Features | Society | Central Asia

NGO Illusions We Want to Believe

Claims that an Afghanistan NGO founder fabricated details of his books has shaken the faith of his fans. But did we all get what we deserve?

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.)        

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In their desire to maintain their own faith, as well as inspire others, NGO founders will sometimes play loose with the facts as well as with finances. Greg Mortenson is probably the world’s most famous development worker in an industry plagued by fraud and corruption, as well as interpersonal rivalry and jealousy. Why pick on one man when we’re unwilling to accept that the United Nations, the Red Cross, and most of the entire NGO and development world are self-serving fictions designed to make us drop pennies in a fountain? And if Mortenson lied to attract more readers, isn’t 60 Minutes exposing the lies in part in its quest for viewers? 

When Oprah Winfrey confronted James Frey on her show, it was likely less about defending the truth than it was protecting her personal brand. And James Frey went willing to the tongue-lashing because he knew that it would increase his book sales (which it did).

I liked Greg Mortenson’s books, and plan to make Three Cups of Tea required reading for my Chinese students. I didn’t believe certain parts of the book, and really didn’t care for his project of building schools in Pakistan (it reminds me too much of China’s Hope Project, a notoriously corrupt and inept government-sanctioned charity to build schools in areas where children don’t have enough to eat). But I was inspired by his personal story, how mountain-climbing had endowed him with the virtues of patience and persistence, inner strength and faith – virtues that would make it possible for him to transform himself from a part-time nurse who lived in his car into one of the world’s most famous and successful social entrepreneurs.

Whatever the deception, I would still rather my students know this story of personal faith and triumph and not dwell on the corruption in all of us (and the apparent hopelessness of any country that ends with ‘-stan.’)

A book – in fact any piece of writing – is an act of deception and fraud. Writers pick memories out of context, and assemble it into a new narrative. Even if the memories were all objective and factual (which is impossible because our memories are coloured by our values and beliefs), the writer still deliberately assumes a false persona (‘the voice’) with which to create an intimate bond with anonymous readers. 

In the end, we don’t admire writers for their ability to capture and present facts, but for their ability to weave a tapestry that reveals the human condition more beautifully, powerfully, and truthfully than a photograph.  

And this is something that best-selling writer Jon Krakauer and the hugely successful producers of 60 Minutes should know more than anyone else.