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All Cups, No Tea

Another humanitarian hero has tumbled off his pedestal.

It remains to be seen whether Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling “Three Cups of Tea,” will be able to avert a total reputation meltdown. But last Sunday’s 60 Minutes broadcast and a thorough exposé by Jon Krakauer provide convincing evidence for some serious allegations:

  • That some of the most important, inspiring stories in Mortenson’s nonfiction books—stories that provide the foundation for his whole mission—fall somewhere on the spectrum between greatly exaggerated and completely invented.
  • That Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI) lacks sufficient transparency and oversight.
  • That some not insignificant number of schools Mortenson claims to have built in Afghanistan and Pakistan either aren’t being supported by CAI, aren’t being used as schools, or don’t exist at all.

Mortenson refuted the allegations in a letter to his supporters, saying that the story “paints  a distorted picture using inaccurate information, innuendo and a microscopic focus on one  year’s (2009) IRS 990 financial, and a few  points  in  the  book ‘Three  Cups  of  Tea’ that occurred almost 18 years ago.” But the rebuttals he’s provided so far do little to counter the weight of evidence against him.

What surprises me most about the story is not that yet another development demigod turned out to be a human.

What surprises me most is the way Mortenson’s charity—embraced by the US military and admired by President Obama, Oprah and literally millions of Americans—has  managed to avoid scrutiny of its spending priorities for so long. While the charity claims to spend 85 percent on “program activities,” less than half of that is spent where you might think it would go—to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The majority ($4.6 million in 2008) is actually spent on “education and outreach” in the US.

Of the money that does go abroad ($3.9 million in 2008), most goes to building the schools themselves: supplies, materials, labor and transportation ($3 million), rather than to teacher salaries and school supplies ($800,000) or scholarships for students ($40,000).

This allocation of resources might go some way towards explaining why, when 60 Minutes visited 30 of Mortensen’s schools, it said it found major problems with half of them, including new schools that were struggling without any financial support from CAI, and schools with no teachers and no kids. Time Magazine observed:

…Be it a charter school in Queens or an elementary school in Sarhad Broghil (where I first saw a Mortenson school), a school is just a building if it doesn’t have teachers.

In Mortenson’s second book, the construction of a school for Kyrgyz nomads in a remote corner of the Pamir mountains was featured as a major, triumphant success. But according to Krakauer’s account, that school has never been used. The community would have preferred a road or a health clinic to a school, and in any case it’s too far from where the nomadic community camps during the seasons when it’s warm enough for the children to attend school.

The Central Asia Institute’s 2009 IRS filing provides a list of 141 schools that it says are helping tens of thousands of students get a better education and avoid of a future of poverty and terrorism. But with only one audited financial statement in 14 years, and no attempt at any evaluation of CAI’s work, Mortenson is basically asking us to take his word for it. Because of a charismatic leader with a great story, and Americans’ eagerness to believe something good can happen where we’ve waged war in Afghanistan and Pakistan—millions of his supporters did.

But after the disclosures of this week, Mortenson’s word probably won’t be enough.

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27 Comments

  1. This is very disturbing. How can we seriously ask the public to donate to a cause that is run in this manner. And it’s not just one isolated incident.

    Why is no one speaking to the local people about their real needs?

    Why doesn’t anyone from the charity calculate the difficult lifetime managerial costs of these projects and not just the easier start-up cost?

    Posted April 19, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  2. Chike wrote:

    Now I understand why the Abuja Sheraton is constantly booked by aid workers.

    Posted April 19, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  3. This particular case epitomizes why a certain segment of of blogosphere writes about the effectiveness of aid programs and charities. Most DIY aid organizations don’t like partnerships or collaborations because they are afraid of scrutiny. They want to create their own standards and rules to follow. Everyone wants to be a hero. The founders of these DIY organizations fear that someone else may get credit for their ideas and accomplishments. I call this the “Nobel Syndrome”. Being transparent might jeopardize their egotistical dreams of standing on a stage in Oslo and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding contributions toward humanity.

