Why Greg Mortensen’s shame is on us

3cupsofteaNow that self-made humanitarian and “stones-into-schools” false prophet Greg Mortenson has been ordered to repay more than $1-million to the charity he founded, exploited and financially mismanaged, it’s as good a time as any to assess the disgraced Three Cups of Tea author and his crumbling empire of goodness.

Here’s a quick recap of Mortenson’s (true) journey:

  • In 1993 Mortenson allegedly took a wrong turn (how prescient) while descending from a harrowing and unsuccessful summit attempt of K2 in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, into the village of Korphe where he discovered his inner altruist;
  • In 1996 he founded the non-profit Central Asia Institute (CAI) with seed money from a Swiss millionaire to fund educational development in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan;
  • In 2006 he co-authored the best-seller Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time, and became a huge draw as a motivational speaker while all his expenses were being paid by CAI;
  • He collected no fewer than thirty-nine literary and humanitarian awards and honorary degreesbetween 2004 and 2011;
  • In 2010, US President Barack Obama donated $100,000 from the proceeds of his Nobel Prize to CAI;
  • In April 2011 the investigative news show 60 Minutes exposed the fact that Mortenson’s famous 1993 sojourn to Korphe, as well as other claims made in the book (such as his capture by the Taliban, and, er, building lots of schools) almost certainly never happened;
  • A day after the 60 Minutes report, celebrated journalist, mountaineer and CAI donor Jon Krakauer released his own damning investigation of Mortenson, Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, detailing Mortenson’s rap sheet of hypocrisy and how he (Krakauer) was duped into investing.

3cupsofdeceitCharity fraud doesn’t often come with the kind of alarm bells as Three Cups of Tea, a nauseating read whose obnoxious aggrandizement of Mortenson is both its marketing genius (it was published by Viking Press) and its flashing red warning light.

That is not to say that its millions of readers should be (solely) blamed for seeing a halo form above the author’s head. Our appetite for such tales is as ravenous as our wallets are fat and our secret shame of wealth is heavy. Greg Mortenson created a religion and made himself its prophet. And like others before him, things didn’t quite pan out the way he’d prophesied, if mainly because, as Nicholas Kristof noted, “Greg is more of a founding visionary than a disciplined CEO.”

Krakauer and others concede that Mortenson is not pure evil (Bernie Madoff is the cited contrast), just someone in whom we invested an unholy amount of unearned trust.

That is why, we must conclude, bold promises attached to fabricated tales of education-starved children in Asia resulted in tens of millions in book sales and funds raised, a charity-funded book tour, private jets, disgruntled donors, shoddy financial statements, deliberate misinformation, and yes, a few schools.

In other words, Greg Mortenson did what he did because nobody stopped him. Nobody checked the facts, and nobody tempered his idealism (or our own) with a dose of reality. Or if they did, it didn’t work.

His real success was not in exploiting his unique encounter with poverty in Pakistan to build schools, but in exploiting our naïveté with respect to encountering poverty. Greg Mortenson’s shame is on us.

May we think about that before we write our next cheque to charity.