'Three Cups of Tea' controversy raises ethical questions about development NGOs

April 25, 2011

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(Wikimedia Commons)
Greg Mortenson, author of "Three Cups of Tea."

Greg Mortenson became a hero for building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His memoir Three Cups of Tea has been a bestseller for 220 weeks. But recently, the newsmagazine 60 Minutes and author Jon Krakauer accused Mortensen of fabricating key parts of his story, misusing his Central Asian Institute’s finances, and building some less then effective schools. Mortensen was on Worldview in 2006 and again in 2008.

Wendy Smith, author of the book, Give a Little, had considered donating to CAI in the past, but found their financial records lacking. "It became clear to me that the numbers weren’t adding up. They were not spending of their revenues on programming, as they declare in their materials that they intend to do," she said. She also made requests to inteview Mortenson for her work and was rejected under the guise that his speaking schedule was too busy to accomodate her.

Smith explained to Worldview's Jerome McDonald that it is the use of funds from the sale of Three Cups of Tea that is the most upsetting part of these allegations. CAI allegedly used the revenue from the book to promote speaking tours in order to procure more funds, but ultimately, the issue lies in a lack of organization surrounding this fundraising. "When you’re taking in a lot of money, suddenly you’d better have a plan for how you’re going to roll out programming and hire additional staff as needed," Smith said.

As to the argument that Mortenson has fabricated large parts of his experiences outlined in his book, including being captured by the Taliban, Smith pointed out that there was no need for him "to add additional wild points to a compelling personal story," and described his character as one of a visionary, not a manager. 

Charlie MacCormack, president and CEO of Save the Children USA, agreed with Smith, explaining that it was the fast evolution of Mortenson from inspirational writer to head of a non-profit in charge of millions of dollars that may have led to the disarray at CAI: "To go from one level to a much higher level very quickly is a definitely a real danger signal. It’s not easy to build the relationships, that you have to have, in my opinion, in a short period of time. Trust takes time to build." MacCormack also spoke with concern about the small number of board members (Mortenson was one of three) in charge of such a large amount of money, as he believes it is necessary to have a number of established board members to provide "checks and balances."

"To me the idea that you’d expect someone who had absolutely no experience with any of this, no academic background, no prior experience in development or a kind of procurement at scale, would not run into problems, is not commonsensical in my opinion," MacCormack said. "None of us would go to a doctor who decided to practice medicine in his thirties and had never been to medical school."

But Nosheen Ali, a visiting sociologist at the University of California - Berkeley who specializes in Pakistan’s Northern Areas and wrote a critical op-ed of Mortenson's methods, argues that the major issue with Mortenson's work is that his book "essentially fictionalizes the entire northern region of Pakistan." She wrote her critique of the book after she realized it was constantly being referred to during her discussions about Pakistan, and that it did not match her "experience of the region at all."

“I could be in a café, I could be at a conference, I could be talking to critical anthropologists, or average Americans, and any time discussion of Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or the War on Terror emerged, people would say ‘Have you read Three Cups of Tea?’” Ali said. She has found Mortenson's book, though inspirational, simplistic in its argument that education is the only tool we can use to stop war. In fact, she believes that it is education itself that is often used as a method for nations who wish to involve themselves in conflict to enter countries like Pakistan under legitimate terms (like the United States has done throughout the Middle East).

Ali also found Mortenson's description of the Pakistan "as a barren landscape" without education inaccurate, and said that his writing "dehistoricizes" the region as well. "It’s presumptuous to think one person can go into a place which is presented as sort of backwards and poor and wrangle them and save them..." Ali said.

Ultimately, the experts were optimistic about the future of non-profit work, but feared the ramifications of controversies like this one. MacCormack said that this is really the "golden age for donors" because of the ability of technology to connect non-profits to individuals all over the world. But Smith cautioned that a misallocation of funds as is the case with CAI "can have a serious affect on the public trust", even for the entire non-profit community. All three experts agreed that, in Ali's words, "Development remains a dire need. People should continue to be charitable - there's no need to stop."