Really, Greg Mortenson? Really?

Since it’s the middle of a Thursday afternoon and I’m technically very busy with other work, this seems like as good a time as any to jot down my thoughts on Three-Cups-Of-Tea-Gate. In no particular order:

  • Good lord, remind me never to make Jon Krakauer mad. (Unless I have nothing better to do than respond to meticulously-researched 50-page takedowns of my life and dealings.)
  • While I am not willing to assume that either 60 Minutes or Krakauer got everything right, the available information tells me that Greg Mortenson and CAI have not been meeting their obligations as stewards of other people’s charitable donations. “I don’t know” and “I won’t tell you” are not, to my mind, reasonable answers to the question “what did you do with the money I gave you to build schools with?”
  • It is clear that the success of Greg Mortenson’s book has brought tremendous benefits to CAI, by increasing donations to it and raising its profile. However, that does not mean that it’s okay for the charity to foot the bill for promoting the book, when all the revenue from it goes to Mortenson and his publisher. This isn’t a “grey area,” it’s “tax fraud.” You can’t use the funds from a tax-exempt nonprofit to pay for your personal for-profit activity.
  • Also, private jets? Seriously?
  • When I first heard about 3 Cups of Tea and CAI, I wondered if they were actually running schools, or just building them. The emphasis on the latter seemed weird. Buildings are nice, but surely “lack of freestanding dedicated structures” wasn’t the main barrier to education in poor, rural areas that lacked infrastructure and transportation links? I actually read the book, ages ago, in the hope of finding out how CAI was handling teacher recruitment, salary, and curriculum issues. It did not answer my questions, but at the time I didn’t see that as a sign of foul play. I figured that either (a) such bureaucratic details had been sacrificed in service of narrative, or (b) they were just building buildings, which is kind of lame.
  • I guess it turns out that the answer was (c), “all of the above.”
  • And while we’re on the subject of things-that-get-sacrificed-in-the-service-of-narrative, if the books really contain the “factual inaccuracies” alleged by Krakauer and 60 Minutes, then to me, that is even more upsetting than all of the private jet malarkey. What, exactly, was the thought process there? “Oh, these brown people will never read this book, so it doesn’t matter if we call them terrorists and accuse them of kidnapping”? “Why would anyone check this story with actual Pakistanis or Afghans, when we have white people they can talk to right here?” Not cool, man. You can’t just do that.
  • Well, it turns out you can, but I don’t like it.
In short, for the time being, Greg Mortenson and CAI are on my bad list. As per usual bad-rules, they will remain there until they do something to convince me that they should be taken off of it.
Further reading: Krakauer’s medium opus, The American Institute of Philanthropy’s evaluation of CAI, Nick Kristof urges restraint, Chris Blattman agrees, Megan McArdle reminds us that when we demand “messianic development projects and neat stories with happy endings,” what we get is development done by people with messiah complexes, and neat stories that aren’t actually true.

Amanda Taub


  1. This particular case epitomizes why a certain segment of of blogosphere writes about the effectiveness of aid programs and charities. Most DIY aid organizations don’t like partnerships or collaborations because they are afraid of scrutiny. They want to create their own standards and rules to follow. Everyone wants to be a hero. The founders of these DIY organizations fear that someone else may get credit for their ideas and accomplishments. I call this the “Nobel Syndrome”. Being transparent might jeopardize their egotistical dreams of standing on a stage in Oslo and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding contributions toward humanity.

    These are some of my observations regarding the subject.

    Slactivism in Africa | Independent Global Citizen

  2. Mortenson will likely remain on your bad list, as the CAI may collapse like a house of cards

  3. Thanks for this post–it sums up a lot of my views in a way I couldn't. Really, really nice work.

  4. Although I don't like what you do to the presumption of innocence, this is a very good and well-written summary of the allegations/questions!

  5. hello people! i come to take your brains and cook them for my dinner! everyone is invited! so come and eat it's in new york. i'll be waiting holaa..

    from badut

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