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How Many Cups of Tea, Exactly? May 6, 2011

Posted by Galaxy in Book news, Book Reviews, Linkage.
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I read Three Cups of Tea along with countless others- it was even required reading for troops deploying to Afghanistan at one time. I was as captivated and inspired as most; I greatly admired Greg Mortenson for doing the scary, difficult work that I would never undertake myself. In short, he was the change that I wanted to see in the world.

Then came the allegations. A special investigation into Mortenson and his nonprofit, Central Asia Institute (CAI) by 60 Minutes “revealed” that parts of the book may be “fabricated” and author Jon Krakauer, once on the board of CAI says that Mortenson uses his charity like his own “personal ATM,” citing his lack of documentation, receipts, and the one tax statement that the CAI has made public, which shows that they spent a great deal on helping Mortenson promote his books than on building actual schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mortenson went from “hero” to “fraud” in the blink of an eye.

I couldn’t bring myself to jump on the proverbial bandwagon and add Greg Mortenson to the “bad author” list alongside the likes of  James Frey. Condensing, expanding, perhaps even a little exaggeration, hey, chalk it up to creative license. One of Mortenson’s alleged lies is that he wrote that he visited a village in Pakistan called Korphe (the town which purportedly inspired him to start his nonprofit) in 1993 after getting lost while attempting to climb the world’s second highest peak, K2. It turns out that he probably visited the village in 1994 after another attempt at climbing the mountain.

There are more examples like the one above, but I find I am neither shocked nor offended by them.  And here is why: people generally won’t donate to a cause unless they are asked, whether this is via ads on television, people on street corners, emails, catalogs, etc. Charities exist because we cannot be counted on to take care of each other without some prodding and pushing. After directing our attention to a cause they then employ tactics to make average citizens look into their hearts (and then their wallets) using combinations of bribery (“free gift with every donation!”) and guilt-inducing bullying (“if you don’t donate you are effectively killing the children on this screen”) to fund the work they do. These tactics, while not the most efficient or tasteful, work on some level.

If Mortenson had written a book that simply bemoaned the plight of girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it never would have become the phenomenon that it is today. Mortenson was wise to weave those elements in with his own Indiana Jones-like tale because as a nation we prefer our heartbreak cut with a dose of heroism.  If Mortenson lied about the need that existed (“oh wait, there are plenty of schools for girls throughout Afghanistan!”) I would have felt angry and cheated indeed. He didn’t lie about the need. The need is there.

I don’t want to be an apologist for those who commit crimes or defraud investors, but I am not ready to hang Greg Mortensen or his organization out to dry. It sounds like Mortenson’s nonprofit suffers from moderate mismanagement (which, from my experience, is the nature of the beast when it comes to nonprofits) and would benefit greatly from some restructuring and additional oversight. Mortenson could definitely profit from taking a business class or two. But with so many criminals on Wall Street walking away scot-free (many with millions of dollars in bonuses) after swindling the American public out of their life savings, telling me that Greg Mortenson is the villain to watch out for just falls flat.

Read Three Cups of Tea. Take it not as gospel but as more of a suggestion. It is a compelling read, regardless. And most importantly, don’t let programs like 60 Minutes divert your attention away from the real  frauds in this country. He may not be perfect, but there is no doubt in my mind that Greg Mortenson is at least attempting to do good work, if not completely succeeding.

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