    These are some of my observations regarding the subject.

    Slactivism in Africa | Independent Global Citizen
    http://independentglobalcitizen.com/2011/01/19/slacktivism/

    Posted April 19, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  4. solemu wrote:

    Beyond a huge accountability issue, don’t you think the “tea scandal” has a lot to do with lack of space for admitting complexity & failure?

    Posted April 19, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  5. Bula wrote:

    This is far from uncommon among privately funded NGO’s. After spending 6 years working for a USAID funded HRI affiliate I took an HQ position with a privately funded disaster relief NGO. I have been consistently appalled at the moral flexibility employed by the marketing and development teams, publicly committing the organization to deliverables that the organization has no strategic interest in or method of verifying. The PR/Development teams consistently pander to the lowest common denominator using human interest stories. When objections are raised internally they are dismissed as naive with the catch-all explanation “we can’t run our programs without money”.

    When I left the govt funding environment I had many criticisms of the bureaucracy and top-down approach to setting program objectives and indicators. I thought a privately funded environment would allow program staff to set goals based on need. What I’ve discovered is that we are beholden to 50,000 donors far less informed than the USAID contracting officer.

    I can absolutely see how someone like Mortenson, with no business or professional NGO experience got in over his head quickly. How he may have been persuaded by publicists and non-profit fundraisers to embellish his stories because the ends justified the means. Without the accountability of an audit from an informed donor privately funded organizations have no motivation to improve program quality by asking tough questions or increasing transparency. In fact the motivation seems to push in the opposite direction. If a largely uninformed, well intentioned donor-base is the principle source of funding for your organization your marketing and communications will tend to reflect their intentions and your programs will begin to reflect your PR.

    After taking a year to try and figure this out I am off to work for a donor from a magical land south of Canada. I’ll work with technocrats over the PR/Development team any day.

    Posted April 19, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  6. Mozza wrote:

    What disturbs me the most are the endorsements of the army, the President and Oprah. Do these people make no verification at all?

    Posted April 19, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  7. Trent Eady wrote:

    I agree with Mozza. Reading this post made my gut wrench; apparently acclaim for an aid agency, even from Obama and Oprah, doesn’t mean anything. So discouraging.

    Posted April 19, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink
  8. Jacob AG wrote:

    Bula, thank you for pointing out that this was a market failure. That’s the most interesting point on this thread. In case anyone missed it:

    This is far from uncommon among privately funded NGO’s… I thought a privately funded environment would allow program staff to set goals based on need. What I’ve discovered is that we are beholden to 50,000 donors far less informed than the USAID contracting officer.”

    Posted April 19, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  9. terence wrote:

    Totally agree with Jacob AG. Bula’s little excerpt neatly summarises a major challenge of NGO work.

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 1:16 am | Permalink
  10. Adam wrote:

    Aside from the development side, my primary ethical concern is that Mortensen’s travel expenses for speaking engagements were a large part of the educational expenses… which speaking engagements netted him $30,000 apiece.

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 1:17 am | Permalink
  11. Alex Jacobs wrote:

    Ouch. That last comment about $30,000 fees for speaking really hit home. Who’s the main beneficiary from all this publicity and money? Sounds like it might not be poor people.

    On a positive note, there are some serious efforts in the NGO sector to improve accountability and performance. Some of the most encouraging are around improving transparency and accountability to local people. Feedback systems are emerging as perhaps the best bet – so everyone can hear directly what local people think about a project. More here on http://www.ngoperformance.org .

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 4:15 am | Permalink
  12. aytal wrote:

    Although myself have also interest to free at least 500-1000 people if I get the necessary support, do not trust all the so called Non-governmental Organizations (NGO´s) who are mushrooming everywhere. They have a mission or interest behind them. If you really want to help the people of Africa, Asia or other developing countries say no to “frienldly tyrants” like MELES ZENAWI or “tyrants” like Isayas Afework. The people in all countires want Development with Freedom not Development/LOOTING and KILLING as is going on in ETHIOPIA.

