‘Three Cups’ dirty with Mortenson deception

by John Anderson

Artwork courtesy of Lidya Toscani

Three cups of tea? More like three cups of shady dealings. Greg Mortenson, the author of the international best-seller “Three Cups of Tea” and founder of Central Asian Institute is in the news again — this time in a much less positive light. CBS Television Network’s “60 Minutes” and novelist Jon Krakauer have accused Mortenson of fabricating large portions of his book. If CBS and Krakauer are right, Mortenson has some serious explaining to do. He is going to have to face the wrath of thousands of angry bookstore owners, who now have the onerous task of moving the best-selling books across the store from the “inspirational non-fiction” section to “slightly-less-inspirational fiction.” Perhaps more terrifying will be facing Oprah Winfrey and her book club legion, come to take a pound of flesh for every lie told.

Forgive me for not caring if Mortenson wasn’t really rescued and nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers high in the Himalayas. Forgive me for not being bothered that he wasn’t actually kidnapped and held for ransom for days. The book very effectively serves its purpose, which is to entertain people and raise awareness for a serious problem on the Pakistani frontier. What is deeply concerning, however, are the allegations of embezzlement and fraud centered around the charity’s lack of accounting. The Central Asian Institute has long failed to account for money from President Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize award, huge charities around the world, and — “60 Minutes” said it best — the “thousands of school children who emptied their piggy banks to help its ‘Pennies for Peace’ program.” Heartbreaking to be sure.

Mortenson’s organization has released a single report on how its money has been spent for its near 14-year history. We should expect to see some administrative and infrastructure-related costs, expenditures vital to maintaining the charity in the long run. These expenses should only account for a small percentage of the total outflow of cash. When Central Asian Institute finally released its ledger, its reported spending for charity promotion outweighed the money spent on building schools in Central Asia. No wonder it was so reluctant to release the information.

Things get really questionable when we examine the intermingling of Mortenson’s private for-profit business as a motivational speaker and author, with the charity’s expenditures. Allegedly, Mortenson has been flying around the country to promote his book and deliver speeches on the charity’s dime while he pockets the proceeds. If this is true, Mortenson has taken serious advantage of our generosity and good intentions. Call me cynical, but this discovery represents a larger problem in our behavior.

When buying a new TV, a smart shopper will spend hours looking at different models, poring through reviews and gathering firsthand knowledge in order to ensure they are getting the absolute best product they can for their money. The same scruples evidently do not apply to how we choose to donate our money. If a philanthropic organization says the words “Japan,” “Haiti” or “school-less children in Pakistan,” people rush to hurl money at them without doing any research. This shows both a profound sense of compassion and generosity, and serious naiveté toward the big business of non-governmental charities.

You might remember Mortenson coming to share his inspirational message at San Diego State in September 2008. You might also remember our university making the book required reading for students, not that there is a way for them to enforce the requirement. If neither our academic institution, nor Winfrey caught on to Mortenson’s fraud, how can the average well-meaning student hope to discern a charity’s reputation? Once again, the Internet saves the day. There are a number of institutions promoting themselves as philanthropic watchdogs. The American Institute of Philanthropy and Charity Navigator are two groups that can provide easy-to-read accountability information and reputation reporting regarding charities.

Benefactors got significantly less than they bargained for after donating to Mortenson’s organization. Many other charities need your money just as badly, and are more transparent with how they use it. Organizations such as Direct Relief International puts 100 percent of your donation toward its programs, and sends updates with how your money is being spent. While Central Asian Institute’s aim is certainly worthy of your donations, it has some serious work to do in regard to transparency and ethics. This situation presents an opportunity for Mortenson to get his act together. The CAI also serves as a warning to benefactors; protect yourself from fraud by using the tools available online for free.

—John Anderson is an ISCOR senior.

-—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.

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