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Mortenson’s half-truths

April 20, 2011

Greg Mortenson is a mountaineer-turned-humanitarian, a New York Times bestselling author, and a two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

If we are to believe the recent 60 Minutes investigation and Jon Krakauer's report Three Cups of Deceit, he is also a liar.

Last Sunday, the news programme released a damning report on Mortenson, claiming that some of his most inspirational stories in his books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools were either exaggerated or completely fabricated. Moreover, a financial statement from the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which Mortenson co-founded in 1996 and is acting executive director of, show that only 41 per cent of funds raised actually went towards schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the American Center for Philanthropy, a charity watchdog, CAI claims that $1.7 million was spent on Mortenson’s “book-related expenses,” more than they spent on all of their schools in Pakistan last year.

Since the report aired, a flurry of news reports, opinion pieces, and statements have been released. Mortenson’s long-time critics feel vindicated. His fans are justifiably angry. And there are some who still cling to the possibility that the presented evidence either isn’t true, or doesn’t matter.

Mortenson’s response to the investigation has been vague and frankly, unsatisfying. In a piece for a local English newspaper, he wrote,

“…the story framed by “60 Minutes” — as far as we can tell — 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 Three Cups of Tea, that occurred almost 18 years ago.”

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle cited another statement, in which he emphasised, "I stand by the information conveyed in my book.”

And yet Mortenson also conceded that one of the disputed events in the book — how he ended up in Korphe, where he built the first of more than 100 schools — was “a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.”

He also has not addressed the troubling revelation that the 1996 photo of his alleged Taliban kidnappers were, in fact, not Taliban at all. One of the men, Mansur Khan Mahsud, is actually a well-respected research director of the FATA Research Center, an Islamabad-based think tank. Mahsud recently told the Daily Beast, “[Mortenson] just wanted to sell books because by 2006 everyone wanted to know about the Taliban and Waziristan…He thought this was a good chance to cash in.”

You may argue that Mortenson’s half-truths and lies were all part of the storytelling process, that his heart was still in the right place, that his intentions were good. But Mortenson ultimately based his entire narrative on a lie. The reason why American housewives and school children alike were drawn to his inspirational story, why they opened their wallets and gave blindly to “save” schoolgirls in Afghanistan and Pakistan was – at the end of the day – a sham. And if he could lie about the very foundation of his success, we have no choice but to doubt everything.

As the dust settles, there is a desire to point fingers and portion blame. Mortenson and CAI deserve the brunt of the anger, for not only veiling the public from reality, but also for using sentimental literature to garner funds, money that was allegedly misappropriated for personal gain.

We should also use this opportunity to look inwards at ourselves, at our ability to get carried away by a charismatic personality and digestible narrative, in which Mortenson was the John Smith in the Pakistani version of Pocahontas. Rather than society questioning whether good intentions truly equaled good aid, we gave him a platform, feeling warm and fuzzy for the part we indirectly played in saving schoolchildren. This thinking is endemic of a larger problem with charity and non-profit giving, in which show ponies and personalities often sweep us off our feet. We forget that we must demand transparency, and that we need to go beyond giving, remembering instead to give well, and who our money should be ultimately going to. This means supporting institutions and organisations that are not built on personality alone, but on community engagement and sustainability.

I never donated to CAI, and I still feel cheated. I can only imagine how Mortenson’s supporters must feel.

Kalsoom Lakhani is the director of Social Vision, the venture philanthropy arm of ML Resources, based in Washington, DC. She is the founder and editor of CHUP, a blog that aims to break the black-and-white depiction of Pakistan in the news media, and is the managing editor of ThinkChange Pakistan, a blog that tracks social entrepreneurship in the country. She tweets at twitter.com/kalsoom82.

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.