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.
We’ve gotten used to a certain kind of NGO fairy tale, as depicted in the children’s book Beatrice’s Goat, much admired by Kristof: Heifer International gives a family a farm animal, and in a dozen years, the profits send a daughter to college. Kiva lends a Bolivian peasant a few hundred high-interest dollars to buy a bale of used clothes, and soon she owns her own store. Faced with the chance to transform a life, we forget that poor people rarely need just one small thing, that they are embedded in immensely complex and oppressive social worlds.
The real tragedy of the Mortenson news is that it may make Americans not more knowledgeable but more cynical. “Why can’t there be at least one morally correct person in the world?” asked one YouTube poster on the 60 Minutes segment. “Just one person who can selflessly do the right thing, change the world for the better, and not be a jerk about it?” Poignant question, but the answer is: there are lots of such people. Afghanistan and Pakistan have many honest, energetic and creative aid workers, including many locals—they just don’t get the celebrity media treatment or the celebrity-sized budgets. The Afghan Women’s Fund, run by the Afghan expatriate Fahima Vorgetts, builds and supports schools, runs literacy classes and income-generating projects for women, digs wells in parched villages and much more—on around $120,000 a year. Think what it could do with just one of CAI’s wasted millions! Lauryn Oates, of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (cw4wafghan.ca), told me the real Afghan education problem isn’t bricks and mortar; it’s finding qualified teachers—especially women. “The majority have no postsecondary education at all, or maybe didn’t even finish high school. We have high school math teachers who don’t know long division.” Besides doing other important projects, such as running literacy classes in places where there is zero literacy, her group has trained more than 1,800 already working teachers since 2008. Its annual budget? Around $800,000.
Upgrading teachers, providing textbooks and science labs, persuading parents to let their daughters go to high school—it may not be as exciting as building a school with a white star on it and an inspiring salvation myth behind it. But it’s what works. “There were red flags all along” about CAI, one person involved in Afghan development told me. “They don’t work with other organizations.” Oates said, “I heard about them in Canada all the time, but in Afghanistan they were completely invisible. I haven’t heard anyone in the Afghan aid sector coming to their defense.”
“I am heartbroken over the scandal,” Vorgetts e-mailed me from Afghanistan. “Not because he lied but because he jeopardized our work.” (Donate to Afghan Women’s Fund at WAW/AWF c/o Mary Ellen Bobb, 978 Yachtsman Way, Annapolis, MD 21403.)