“Three Cups of Deceit”

Carol discovered John Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” put out by the new online publisher, Byliner Originals; it’s a 100,000 word non-fiction article about Greg Mortenson, the well-known author of Three Cups of Tea. As you might imagine from the title, Krakauer is critical of Mortenson, and concludes the following:

In all fairness, Greg Mortenson has done much that is admirable since he began working in Baltistan sixteen and a half years ago. He’s been a tireless advocate for girls’ education. He’s established dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have benefited tens of thousands [of] children, a significant percentage of them girls. A huge number of people regard him as a hero, and he inspires tremendous trust. It is now evident, however, that Mortenson recklessly betrayed this trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair. [pp. 67-68]

Krakauer alleges that Mortenson fabricated important parts of his two bestselling books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. To prove these allegations, Krakauer identifies serious errors in chronology, he finds contradictions between the account in Three Cups of Tea and an earlier article by Mortenson, and he digs up lots of eyewitness testimony that does not agree with what Mortenson wrote.

Krakauer also alleges that Mortenson mismanaged Central Asia Institute (CAI), the nonprofit organization he established to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To prove these allegations, Krakauer interviewed former employees and associates of Mortenson, as well as former board members of CAI, who claim that Mortenson did not adequately document expenses (in some cases provided no documentation at all), used CAI funds for personal use, and bullied employees. Furthermore, according to Krakauer, Mortenson used CAI monies to promote Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, while keeping the book profits for himself; promotional expenses allegedly included buying copies of his first book to keep it on the bestseller list. While it’s always wise to have some doubt about the opinions of disgruntled former employees, Krakauer managed to find so many disgruntled former employees and board members for such a small, newly-founded organization, that I at least had to doubt Mortenson’s managerial ability.

Today’s New York Times carries an article by Edward Wong titled “Two Schools, One Complicated Situation” [p. 5, “Week in Review” section]. Wong traveled to Afghanistan to see some of CAI’s schools for himself. He found at least one of the schools, which was built by CAI in 2009, and which was featured in Stones into Schools, has never been used. It lies an hour’s walk from the winter campground of some Kyrgyz nomads — but children are not going to walk for an hour through harsh winter weather with subzero temperatures to go to school, and besides in 2008 the Afghan government began sending teachers in the summer time to teach the Kyrgyz nomad’s children in their yurts.

Wong also visited one of CAI’s schools which is a real success — in his article, Krakauer makes it clear that Mortenson and CAI have completed many successful projects — and in comparing the two schools, Wong concludes that “what the two schools, especially the empty one, may reflect most plainly is the complexity of any development work in a country like Afghanistan…. whether the local populace buys into a project is crucial for success.” Wong is a little too cautious here: any development work, whether it takes place in the United States or in a developing country, requires that the local populace buys into a project. Carol has seen this in her own work: she has seen projects that have been built in the developing world without local buy-in, which are then never used or quickly abandoned.

Local buy-in and local control over projects is also important for anyone who believes in the democratic process. If you go into another country, tell local populace that you’re going to build a project of some sort without giving them at least some control over the project, you’re in fact subverting the democratic process. What the local populace will learn is that it doesn’t matter what their priorities might be, foreign NGOs and nonprofits are going to act in an authoritarian way and simply tell them what the priorities are going to be, like it or not. Is your top priority to get a medical facility to lower the infant mortality rate? — too bad, we’re going to build you a school whether you want one or not.

For me, the deeper issue here is one of accountability. To whom are development agencies accountable? In real life, development agencies are really only ultimately accountable to their funding sources — to their big donors (foundations, billionaires, U.S. government grants, etc.) first of all, and to smaller donors only secondarily. Development agencies may be somewhat accountable to local governments, insofar as local government may be able to grant or deny permission to work in that country. But most development agencies have little or no real accountability to the local populaces whom they claim to serve. What are the local populaces going to do, vote them out of office? — no, because development work isn’t democratic. So local populaces depend on the sensitivity and the ethics of the development agencies. Both Krakauer and Wong assert that CAI lacks sensitivity to local needs, and Krakauer asserts that CAI has engaged in unethical practices. Which makes you feel sorry for the local populaces CAI claims to serve.

2 thoughts on ““Three Cups of Deceit””

  1. Thanks for this. I have been following the unfolding of this story somewhat closely because the Sunday School made CAI the focus of their Advent service project. Now I wonder a bit where the money went…

  2. This previously free download is now available on Amazon for $2.99. All proceeds go to a charity that helps prevent child trafficking.

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