Greg Mortenson offers three weak cups of defense

Three Cups of Tea
Three Cups of Tea
Wikipedia, Penguin

Greg Mortenson and his philanthropy, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), have offered up another incomplete defense against allegations of misappropriated funds, fabricated stories and a failure to follow through on humanitarian projects funded by donors.

Meanwhile, two Montana lawmakers are suing Mortenson and Bozeman-based CAI alleging fraud, deceit and racketeering.

Outside magazine, which initially gave first voice to Mortenson’s defense with an exclusive (and somewhat sympathetic or at least unquestioning) interview, published this article upon receiving an advance copy of the CAI’s newsletter in which the Institute and Mortenson rebut some of the critics.

In addition to noting that it no longer believed Mortenson’s life-changing story of stumbling into Korphe, Outside appears more dubious in general now:

For supporters, who have been anxiously awaiting an official response from Mortenson and CAI, the 14-page Journey of Hope newsletter serves as a broad outline of CAI’s defense rather than a blow-by-blow rebuttal of every allegation. In a normal year Journey of Hope, which is usually released in November, serves as an annual report for the organization’s most fervent supporters. What’s surprising about this special edition is its general lack of urgency.

The magazine notes that the philanthropy’s newsletter doesn’t directly defend against the allegations until more than halfway through, in the form of a Q&A. It credits Mortenson with deflecting the criticisms of some schools not being built as due to lapses (or outright fraud) by in-country subordinates as well as because of its dual mission of both building schools and promoting the cause of girls’ education.

I’m not sure I get that last point, about how having a dual mission allows you to neglect part of it. Anyway, Outside then goes on to say:

But while the report openly addresses critiques of CAIs spending and on-the-ground effectiveness, explanations for Mortenson’s alleged financial improprieties and fabricated stories are conspicuously absent.

Outside also says one answer from CAI regarding financial transparency appears “intentionally misleading.” It’s quite a change from the tenor of the original article.

You can read Mortenson and CAI’s defense for yourself by going to the CAI website and clicking on the link to a PDF entitled “Important Update from Executive Director Greg Mortenson and Overseas Staff.”

There you will find explanations and responses to at least some of the criticisms. Among them are these three reasons given why Mortenson needed to use private jets:

  • He has to fly late at night.
  • His health.
  • He has received death threats “and commercial travel sometimes presents over-exposure to threatening elements.”

Mortenson doesn’t respond directly to the allegations in the Q&A. Instead, the CAI newsletter ends with a purple (or maybe lavender colored) letter from him written as “A Message to the Children.”

In the letter to children, Mortenson says that the media has been “mean-spirited and gave no consideration to the demoralizing impact such news might have on” the 1.2 million young people in Canada and the U.S. who have donated to the CAI through its “Pennies for Peace” program. He says in the letter that he stands by what he wrote in the books, apologizes if “these attacks left you feeling confused, hurt, upset or disheartened.”

Regarding the books, Outside concludes its article by saying:

As for the allegations that major parts of Three Cups of Tea were fabricated, the newsletter offers only boilerplate: “The contents of Greg Mortenson’s books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools are based on events that actually happened.” Given how much latitude for dramatic license that statement offers, it can hardly be the reassurance that fans of the book had been hoping for.

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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.