Friday, May 6, 2011

Three Crocks of Tea?

For anyone impressed by the mission of the Central Asia Institute, the recent 60 Minutes expose on Greg Mortenson was a bit of a shock and a disappointment. Mr Mortenson's book, Three Cups of Tea, is required reading for Army officers. I even have the follow-up book, Stones Into Schools, on my Kindle. That second book reads like an advertisement for the CAI written by the newly rich and famous. However, despite that oddly commercial tone I remained impressed by the simple but powerful ideas of (a) paying attention to local customs when trying to "help," and (b) using a return on investment (ROI) argument to make decisions.

As the Dad of two daughters and a person who believes in life-long learning as a path to a better world for all, I was particularly drawn to Mortenson's ROI on building schools for girls. It seems educating girls in Afghanistan returns 10 times more to the community than the same investment spent educating boys. In respect and admiration for the zeal with which Mortenson pursues his passion, I passed along a youth version of Three Cups of Tea to my 13 year old.

The admiration and support I felt explains why the 60 Minutes expose, the online brochure published by a former supporter, and the flurry of negative traffic in the social media was so crushingly disappointing. Greg's story reduced to creative fiction? Irregularities in accounting for donated funds? How could these allegations be true of someone I admired? Was my hero so deserving of all the scorn being heaped upon him in the aftermath of the expose?

I enjoyed Nick Kristof's subsequent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. Entitled Three Cups of Tea, Spilled, it's an apology for his friend. I like Nick's search for truth and balance, and I admire the loyalty behind his desire to defend his colleague without condoning the allegations against him.

CAI's written response to 16 questions from CBS is also illuminating. Did 60 Minutes inflate some isolated tax problems in 2009 and some inflammatory comments from a former colleague to make a sensational story?

My take-away: Money and fame are corrupting influences. Further, people seem to love the bloodsport of hero bashing. So the price of a truly great idea may be meteoric fame followed by crushing ignominy. The idea of educating girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan is still a great idea. The idea of educating girls in that region as a means of making the world a better place for Americans--in parallel with or even in lieu of our other diplomatic and military efforts there--is also still a great idea.  Greg, get some better advisors, do what you need to do to get back on track, and continue with your wonderful mission.