international development, non-profit

Lessons learned from ‘Three Cups of Tea’

By now, I am sure many of you have heard of the raging controversy over the work and story of ‘Three Cups of Tea‘ writer and Central Asia Institute Founder, Greg Mortenson. Recently, a 60 Minutes piece came out with allegations against Greg Mortenson, and this was followed by an excellent 90-page report by Jon Krakauer, called ‘Three Cups of Deceit.’ I’d urge you to download it and read it if you haven’t yet (it’s only free for download until tomorrow, Apr. 20) — it provides plenty of documentation of Greg Mortenson’s alleged fabrication of stories in his two books, as well as seeming rampant mismanagement of CAI. I definitely think Krakauer has it in for Mortenson because the e-book is written in a decidedly vicious tone, and as Marianne Elliott writes in an excellent post, writing about Afghanistan is difficult. It is such a complicated place to work, with constantly shifting alliances, and I am sure there are individuals who have may have motives for disparaging Mortenson.  Regardless, there is plenty in Krakauer’s report that seems to be true, devastatingly for Mortenson and CAI.

A lot of excellent posts have already written on the topic, so I doubt I have much to add to the mix. Nevertheless, I’d like to chime in with my thoughts because this news hit me particularly hard. Perhaps I was naive – you could say I was drawn in and convinced by Mortenson’s inspiring yarn about community development and education in the most isolated and conflict-ridden parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Partially, I wanted to believe in some positive story coming out of Afghanistan. The news seems so bleak, that sometimes we feel the need to hold on to some hope – and Mortenson provided a healthy dose of uplifting news. I can’t say I succumbed to ‘hero worship’ but quite honestly, I couldn’t have imagined the level of fraud and allegations he is now being accused of.

Yet, he has been accused of: fabricating/condensing the ‘origin’ story of how he decided to build schools in Pakistan, spending 60% of funds on promoting his book and only 41% on building schools, of treating CAI like his own personal bank account, of failing to keep tabs on his spending, of engaging in such a horrible management style that his Board Members and staff have resigned, and of ultimately having many schools abandoned & empty.

I think there are a few key lessons that we can take away from this controversy:

Building schools and engaging communities is HARD work

The most ironic aspect of the allegations, perhaps, is that I was most impressed by Mortenson’s model: community-based development. I loved the fact that he was educating the American public on the fundamental principles of good aid work: engaging communities and ensuring their ownership over projects.

Sadly, it turns out that while he may understand the importance of this on a theoretical level, he has not been able to put it into practice. He touts the importance of three cups of tea, but it turns out that he has never even visited many of his projects. Many schools end up as unused ‘ghost’ schools.

The lesson is that development work – particularly in isolated and conflict regions – is far from easy. It requires a dedicated staff, constant monitoring and evaluation of projects, and strict accounting of every penny. It requires sufficient oversight to ensure a project is still running. Without teacher training, salaries to teachers, materials and lunch for students, and a good curriculum, a school is just a building.

Understanding community development on a theoretical level is one thing. Actually putting it into practice? Clearly, far more difficult.

Hero worship has got to stop

Greg Mortenson willingly put himself in the role of ‘hero,’ but we as a public have played a part in hero worship as well.

This is one problem I have with this movement towards ‘social entrepreneurship.’ We have Echoing Green, Ashoka, Skoll Foundation, PopTech, and many more fellowship programs. But I believe we focus far too much on the founder of an organization rather than what’s most important: the effectiveness of the work being done.

We as a public have become enamored of quick solutions to poverty, and the most innovative, unique and exciting projects and solutions. Mortenson’s work was innovative because he focused on the most isolated regions, where few other NGOs went. But to some extent, focusing on innovation and exciting new models leads us away from what is important: the results.

Instead of getting taken in by stories of individuals and ‘hero worship,’ let’s move towards what matters: metrics, evaluations, numbers, RESULTS!

Criticism can spur positive change

What I sincerely hope is that all this criticism and backlash forces Mortenson to not just respond angrily, but to humbly step back and take a look at the operation of CAI. If CAI is to redeem itself in the eyes of the public and its beneficiaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it needs to engage in serious reform, now.

