and his investment in the communities…

    Thank you all very much for commenting; I really appreciate your views and the ways you are adding to this debate!

  5. Hi there,
    Great post.

    American media seems to build people up to God-like status just to tear them down later. Most stories are presented as black & white & void of nuance. I too take issue that many seem to revel in Mortenson’s ‘fall from grace’ (for lack of a better word), when some big aid orgs do the same — using less than half the donated funds for the actual projects. None of this makes it ok — 2 wrongs do not make a right, etc etc.

    And, what about government contractors… US tax payers $ is used as “aid,” when really much of this “aid” actually goes towards high paid security firms (back into rich Americans’ pockets) that present counties as more dangerous than they actually are (OK am mainly talking about Haiti). And all of this is before we ever look at the private sector which would make Mortenson look like a saint.

  6. You mentioned the called-it-first phenomenon, which also showed itself when discrepancies showed up in A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. That outcry is similar to what’s happening here… except of course, when you factor in donated money and children’s charities, the handwaving accelerates exponentially.

    If the truth is as the 60 Minutes story says it is, I wonder–would he not have still made a huge impact? Sometimes I think about writing what life was like for me during the years I taught on the reservation (where funds were almost gleefully misappropriated), but then I think twice. It would be a fine book, but I can picture agent after agent after editor saying that it wouldn’t sell because it wasn’t *big* enough. I wonder if he wound up in similar straits.

    Either way, it matters a lot that his words helped you become the person you are and, by extension, to do the work you do.

  7. Anonymous says

    Great reflection! I too feel that his work is very important and even though he might have altered the veracity of those stories, the positive will behind those stories remains unchanged.

    What would be terrible news is if the allegation that the money that is raised for the social venture was truly used for the sale of books, which then benefit only the author and not the foundation. Coincidence that in my class we were discussing the importance of true and very well kept accounting records in these social ventures and educational entrepreneurship projects.

    Let’s wait and see.

    Best Wishes ROxanne!

    Danny Garcia

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