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink
  13. Anthony wrote:

    This is sad that when the public finally has a story they want to believe in regarding aid, this happens. This will undoubtedly affect the public in terms of money donations in the future, now all we can do is wait and see just how much skepticism arises in the public towards organizations like this. It’s a shame that it takes only one person to ruin what good sincere people have been striving for for years now.
    On the contrary, I feel the people that donated money to Mortenson should hold some accountability for allowing this to happen to this extent. Sure the public is gullible and this is a feel good foundation that people want to believe in, but when that much money is being given to one place there has to be transparency within it, especially when the money you’re giving is going to actions that are occurring on the other side of the globe. What’s most shocking is how did Obama and Oprah vouch for this man? The people that are giving them their information must be sure of the sincerity of any organization like this, for that some blame should be put on the people that endorsed Mortenson. This shows how much influence public figures have on the general public.

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  14. theconsumeristo wrote:

    My university was among those that paid $30,000 to bring Mr. Mortenson to campus to speak; we also adopted “Three Cups of Tea” into the common book program and had it read across campus. It thoroughly disappoints me is that CAI spent the *majority* of 2008 funds — $4.6 million! — on education and outreach in the United States. I naively assumed that the vast majority of money raised, including money from the speaking fees, was going directly to build schools abroad.

    That was the mantra echoed all along. The oft repeated number with Pennies For Peace has been $15,000; that is the amount it supposedly takes to build a school. I assumed that two schools would be built with his speaking fee; therefore, the money was well spent.

    What hurts the most is knowing the countless number of elementary schools and university students who were duped by what appeared to be a worthy cause. I’m still hoping the allegations prove false, but if they are true, it sickens me to know that Mr. Mortenson pitched such inspirational stories and claimed to be helping so many people around the world to deceive school-age kids out of their spare change. To echo what was said above, it certainly sounds like “poor people” weren’t the main beneficiaries from this operation.

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  15. Laura Freschi wrote:

    Bula, This is a really interesting point you make:

    If a largely uninformed, well intentioned donor-base is the principle source of funding for your organization your marketing and communications will tend to reflect their intentions and your programs will begin to reflect your PR.

    We’ve seen many examples of this lately, for instance the World Vision Super Bowl T-shirts donation “program.” I don’t think it’s totally inevitable, though, and I know there are at least a few organizations that try to educate their donor base about good aid rather than allowing PR to unduly influence programs.

    Mozza, I agree that influencers like Obama and Oprah should do more due diligence when donating to a charity, since they know that many will follow their example and trust their judgment. And they have the staff and resources to devote to checking it out. But most people aren’t willing to invest the time it would take to do more than a cursory online check. In this case, they might have ended up at a site like Charity Navigator, which gave CAI four out of four stars.

    Solemu, I think everyone here (journalists, fellow aid workers, and supporters, both big and small) was far too eager to believe the simple, feel-good story that Mortenson was selling. Once Mortenson achieved the status of a popular, do-gooder hero, this insulated both the man and his charity from questions and criticism.

    But this is also systemic failure. Charity raters (with the exception of small sites like GiveWell) are more cheerleaders than critics. They don’t look at the right information and aren’t critical enough to do more than weed out some of the most egregious examples of fraud and negligence. Journalists, who might have asked tougher questions, were too happy to believe in the beautiful stories that obviously had tremendous, lucrative appeal. Aid workers, who might have recognized that Mortenson was too good to be true, had no incentive to speak out when everyone else was so convinced (Alanna Shaikh has written an interesting piece on this in Foreign Policy.) And the public is routinely fed facile “success stories” about how easy it is to save a life or solve a problem.

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  16. A. Bello wrote:

    Has anyone ever figured that 60 Minutes itself isn’t a shinning example of accuracy? I wouldn’t be surprised if their stories and “facts” on this Mortensen expose are exaggerated.

