The descent into pariahdom continues for Greg Mortenson, co-author of Three Cups of Tea and executive director of the Central Asia Institute (CAI). He is being sued by his readers for fraud in a Montana court.
The plaintiffs argue that they bought Three Cups of Tea, which sold over 4 million copies, under false pretenses after a story by 60 Minutes called into question Mortenson’s journalistic integrity in the book, as well as his role in using the book to help CAI.
CAI’s mission is to better communities of Central Asia through education programs. Profits from Three Cups of Tea went to CAI.
The reach of Three Cups of Tea has been so wide that even the original judge to hear the case, Donald Molloy, has now recused himself because he had read the book and attended a Mortenson lecture. The plaintiffs should follow Molloy’s suit, and withdraw their case. Mortensen’s many contributions in Afghanistan and Pakistan make CAI too big to fail, and this lawsuit not only tarnishes CAI’s reputation, but its ability to provide education to many thousands of women and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
CAI relies mostly on individual donations and book sales, making it vulnerable to the ebb and flow of public opinion and the assumptions that go along with that. Those assumptions include that Mortensen, a former mountaineer, has some inherent skill at international development and that CAI was an efficient organization, neither of which were true at the time. Both of Mortenson’s books depict a man raising money and implementing projects as fast as he can with little oversight or research. We knew from the beginning that he was not a trained practitioner of development taking the time to ensure things were done right, but this does not make him a liar or corrupt. Editors commonly “compress” an author’s story to make them more marketable or give the story a better flow.
In our culture of individualism and instant gratification, Mortenson — through his initiatives — provided many with a reason to feel good about themselves. CAI reported specific numbers of schools built and students served as if they were final. These projects were not viewed as living projects whose real successes will be in the number of students who grew to be peaceful, productive members of a prosperous Afghan or Pakistani society. With that in mind, the reported short-term results are almost irrelevant. As a recent contributor to the Missoulian in Montana put it: “If Greg Mortenson has done even half of what he said he's done, it is nothing short of a miracle. It's also a better way to make changes in a society than what is going on with the war front.”
The second point is an important one. A cruise missile costs Americans $1.41 million, yet war continues. For that amount, CAI could build and staff 30 or more schools in Central Asia which would give opportunities to thousands of children to grow up to change their societies.
Though CAI and Mortenson are not immune from criticism, and deserve much of it, this lawsuit is brought forth by people who are, in reality, angry at themselves for succumbing to the media’s portrayal of Mortenson as an infallible super hero. The best thing for them to do now is walk away, and hope CAI can pick up the pieces and carry on.
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