Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Bitter Brew: Charities Gone Bad

Last Sunday night’s “60 Minutes” was a shocker for me. I don’t watch TV–at all–but made time to watch this. Jon Krakauer of Into Thin Air fame exposed best-selling author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson as a fraud. Up until now, Greg Mortenson was someone I admired and even met at a book signing. His rapid downfall is a warning to all charities.

Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea has been a New York Times bestseller for about two years. Though not a particularly well-written book, it nonetheless describes a fascinating, life-changing journey: an aborted 1993 attempt on K2, Mortenson’s descent and separation from his team, and his stumbling half-dead into a remote Pakistani village. The residents cared for him, and he witnessed their utter poverty and lack of schools. He in turn pledged to build them a school someday. He turned this event into a mission, and the Central Asia Institute (CAI) was founded, a non-profit that in 2010 reported it has built over 171 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, providing education to over 64,000 children, including 54,000 girls. One of the highlights of the book was when Mortenson was captured for eight days by the Taliban, but won them over and left them cheering for his success.

Inspirational, motivational, miraculous… and not true.

This was devastating news to those of us who work in the international humanitarian world, who know how difficult it is to get funds, who see projects falter, who sacrifice many weeks and months, sometimes years. We also cheered for the success of someone like Mortenson, who accomplished what seemed impossible. His small charity grew, thanks to his best selling book, and according to “60 Minutes”, raked in about $60 million last year.

Shoddy journalism or outright lies? Mortenson never stumbled into a village following his K2 attempt. The Taliban never did capture him. Seems that people are coming out of the woodwork now to discredit Mortenson.

Krakauer is an excellent writer and dogged journalist, citing sources for his evidence, and naming names. One of the most disconcerting points is the tangled finances at CAI, which are obscured, poorly documented, and lack transparency. Book sales royalty goes to Mortenson, enough to make him a millionaire. Well, that’s America; nothing wrong with that. But when it is made from fabricated stories passed as nonfiction, and when they make up the backbone of the book? How about this: while he rakes in the millions, he charges CAI for the travel, posh hotels, chartered planes, and all expenses. This is wrong, wrong, wrong. According to the report, he rarely turns in expense reports. Seems that no one quite knows where a lot of the money goes.

Krakauer even visited the school overseas. Half of the visited schools are empty. Mortenson has overseen the building of many schools and many do work. But something just doesn’t add up. CAI’s own audited financial statement states that over 50% of their program expenses are spent on domestic “outreach”—50%!—and not on the schools themselves. The outreach means Mortenson’s speaking engagements, which you recall, earns him millions.

I donated money to CAI after I met Mortenson. He seemed quiet, humble and hard working. It’s his personal story that is so compelling, and now I learn it is fabricated. Who knew that he was fudging stories, milking the public’s sympathies, painting himself as an American Mother Theresa, all the while skimming and dipping the millions pouring in?

What’s worse is that this will have a ripple effect for so many charities, at a bad time in America with rising consumer costs, high unemployment and political dissatisfaction. I know so many true heroes out there, working without the masses worshipping them, I don’t think Mortenson set out to defraud the public; I think he truly wanted to make a difference but when we started our hero-workshop, the story became a myth, the myth launched sales, and money poured in, Mortenson went to the Dark Side.

It’s a tale that hemophilia charities and their donors should note well. Get a professional audit; check and document your sources before printing anything; separate professional revenues and expenses from the nonprofit ones if you work in both; submit original receipts, even for one cup of coffee; executive directors cannot and should not serve on their own boards; boards of directors should be allowed to make policies and enforce them, even to the founder; ensure that most of your program money is spent on the people you are trying to serve, and not on publicity, overhead or travel. And never think you are above the law.

Thanks to Krakauer, the attorney general of Montana will be investigating CAI to see if the charges are true. This is a bitter brew for all in charities.

Great Book I Just Read
Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer

This is the book that knocked the halo off of Greg Mortenson and cracked open an investigation into CAI’s finances and programs. A very quick read, Krakasuer painstakingly reveals the journalistic shoddiness of Three Cups of Tea, the fabrication of stories to enhance sales of the book, the recklessly spending by Mortenson to advance his own hero-status on the backs of public donations—including the “Pennies for Peace” campaign that encouraged school kids to save pennies to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. All lies? That remains to be told, but surely this book rips apart the story that became a dream come true and now threatens to become a nightmare. Four stars.

A Mighty City

On Friday, my team and I went to see the opening of “A Might Heart,” the movie about Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan in 2002. The movie stars Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl, his pregnant wife and fellow reporter, whose book the movie is based on. Julia and I had just been to Karachi in mid-April, so it was stunning for us to see so much of Karachi in the film. It accurately captures the densely packed former capital of Pakistan, the sounds, the crowds, the color, the craziness. This is what it was like for us to travel there. It might beg the question that so may ask us, “Why do you want to go there?” But I think Randall Bennett (head of the State Department’s bureau of Diplomatic Security) sums it up best when he says, “I love this town!”

But we popped out of our seats and stared at one other when we heard that Pearl had a rendezvous planned with his kidnappers at The Village restaurant; this is where we had lunch on April 15. (In the movie they used a different restaurant with the same name to disguise it) The movie is worth seeing for many reasons: Jolie gives a great performance, as does her supporting cast. It tells a worthwhile, true story. The story itself is not that remarkable; reporter kidnappings happen a lot in this new era, as even this past weekend BBC reporter Alan Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza City, and a photo is now posted of him on the internet wearing an explosive vest. The Pearl story might have been just another footnote in the history of journalism were it not for the gruesome ending, which was posted on the internet and viewed by millions around the world, instantly sensationalizing it. At the end of the movie, I still did not get a real sense of who Daniel Pearl was, and only felt that Marianne was stoic as she underwent this horrific ordeal. To me they seem like ordinary people who got caught in a situation they both knew could happen. There are better movies about survival, stoicism, journalism and character. But this one I was particularly interested in because it took place in Karachi, a city where we work to help an estimated 1,300 with hemophilia, and where I had just visited.

Karachi was in the news over the weekend when torrential rains and strong winds battered the city, resulting in over 230 deaths. Much of the city lost communication and electrical power. I know our hematologist friends there are doing what they can to keep hospitals open to help those with hemophilia.

While Pakistan is not fairly represented by just Karachi, which will appear as the Wild West in “A Might Heart,” Pakistan is a beautiful but struggling nation. President Musharraf, who launched a military takeover in September 1999 (just two weeks after I first visited) is in trouble. Despite improved economic growth, the country has seen Musharraf consolidate his power, through dictatorial means. Firing his chief justice (Julia and I flew to Islamabad with the newly appointed chief justice, who was swarmed by media), silencing media, and shooting demonstrators have led to a call for his resignation. And, he is deeply tied to the US, which gives billions in “aid” to fight the Taliban, which is deeply entrenched in northern parts of the country. It’s a complex country, and America is intricately tangled in its future now. But go see “A Might Heart.” It will plunge you immediately into a country most Americans have never seen, and will never see. As for me, I cannot wait to return to Pakistan, and continue our humanitarian work there.

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