The Greg Mortenson scandal is still unfolding, but here’s one lesson we can already learn from it: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. If exposés by Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft check out, Mortenson is a charismatic manipulator, and his bestsellers Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools are full of lies and evasions: he didn’t lose his way descending K2 in 1993; wasn’t rescued by poor and noble residents of the village of Korphe; didn’t gratefully promise to build them a school; wasn’t kidnapped in Waziristan by the Taliban in 1996 (the Taliban were nowhere near that peaceful Shiite corner of Pakistan); never climbed assorted mountains or met assorted people he said he did; even his tale of wangling permission to pay his respects to the corpse of Mother Teresa in 2000 is false (she died in 1997).
All this—and there’s much more—comes as a terrible shock to the millions of Americans who have bought Mortenson’s books, attended his lectures, donated to his Central Asia Institute and participated in CAI’s Pennies for Peace program in the schools. But it gets worse, because the CAI was not what it seemed to be either. Some of the 141 schools it claims to have built were “ghost schools,” never used; others may not exist, were built by other organizations, were built but have received no operational funds in years. In 2009 only 41 percent of donations went to its work in Afghanistan and Pakistan; much of the rest, charge Krakauer and Kroft, went to Mortenson himself—to chartered jets, massive purchases of his books (at retail, so he would get the royalties and keep them on the bestseller list) and advertisements for them in The New Yorker at more than $100,000 a pop. One disillusioned co-worker described CAI as Mortenson’s “private ATM.”
How did Mortenson enchant so many, including knowledgeable people like Nick Kristof, who wrote an anguished column asking people to withhold judgment for now? As a string of much-praised fake memoirs can attest—to say nothing of Bernie Madoff’s meteoric career—people don’t look closely at stories that tell them what they want to hear. Americans love to be inspired by heroic lone individuals who provide simple solutions to complicated problems—especially when the individuals are American and famous, the solutions are cheap and the problems are far away. (Kristof is particularly fond of this narrative.) Mortenson took an urgent cause—girls’ education—tied it to the prevention of “terrorism,” offered himself as the bashful red-tape-scorning great white savior and, before you knew it, the US Army was making his books mandatory reading for soldiers being sent to Afghanistan. He may have collected pennies for “peace,” but Mortenson played right into one of the Bush administration’s worst ideas—the militarization of humanitarian aid.
CAI’s mission was simple: build a school and they will come. But schools are not just made of stones; they need teachers, books, a curriculum and the support of the community. And schools themselves aren’t enough. One villager quoted by Krakauer said what they really needed was a road and a clinic, because half the village’s babies died before their first birthday.