Greg Mortenson and the Business of Redemption

Is there a nobler goal than that of helping young girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan get an education? Greg Mortenson’s memoir Three Cups of Tea has given an unequivocal answer to this question, though this week it has also shown just how unquestioningly people want to believe stories of redemption. Three Cups of Tea tells the story of how Mortenson was nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers after an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain. As a way to repay the villagers’ kindness, Mortenson promises to return to and build a school for the children. The book recounts how the charity he founded, the Central Asia Institute, went on to build dozens of schools in the region.

Three Cups of Tea became an international bestseller, as well as required reading in many schools and colleges in the United States. Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, received millions of dollars in donations, including $100,000 from President Obama. But last week, a 60 Minutes investigation revealed that the central anecdote in the book—the author being nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers after being separated from his party—wasn’t exactly true. Though he climbed K2, Mortenson didn’t come across the Pakistani village of Korphe until a year later. And he was not, as the book asserts, kidnapped by the Taliban. More troublingly, some of the schools he claims to have built were never built at all.

The revelations immediately ignited a firestorm of reactions. Readers took to Amazon.com to vent their rage. “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” read one review. “Another huckster, another charlatan. This makes me sick,” read another. They were, understandably, feeling cheated because they were lied to. But perhaps they need to ask themselves why they were so willing to believe this unlikely story in the first place: because Three Cups of Tea offered them a thoroughly familiar paradigm—Eastern women are in need of Western saviors.

Readers who may not know much about the political situation in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, still know, based on images they see on television, that the situation of women is disastrous. Three Cups of Tea reaffirmed that message, and provided a savior in the form of Mortenson. But what about women’s organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Why are they not part of this picture of empowerment of women? These questions are not directly addressed in these kinds of discussions, because, by definition it seems, Afghan and Pakistani women are victims, and not actors in their own lives; they are in need of help from the outside.

The other reason for the popularity of the book is its inspirational message. To a certain extent, it gives American readers a chance to redeem themselves for their government’s disastrous involvement in the region. After all, the drone attacks that the US government has been conducting in the region since 2004 have resulted in untold numbers of civilian deaths—which set back the cause not just of women’s rights, but of human rights in general. By donating money to the Central Asia Institute, people feel that, in spite of the fraught nature of this involvement, at least some good is being done.

The reality, of course, is different. The Central Asian Institute claims to have built 141 schools, but reporters for 60 Minutes found that nearly 15 schools were empty, or used to store hay and spinach, and that 6 of them did not even exist. People who have donated money to this charity have been cheated, and the children who were supposed to have been helped have been forgotten. Perhaps this could have been averted if aid distribution were transparent—but after 14 years of operation the CAI issued only one audited financial statement.

General Petraeus is said to be a fan of the book; he has even inaugurated some of the schools with Mortenson. But why would a charity so shrouded in mystery receive so much support from a military official? Again, the answer lies in the redemptive story the book tells: that the American military is part of the solution to Pakistan and Afghanistan’s problems, rather than one of its causes.

There is no nobler goal than that of helping young girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan get an education. Building schools is great, but they still need to be staffed by trained, local teachers and supplied with materials, which can’t be accomplished without the direct involvement of Pakistanis and Afghans themselves. And at the moment, they seem to be the ones missing from the story of redemption.

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