Three Cups of Tea: A teachable moment?

Three Cups of Tea

The debate about Greg “Three Cups of Tea” Mortenson is raging, and will rage for awhile.

There’s plenty to read out there (here’s a list of more than 80 articles compiled by Good Intentions are Not Enough) — from diatribes that condemn Mortenson as a self-promoting fraud to those who contend the critics are illegitimately focusing only on his failures while neglecting the many positive things he has achieved.

I posted yesterday on the critique written by former Mortenson supporter and fellow climber-author Jon Krakauer, because it appears to be the most informed. Krakauer was there (donating $75,000 to Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute) in the beginning — much of which, it turns out, took place in Seattle — and from his reporting I’d say he knows more than most about how this attempted ascent in humanitarianism has been foiled by an avalanche of misdeeds and poor judgment.

Krakauer’s online booklet, Three Cups of Deceit, emphasizes the bad (because that’s what’s new here) but does take brief note of the good. Anyone who wants to know what happened here should read this.

We are now in the point-counterpoint stage. The points and counterpoints are just going to keep piling up like scree on the side of a mountain, with detractors and supporters tossing rocks at each other.

But what can the rest of us learn from this debacle?

I don’t know Mortenson and I never read any of his books. I tend to shy away from people writing personal accounts of their noble efforts to help poor people, partly because they tend to be one-sided and kind of preachy.

It’s also partly personal, because of my Nordic training in explicit self-deprecation (which is not the same as true humility or selflessness, mind you!) and the rule of Janteloven. Mortenson, the son of Lutheran missionaries, should have known what happens when you violate Janteloven. But that’s another issue.

Still, based on what I’ve read so far, I think Greg Mortenson is (or was anyway) truly motivated to help the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan. And I think he has helped many thousands of them in addition to educating the rest of us about the power to affect positive change even in those parts of the world we see as hostile to American identity and values.

He’s done good, no question.

But it’s a dangerous business when you start confusing yourself with your cause.

I think that is the single, most important lesson to be learned here. It’s perhaps the biggest risk, and the most common reason for failure, in what’s come to be called DIY aid (aka Do It Yourself foreign aid).

As this article in Salon emphasizes, the lies/distortions in the book are not the issue here. Sure, it’s annoying to read an author who says he is engaging in non-fiction and then turns out to have taken “poetic license” with the facts. But even Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. engaged in strategic misrepresentation when necessary.

Bad management is closer to the bone. Mortenson freely admits he’s a bad manager and that his philanthropy (which has now raised something like $60 million) needs a financial accountability overhaul. Whether this will resolve the serious questions raised about misleading donors, misappropriating funds for personal gain, violating tax codes and all that remains to be seen.

It is in Mortenson’s defense that you can best see what appears to have gone wrong here. He clearly believes that selling his books, and himself, is identical to selling his cause.

It’s not.

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Postscript:

Another media trend I’ve seen out there on this flap are a number of articles/posts like this one at GlobalPost that “blame the victims” — i.e., us, the gullible public — for wanting to believe that heroic individuals can make a difference.

I think these are even more off-target than those articles/posts focused on the literary distortions. Heroic individuals can and do make a difference (Ghandi, Mother Teresa, MLK Jr., etc). Mortenson may not be what many thought he was, but let’s not get too cynical here. Individual action does matter.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.