Tempest in a tea cup

Schoolgirls reading, from Greg Mortenson's book "Three Cups of Tea"

This week, I’d like to share some thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding Greg Mortenson’s work with the Central Asia Institute.  Many readers are probably familiar with Mortenson, the best-selling author of two memoirs, “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones into Schools,” which tell the story of his work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  In particular, Mortenson’s commitment to making education accessible to girls has made him a worldwide spokesperson for women’s empowerment through education.

Making sense of memoir

Recently, however, author Jon Krakauer has suggested that Mortenson’s memoirs are largely fictionalized, a fabrication rather than a reflection of reality.  In particular, Krakauer suggests that the dramatic opening of “Three Cups of Tea,” in which Mortenson promises to build a school in the remote village of Korphe after its inhabitants save his life following a failed attempt at climbing the notorious Himalayan peak of K2, is false.  Likewise, Krakauer suggests that a significant account in “Stones into School,” in which Mortenson recounts being kidnapped by a group of Taliban, is also fabricated.  But surely readers should be willing to grant Mortenson the literary freedom to compose a narrative that conveys certain essential elements of his story, yet combines, rearranges, or even fictionalizes others?  The creative act of telling stories about ourselves, after all, is perhaps the most important way in which we make sense of our lives, and externalize meaning for others.

Mortenson’s missing schools

While generous readers will find tolerance for fictionalized elements within a personal memoir, however, generous donors are much less willing to tolerate fictionalized figures within balance sheets and budgets.  More pressing than concerns about his books, then, are accusations of financial mismanagement within the Central Asia Institute, an organization that took in over $20 million last year alone.  The most serious of these accusations suggest that Mortenson is simply not doing much of the work he has taken credit for.  In a recent exposé, 60 Minutes visited Central Asia, only to find that some schools the CAI has taken credit for building simply do not exist, while many others “were empty, built by somebody else, or not being used as schools at all.”  Furthermore, almost half of the CAI’s annual budget apparently goes toward promoting Mortenson’s own book tours in the United States, rather than working toward the organization’s mission to foster education in Afghanistan.

Expanding the conversation

The accusations against Mortenson are especially serious given his very public stature, and the level of trust vested in his work across a broad spectrum of American life, ranging from school children who have donated “Pennies for Peace,” to members of the armed forces, as Mortenson’s memoirs has become required reading for troops stationed in Afghanistan.  As the many communities and individuals who have become involved with Mortenson’s work re-evaulate their engagement with his organization, I suggest that it is time to widen the terms of the debate, from an inquiry into the working of a single organization, to a broad conversation about international development work, a realm in which Mortenson’s story exemplifies an important recent trend.

Glittering stars and the dusty road

Before his fall from grace, Mortenson was one among a constellation of glittering stars of non-profit work, who, like Paul Farmer, Nicholas Kristof, and Jacqueline Novogratz, have shared ideas that illuminate the horizons of a more equitable world, suggesting ways to work toward social justice and change in areas such as education, health, finance, and entrepreneurship.  Sharing their message widely through books, speaking engagements, and the social media, these figures represent a new type of public intellectual.  Their success has lent a new glamour and cachet to non-profit work, leading significant numbers of young people to start their own initiatives to build an orphanage in Nepal, work toward peace in the Sudan through musical activism, or ally themselves to the work being done by the new public intellectuals, such as Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health.  The “Do It Yourself” revolution, as the New York Times recently reported, has had the wonderful effect of encouraging international engagement and understanding on a wide scale.

Bathed in the glow of their success, however, the stories told by many of these public intellectuals leave little room for recognition that working toward social change entails a long journey, upon a dusty, rocky road.  While the idea of educating women, providing accessible health care for the poor, or creating social entrepreneurs may present an alluring image, the reality – seeing girls drop out of school or fail their exams, tracking down ARV patients to ensure compliance, or losing profits to bureaucratic red tape- is decidedly less glamorous.  Indeed, engendering true social change is a long, hard process, which often turns up mixed results, presenting failures alongside successes.   Faced with the shining stars of development work, however, we’ve come to expect a smooth process toward social change, rather than this rocky road.  Beyond the problems of financial transparency and accountability within the CAI, then, Greg Mortenson’s story points toward a more widespread challenge for development work.  To gain support for development work, organizations necessarily highlight their successes, downplaying their challenges, failings, and obstacles.  In so doing, however, they likewise contribute to the  perspective that development work will run smoothly, leading us to look up to the glowing stars, when in fact our eyes should be on the long, dusty road before us.

