With his international best-sellers Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, Greg Mortenson ascended to the peak of the NGO world. The books detail the mountain climber’s experience in building and expanding his charity, the Central Asia Institute, which builds schools for girls in remote and desperately poor regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Both books illuminate how an American – with the right mix of tenacity, cultural sensitivity, and political deft – can surmount the physical and cultural barriers of Pakistan and Afghanistan to effect positive change. Mortenson’s inspirational tales have become required reading for American schoolchildren who donate their lunch change to Afghan schoolgirls, and US soldiers deployed to fight the Taliban.
So tens of thousands of Mortenson’s fans, including myself, were left speechless when the writer Jon Krakauer, an early backer of Mortenson’s CAI, and the TV news magazine 60 Minutes suggested that Greg Mortenson fabricated certain aspects of his book and had CAI fund his book tours.
Megalomania, deception, and fraud are permanent features of both the publishing and development industries. Non-fiction is often the most fictional genre published by New York, and who could ever forget when Oprah Winfrey confronted James Frey on national TV over his memoir A Million Little Pieces, a book that she had previously promoted on her show? In 2006, as a Kabul-based United Nations public information officer, I interviewed a local Afghan who had founded an NGO to train local journalists. He was so young (only in his mid-twenties), so charismatic (he seemed in rapture when he talked about how he empowered his countrymen with the truth), and so patriotic (having been born and grown up in a devastated land, he was determined to re-build it), I thought it rude to ask the question I had wanted to ask the moment I stepped into his office: why is your personal office so big?
As development experts kept on telling me, NGO founders aren’t managers attuned to costs, but visionaries who inspire against hopelessness (the dictionary definition of both Pakistan and Afghanistan). Yes, training journalists and building schools seemed futile to some given the magnitude of Afghanistan’s problems – the ethnic divisions, the religious fanaticism, the impotence and corruption of government authority, the warlord-controlled drug trade and parliament, the abysmal poverty and tribal ignorance, the dearth of water and trees – but you have to start somewhere. In fact, the problems in Afghanistan were so overwhelming and disheartening that I found it took both extreme personal conviction and deception for anyone to even want to attempt to change anything there. (I left Afghanistan after six months.)