No tea for Mortenson…

Published: April 23, 2011

I met Greg Mortenson at the Authors Festival in Carmel, California while I was attending grad school in the area. We chatted for half an hour and swapped contact information so we could meet in Pakistan.

While in Pakistan, I rang up his Central Asia Institute (CAI) contact, Suleman, to arrange a meeting but Mortenson’s trip was cancelled because of his heart condition. Nevertheless we kept in touch through emails and Facebook.

I made an effort to see the CAI schools in Skardu while I was visiting those areas during my summer break. After my return to California, a group of class fellows and I met Mortenson at a book signing event for “Stones into Schools” at the Steinbeck Center. Both times Mortenson was easy going and happy even though there was a long line of people waiting for their books to be signed. He was knowledgeable about the areas and people, familiar to me in Pakistan. His book tour did seem to be taking a toll on his heath, since he appeared tired.

I’ve read his books and contributed to CAI so the recent allegations that have surfaced against him are indeed troublesome. After watching the 60 Minutes investigation I was not convinced. So what if he had exaggerated some events in his books? It was all for a good cause. Plus, it is difficult to verify the truth in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The allegations

I read Jon Krakauer’s 75 page report titled “Three cups of deceit”, in which he goes into detail about the exaggerations in “Three cups of tea” and “Stones into Schools”. Krakauer writes about Mortenson giving up on his attempt to climb K2 but fails to mention that this happened after Mortenson and his friend Scott Darsney went to the rescue of the French climber, Etienne Fine, who collapsed during his climb and had to be carried down to a helicopter.

Mortenson’s wandering alone and lost into Korphe is disputed, because Darsney said that they went to Khane not Korphe and this is where Greg Mortenson promised to build his first school. Mortenson even wrote about this in the article published in American Himalayan Foundation newsletter. But, he admitted that events have been compressed in order for better story telling.

The truth behind Mortenson’s kidnapping by the Taliban has also come into question. However, Jon Krakauer’s report reveals that Niamat Gul, one of the supposed protectors, is a petty thief who moves from town to town conning people. He was in prison for kidnapping a girl and managed to escape a couple of years before running into Mortenson.

More publicity than charity?

The most damning revelation was that more than 50 per cent of the CAI funds are used for book promotions and travel expenses even though the CAI does not earn any revenue from book sales. It seems like Mortenson got used to working on a small scale in Pakistan and the CAI grew too big, too fast, to manage. He does not seem to be aware of how a non-profit organisation functions.


There should be more transparency and control over how the funds are used but that will likely come at the sacrifice of time and efficiency. CAI has tried to remain a small organisation in order to avoid layers of bureaucracy. Mortenson operates well in the field but he is in need of better business practices.

Let’s not forget that he did go out on his own in remote areas to build schools for children who were using tents or tree shades as their classrooms. He was awarded the star of Pakistan medal for his services to Pakistan and President Obama donated funds from his Nobel Peace Prize to the CAI. Mortenson has worked with the US military in Afghanistan as well.

Greg Mortenson should work with the CAI to provide more solid figures as to how donations are used and book profits are spent. To date, however, there has been no solid evidence of any wrongdoing to justify the recent attacks. My hope is that Mortenson and the CAI act quickly to answer people’s questions so that can continue to offer educational opportunities to those in desperate need.

Sabina Khan

Sabina Khan

A Master's graduate in Conflict Resolution from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. She tweets @ksabina.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Nurmomad

    Lost in this entire discourse, for some reason, is the story of Greg Mortenson’s transition from being a “school-builder” to a “military strategist”.

    I would like the learned blogger to also shed some light on this aspect of the story!

    Besides, it is never “impossible” to verify facts in the mountain areas. I know, as a native!Recommend

  • ccsf

    Please go to: to read many formal and informal statements released to address the allegations made by Jon Krakauer in his distorted report.

