Ever since April, when the US newsmagazine show 60 Minutes and writer Jon Krakauer aggressively raised questions about Greg Mortenson and his bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, wherever I go someone inevitably asks me to comment on the situation. I’ve tried to be careful and judicious in my replies because I don’t actually know much, and I’m not directly or officially involved with Greg’s work, although I have been and remain an admirer. But now that it has been more than six months, I feel some things need to be said.

I don’t really mean that things need to be said about Greg himself. My understanding, from people I trust, is that Greg is very close to being able to speak for himself, publicly and forthrightly. Like many others, I look forward to that.

But I’m not waiting around for it, because there’s too much that needs to be done in the meantime. Pakistan’s burgeoning younger generation needs to be educated, for starters, and to do that requires sustained dedication and hard work from many, many people. Anyone who knows the situation in Pakistan knows that Greg’s Central Asia Institute is meeting only a tiny fraction of the need, and in very limited, distinct, and remote geographical areas. There’s a lot more to Pakistan than Baltistan. Anyone who knows the situation also knows that there are other excellent organisations working in education all around Pakistan, such as The Citizens Foundation, Developments in Literacy, the Human Development Foundation, and Zindagi Trust (to name only a few).

But well established, competent, Pakistani-run and ambitious though those groups are, they still are meeting only a fraction of the enormous need. If anything game-changing is ever going to be accomplished, it’s going to require a serious and large-scale engagement with the American public – yes, the American public – for two reasons.

One is that the wider American public is a largely untapped reservoir of potential goodwill and funds to support the cause of a better education system in Pakistan. But, in truth, that goodwill and those funds might not even be necessary, if only Pakistan’s own substantial resources could be properly mobilised.

This is the second and much more important reason the American public must be engaged: The destructive and sinister geopolitical dance of death in which America and Pakistan have trapped themselves and each other is draining material resources, emotional energy, political wherewithal, and attention from urgent human needs. And if the two countries’ governments won’t take the lead in either extricating themselves or working together constructively and with mutual respect toward positive shared goals, then it’s up to private citizens to do that.

This means you and me. And this is where I believe Greg Mortenson has shown real leadership, almost regardless of the truth behind the 60 Minutes allegations. Before the scandal, Three Cups of Tea was more than a bestseller; it was almost a talisman for millions of Americans who wanted to believe not just that girls in remote parts of Pakistan could be educated, but that human beings – all of us – could be better than we apparently are. The last decade-plus has been such a dark time for Pakistanis, Americans, and everyone else, that we desperately crave a constructive and life-affirming project to believe in and support.

Three Cups of Tea met that emotional and spiritual need. And before you retort that Greg’s alleged falsifications undermine the book’s intentions, consider that the need is still just as real regardless. If it is the case that Greg – and his co-author David Oliver Relin, who to his shame has said nothing that I’m aware of since the scandal broke – made stuff up, one thing that most certainly does not imply is that the better world Greg helped us hope for is either impossible or unworthy of our effort. If you have ever heard Greg speak to a student audience, as I did at Texas Christian University in January 2011, then you know how desperately hungry young Americans are for something positive to believe in.

The catch is that reading a book or hearing an inspiring speech is only a first step, not an end in itself. Admiring Greg Mortenson, or anyone else, achieves exactly nothing unless it inspires us to do something ourselves. As Tracy Kidder puts it in Mountains Beyond Mountains, an analogous book about an analogous figure, Dr. Paul Farmer, such people force us to redefine the meaning of the phrase “doing one’s best.” (I addressed similar issues of how Farmer’s work is not the be-all and end-all of what needs to be done in Haiti at an October 15 fundraiser for the Colorado Haiti Project. You can read the text of that speech here.)

And just as it’s unfair and a cop-out to put all the pressure and responsibility on one person to do things we’re not willing to do ourselves, so to demonise that person for failing to be perfect is a corrosive avoidance of our own potential and duty to make ourselves useful. The question Greg’s failures and flaws should be forcing each of us to ask is: “What am I doing?”

Stay tuned for more from me on this topic, including an article about the Building Bridges of Peace conference held October 28 and 29 in Chicago. I moderated a panel at the conference that included Greg’s mother, Jerene Mortenson, and I saw there a rare mixed group of Muslims and non-Muslims, Pakistanis and Americans, meeting in nearly equal numbers, in an encouraging spirit of shared purpose.

 

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans and www.ethancasey.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Comments (20)

