Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Three Cups of Tea - With a Grain of Salt

The air must get rather thin up there.
Jon Kraukauer vs Greg Mortenson, Mountaineer vs Mountaineer, who's gonna fall first?

This author rage seems more than a tempest in a teacup. The accuracy of Krakauer's own book, "Into Thin Air", was once disputed by other mountaineers, too. But this journalist-alpinist seems to be driven by the ferocity of a man duped. (JK had once donated $75,000 to GM's outfit, the Central Asian Institute.)

Should readers (and wannabe donors) be charitable? A career is imploding at warp speed...because people love a legend, but hate to be hoodwinked, even a little. And where is the well-remunerated ghost, David Oliver Relin, in all this? Back in Portland keeping mum. And keeping half the royalties of the bestseller, 3 Cups of Tea too, it appears.

The hero-making process really began about eight years ago:
Kevin Fedarko in Parade Magazine, extolled Mortenson the Montana mountain man who builds schools for Muslim girls in the Hindu Kush. The heartrending article was published just a couple weeks after the US invaded Iraq and the reader response was overwhelmingly generous. American individuals could make more of a difference than the dread war machine- and the force of change would be schooling village women.

Two ghost-written books, hundreds and hundreds of appearances on the road, and a multi-million dollar charity outreach followed. Some schools were erected in the flyblown spots where girls, especially, lack literacy. And a celebrity with almost a cult following emerged, hailed by the Pentagon. The tale has touched many. Schoolchildren donated pennies for peace.

Flash forward.

Krakauer's devastating long screed ran on the new Byliner.com website. Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson,
Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way.
This made a huge impact everywhere, as a follow up to the "60 Minutes" segment on Greg Mortenson and the Central Asian Institute. (These initials are too much like "CIA" for my liking, and most of the schools are located in South Asia, not Central Asia. But such quibbling is beside the point.) Central Asia Institute's Mission: To promote and provide community-based education and literacy programs, especially for girls, in remote mountain regions of Central Asia. Was this mission accomplished or compromised?

Here's an official statement from Greg Mortenson about the charges leveled against him. His home state, Montana, now has launched an inquiry into the charity's finances, however belatedly.

Outside Online's post-expose interview with Greg Mortenson about the "60 Minutes" expose shows him squirming a bit, especially compared to Fedarko's paen in 2010...but does not press him hard about the dubious kidnap. "We Never Kidnapped Greg Mortenson", one of the Pakistanis falsely accused of being a Taliban abductor tells Newsweek.

The charity and Viking, the publisher, rushed statements online. Furthermore, Viking announced its own forthcoming investigation. Self defense? Spin control?

The charity navigator, which ranks NGOs on admin costs vs program costs and has awarded CAI Four Stars, released a donor advisory, flashing red on their webpage, after the 60 Minutes expose aired on Sunday night:

A similar website, called Charity Watch, raised alarms last year, which may have helped tip off the CBS investigation. See here

If this expose prevents people from setting up or giving to vanity NGOs, that's some small good - providing that charismatic people who are inspired to do good works can find experienced organizations who have a good track record and audited accounts. (Red tape is not only for the hassle factor.) One senior journalist suggested that
"Three Cups of Tea" belongs to an outside category of inspirational nonfiction in which feel-good parables take precedence over strict truthfulness. Its object is to present a reassuring picture of the world as a place... where all people are fundamentally the same underneath their cultural differences, where ordinary, well-meaning Americans can "make a difference" in the lives of poor Central Asians and fend off terrorism at the same time. Heartwarming anecdotes come with the territory and as with the happily-ever-after endings of romantic comedies, everyone tacitly agrees not to examine them too closely. "Three Cups of Tea" is a wonderful tool for eliciting donations for the very worthy cause of educating Afghan and Pakistani children, which is its purpose.
It's feel-good fiction, not reportage. Uh-huh. But follow the money....We all must be a bit more cynical now. Should some stories be too good to check? Nope. Not if donors' cheques are involved.


Izzy Bee said...

"The discourse of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ has a long colonial history. "
See the piece by Nosheen Ali

iceaxe said...

Here's another one from the Afghans' side, on the BBC website

Anonymous said...

Jeez - a reporter noticed a sign on the compound of Osama Bin Laden in Abbotabad that claimed it was a "girls school". Surely not the CAI!