    Also see:
    Question: Three Cups of Tea wasn’t a co-written book, but you share a byline with the main character, Greg Mortenson. How did that come about?
    Relin: That’s been the only negative thing about this whole adventure for me. After I turned in the manuscript, I received a galley back from the publisher with two names on it. It was published that way over my objections.
    However you may feel about this controversy, it cannot be denied that Mortenson has been one of the most effective advocates for girls education — an issue that so often traffics in obscurity and penury. (A recent Time magazine article noted that 2 cents of every development dollar goes to girls — and that is an improvement over where it was in the last decade.) The media firestorm threatens to overshadow, or worse, discredit the heroines at the heart of his work building schools in Afghanistan. …

    … In the wake of the allegations around “Three Cups of Tea” and the truth it contains, we must not forget about the girls. Investing in girls strengthens communities. Stronger communities make for a more stable world. And at a time in which upheaval has become the norm, this prosperity and security dividend is in the interest of everyone who fights each day for something better for their children.
    Educating girls improves the world. And that is a fact.
    That facts and recollections are in dispute regarding events described in Three Cups of Tea, that one person’s kidnapping is another person’s hosting of a foreigner, isn’t surprising to me at all. It’s not even alarming. I worked in Afghanistan for six months. In that region, reality is in flux. Many people will tell you what you want to hear. That approach has kept many Afghan and Pakestani individuals, families and villages alive – but can make evaluation and reporting a massive challenge. This village member says such-and-such happened yesterday. Another says it happened last year. Another says it never happened. A perpetual real-life Roshoman. Although, really, I can’t single Afghanistan out for this behavior – have you ever watched Judge Judy?

    It’s been revealed that a school Mortenson’s organization funded is being used to house hay instead of educate children. Some schools may not have been built. Some are claimed by other donors. None of that is surprising – I knew of a school funded by the Afghan program I worked for that was housing the local village elders instead of holding classes. I knew of a local employment project that had paid everyone twice – once by our agency and once by a military PRT, for the same work. Not saying it’s right, not saying you shouldn’t be upset when you hear those things, but you should know that in developing countries with severe security problems, widespread corruption and profound poverty, this happens ALL THE TIME. Humanitarian professionals are told again and again: give local people control over development projects. And we do. And a result is that, sometimes, local people double dip, or don’t do what they were paid to do, or exploit others. How do you stop that? Are YOU ready to go on site visits in remote regions of Waziristan every three months? Are YOU ready to be called culturally-insensitive or overly-bureaucratic in your efforts to ensure quality in development projects in remote places?Recommend

  • Windy

    Glad you were charmed by the man, but a mismanaged charity that has raised over $50 million tax exempt doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt in my mind. This isn’t pocket change that’s found its way into Mortensen’s pockets.

    Yeah, he’s spacey and habitually late and admits he can’t remember things or handle money. Sure, he’s claimed he was kidnapped by the Taliban, but in fact he was a guest. Oops. The devil’s in the details.Recommend

  • Masood

    I think it should not be difficult verifying how honest the writer and school builder has been. Areas like Baltistan are societies built around irrigation canals dug dug across difficult mounains. People do not live as isolated individuals even in isolated spots. They live as a community because as isolated individuals these societies would not exist but would become mountain deserts without their irrigation canals. In such societies everyone living in a community knows what is going on around him. Getting a list of the schools and sending a team to visit them should not be a difficult exercise. If the author is doing a lot of good in remote places its best to have this clarified at the earliest.Recommend


    WELL Mr NOOR and freinds

    first look into your own doings we never brought any thing on media what happend around your and what you were preaching . should i share some of your stories hahahah dear we are the beleiver of God and you are the follower of Marks and Other gods who write books and became God for you …don,t open me infront of those who are waiting for people like you should focus on your bussiness my dear …your so called educated professionals..better be in your limits and convay my massage to your freinds alsooooo

    remamber iam too much blunt in my decision making Recommend

  • Apni Dharti

    @ Wikhi League

    you mean Marx? right? Recommend