Greg Mortenson and the Trouble With Celebrity Philanthropy

I am pretty blown away by Three Cups of Deceit, Jon Krakauer's investigative e-book revealing the depth of philanthropic guru Greg Mortenson's lies. 

To summarize: Mortenson is the founder of the Central Asia Institute, which constructs schools in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is also the author of the best-sellers Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, which purport to tell the story of how Mortenson's 8-day kidnapping by the Taliban inspired him to commit his life to educating the children of Central Asia. 

It is hard to overstate Mortenson's influence in the world of international philanthropy. When President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he donated $100,000 of his winnings to CAI. From fall 2009 to summer 2010, I worked full-time at The Daily Beast, mostly editing stories on philanthropy and international social issues. Mortenson's name came up again and again among my writers and the sources they interviewed. He was a huge celebrity, well-known from his speaking tours and media appearances, and was regarded as a hero for championing girls' education.

Now Krakauer, in a feat of reporting across cultural and linguistic boundaries, has revealed that Mortenson completely fabricated the tale of his kidnapping, that he renegged on a promise to build a school in the village of Khane, that he spent very little time in the places where his books are set, that many of CAI's schools are completely empty or lack teachers and basic supplies, and that just a fraction of the money the charity raises actually goes toward educating kids. 

Nick Kristof, who has promoted Mortenson's work, responded to the revelations with a defensive column this morning, arguing that even if all these accusations are true, Mortenson has still "built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will."

I find this unconvincing. To me, the most troubling aspect of Krakauer's reporting is that Mortenson portrayed entire regions and ethnic groups within Pakistan as corrupted by terrorism, when in fact, at the time that his narrative purpotedly takes place, in 1996, there were no Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters in regions such as Ladha. In fact, it was only after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that, as Krakauer writes, "large numbers of Taliban fled across the Durand Line into the tribal areas of Pakistan, seeking refuge from American drones and bombers."

Mortenson's lies have deep political significance. They obscure the true effects of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and misrepresent Pakistan and the Pakistani people to the American public. In the words of sociologist Nosheen Ali, as reported by Krakauer:

"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 [Three Cups of Tea]."

What's more, in responding to Krakauer's allegations, Mortenson has engaged in more offensive cultural stereotying, claiming, "It is important to know that Balti people have a completely different notion about time." It is ridiculous to claim that any group of people do not know when a pack of lies have been spread about them. Here are the words–written in a letter to Krakauer–of Ghulam Parvi, CAI's former Pakistan program manager, who has split with Mortenson and his organization:

"…innocent people working with him in Pakistan, especially in Baltistan, had to face disgrace, loathsome from the society, religiously bashfulness and financial losses. Times and again Greg Mortenson was requested not to perform such acts, which bring bad name and defame to us, but he always very politely and smilingly neglected our requests."

The reporting and editing I've done on international social justice work has made me extremely wary of self-promotional, celebrity philanthropy. So often, the most amazing non-profit work is done by organizations and people you've never head of, folks like Molly Melching and Sunitha Krishnan, who live in the countries and communities on whose behalf they advocate. 

What's more, celebrity philanthropy very often obscures the fact that without political, legal, and military reforms on-the-ground, no amount of private funding can eradicate problems such as sexual violence or girls' lack of access to education. 

The upside of celebrity philanthropy, of course, is that it draws attention to important issues. But I hope this sordid tale serves as a reminder that the media ought to be far more skeptical and hard-headed about evaluating philanthropic claims, both domestic and international. Krakauer's reporting deserves to be celebrated.

2 thoughts on “Greg Mortenson and the Trouble With Celebrity Philanthropy

  1. Mike Dunn

    Nice critique, Dana.

    I agree. Mortenson’s lies are not trivial nor are they absolved by the schools he’s built.

    It’s unfortunate, but not surprising that so many Mortenson defenders are coming out of the woodwork. His story was a feel-good story, the kind that not only make people forget their own troubles, but that also allow them to feel good about themselves and their own relative privilege, as if his schools take away our responsibility to take risks at home to stop our government from committing atrocities abroad.

    Reply
  2. E. Guzman

    I have news for you. Pretty much every philanthropist overstates their impact. The only surprising thing is the people who are surprised by this.

    Reply

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