Thursday, April 28, 2011

Three Cups of Deceit

After seeing 60 Minutes' expose on Greg Mortenson on Sunday (, I thought things couldn't get worse – but they have.  The 60 Minutes segment was positively KIND to him compared to the absolutely devastating 70-page book (attached) released earlier this week by Jon Krakauer – formerly a friend, fellow mountaineer, and huge supporter of Mortenson and author of Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Under the Banner of Heaven, among others.  I couldn't put it down and stayed up past midnight last night to finish it. 


Every page was like a kick in the gut, as Krakauer meticulously documents three primary findings: 1) Just about every major tale in both of Mortenson's books is not merely embellished, but a complete fabrication; 2) Mortenson has looted his charity, the Central Asia Institute, of millions of dollars for his own benefit; and 3) With the 41% of its money that's left over after promoting (and enriching Mortenson), CAI does some good – it has, in fact, built many schools and there's no doubting how much awareness Mortenson and his books have raised.  But Krakauer documents that the organization is extremely ineffective and poorly run, and thus hasn't done nearly as much good as Mortenson claims, due to his dreadful management style and, likely, deliberate actions against the many competent and committed people who worked for or served on the board of CAI.


Nick Kristof read Krakauer's book and wrote about this scandal in his op ed in the NYT earlier this week (  I think he is too kind to Mortenson, but I share his heartbreak and concern that this scandal will hurt "countless children in Afghanistan who now won't get an education after all":

My inclination is to reserve judgment until we know more, for disorganization may explain more faults than dishonesty. I am deeply troubled that only 41 percent of the money raised in 2009 went to build schools, and Greg, by nature, is more of a founding visionary than the disciplined C.E.O. necessary to run a $20 million-a-year charity. On the other hand, I'm willing to give some benefit of the doubt to a man who has risked his life on behalf of some of the world's most voiceless people.

I've visited some of Greg's schools in Afghanistan, and what I saw worked. Girls in his schools were thrilled to be getting an education. Women were learning vocational skills, such as sewing. Those schools felt like some of the happiest places in Afghanistan.

…The furor over Greg's work breaks my heart. And the greatest loss will be felt not by those of us whose hero is discredited, nor even by Greg himself, but by countless children in Afghanistan who now won't get an education after all. But let's not forget that even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children's lives than you or I ever will.

As we sift the truth of these allegations, let's not allow this uproar to obscure that larger message of the possibility of change. Greg's books may or may not have been fictionalized, but there's nothing imaginary about the way some of his American donors and Afghan villagers were able to put aside their differences and prejudices and cooperate to build schools — and a better world.

Since most folks won't have time to read the entire book, I've summarized its three chapters and conclusion here:


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