Greg Mortenson needs to hire professionals to audit his organization properly, and recruit financial officers to meticulously keep records of all their expenses and the costs incurred in building each school. Mortenson needs to evaluate his own spending, transparency, and management style. He needs to hire a trustworthy team of Board Members and make sure they are involved in all decisions. He needs to step back and let go, instead of trying to control everything. He should work to put in place and follow streamlined policies for the organization. Ultimately, he should consider whether he is even the right person for the job. He is great at being an ambassador for education, but not so good at day to day management of a non-profit.

This criticism can also educate the American public on what is needed for a successful non-profit to run, and how difficult good development work is. It’s a sad lesson to learn, but a good one nonetheless. The fallout from this controversy can spur better work on behalf of CAI and better understanding by Americans. I certainly hope this is what happens.

We have bigger fish to fry

My last concern is this: for all the criticism that has been heaped on Mortenson, are we looking at other, bigger aspects of society that need to be changed if we are to truly eradicate poverty and human rights violations?

Are we holding the U.S. government, our military, and NATO truly accountable for what is happening in Afghanistan?

Are we holding the international community and U.N. accountable for humanitarian interventions and the aftermath?

Are we investigating the practices of large multinational corporations and their involvement in unfair, exploitative business practices & human rights violations?

Are we examining in detail the backsliding of the Afghan government on women’s rights? The responsibility of the Afghan government to it’s own people?

The truth is, Greg Mortenson may have captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans with his simplistic narrative: books v. bombs. But the reality is far more complex. He is ultimately a small fish in a big pond. I agree with Marianne that even if Greg Mortenson or other non-profits like Oxfam or the Aga Khan Network build hundreds of schools, it is still not going to be the change required to solve Afghanistan’s problems. I agree with her because I believe that certain things: education, clean water, health care, legal services – are basic human rights and should be provided by the government.

In truth, non-profits may be trying to fill a gap left by the state, but they are not the solution. The CAI can do all it wants, but in the end we have to delve into the far more complex picture – politics, the war in Afghanistan, security, the role of the Afghan government – if we are to fundamentally solve these problems.

The public wants simple, black-and-white narratives. But the reality could not be more complex.

We have bigger fish to fry, so while the media loves to focus on bringing a hero down, let’s move beyond this to try and understand what’s really needed to improve the lives of Afghan children (indeed, children everywhere).

There are so many other excellent posts written on this topic; please read through the following:


16 thoughts on “Lessons learned from ‘Three Cups of Tea’”

  1. SuzRocks says:

    I was shocked when I heard about this yesterday- I’ve got a lot of reading to do on the subject. The optimist in me, wants to believe the best about the whole situation- but the evidence is pointing towards the not-so-best.

    1. Akhila says:

      Perhaps I was naive about Mortenson, but I desperately wanted to believe that he was capable of good work. It did seem too good to be true, for a mountaineer to somehow be able to get communities involved (without knowing the language, for one) and build schools effectively in the most isolated regions. I did question it, but I believed it was possible because I wanted to believe. But now, as you say there seems to be a ton of evidence that in fact, Mortenson’s quest was not as successful as we’d like to believe.

      1. SuzRocks says:

        I just found this interview w/ Mortenson via Outside Magazine. I’ve not read Kraukers piece yet (trying to download it), but in reading Mortenson’s interview and some other people attacking him, I feel like whatever went wrong with CAI and his book wasn’t malicious intent. I think he was naive and ignorant about some stuff, and therefore got caught with some mistakes.

        Maybe I too am naive, but I just can’t believe that he went around trying to defraud a whole bunch of people and lie to them. I’ll have to read some more.

        Read the interview from outside magazine, and let me know what you think.

        1. Akhila says:

          I read that interview but didn’t find it very convincing. He simply tries to say he stands by his organization and what he wrote in his book, but does not have enough facts or evidence to provide a strong enough rebuttal. I don’t believe he did any of this with malicious intent — it just sounds like he doesn’t have much experience or understanding of how to manage a charity, and then got more and more caught up in making sure no one found out about his mismanagement. I think he was ignorant about how to run a non-profit but started out truly wanting to help.

          I am more lenient about his fabrication of parts of the story — I feel like editors do encourage that sort of thing to facilitate storytelling and get readers engrossed. That part does not have to be 100% the truth for it to accurately represent his experience and what he has seen in Afghanistan. However, I am most worried about the financial mismanagement.

