Greg Mortenson's 'stumble': Three cups of trouble for other charities, too?

Greg Mortenson and his work with school children in Central Asia is under attack. Like many other publications, we ran a story highlighting his good works. Were we wrong?

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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.

What's likely to be the fallout from the "60 Minutes" broadcast Sunday on Greg Mortenson, author of the 2006 best-selling book "Three Cups of Tea"?

The program charged that he had distorted aspects of his personal story and his work building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (You can watch the "60 Minutes" report here.) It claims that some of the most touching tales in Mortenson's book are "appear to be either greatly exaggerated or made up out of whole cloth."

The "60 Minutes" piece also says that many of the 170 schools that Mortenson’s charity, The Central Asia Institute (CAI), allegedly built in Pakistan and Afghanistan either don't exist, were built by others, or are not being used as schools.

The CAI website has posted several documents from both Mortenson and its Board of Directors that take issue with the "60 Minutes" report. The board issued a statement that includes the following:

"Through his work empowering communities in some of the most remote areas in the world, and through his successful books that share the stories of his experiences, Greg has accomplished the real and extraordinary work of bringing education to girls and boys in Pakistan and Afghanistan who otherwise would have no educational opportunity to enable them to help themselves and their communities. It would be truly tragic if the sensationalized allegations against him were to harm the future of this crucial work."

Mortenson may be one of the most famous philanthropists in the world, speaking frequently on book tours and in interviews with news media. The Monitor's PMAD profile of Mortenson appeared Dec. 9, 2009 ("Key to Afghan crisis: tea and education"). Veteran freelance journalist Todd Wilkinson was able to catch up with the peripatetic author on a quick visit home to Bozeman, Mont. The piece centers on how Mortenson's understanding of Afghan culture has helped the US military work more effectively in concert with Afghan villagers. Though Mortenson is quoted several times, much of the story comes from other sources in Afghanistan, including US military spokespeople and a US congresswoman.

A Monitor story April 18 noted that "fallout from the questions surrounding development spending in Afghanistan and Pakistan could also create difficulties for other aid workers."

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

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

Alanna Shaikh at the UN Dispatch blog ("3 Lessons to Learn From Greg Mortenson and L'Affair Cups of Tea") argues that "it’s not a sign that we should give up all efforts to support good work in the world. There are plenty of good charities out there, and there was no shortage of early signs that CAI wasn’t one of them." Among the warning signs at CAI: a small, tight-knit three-member board with insufficient oversight; no clear evaluation of the CAI's work on its website; and no explanation on the site of why they chose to build schools.

A Reuters story suggests that cash-strapped US states are unable to keep a close-enough watch on charities like Mortenson's. "In the for-profit sector, the line between what is illegal and what is merely bad judgment is clearly defined: [Bernie] Madoff committed fraud and is in jail," said Mark Kramer, co-founder of nonprofit consulting firm FSG and author of "Do More Than Give: The 6 Practices of Donors Who Change the World." "When one takes on the moral weight of running a charity, however, the rules are less clear," he said. "Unlike the for-profit sector, the scandal doesn't depend on whether something is illegal – merely whether it sounds bad."

Meanwhile, a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper says Mortenson will be sued by the Pakistani tribesmen who Mortenson says kidnapped him. They now say he was a welcomed guest.

Mortenson is currently in a hospital in Bozeman, Mont., awaiting heart surgery. The Montana attorney general says he is opening an inquiry into Mortenson's charity. "While looking into this issue, my office will not jump to any conclusions – but we have a responsibility to make sure charitable assets are used for their intended purposes," Attorney General Steve Bullock says.

Will the the controversy over Mortenson deliver a severe blow to other nonprofits working in developing countries? Are greater efforts needed to provide transparency and accountability among charitable organizations?

What do you think?

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