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  17. Zach wrote:

    I am disappointed in Mr Mortenson. It really sucks to see all of the money that was spent in America instead of where it could be used to help others. But on the other hand CAI has done some great stuff. while they may have exaggerated the number of schools they built the fact is they have built schools. And it does take away from Mortenson’s story to find out that he did not stumble into that village and after being nursed back to health decide to build them a school. But that fabricated story if that is what it is has raised a lot of money that has done a lot of good. And even his expenses that seem excessive have in the long run contributed to more money going to Central Asia. I am not defending Mr Mortenson deceiving people they way he has is wrong, but he has done a lot of good and we don’t need to lose site of that.

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  18. Brett Keller wrote:

    Wait, y’all are surprised that Oprah endorsed a charity and didn’t fact check it? The same TV star who promoted Jenny McCarthy? And The Secret? Maybe we should hold Obama to a higher standard — or Tom Friedman and Nick Kristof — but Oprah has demonstrated time and again that she’ll endorse nearly anything.

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  19. Jim wrote:

    Devil’s Advocate:
    Though Greg Mortenson didn’t do all that he claimed to do in Central Asia, he still did a lot. Even if he only built half the number of schools that he said he did, it’s still impressive. Furthermore, he made the issue of Education Development in Central Asia a household topic. Also, from what I’ve heard, his books are actually pretty good, even inspirational. So he stretched the truth a little to sell a book, he’s a businessman, can you really blame him? At least he did some good.

    Posted April 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  20. Saleem Ali wrote:

    As a Pakistani-American I am troubled by the generous accommodation for Mortenson which many are still offering.

    The expose is quite clear at multiple levels and the argument you are making in your article about philanthropy is troubling.

    With limited resources, how can we be simply content with anyone who has opened schools — no matter how much money is wasted?

    It is precisely this kind of self-congratulation which elite in developing countries also comfort themselves with — by throwing crumbs to their servants and thinking that they are helping the poor. Yes, they will come and say “thank you” but is that the kind of society we want, where precious philanthropic resources are wasted in perpetuating a glamorised class rather than a meritocracy of giving?

    Mortenson’s case is particularly troubling because there are plenty of competing organizations which are doing the same work and doing it better — The Citizens Foundation and the Aga Khan Foundation to name just two.

    Valorising one organization which is wasting resources compared to others simply so that people get to brush shoulders with Bill Clinton et al and others at Mortenson’s fundraisers as a motivator for giving is unfortunate.

    As a champion of grassroots philanthropies, I am troubled by your ambivalence on Mortenson.

    Money which could have gone to Mukhtaran Mai’s schools or to AKF was squandered because Americans generally felt more comfortable giving to a guy from Montana rather than a poor woman from Punjab.

    That is indeed the lesson to be learned here if any — that is what should snap Americans out of cynicism about philanthropy — not trying to make excuses for Mortenson et al.

    Here is a link to my commentary on the topic for Vermont Public Radio today:

    http://www.vpr.net/episode/50983/

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  21. Jonathan wrote:

    I still don’t understand why people don’t undertake the same due-dilligence investing in a non-profit as they would if they were seeking a financial return in a for-profit. Money is money and whether your giving it away or investing it, doesn’t it make sense that you do everything you can to see that it the the value of your investment is maximized? Maybe it’s just laziness or the feel-good aspect of giving, but a couple minutes of scrutiny (reading a financial statement for instance) might be a worthwhile investment itself.

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  22. Nancy wrote:

    I really appreciate Saleem’s comments… all too often we hear from the Western founder, but it is local people who work tirelessly on their own causes, and their stories rarely get told.
    Jonathan and Laura: There is no easy way to evaluate organizations working within complex cultural settings. I have worked for many years with a girls education program in Brazil, and I take issue with GiveWell’s summary of education. They only recommend one education program, Pratham, because they have transparent evaluation results available to donors. Pratham received this evaluation from the Poverty Action Lab; Give Well board member Lindy Miller Crane worked for PAL in South Asia. Pratham may be an excellent program, but there are many other excellent education programs that don’t have an outside funder doing the evaluation work.
    Small NGOs start as one person’s vision, and that person rallies their friends around their cause. Unless we find other ways to answer local people’s need for support, we will sadly see this type of lack of oversight again and again.

