Three Cups of … all the good titles have been taken

On Sunday, 60 Minutes aired a story about Greg Mortenson, his charity Central Asia Institute (CAI), and his books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. Three Cups of Tea recounts  the story of Mortenson: attempting to climb K2; getting lost on the way down the mountain; stumbling into a small village where he was moved by the hospitality and poverty; and promising to build a school. CAI has now built hundreds of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The book was a bestseller for a long time. Mortenson is a sought after public speaker. All-in-all a very interesting story. I read the book a number of years ago and found it inspiring. So, what’s the problem?

The 60 minutes story and work by Jon Krakauer (Three Cups of Deceit – an ebook that I believe is still free to download before tomorrow,, bring to light aspects of the narrative that seem to be embellished, or completely untrue. Also, and more seriously, there are accusations of financial mismanagement.

From reading blogs and news articles it seems like people who are commenting are divided; some are defending Mortenson, others are vilifying him. I believe that the work that Mortenson has done has enabled thousands of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, particularly young girls, to attend school. However, does this justify deceiving donors and misusing funds?

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Shawn graduated from UBC a number of years ago when he completed a Bachelor of Human Kinetics, followed by a Bachelor of Education. Not really interested in toiling away in a particular school district in B.C., he decided to go abroad and ended up teaching P.E. in China. His last year coincided with the Beijing Olympics and seemed like a fitting way to conclude his time in Asia. Through work and travel experiences he took an interest in international issues and development and completed a Certificate in International Development through UBC Continuing Studies. Shawn returned to Canada and worked for a year as a teacher-on-call before deciding it was time to explore his interest in international development a bit more. He is now working in Lesotho (a small country inside of South Africa) on an HIV/AIDS project run by the Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (LENEPWHA). The project has a sport-for-development component that is using soccer to reach out to, and provide services for, orphaned and vulnerable children. At the same time Shawn had also applied to start graduate studies at UBC and will officially start his MA this year. His posts will reflect his personal and work experiences in Lesotho, and the concept of sport as a tool in development.

2 Responses to “Three Cups of … all the good titles have been taken”

  1. Gena

    When I first read (or started reading, I don’t think I finished it) Three Cups of Tea, I was working at a grassroots school in Malawi. Both the women I worked for (the school’s founder) and I thought that there was something incredible about the story. He seemed to go around just building these schools and suddenly they would work like clock work and everything would be laddy-da. Having worked at a school, where every day was a struggle to find funds, maintain accountability and make a little go a long way, his story seemed fantastic at least.

    As it turns out, it was fantastic because it was fantasy.

    I don’t think that his work–however good it was and however many schools he built (and now we don’t know what that number is anymore)–in anyway justifies his action. He wasted millions of dollars, deceived thousands of people and cast doubt on the entire “education-is-the-answer” hypothesis in the developing world.

    I imagine many, many more details are going to come out about this story, but I for one am already disillusioned. I think if you start an organization like this and find it is too much for you to handle (which is what I imagine happened here) you reach out and get help.

    And you certainly don’t lie about being kidnapped by the Taliban.

  2. Elysa

    These people who write books with fabricated events seriously impress me. I worry about interpreting someone’s argument inaccurately and citing it, let alone straight up lying. Bold move, Mortenson, bold move.

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