Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Greg Mortenson controversy

Greg Mortenson became famous through his book Three Cups of Tea (2007) and his charity that builds schools for kids in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). Now a CBS 60 Minutes investigation has raised serious questions as to the accuracy of his memoir and, more seriously, about how responsible CAI is, which Mortenson runs himself. This PBS Newshour report describes the issues (Questions Linger Over 'Three Cups of Tea' Author Mortenson's Tales, Charity 04/22/2011):

Marianne Elliot, who has worked in the region, writes in Three Cups of Humble Pie Huffington Post 04/21/11 about how dilemmas of cutting corners in a memoir, especially for someone who is using it to prominently promote his charity:

If we plan to then leverage our story to encourage our readers to donate money to our cause then we bear an even heavier responsibility not to mislead them in any way. Greg Mortenson appears to have taken this responsibility too lightly.
She also reminds us that good intentions are not enough to make effective projects:

Without teachers or ongoing operating budgets, perhaps built in the wrong place in the first instance, the image of Central Asia Institute (CAI) schools being used as warehouses or sitting completely empty has shocked many people.

During my two years in Afghanistan, I saw my fair share of empty schools built by well-intentioned foreigners (ranging from the U.S. military to a group of wealthy women from Germany).

Effective education programming requires a comprehensive approach. Teacher training, community engagement and consultation and -- in the ideal scenario -- effective government oversight to ensure that there is some kind of sensible strategy about which schools get built and where. Which brings me to my next point.
In the PBS segment, Margaret Warner interview Daniel Borochoff on the financial doubts about the CAI charity:

DANIEL BOROCHOFF, [President of the] American Institute of Philanthropy: Well, first, we found out that he didn't have an audited financial statement, so very little in the way of accountability.

But what's particularly interesting is, he's mixing his -- what he gains business -- what he gains from selling his book, the royalties, and the speaking fees which he is now getting -- or has been getting -- $30,000 to speak, and the charity is paying all the costs in terms of ads -- over a million dollars -- and then about $1.4 million worth of domestic travel costs.

And yet, Mortenson is not giving -- keeping all the revenues. So, there's millions of dollars in revenues that could be going to help the girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And people ought to be concerned about that.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there nothing in any of the records you saw about him then giving any money himself to Central Asia Institute from all of this -- these speaking fees and book royalties?

DANIEL BOROCHOFF: Nothing is reported. He has claimed that he is giving hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that's vague. He really needs to say, if he is, what actually he's giving, because even if it's hundreds of thousands of dollars, the charity is spending millions of dollars to generate revenues for him.
Borochoff also questions Mortenson's judgment in publicly associating himself so closely with the US military:

Also, his connection with the military is curious, because these are really dangerous areas. And why does he want to publicly identify with the military? He could advise them secretly, in private, but that's dangerous. And there's groups like Doctors Without Borders that purposely don't -- don't accept money from the -- even the U.S. government, because they don't want to have that association that could lead to their facilities and programs being attacked.
The American Institute of Philanthropy has a Charity Watch website that people can use to research the transparency and financial accountability of charities to whom they are considering contributing.

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