Three Cups of BS

Greg Mortenson's school-building plan was never a good idea.

Paula Bronstein /Getty Images
Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

The world was shocked by a report on CBS’s 60 Minutes this week that accused bestselling author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson of being a fraud. Not only were some of the stories from his book fabricated, 60 Minutes alleges, but the charity that Mortenson created to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan never built many of the facilities it has taken credit for. Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea didn’t, as it claimed, bring education to rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its finances are a mess, and the charity does not even seem to have kept track of how many schools it built or how many students attended them.

While much of the uproar has been over the lies Mortenson peddled, I can’t help wondering: Why, exactly, did we ever think that Mortenson’s model for education, exemplified in his Central Asia Institute (CAI), was going to work? Its focus was on building schools — and that’s it. Not a thought was spared for education quality, access, or sustainability. But building schools has never been the answer to improving education. If it were, then the millions of dollars poured into international education over the last half-century would have already solved Afghanistan’s — and the rest of the world’s — education deficit by now.

Over the last 50 years of studying international development, scholars have built a large body of research and theory on how to improve education in the developing world. None of it has recommended providing more school buildings, because according to decades of research, buildings aren’t what matter. Teachers matter. Curriculum matters. Funding for education matters. Where classes actually take place? Not really.

The whole CAI model was wrong. But here’s the truly awful thing: Looking back, it’s clear that everyone knew that that CAI’s approach didn’t work. It was just that no one wanted to talk about it.

None of the big names in international education, like Creative Associates International or the American Institutes for Research, ever worked with CAI, which wouldn’t have met those organizations’ tough standards for financial accountability or technical skills. It’s also no coincidence that CAI was never a big recipient of funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Experts on education and international development think a lot bigger than school buildings.

Mountaineers, it turns out, have also known all along that the origin story of Three Cups of Tea was a myth. When Jon Krakauer was reporting the April article that thoroughly debunks Mortenson’s travels and his book, he seems to have simply asked Scott Darsney, one of Mortenson’s companions, for the truth. He got it. Mortenson had three companions walk down K2 with him when he gave up his attempt, and he didn’t wander alone into the village of Korphe, as he claims.

The nonprofit community in the United States also knew that there was something tricky with CAI’s management. Some of Mortenson’s donors saw red flags, wondering how he could possibly run an NGO while also conducting his whirlwind speaking tour. The current board has only three members, one of whom is Mortenson himself: a risky structure with very little accountability built into it. Krakauer reports that three board members quit in frustration over poor management in 2002. Yet none of them spoke out. And CAI wasn’t rated by the Better Business Bureau, as most charities are, because of a failure to disclose accountability information.

Finally, Pakistan scholars knew there was something wrong with Three Cups of Tea because the descriptions of Pakistan were so inaccurate. Throughout the book, the authors get religious divides, tribal affiliations, and political alliances wrong. A scathing 2010 review of the book by the website Islamic Insights complains that the book relies gross generalizations and only a superficial knowledge of the region. And it’s just plain wrong: "Apart from problems with normative assumptions in the book, there are gross misrepresentations which require thorough scrutiny. For example, as one commentator pointed out elsewhere, ‘Mortenson could not have attended Mother Teresa’s funeral in Spring 2000 … because she died in Autumn 1997.’"

All of this leaves us with a new question entirely: When so many people knew that Three Cups of Tea wasn’t entirely factual and that the Central Asia Institute was both badly run and doing flawed work, how did it take this long to come out to the public?

First and foremost, neither international development culture nor nonprofit culture generally rewards critics. What benefit was there to being the one public voice who didn’t love Three Cups of Tea? It was much easier to roll your eyes with the other international development folks when the title was mentioned and then go on with your real work. Being branded as a naysayer doesn’t help anyone get a job or funding for projects they care about. This combined with a very reasonable fear that criticism of the Central Asia Institute might lead to public disillusionment with aid projects in general — a fear that seems to be playing out in the reaction to Mortenson. Commenters on the CBS site, for example, have asked, why not extend the scrutiny of Mortenson to all international charities?

But the big reason nobody asked the tough questions was that we fell for the story. We didn’t want to ask. Sure, the book was a turgid, overwritten hagiography, but the story was magic. We all wanted to believe. Mortenson’s work inspired countless aid workers, such as the blogger who writes Stories of Conflict and Love, who reacted sadly to the CBS investigation in an April 18 post. "I understand that the recent revelations suggest the story is problematic … [But Mortenson’s] work and life story still ignite something inside me." Indeed, even the most hardened aid professional would like to think that once in a while, problems have an easy answer. It would be awfully nice if rural Pakistan just needs schools — not teachers, not social support for education, not money for books and teacher training.

We wanted to believe that sometimes, international aid really is that easy, that a clueless amateur with a heart of gold can bring change in a region that has defeated the experts. If an amateur could pull this feat off, just think what professionals could manage in the future, doing things right. Nobody wanted to pay too much attention to the details because it would have ruined a good story.

I suspect that Mortenson fell for his story, too, and that when he felt it begin to slip away from him, he just kept creating more stories to keep up. Building infrastructure like schools in challenging environments is hard for an experienced organization. For a beginner like Mortenson, it must have been nearly impossible; even the cheerful, sanitized story in Three Cups of Tea makes that clear. It’s not surprising that CAI ran into trouble expanding in Pakistan, let alone Afghanistan.

We let Mortenson spin us because we wanted to be spun. Development problems are hard, slow, difficult problems that take generations to solve. It’s a lot more fun to believe in a good story. It’s easy to pile on Greg Mortenson at this point, but asking the hard questions a whole lot earlier might have helped CAI grow slower and stay on track.

Education is too important to be lost in our love for inspiring narrative. Next time we hear a fantastic story about a new aid effort, we need to look deeper. Does its organizational model make sense? Is it building on the lessons of the past? Is the money handled right? Is there evaluation going on, and are there documented results? Everyone, from children in Pakistan and Afghanistan to donors to Mortenson himself, would have benefited if somebody had asked the real questions sooner.

Alanna Shaikh is a senior TED fellow and an aid worker currently residing in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. She blogs at