Reposting an entry written for ThinkChange Pakistan on the Mortenson controversy.

I read Greg Mortenson’s Stones Into Schools on several road trips from Islamabad to Attock. Even as a Pakistani who found some of Mortenson’s stories a little too fantastic, and the dots he connected from poverty to terrorism and back to education overly simplistic, I was still very inspired by the selfless commitment oozing out of the book’s pages.

That is, until his fall from grace last week, when CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a piece, along with an 89-page byliner by John Krakauer – Three Cups of Deceit – that provided convincing evidence for a series of allegations against Mortenson and his 14-year old non-profit, the Central Asia Institute.

The allegations were on three accounts:

  • The inaccuracy of the facts presented in Mortenson’s best-selling memoir ‘Three Cups of Tea’
  • A gross mis-allocation of funds by CAI
  • The non-existence and misuse of several schools said to have been built by CAI in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The first allegation, while much less distressing than the other two, caused the highest public uproar. It was distressing nonetheless, considering the stories called into question were central themes for the bestsellers, not peripheral anecdotes. They were vital to painting the saintly image of Mortenson that brought in $50 million in donations from inspired readers. They were stories that were related and repeated at his speaking engagements–him stumbling into the valley of Korphe after a failed summit of K2, being nursed back to health by the locals, and promising them a school, of being kidnapped by the Taliban in Waziristan but persisting despite these tribulations, of lugging truckloads of construction material up the Karakoram Highway. To throw this narrative into question is to throw Mortenson’s person and mission into question. That is why these  fabrications cannot be brushed aside with a simple “So what if he embellished the truth? He had good intentions. He built schools”.

That, and the fact that Three Cups of Tea was perhaps the most admired humanitarian text in the US, in addition to being required reading for US senior military commanders and Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training, conceivably with the intention of guiding strategy and policy.

As Mosharraf Zaidi points out in this brilliant post, one great outcome of this controversy is that criticizing Mortenson’s work  is no longer considered blasphemous. Which is why several pre-scandal publications that questioned Mortenson’s portrayal of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, have come to the forefront again.

One such publication that is worth a read is Nosheen Ali’s “Books vs. Bombs: Humanitarian Development and the narrative of terror in Northern Pakistan”. Using excerpts from Three Cups of Tea, it demonstrates, among other things, how the false portrayal of Gilgit-Baltistan as an extremely under-developed region with a severe dearth of schools builds the image of Mortenson as a pioneer and a visionary.

Ali writes of Three Cups of Tea:

“The introduction to the book says:

Slamming over the so-called Karakoram ‘Highway’ in his old Land Cruiser, taking great personal risks to seed the region that gave birth to the Taliban with schools, Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa.

The most troubling irony is that the focal region of Mortenson’s work—the Shia region of Baltistan with its Tibetan-Buddhist heritage—has nothing to do with the war on terror, yet is primarily viewed through this lens in TCT.

The community-based, participatory education model that Mortenson ends up following was being practiced in the region by institutions like the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme long before Mortenson’s arrival. Yet such precedents find no mention in TCT. This makes Mortenson’s educational effort seem pioneering, which in turn makes the self-serving narrative of terrorism in the text more compelling.”

According to the Brookings Institute:

Contrary to the Three Cups of Tea portrayal of Gilgit-Bultistan as a place with little educational opportunity, it is one of the regions in Pakistan that has demonstrated true educational transformation over the last 50 years. In 1946, there were an estimated six primary schools and one middle school for the entire region. Today there are over 1,800 primary, 500 middle, 420 high schools, and almost 40 higher education institutions. When I asked the governor of Gilgit-Bultistan, Pir Syed Karam Ali Shah, how this education transformation came about, he was quick to point to the Aga Khan Development Network, an assertion with which other education experts concur.

But what is far, far more troublesome than the content of these best-sellers is the following.

CBS accuses CAI of spending more on book tours in a year (in excess of $1.7 million in 2009) than on all their school-building combined. Only 41% of its funds go to building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The CAI Board (comprising Mortenson and 2 others), in its official response, admits that this is, in fact, true. They explain that raising awareness about female education is part of their mission. None of the book royalties or speaking fees (upwards of $24,000) make it to the organization. The CAI board maintains that the “book-related expenses” are of financial interest to the organization, because contributions from individuals who read the books surpassed book-related expenses. Yet, less than half of these funds made it to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The cherry on top is that an organization managing millions of dollars in funds, and building hundreds of schools, has one audited financial statement to show for 14 years. Krauker’s report narrates that Mortenson resisted accounting for the funds CIA spent to the point where senior staff members of CIA as well as board members resigned.  I want to believe that all this happened simply because Mortenson was a bad manager with good intentions, but I am just not convinced.

A friend at the World Bank told me he is on a project to build schools in Balochistan, where the Bank is using half the money the CAI has used to build twice the number of schools. One of the best posts  (please read this!) on the controversy by Kevin Starr, the Director of Mulago Foundation, gives us some numbers to provide a scale. CAI’s roughly 150 schools, built over 14 years, represent $400,000 of donor money per school. If that is not obscene, I don’t know what is.

For those wary of Krakauer and CBS, Starr also narrates his own experience of traveling through Pakistan and Afghanistan and repeatedly meeting locals and CAI managers who were full of lament for Mortenson, and accused him of ‘reckless promises’ and of being ‘cowboys who parachuted in and didn’t listen’. He also saw many schools built by CAI in the wrong places, without consultation with locals, and hence lying empty with no one to teach the children.

In an exclusive interview with Outside magazine, Mortenson himself now admits there might be a school or two listed on CAI’s website that doesn’t actually exist:

Are there any schools listed on CAI’s Web site that you now think don’t exist?

I believe there’s maybe one, which is in the Gultori Valley. This former manager told me in 1999 that Pakistan’s army definitely wanted schools in the [war] zone. […] he said he would get a couple of schools going there, back in ’99. But I don’t know if those were ever built.

Starr asks the question that should be central to this debate:

“How did CAI spend so much to accomplish so little and why did people keep giving Greg money?”

Seriously, how did CAI’s absence of financial transparency only get reported in the media now? Perhaps because everyone was too busy showering Mortenson with admiration to think about glancing at a financial statement.

And therein lie the three big lessons of this debacle, already stated by many others.

First, there is not a whole lot of room for idol worship, self-serving narratives and emotion in development and public policy. This is serious business. I have nothing against feel-good stories, but not if that is all that’s being offered.

Second, the idea of one man’s mission promoted by Mortenson’s books is sorely flawed. Yes, Mortenson assumed hero-status because everyone wanted to believe in this one man who could change the face of girls’ education. But that was precisely the problem! CAI was a one-man show, with no organizational structure, and a board of three (of which one was Mortenson himself). Organizations that bring about systemic change are not built solely around the charisma and actions of one individual. When people gave to CAI, they were not really giving to the organization. They were giving to Greg Mortenson, the unflinching hero, the risk-taker, the morally flawless man with a heart of gold and a will of steel. But without other key ingredients that make an effective organization, one man will fail.

And finally, obvious as it may sound, checks and balances, and financial accountability are essential. As a donor, you have the responsibility of due diligence. Probably more so if you’re giving away $100,000 of your Nobel Peace Prize money.