What do you think? 

The story of Mortenson’s work also draws our attention to many of the paradoxes of development work, in which small organizations can often accomplish more than large ones, and local work can be more powerful than global initiatives.  As Tariro’s director, my deepest fear about the serious accusations facing Greg Mortenson is that these criticisms will decrease support for the many grassroots organizations working throughout the world to educate children, particularly girls.  While organizations working with millions of dollars a year spend many millions on administration, organizations like Tariro are often administered largely by volunteers, enabling us to send almost all of our donations back to Zimbabwe, where they provide valuable income to our few local staff members, and have a huge impact in the lives of our sponsored students, such as Daphine, recently featured in a blog post.

Are any readers out there engaged in development work, whether as donors, aid workers, or volunteers?  What is your perspective on how non-profits can best celebrate our successes while openly sharing our challenges, and communicating realistic expectations to donors and beneficiaries alike?  And what are the ramifications of the very troubling accusations against Greg Mortenson and the CAI for smaller, grassroots organizations working in development?  I’d love to hear your comments…

Until next time!
Jennifer Kyker, for Tariro

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4 responses to “Tempest in a tea cup

  1. Dear Jennifer,

    Your blog entry, which Chiedza told me to read, tended my torn heart for my hero, Greg Mortenson. In fact, his books were one of the forces that moved me to start my own project, building a school in a village in Haiti with a Haitian community organization. It’s one of countless projects funded by 10,000+ NGOs in Haiti. In fact, I am working on an independent study on ethical issues faced by NGOs and came to a conclusion that NGOs have to admit their mistakes as much as successes to be truly transparent, be constantly self-critical and self-improving in order to be accountable without anyone monitoring them, and is an antipolitics machine that is currently necessary to fill the social needs that governments of neoliberal era lack the power to address… I agree with you very much and also worry about the ramification of CAI’s controversy on organizations like ours.
    Keep up the hard good work. We do it because we choose to do the right thing, and follow our hearts. I think if we remain humble about what we do, as Christian missionaries say, give glory to God than yourself, we might be able to avoid taking too much credit for the good work that benefit us as much as those we help.

    Best,
    Haeinn
    From good old Moho.

  2. Tariro’s is not only small and local on the far end, but it is also small and local here in Oregon. We have met Jennifer, we have been to Tariro events, we have some first-hand knowledge of the organization. Tariro is transparent for its local supporters here, and it is transparent for the young women and their families in Zimbabwe. And where there is transparency, everything can be seen for what it is.

  3. When I read about the controversy around Greg Mortenson’s non profit work (to which we have contributed over the years) it made me very sad. Regardless of how it ends up, the BBC I hear has done some followup investigating which paints a far less negative picture, it does remind us that humans and money can often be messy.

    I make my living these days as a accountant/bookkeeper for a number of non profits in Santa Cruz. Those of any size pay for an audit in order to assure the board and the donors that money is being used for the stated purpose. Smaller organizations post their financials on their websites for all to see (generally annually).

    I think it would be a good idea for Tariro to do that – add to the transparency.

    • Hi Becca- Thanks for your comment! Auditing seems to be an expensive process, which is why we haven’t done a formal audit. However, I do try to make sure that our financial statements are up on the GuideStar website, which has a detailed profile on Tariro, and serves as a clearinghouse for nonprofits and donors to connect, among other things. Do you think it’s worth creating a section on the webpage in addition to the GuideStar site? I haven’t seen that on many other organization’s pages, but I’d like to see an example of how another org. has done that, so please refer me to a site if you have a good example in mind of how that can be structured within the website!

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