Greg Mortenson's 'Three Cups of Tea' : Will CBS report harm aid work?

A '60 Minutes' report alleges that Greg Mortenson, author of 'Three Cups of Tea,' may have fabricated some elements of his memoir about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mortenson is defending his work.

ZUMA Press/Newscom
The '60 minutes' CBS news program reported in April that some of the schools supposedly built by Greg Mortenson – a globally known spokesperson for girls' education and author of the bestselling 'Three Cups of Tea' – do not exist or were constructed by other organizations.

A "60 Minutes” report Sunday alleging that bestselling author and education advocate Greg Mortenson may have lied in his memoir and made false claims about building schools is troubling news to many fans of Mr. Mortenson's work. But fallout from the questions surrounding development spending in Afghanistan and Pakistan could also create difficulties for other aid workers.

The CBS news program reported that some of the schools supposedly built by Mr. Mortenson – a globally known spokesperson for girls' education and author of the bestselling "Three Cups of Tea" – do not exist or were constructed by other organizations. It also questioned the veracity of parts of Mortenson’s personal story in his 2004 memoir.

While the book helped focus Western attention on the need for international aid in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mortenson had become a controversial figure among aid workers in those countries, who have expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the work done by his Central Asia Institute (CAI). Some experts say that the allegations, if proved true, could seriously undermine faith of donors and recipients alike in legitimate Western aid programs.

"A lot of potential philanthropists or donors will think twice about investing in Pakistan," says Asher Hasan, founder of Naya Jeevan, a nonprofit which provides low-income workers access to affordable health insurance. "People will view foreign organizations more cynically. They will think they are using these stories for their own self-enrichment,” he says.

Mortenson has denied the allegations in the CBS report. In an letter to his supporters, he said the “60 Minutes” report “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 the book “Three Cups of Tea” that occurred almost 18 years ago.”

Ongoing problems with foreign organizations

Last fall, a report by the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that it is impossible to determine exactly how billions of dollars designated for reconstruction have been spent.

When flooding devastated large swaths of Pakistan last year, the international community was slow to respond amid concerns that the country lacked the capacity to effectively handle donor money.

With this in mind, Dr. Baela Raza Jamil, a well-respected education advocate in Pakistan, says she wonders why people are just now asking questions about Mortenson. When representatives from her education foundation Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi visited a CAI school, she says they were thoroughly underwhelmed by what they found.

“They saw simple schools, stone schools, not much activity, and it made us wonder what the brouhaha was about Mortenson,” she says.

Even in Afghanistan, many people including high-level Ministry of Education officials normally involved with or at least aware of most major educational development projects say they’d never heard of Mortenson or CAI.

At the Agency Coordinating Body For Afghan Relief, acting director Mohammad Hashim Mayar said he’d only recently learned about CAI. ACBAR works with nongovernmental organizations responsible for 65 percent of the development work here, so Mr. Mayar says it’s a point of concern for him if he’s not aware of an NGO operating in Afghanistan.

“We have a list of all the NGOs here who are registered with the ministry of economy and our NGOs are working in all 34 provinces, but nobody is talking about the activities of this institute,” he says.

What about Mortenson's good work?

Still, some are pointing out that the controversy surrounding Mortenson has, at the very least, brought attention to a need for transparency, they say.

“Greg was a golden boy for people who were not normally involved in development. It made them feel good that they could suddenly understand the complex emergency in Central Asia, and that there were people out there fighting on their behalf for women’s right to education,” says Sara Jensen, a development worker in Afghanistan. “I think and hope that people will be disappointed, and that they will demand increased accountability and transparency.”

There are also many people who say they’ve been positively affected by CAI’s work.

Monitor reporters traveling last summer through Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan have noticed several schools constructed by CAI. One large, freshly built girls’ high school sat on a hill overlooking the bleak town of Ishkashim on the mountainous border with Tajikistan.

The school was not in session at the time. However, interviews with a few local teachers revealed respect for “Mister Greg.” The teachers expressed gratitude for the new school. While they said they wished they had more school supplies, they were hopeful that CAI would be following through on promises to send more soon.

Ruhullah Hamid, spokesman for Badakhshan’s Education Department, says that he’s unaware of any corruption or misrepresentation of CAI’s projects in his province. He says that CAI constructed at least 12 schools in the province in addition to providing computers. With about 400 of the province’s 647 schools lacking a physical structure, Mr. Hamid says CAI’s contributions have been more than welcome.

“We are very happy with these buildings that they made for us,” he says. “I cannot accuse him of being corrupt, because I don’t have any evidence that this institute was corrupt, but if it is true that this institute raised much money and did not spend it correctly, people will be suspicious not just in America, but in all other countries who send money to Afghanistan.”

The Pakistani government conferred the Star of Pakistan, the country's third highest civilian award, on Mortenson and invited him to take tea with President Asif Ali Zardari in 2009. President Zardari’s spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, told the Monitor the government was treating the allegations with caution. "One has to find out the detail because often a number of media reports turn out to be incorrect," he says. "Until one knows what the story really is, one can't move forward."

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