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  23. Josh wrote:

    I saw the 60 minutes piece and there were a lot of misleading or weak points made about Mr. Mortensen and CAI. The main one was trying to address the fact that he was demonized for making money off of the good natured donations of people. However, the majority of his revenue came from book sales and speaking engagements, which are his own business endeavor. And the CAI should be allowed to pay for travel and expenses of his speaking tour, because he bring much more publicity to them than any other avenue they have available.
    The main issue then is not with Mr. Mortensen, but with the CAI. So what if he exaggerated in his book, what journalist doesn’t expand on stories to pull at more heart strings. He can claim numbers and generalizations all he wants, people can buy his book or not. But on tax returns, accounting information, and factual claims by a non-profit organization, that is where the focus should be aimed. I feel like there is a lack of reasonable and responsible media attention on the CAI aspect of it as opposed to just attacking a related individual. If he needs to be held accountable, it should be done so through an organizational investigation, not b/c he got rich duping Americans like so many other have done.

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink
  24. Matthew wrote:

    This story is a very interesting topic because it is an example of when we just take someone word for what they say instead of investigating it ourselves. This is terrible if Mortensen is getting millions of dollars and he not producing any type of development for these countries that he claims that he is helping. The only way he can even remotely save his reputation is if he can produce evidence of several 100s of students, faculty or at least have the classes that he has claim that has come through his school systems and in turn have a positive affect on their society or community.

    Posted April 22, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  25. Graham Simmons wrote:

    When something like this comes out it is destructive to the development community worldwide. Mortenson and his book became very popular over the last several years and it is disheartening to find out much of the book is an exaggeration or even an outright lie. For aid donors this is a huge blow because I’m sure many are wondering who they can trust anymore. The popularity of the book had to drive many people to donate to the CAI. Especially because people like Oprah and President Obama donated to the same organization donors had to assume that it was a legitimate place to send their money. The average donor probably does not have access to the same means of checking the results and transparency of an organization so donating where the U.S. military or president donates seems reasonable, after all they wouldn’t donate to an unchecked aid organization would they? I feel like a donor is attracted to people like Mortenson because he brought an energetic personality as well as seeming to be doing real on the ground work that was successful. When a story like this breaks it has to make everyone step back and reconsider how and where to donate.

    Posted April 25, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink
  26. Seth Brooks wrote:

    Let’s cut straight to the point, the guy is a great story-teller. His books have sold a ton of money and have brought the name CAI to the public. The issue with him and the CAI is that while they actually have helped (remember, his opponents even mentioned that) they fabricated and embellished just how many schools they helped. Now, it points out the money spent on his travels and book signing tour by the CAI. Does the CAI not get plugged by Mortensen in his writings? Did they not receive funding because of his books? If we want to look at his money made off of books, that’s his choice on how much goes back to the CAI. He wrote a book, just like any other author, and is making a profit from it. I don’t believe the CAI paid for every expense of his book and therefore he is debted to them. I will say that 1 audit in 14 years should be something looked into by the IRS, not anybody else. I think the problem is people bought into a story, they realized that it wasn’t completely true and are now angered. Besides, what more did the 60 Minutes interview do other than severely cutting back on funds to the CAI who HAS done some good work??

    Posted April 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  27. James Michael wrote:

    Greg Mortenson spoke at many venues and universities regarding his experiences in Afghanistan. The allegations of his book embellishment is very disheartening and is he takes money from his own organization that is equally disheartening, but I believe a key area people overlook is the amount of publicity he gave to the developmental issues in Afghanistan to the every day American. And what about the fact that he actually did some good for these children? While this certainly should have been brought to the publics attention, I see this as another golden egg for the media to over-expose. If the news is going to call out all of his wrongs, they should at least highlight the good things he did do at the same time.

    Posted April 27, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

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