Beware of the Panacea: Lessons from Greg Mortenson

When I first learned about Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, I felt nothing but awe and inspiration.

In working to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mortenson combined two of my greatest interests: international development and education. I loved his promotion of learning as a catalyst for peace and better gender dynamics. I wondered if I would ever have the courage to take the risky steps that Mortenson did. I also wondered if I would be willing to commit the majority of my life to one specific mission— the prospect thrilled and terrified me.

The CBS news program 60 Minutes recently accused Mortenson of fabricating some of his personal story, receiving unreasonable benefits from CAI, and lying about the number and quality of schools his non-profit helped build.

As I watched the episode and read CAI’s response, I remembered the advice that my dad shared with me a couple of years ago. He said that while Mortenson’s work is crucial and admirable, some skepticism was warranted. Mortenson seemed to be a one-man band — instead of welcoming in the counsel of other wise people and other organizations that were doing complementary work, he tended toward isolation.

Due to my dad’s thoughtfulness — and the disillusionment I’ve experienced with education and microfinance non-profits — the *60 Minutes *exposé didn’t surprise me. I also did not find the program entirely persuasive. Even the most careful research can’t always unearth a perfectly clear picture of the truth. Nonetheless, there are still some crucial lessons that we can take away from this scandal.

Mortenson has seriously tangled his personal and professional finances. Sometimes he speaks for free, and sometimes he accepts an honorarium. Sometimes he pays his own travel expenses, and sometimes the non-profit covers them. He originally worked for CAI with no compensation, but now he receives a salary.

In CAI’s “Statement of the Board of Directors Regarding Recent Media Reports,” the board justifies some of Mortenson’s benefits by citing his past donations and the publicity benefits of his books. However, Mortenson’s past support should not justify his current benefits. Sadly, CAI’s suspicious finances undermine Mortenson’s past generosity. CAI’s finances should also make donors wary — CAI donors don’t want to fund Mortenson’s chartered flights. They want to educate young girls.

One of the more disturbing responses to this scandal is that it is “too risky” to question people like Mortenson or organizations like CAI. That is, by challenging people who do work to help women in hard-to-reach places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, we are hindering pro-woman, pro-education work. By questioning, we become anti-feminist and anti-world development.

This concept is dangerous because it unfairly protects people and organizations who work in support of certain ideals. Furthermore, it promotes the idea that “good enough” is sufficient. Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness brilliantly describes how people can willingly, and proudly, commit horrible deeds in the name of an ideal, “not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to,” Conrad wrote. In the name of an ideal, it becomes easier to fudge numbers and misreport stories, especially when those more romantic versions sell.

The tragedy of these falsifications is that they undercut naturally impressive stories and valuable work. 60 Minutes claims that parts of Mortenson’s story are fabricated. If we remove those dubious elements, we still have a remarkable story. In dramatizing their experiences, development workers like Mortenson can promote an image of unnecessary exclusivity: unless you have a story like mine, you can’t lead a successful mission. In reality, of course, good-hearted “normal” people are quite capable of doing important work.

In addition, all who engage in public service and development work must be forthright in how they report their deeds. If a Stanford tutoring program serves twenty-five children, the program’s leaders should celebrate those twenty-five, and not inflate their importance by claiming that they work with thirty. Similarly, Mortenson’s misrepresentation of the number of schools he built is simply not necessary, because the actual schools, though few in number, are still impressive.

Whether or not Mortenson is completely culpable, we ought to remain wary of panaceas, especially when the cure-all is one person. We should certainly support good work, but we should not expect that all good work will come with a romantic story. Greg Mortenson is still, of course, a source of inspiration. But right now, Mortenson’s current troubles should remind activists and donors everywhere that we must actively demand and pursue accountability, honesty, and transparency.

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