What Greg Mortenson got right

 In Alternatives to War, Stand Up

I can’t even count the number of times people — from peace activists to congressional staffers — have recommended that I read “Three Cups of Tea,” or shared their enthusiasm for Greg Mortenson’s efforts to bring positive change to countries in which the US military has wrought havoc. For those of us who want to see a radical transformation in how the US interacts with the world — with more focus on schools than bombs — the recent controversy over Mortenson’s book and his management of the Central Asia Institute is heart-breaking. Whatever one makes of the allegations, it’s undeniable that the controversy is going to damage Mortenson’s formerly pristine reputation.

That’s why it’s so important that we don’t let this debate obscure the fundamental truths behind Mortenson’s work, as well as that of many other aid groups. Nicholas Kristof, a big Mortenson supporter, highlighted this in a recent column:

I’ve visited some of Greg’s schools in Afghanistan, and what I saw worked. Girls in his schools were thrilled to be getting an education. Women were learning vocational skills, such as sewing. Those schools felt like some of the happiest places in Afghanistan.

I also believe that Greg was profoundly right about some big things.

He was right about the need for American outreach in the Muslim world. He was right that building schools tends to promote stability more than dropping bombs. He was right about the transformative power of education, especially girls’ education. He was right about the need to listen to local people — yes, over cup after cup after cup of tea — rather than just issue instructions.

I worry that scandals like this — or like the disputes about microfinance in India and Bangladesh — will leave Americans disillusioned and cynical. And it’s true that in their struggle to raise money, aid groups sometimes oversell how easy it is to get results. Helping people is more difficult than it seems, and no group of people bicker among themselves more viciously than humanitarians.

There are dedicated people all around the world who are partnering with local communities to bring real change to people’s lives. Most of these humanitarians don’t have the benefit of the international attention that Mortenson has received.

Katha Pollitt points out some of these efforts at The Nation, and the danger that Mortenson’s reputation could reflect poorly on them:

The real tragedy of the Mortenson news is that it may make Americans not more knowledgeable but more cynical. “Why can’t there be at least one morally correct person in the world?” asked one YouTube poster on the 60 Minutessegment. “Just one person who can selflessly do the right thing, change the world for the better, and not be a jerk about it?” Poignant question, but the answer is: there are lots of such people. Afghanistan and Pakistan have many honest, energetic and creative aid workers, including many locals—they just don’t get the celebrity media treatment or the celebrity-sized budgets. The Afghan Women’s Fund, run by the Afghan expatriate Fahima Vorgetts, builds and supports schools, runs literacy classes and income-generating projects for women, digs wells in parched villages and much more—on around $120,000 a year. Think what it could do with just one of CAI’s wasted millions! Lauryn Oates, of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (cw4wafghan.ca), told me the real Afghan education problem isn’t bricks and mortar; it’s finding qualified teachers—especially women. “The majority have no postsecondary education at all, or maybe didn’t even finish high school. We have high school math teachers who don’t know long division.” Besides doing other important projects, such as running literacy classes in places where there is zero literacy, her group has trained more than 1,800 already working teachers since 2008. Its annual budget? Around $800,000.

Development and humanitarian efforts can be extremely effective, and we need to keep that message at the forefront to make sure these programs don’t fall by the wayside. We’ll be highlighting successful efforts in our monthly Stand Up newsletter so you can learn more about these life-changing programs and educate your friends and family.

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Showing 6 comments
  • James Rogers

    I read “Three Cups of Tea”. Mortensen’s concept was brilliant and effective. It reveals a man not encumbered by ego weaknesses. I estimate he has done more for the people of the world than all our Presidents put together. The controversy arises as a result of ego inadequacy and the generation of jealousy. I submit that Anital’s opinion of the human race (with one or two exceptions, as noted) as stupid is accurate. So we have a bunch of ego-driven ignoramuses running the world. Pity. It could have been such a wonderful place.


    I read Greg’s delightful and informative book. America should be proud of him and his work. He is intelligent and caring, something that gets tougher to find day-by-day with the constantly unending
    wars/battles and economic toilet that the world has fallen into.
    Bravo to Greg and his work. More people should be like him and
    get things done. What’s wrong with educating girls in remote areas of the world. Let children lead the way, but give them a chance to lead.

    Thank you, ce

  • John Cooper

    Sadly, Marc Antony’s line “The evil men do lives after then, the good is oft interred with their bones” applies here. For whatever frailties and foibles, Greg has obviously done more both for peace and for the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan than all the generals and their war machines ever could.
    My school, as have others, has reneged on its invitation for him to come speak. “Guilty until proven innocent” seems to be the watch word. I am sad for Mortenson and deeply ashamed of the moral and ethical cowardice of my school in the face of controversy. Obviously they cared more about their reputation than for the good Greg has done despite whatever mistakes he may be found to have made. I still deeply admire him what he was able to accomplish with so little.
    Also please note that ‘Three Cups of Tea’ was co-authored. The sequel, ‘Stones into Schools’, to my mind far better presents the character of the man and his quest. It’s worth a look-see.

    • Rebecca Griffin

      Thanks for the tip on “Stones Into Schools.”

      It is really a shame how all the focus now is on these accusations and not the importance of the kind of work Mortenson has done. I hope we can keep the attention on the need for this type of program and its superiority to trying to solve every problem through military might.

    • Peter

      I would agree .Greg while sitting with Mother Terasas corpse three years after her death suggests a truly sublime individual..Flying private jets and staying in 5 star hotels while exposing the virtues of giving to the impovershed lead me to my check book ;that we beef up our government oversight agencies ..

  • Joy

    Heartbreaking is the word! I have been following Greg’s work in Afghanistan and Pakistan ever since I read Three Cups of Tea several years ago and his latest book Stones into Schools. I feel he is one of the most selfless people working on the front with some of the most oppressed: women and children in these poor Muslim areas. While I did not see the segment on 60 minutes I have read that they ambushed Greg and the Central Asia Institute, misquoted and misused information and used outdated documents to slander the cause that Greg and the C.A.I. have worked so hard to support: education of women and children in war-torn areas; and through this work built bridges of peace and understanding between many Muslims and Americans. Greg and his allies have done more to promote world peace than diplomats and government officials and certainly more than our governments inhumane policies in those regions.
    Everyone should read Greg’s books and donate to his projects!

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