Greg Mortenson and "Three Cups of Tea"

By Razib Khan | April 16, 2011 11:02 am

I’ve been a bit skeptical of the details of Greg Mortenson’s story in his book Three Cups of Tea for years. It seems be to so predicated on contemporary biases about the basic universal goodness of human nature. I hoped everything was true, but it seemed too good to be true. Other people who worked in Afghan NGOs tended to tell a more gritty and gray story, so either Mortenson was embellishing, or he had a special magic touch. Since I don’t believe in magic touches, I wondered as to the nature of embellishment.

Now 60 Minutes has made some allegations as the veracity of Mortenson’s narrative in Three Cups of Tea, and more importantly the finances and efficacy of his charity. In Mortenson’s response he seems to admit embellishment in terms of the “hook” in Three Cups of Tea. But the work of his charity is much more important than the details of some book, so we’ll see how that pans out. Not all investigative reports exhibit proper context, so I don’t necessarily assume that CBS News is giving the most accurate accounting.

  • John Emerson

    You’re right to withhold judgement, but my gut feeling that Mortenson is a talented, charming, enterprising guy who has monetized a feel-good story. You don’t have to be at all cynical to be suspicious of a charity group that hasn’t released an audited financial report in 14 years. Fake charities are one of the main categories of scam.

    Another interesting thing is that he’s arbitraging the difference between what he knows about an exotic, dangerous, and important place, and what everyone else knows, and seems to be making a huge profit at this. There’s a whole tradition of this too, orientalism fakers and forgers of various sorts. Some of them were quite learned (Sir Edmund Backhouse) or talented (Kurban Said a.k.a. Essad Bey, real name Lev Nussimbaum, with two other claimants to be the real Kurban Said. Nussimbaum was an Azerbaijani Jew of German ancestry who was able to fake it as a Caucasian Muslim) .

  • Christopher Kandrat

    His new book is pretty good. I’d recommend it

  • charlie

    Why worry about the funding when USSOCOM will send money over?

  • ClarkB

    For all the naysayers just keep this in mind. When government funded charities/organizations (like USAID) spend MILLIONS of dollars to build ONE school in Afghanistan and CAI does it for a fraction of that a few villages away and without one PENNY of government money that tends to make some powerful enemies.

  • John Emerson

    Read the article, for Christ’s sake, instead of just cranking out the slogans.

  • Faithe

    As someone who loved, read and supported Greg Mortenson’s work, I sincerely hope his organization is at least half as effective as it claims.

    The greatest tragedy is not deceit or misappropriated funds. It is that the work described in the book is actually not being done and those children are not getting the education needed to progress their society.

    I don’t give a rats grass if he made up how he came across Korphe. Just please tell me that your schools are functioning.

  • Ennis

    60 minutes alleges that:

    a) CAI spends more money on publicity in the US than on building / funding schools “only 41 percent of the money it raised actually went to pay for schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan”

    b) that of the schools it claims to fund, some don’t exist, others say they haven’t received money and yet others say that they are funded by other charities

    c) That CAI’s board’s treasurer quit alleging that Mortenson treats the foundation like his personal ATM and there’s little accounting for where they money is going. Meanwhile he takes a pretty steep fee, and was flying around in chartered jets.

    Hopefully there will be some follow up, but these are pretty serious allegations, and they’re at least prima facie credible.

  • TGGP

    The name didn’t immediately ring a bell, but references to his tea book got some of my neurons twitching. I had heard of him before from this critique from a Pakistani of U.S foreign policy’s reliance on non-experts.

  • ClarkB


    1) CAI’s last tax filing (2009) WAS audited go to their financial reports and read it yourself. Charity probably wasn’t big enough to bother paying for an audit (which is not required) before that.

    2) CAI didn’t say it built 170 schools- page 2 of CAI’s 2010 newsletter says “it has either established or was significantly supporting more than 170 schools”.

    3) CAI has four out of four stars from the gold standard which tracks charities- Charity Navigator

    4) CAI doesn’t take any government funding, all private donations.

    If you want to argue whether the books are 100% accurate I am sure there are plenty examples they aren’t.

  • John Emerson

    Charities which take only private funds still should be subject to oversight, especially if the donations are tax-deductable. Many of the biggest charity frauds were strictly private.

    Charity Navigator depends on self-reporting on tax returns. They are revamping their rating system.

    If everything that’s said is true, it’s pretty bad. It doesn’t mean that Mortenson is a fraud. It looks more like he just hasn’t been scrupulous about keeping the revenue streams separate, and that they’re all part of the overall Chris Mortenson operation. A lot of charismatic, inspirational, inventive personalities work that way, but a lot of them do come to grief when cash flow problems appear.