          His organization *has* helped many children, so it is not a total waste. But the fact is he has not used the funds entrusted to him in the best way possible and it is surprising to me how he has escaped scrutiny for so long.

          If you need Krakauer’s piece, let me know. I can email it to you.

  2. Tom Murphy says:

    The hero worship is an important lesson, I think. It allows for us to create the halo effect and assume that said person is going to be good in a moral sense because of his/her great accomplishments. Although, I am not sure how to combat those feelings.

    1. Akhila says:

      I agree. We should start to look beyond hero worship to praising organizations for their concrete results. We need numbers, metrics, evaluations. In fact even stating the number of schools built is meaningless. We need to know concretely, how many students are in each school, how many teachers, what training the teachers have, the test score increases of the students, and the eventual accomplishments of students (do they go on to get jobs, to go to graduate school, increase their family income?).

      I think the move towards metrics done by organizations like Innovations for Poverty Action & GiveWell is is a great first step. It is not ‘sexy’ to the general public but it’s important, and we have to figure out how to educate people on the need for these types of studies and evaluations.

  3. Michael Kirkpatrick says:

    This particular case epitomizes why a certain segment of of blogosphere writes about the effectiveness of aid programs and charities. Most DIY aid organizations don’t like partnerships or collaborations because they are afraid of scrutiny. They want to create their own standards and rules to follow. Everyone wants to be a hero. The founders of these DIY organizations fear that someone else may get credit for their ideas and accomplishments. I call this the “Nobel Syndrome”. Being transparent might jeopardize their egotistical dreams of standing on a stage in Oslo and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding contributions toward humanity.

    These are some of my observations regarding the subject.

    Slactivism in Africa | Independent Global Citizen

    1. Akhila says:

      Yes, I completely agree. Many DIY organizations and their leaders depict themselves as the hero in the story and don’t want to recognize or admit their flaws. However part of the blame lies with the public as well because we are again and again willing to buy into this idea of hero worship.

  4. Roxanne says:

    Akhila, I so appreciate your take on this and love how you balance heartfelt writing with a journalistic, insightful perspective. It is one of the reasons I keep coming back to this blog. I was also very fond of Marianne and Desiree’s pieces and am glad you linked to them. I have been thinking about the hero worship and idolization aspect of this and find myself in agreement with you. Looking at the underlying model and organizational practices is a better way to evaluate projects and initiatives. That said, I generally find value in the personal story. I believe in the power of storytelling and have been inspired by memoirs, biographies and magazine profiles. Is there a way to employ that power of storytelling and profile figures in aid, development and leadership in the non-profit field without idolizing or being misleading? How can we harness the power of the personal story while minimizing its perils? How can we balance personal story, leadership and initiative with model, project specifics and management? I do not have answers right now, but I am willing to research and try to find out.

    1. Roxanne says:

      One thing I forgot to add: MercyCorps has recently rolled out an initiative where they teach their staff (local and expat alike) storytelling modules. I would love to attend one of those workshops for the reasons we have been discussing. @LoudMind on Twitter seems to be the mastermind behind them, in case you are interested in following that conversation.

      1. Akhila says:

        I definitely see your point about the value of storytelling — the truth is that despite my fondness for results and evaluations, I still find myself drawn to beautiful and inspiring stories about visionary individuals. These stories and profiles are far more interesting and engrossing than statistics and data. After all, this is the premise behind all forms of marketing, and it is also the reason why we blog! For some reason, we human beings have an utter fascination with the lives of other humans. Perhaps we want to see something of ourselves in others, or find parallels, or simply be inspired by what one individual can accomplish so that we hope that someday, we can do something similar. Isn’t this what it comes down to?

        Perhaps we have to first: find organizations that are truly effective through strict monitoring and evaluations and data and all that good stuff. Then, when we find organizations that really *are* changing things, we (journalists, writers, bloggers, etc) can start digging into the story behind how the organization formed, who founded it, their life story, etc. Maybe a backwards shift. From results —> story? Let’s not get drawn into the story *before* we know the results!

        1. Roxanne says:

          I think that is a wonderful start to an answer. In fact, you and Desiree Adaway are on the same wavelength. Check out her post today about having Founders Fatigue 🙂

          1. Akhila says:

            Thanks for the tip – an excellent post 🙂 Indeed on the same wavelength!

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