16 April 2011

Three Cups of Lies?

Update - Mortenson responds to the allegations leveled against him by 60 Minutes. See the end of the post.

Update 2 - More on CAI's financials from Penelope

60 Minutes will be airing an investigative piece that will be on tomorrow night about Greg Mortenson, famous for his book Three Cups of Tea.  The press release tells what will be covered:
According to the book's narrative, the villagers cared for him and he promised to return to build a school there. In a remote village in Pakistan, "60 Minutes" found Mortenson's porters on that failed expedition. They say Mortenson didn't get lost and stumble into Korphe on his way down from K2. He visited the village a year later.

That's what famous author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, a former donor to Mortenson's charity, says he found out, too. "It's a beautiful story. And it's a lie," says Krakauer. "I have spoken to one of his [Mortenson's] companions, a close friend, who hiked out from K2 with him and this companion said, 'Greg never heard of Korphe until a year later,'" Krakauer tells Kroft...

In "Three Cups of Tea," Mortenson writes of being kidnapped in the Waziristan region of Pakistan in 1996. In his second book, "Stones into Schools," Mortenson publishes a photograph of his alleged captors. In T.V. appearances, he has said he was kidnapped for eight days by the Taliban.

"60 Minutes" located three of the men in the photo, all of whom denied that they were Taliban and denied that they had kidnapped Mortenson. One the men in the photo is the research director of a respected think tank in Islamabad, Mansur Khan Mahsud...

"60 Minutes" also checked on schools that CAI claims to have built in Pakistan and Afghanistan and found that some of them were empty, built by somebody else, or simply didn't exist at all. The principals of a number of schools said they had not received any money from CAI in years.

Krakauer says a former board member of CAI told him he should stop giving money to Mortenson's charity years ago. "In 2002, [Mortenson's] board treasurer quit, resigned, along with the board president and two other board members...he said, in so many words, that Greg uses Central Asia Institute as his private ATM machine. That there's no accounting. He has no receipts," says Krakauer.

"60 Minutes" asked Mortenson several times for an interview, but he has not responded. CAI's two other board members also did not respond to phone calls and e-mails requesting comment.

CAI has publicly released only one audited financial statement in its 14 years of existence. Says Borochoff, "It's amazing that they could get away with that."
It will be interesting to see what comes of this. The thing that strikes me is that last sentence about how the CAI has only had one audited financial statement in the past 14 years. This is a pretty significant red flag. More surprising is that it was not enough to draw concerns from Charity Navigator who has rated the CAI has a 4 star organization.

I openly admit that I am not much of a fan of Mortenson and his book. But this is not an attempt to jump the second questions arise about his work. Rather, it is to say that this is something to follow. So far, he has not made a statement and I think that he deserves to be heard. I also would like to hear statements from the village he says that nursed him back to health upon his descent from K2.

I will try to post the video from 60 minutes as soon as I can. Please use the comments section to add any information as it becomes available. I want to really stress that this is not about Mortenson as a person, rather a post to share and gather information. Many people were inspired by his book and work, that is great to hear, but that has nothing to do with the accusations/claims being made about him and his organization.

HT Penelope

Update: Thanks to Peggy in the comments section for this article from the Bozeman Daily
with responses from Mortenson:

"I stand by the information conveyed in my book," he wrote in a statement, "and by the value of CAI's work in empowering local communities to build and operate schools that have educated more than 60,000 students."


"I stand by the story of ‘Three Cups of Tea,'" Mortenson said in a written statement, but added, "The time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993...

Mortenson responded that he gets a royalty of about 40 or 50 cents per book, and that he has contributed more than $100,000 of his own money to CAI, which has more than offset the book royalties. The $30,000 fee for speaking is average, he said, adding he does some events for free.
When the popularity of "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones Into Schools" took off, he said, CAI's board of directors decided to "seize the momentum" and do significant advertising for the book and donate copies to libraries, schools, retirement homes, veterans centers and churches.
The percentage of CAI money that goes toward schools is higher than "60 Minutes" assumed, he told the Chronicle, because during the last five years it has been building a "nest egg" of savings to make CAI sustainable into the future. The fund is exclusively for overseas teacher training, scholarships, new schools and supplies, he said. As of Friday, it had grown to more than $25.6 million, according to a financial statement CAI released...

CAI's public 990 tax form shows that in 2009 the charity had $14 million in income. It spent $3.9 million on schools overseas, and $4.6 million on travel, guest lectures and educating Americans about the plight of Pakistani and Afghan children. It paid Mortenson $180,000 in salary and other compensation.

One reason for the nest egg is so the work will continue, "if something happens to me," Mortenson said, adding that he's trying to work himself out of the organization over the next few years.

"As of now, I pay all my own travel expenses, and CAI gets the donations," he said...

Mortenson said he had been doing this work for 18 years, and "60 Minutes" had spent several months investigating him, but didn't try to contact him until March 30, and only gave him a chance to respond "at the 11th hour." He said Kroft ambushed him with a camera crew at an event in Atlanta where he was speaking to ninth-graders. Mortenson said he declined to give an on-air interview.

"This could be devastating," he said of the report. "It's very difficult when you're being stalked, bullied and harassed."
Update 2: A look at CAI's financials from a well balanced post by Penelope:
There is no doubt in my mind that Mortenson’s organization is not perfectly managed. CAI’s 2009 financial statements show that $1.5 million was spent on advertising, while roughly $3.5 million was spent on actual “overseas projects” (H/T Saundra and Cynan). The statement also shows that only $35,000 went towards teacher salaries – with about 145 schools, if my math is correct, that is about $240 per year, per school for salaries. Even in a poor country, even if there is only one teacher in each school, that is not a lot of money. There are other red flags. For example, the 2009 statement seems to be the only publicly available one, and the 60 Minutes investigation points out that schools that CAI claims it built do not exist.