  • John Emerson

    The critique TGGP links isn’t a critique of Mortenson, but of the US military using Mortenson’s book as an area guide.

  • Sharon Farmer

    Obviously, Clark has some close and positive connection to CAI & I appreciate his strong defense, however biased. Having said that, I also do not believe along with the naysayers, that Mortenson is a crook on any level. He seemingly got carried with “too much, too soon” and doesn’t know how to run things OR to listen to those who do. . .
    This led to a poorly run organization–from staff to Board. Who were too few and underqualified for the task and only listened to “Greg’s way. ” I know someone who helped CAI with a fundraiser & they similarly experienced the shut-down from CAI when they asked questions and made needed suggestions. Alot of rudeness and “we’re doing it this way because we can” attitude. While more investigations will surely ensue, more people will come to his defense, as well. Greg’s heart, if mind, is in the right place and I think that in the end, the organization will be the better for the shake-down. Childrens’ education and quality of life in these areas is at stake and that’s the bottom line, here, not if Greg did what/when in Korphe . . .

  • Razib Khan

    Childrens’ education and quality of life in these areas is at stake and that’s the bottom line, here, not if Greg did what/when in Korphe . . .

    people keep saying this. there’s some truth in that. but if mortenson gets a pass on the K2 story fabrication, it seems the only responsible thing for a non-profit would also to be to fabricate a media-friendly “hook.”

  • Todd in Portland

    To my mind, the most serious allegation is that Greg stated that the group of men in Waziristan were Taliban and held him against his will, and publishing the photo of the men identifying them as Taliban. If Greg did this just to “juice up” his book, he was guilty of libel and could have put the men at great risk. The 60 Minutes broadcast made a strong case that Greg did just that, and if he did, it was a despicable act.

  • Greg Zaller

    I’m the founder for another system of schools in Pakistan that is quite different from the CAI model. We don’t take donations and we rely on our students to set the direction and earn the costs, which are quite low. It is a simple grass roots all volunteer organization but we have 30 schools and approximately 4000 students, mostly women. Husbands and families are proud of their hard work to bring prosperity. Five dollars they earn making embroidered greeting cards will pay a tuition for one year and we are looking to lower that.

    My problem with the CAI model is that it is top down outside money driven. What is the value of pumping million dollar Western style education into village cultures? They want and must learn how to solve their own complex problems and work their own way out, gaining strength as they go. Those millions of dollars from the outside smother what must come from the inside.

    We at Little World Community Organization are regular people rolling up our sleeves to stand with the impoverished and assist their gallant and hopeful efforts to make a good life for themselves.

    Greg Zaller

  • Stan Petersen

    I have known Greg for 30 years on a personal level. It is astonishing to me that people can come on these Blogs that know nothing about him or what has actually transpired here. Would you expect any of the men in Waziristan to admit they were Taliban? Come on people wake up as to what has happened. Greg has pushed himself to complete exhaustion driving his cause. He is guilty of being socially challenged, un-organized, and having a complete disregard for details. In addition, he refuses to get help in areas where he clearly needs it due to his desire to be in “control” of all aspects of the various projects. He is not however a liar. ^0 minutes should be held to a higher standard to report BOTH sides of this story. I can assure you there are TWO sides to this story too. Krakauer should not throw stones when he clearly lives in a glass house.

  • John Emerson

    Mortenson: “There’s pages and pages of analysis, but they determined that CAI, Three Cups of Tea, and Greg Mortenson are pretty much all part of each other.”

    From this interview:

    This is consistent with the idea that he’s a charismatic, well-intentioned, enthusiastic guy who doesn’t keep his revenue streams separate. It’s also consistent with more negative interpretations.

    “A complete disregard for details” is a very dangerous thing when you’re handling millions of dollars a year.

  • Muffy

    John Emerson hit the nail on the head when he said, “‘A complete disregard for details’ is a very dangerous thing when you’re handling millions of dollars a year.”

    I think the bottom line we must consider is that Greg Mortenson, even if he’s a wonderfully good intentioned individual, did not, through his selfless and tireless work, magically make millions of dollars appear for his charity out of thin air. Rather, he got this money from donors. Mortenson is not the only person making sacrifices here; every one of his donors is also making some sort of sacrifice, either big or small, by financially supporting his charity. When you are in control of so much money from so many people, you are under an obligation (both morally and legally) to be honest, transparent and accountable about the way you use the funds. Remember, Mortenson himself would be a nobody without these donations. If he were dishonest in soliciting or spending these donations — or even if he was careless in dealing with them — then shame on him. He (arguably, depending on the severity of his actions) committed fraud. Even a saint needs to be held accountable.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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