One Cup of Tea and Honesty, Please

April 18, 2011 — Leave a comment

Remember when you were young, before cynicism took over? Remember that overwhelming disappointment when a longed for event or coveted must-have from the toy store just didn’t live up to expectations?

That’s how I feel today.

I have been fortunate to meet some remarkable people over the continents and years. One I worked for in Singapore and Thailand for five years. Leonard Cheshire. I’ve read, like many of us, of others. The Dalai Lama. Mahatma Gandhi. Greg Mortenson, adventurer, author, humanitarian, didn’t quite reach those lofty heights but he was getting on up there. I read Three Cups of Tea not long after it was published in 2006, and believed there was another truly great man in a world that at times seems lacking in goodness.

I was brought up on tales of South Waziristan where my father served in the Scouts in the late 1940s after Partition. The names bandied in the book were familiar; Rawalpindi, Gilgit, Chitral and I felt admiration for this man who was trying to take education to a wild, mountainous and at times dangerous region where often women and girls are credited with little intelligence.

After watching the CBS 60 Minutes last night I feel duped. I am by both nurture and nature a sometime cynic and rarely believe everything I read or hear from the press, but last night Steve Kroft presented a good case in questioning Greg Mortenson’s veracity.

The crisis from which the book and eventually his charity the Central Asia Institute (CAI) emerged, lost in the Himalayas and subsequently being rescued by villagers from Korphe on the remote Baltistan ranges would seem to be a myth. So to the harrowing 1996 kidnapping by the Taliban on the North West Frontier. These tales of derring-do were debunked by people who were there. One, Mansur Khan Mahsud, a research director for a respected think-tank in Islamabad, was even pictured with Mortenson on the alleged kidnapping. Interviewed via Skype, Mahsud pointed to others in the photo saying they were his cousins and friends from his village. One photo showed Mortenson holding an AK47. When asked outright about the kidnapping Mahsud said, “It is totally false, he is lying.”

People who it would seem had nothing to gain from decrying his stories, disillusioned staffers, board members of the CAI, and one of Mortenson’s original donors, Jon Krakauer, have come forward questioning the Institute’s lack of transparency and inequities in accounting.

I am not naïve enough, having worked for charities in developing countries, to believe every tribesman interviewed. I know receipts are not always forthcoming. I know many solutions are solved with the shake of a hand and a promise. I know there is often not a clear paper trail. But I also know that when millions of dollars are involved, some gathered in the form of pennies from children’s piggy banks, that the person doing the gathering must be upfront, honest and above reproach. He owes it to those he is attempting to help, as well as those he is taking money from.

I find it hard to understand that the CAI, aka Greg Mortenson, has spent 1.3 million dollars on domestic travel. The Institute says he is raising public awareness. I would agree, but I would argue that some of the royalties from his books and speaking fees, which do not go into the Institute coffers, could be used to fund his book tours.

There is no doubting the incredible good Greg Mortenson has done, he has built schools and has encouraged the education of girls. He says, “The best way to bring about social and economic change and to raise standards of living in developing countries is to educate the girls.” The US forces have mandated his books as reading for anyone about to embark on a mission to the raw and lawless areas of Afghanistan, as the prescribed way to reach hearts and minds. He lectures on the subject. He has so much still to give.

CBS attempted numerous times to interview Greg Mortenon. He refused, even canceling a speaking engagement when he realized the 60 Minute team were in the building, and slunk out the back door of the hotel. If he has nothing to hide then he needs to stand up and answer for the millions he has received in the name of charity.

But it appears Mr. Mortenson has forgotten the teachings of his Christian upbringing, particularly Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and the feet of clay. It seems he is instead falling for his own duplicity, and publicity, and in the words of Jon Krakauer, “threatening to bring it all down.”

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