Daniel W. Drezner

Five lessons from Three Cups of Tea

I confess to being fascinated by academic or literary downfalls, so I’ve been spending the past few days catching up on the imbroglio over Greg Mortenson, his Central Asia Institute (CAI), and his bestsellers Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools.   To sum up:  through his books and CAI, Mortenson has popularized his mission to ...

I confess to being fascinated by academic or literary downfalls, so I’ve been spending the past few days catching up on the imbroglio over Greg Mortenson, his Central Asia Institute (CAI), and his bestsellers Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools.  

To sum up:  through his books and CAI, Mortenson has popularized his mission to build schools and educate children (particularly girls) in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a way of reducing extremism in that region.  Investigative reports by 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer strongly suggest the following: 

1)  Mortenson either fudged or flat-out lied about some of the more gripping anecdotes in both books. 

2)  Mortenson used CAI as a vehicle to promote his books and subsidize his income.  CAI covered his travel expenses for book tours and purchased books in such a way to boost royalties for Mortenson.  According to financial statenments, CAI devoted more of its budget to Mortenson’s promotional tours than actually building schools in Central Asia.  Mortenson rebuffed efforts by other CAI employees to impose financial controls on his expenditures.

3)  CAI/Mortenson exaggerated the number of schools that were built, and in many cases even if the schools were built, they have been left unused due to a variety of logistical and organizational failures. 

Mortenson and CAI have responded with a plethora of media interviewsdirect responses and open missives to supporters.  Most of these seem pretty feeble to me.  When Mortenson says that, "It is important to know that Balti people have a completely different notion about time," you kinda wonder if Mortenson isn’t talking about himself.)  Official investigations are now under way, publishers are belatedly fact-checking, and some prize committees are very busy wiping egg off of their face. 

To be fair, Mortenson has actually built schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  On my personal Scandal-O-Meter, this rates far below Bernie Madoff — but pretty far above, say, Doris Kearns Goodwin

So, what are the takeaway lessons from all this?  Five thoughts:   

1)  Reading through Krakauer’s story, the striking thing is not the extent of Mortenson’s deception but rather the fact that it took so long for this to come to light.  Mortenson has been a celebrity since Parade profiled him in April 2003.  The fact that Mortenson was able to write two best-sellers and enjoy the lecture circuit for eight years despite the surprising number of people who knew there were issues with Mortenson’s narrative.  The moral of the story is that , even in a transparent Web 2.0 era, myths can trump reality for a looooong time

2)  Even Mortenson’s detractors make it clear that they think he’s done much good in Central Asia, so this realy isn’t a Bernie Madoff-style scam.  It does suggest, however, that political analysts who think of NGOs and celebrity activists as pursuing humane policy ends only for altruistic purposes are living in  Fantasyland.  It’s a world of complex and overlapping motives, and no influential actor in international relations is a saint.   

3)  What’s interesting to me about the inaccuracies/fabrications in Three Cups of Tea is that, by and large, they are irrelevant to the larger policy question of whether schools can help reduce violent extremism.  Whether Greg Mortenson was kidnapped by the Taliban or not, whether he wandered into a village or not don’t really matter from a policy perspective.  Based on the amount of ink pixels being spilled used on these questions, however, it’s quite clear that these narrative elements really do matter.  As Laura Miller has pointed out in Salon, however, greater attention is being paid to those details than the NGO mismanagement. 

This suggests, in many ways, the power that creation or origin narratives have in developing politically alluring policies.  CAI ain’t lying when they say that, "Greg’s speeches, books and public appearances are the primary means of educating the American people on behalf of the Institute."   Coming up with a compelling policy is not always enough to generate action — narratives matter one whole hell of a lot. 

4)  Does Mortenson’s myths and mismanagement undercut the policy message?  To tell the truth, I’m not blown away by Mortenson’s policy message — indeed, it’s pretty weak.  As Alanna Shaikh points out in FP:

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.

Spencer Ackerman has a detailed, link-rich post at Wired detailing the ways in which U.S. military’s COINistas have drunk way too deeply from Mortenson’s magical teacup.  

In the best defense of Mortenson I’ve seen, Daniel Glick blogs the following

But here’s the crux for me.  As somebody who has worked in a Muslim country (I was a Knight International Press Fellow working in Algeria in 2006), I know that Americans need a lot of bridge building in the Islamic world.  Mortenson has gone where few others have gone, and has put in incredible time and energy to raise awareness, seed schools, and give girls opportunities for education that would not be theirs otherwise.  I have no doubt he has done orders of magnitude more good than harm.  The same cannot be said for a lot of NGOs doing development work around the world, much less our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hmmm…. maybe.  At a minimum, I’d like to see the costs and the benefits of Mortenson’s activities weighed very carefully right now. 

5)  I, for one, look forward to the day when 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer start looking into the living dead.  I will hereby defend every fact, every citation in Theories of International Politics and Zombies to the end of my days, or the end of days, whichever comes first. 

Am I missing anything? 

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