Azeema
November 18, 2011 2:37 pm
I fully agree with your arguments!
Wasif Khan
November 18, 2011 5:19 pm
No matter what you do, you will find some one to belittle your efforts, focusing on number and ignoring the bigger picture. I have been to nearly all the areas Greg mentioned in his book, never contributed a single penny for charity purpose. . He might be exagerating or adding drama to his stories to be best seller. Otherwise who wants to read dull stroies of struggle.
Farooq
November 19, 2011 2:20 am
I totally agree with you. I have donated to CAI and have attended their fundraisers. Greg is doing something for Pakistani Children. I still respect his efforts.
Azka
November 19, 2011 3:03 am
Greg Mortenson has done great work and it is a big disappointment the media did not support him. the book by Jon Krakuer "3 cups of deceit" is a shameful effort to defame him. it is frustating that the leader of the organization has not been able to speak for himself. the answer to "What am I doing?": I am helping non profits like CAI. I am sure CAI will come back stronger and bigger than before. Other organizations have faced similar problems and it may not be about Pakistan or Greg Mortenson
M. Malik
November 19, 2011 9:47 am
I have to agree with the author on this one. Before anyone embarks on crtisicm of Greg Mortenson, or allege anything nefarious, they need to engage in some intro-spection to reflect, and ask, 'What Have I done' in this arena? How am I better than Greg or number of other self-less individuals and organizations who do make the difference, in silence, without expecting any accolades? If anyone has done nothing comparable to deserve our respect, rather than displaying their ignorance by heaping criticism of those who do any good, they simply need to stay quiet.
Nisar
November 19, 2011 12:21 pm
I think Greg's issue has been muddled up like many others. Whatever he has done, be it one or one hundred schools .. it is a fantastic effort that needs to be applauded and built upon, not walked away from. The other is whether he misrepresented the truth and used funds inappropriately. That is for the tax people and the law to decide.
Nisar
November 19, 2011 12:27 pm
I agree that there are always detractors ... that is part of life! I did not understand what YOU were doing in "nearly all the areas Greg mentioned in his book" ... did you go to find the "truth"? ... and how did you come to the conclusion that "never contributed a single penny for charity purposes" ... are you talking about Greg or yourself?
Mani
November 19, 2011 3:35 pm
Mortenson has been publically questioned here is US about the millions of dollars he raises for his education projects but there is very vague account of expanses. However there is very real record of millions of dollars he spends on himself and on his travels to promote himself and his book. He has avoided his critics and has not given a clear reply to the authorities about millions of missing dollars. CAI is actually CIA and that is why its presense in most sensitive areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is why he is still able to operate freely and not apreghended by the Tax invetigators in US.
Sabira
November 19, 2011 5:47 pm
Thank you for a very balanced perspective and for reminding us about the real issue to focus on. Being one of those who actually is trying to "do one's best" (I manage a network of non-formal community-based schools in some of the poorest urban slums) I can totally relate to ghetto urgent need for action to address the urgent needs of Pakistani children rather than finding holes with dedicated people's efforts. And Greg Morteson is as committed as they come.
Ahmed Aafani, Minnea
November 19, 2011 10:39 pm
I really appreciate Ethan's positive standpoint on this "controversial" issue. Greg is not an authority and hence should not be held responsible for his inability to be a "perfect" man on earth. For me, he inspired millions of people to work for the common good and that be in my hometown Baltistan. He created awareness and a kind of opened up minds that you could reach out to remote, underprivileged and secluded regions on the earth coming all the way from America..to do a job that is of the responsibility of Pakistanis people in educating and developing its own marginalized folks. Greg Mortenson, however exaggerations he made - I don't know, touched upon a critically significant human rights issue in Baltistan and elsewhere, i.e., - underdevelopment and living 18th century life in the 21st century. He was able to highlight the real issue of lacking educational facilities in Baltistan and thus created a "world forum" to discuss, contemplate and come up solutions, as what Ethan has come p with... My heads off to all those who talk of people who are unable to talk of themselves - like the poor mountain people of Karakoram and Himalaya experiencing the 21st century life not knowing that it's really the 21st century.
Javed Iqbal
November 19, 2011 11:39 pm
Thank you for your contributions in general and in educating Pakistani youth in particular. From being an international student to member Association of International Educators (nafsa.org) and board member Council of Pakistan American Affairs (copaa.us), I have participated and witnessed many initiaves for Pakistan. But you have hit the right spot by articulating the need to engage mainstream American public and get them involved in a worthy cause . Will be waiting for more on this topic from you.
Muhammad Ilyas Khan
November 20, 2011 12:27 am
Brilliantly put Ethan! Can't agree more. You put everything here: "This is the second and much more important reason the American public must be engaged: The destructive and sinister geopolitical dance of death in which America and Pakistan have trapped themselves and each other is draining material resources, emotional energy, political wherewithal, and attention from urgent human needs. And if the two countries’ governments won’t take the lead in either extricating themselves or working together constructively and with mutual respect toward positive shared goals, then it’s up to private citizens to do that." We need more from you.
sadbuttrue
November 20, 2011 6:26 am
I wish i could find out the real truth. Dont know who to believe. CBS 60 minutes or Greg Mortenson?
S.A.Sampath
November 20, 2011 10:08 am
Just by chance I read ‘ 3 cups of tea’. It is such a positive book unlike Booker winning books as ‘The white tiger’. The effort that is required in education in South Asia is mind boggling. Irrespective of accuracy of the contents of the book, it makes you at least feel that such efforts should be supported.
Anees
November 20, 2011 10:22 am
If Greg Martenson's efforts succeeded in educating one child-just one child in my country, then Greg is my hero. And how many of our politicians have done that?
Ali Haqqani
November 20, 2011 11:44 pm
Lot of comments, one way or the other.If somebody has seen some of Greg's schools, he/she should say so and give details.That would show some direction to this argument.
Ehsan
November 21, 2011 10:14 am
We need to think in the scenario described in the column: And just as it’s unfair and a cop-out to put all the pressure and responsibility on one person to do things we’re not willing to do ourselves, so to demonise that person for failing to be perfect is a corrosive avoidance of our own potential and duty to make ourselves useful. The question Greg’s failures and flaws should be forcing each of us to ask is: “What am I doing?”
wasif khan
November 21, 2011 4:25 pm
Apologies for ambiguity, I travelled all these areas b/w 1998-2001 as tourist and I never contributed single penny.
Ali Khan
November 21, 2011 10:56 pm
I totally agree with you.
Eric
November 22, 2011 4:22 am
I agree that there's a need that continues despite Greg Mortenson's tarnished image. So, if you found "Three Cups of Tea" inspirational, hold onto that inspiration and use it to write a check one of the many highly rated charities doing good work in the area, rather than CAI. That way you can be sure your money is reaching the people who need it.
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