It's Not About the Tea

By and large, the Central Asia Institute's supporters went for a feel-good story, didn't do their homework, and didn't ask the right questions with the Three Cups of Tea dust up.


This article was originally published by Stanford Social Innovation Review on April 26th, 2011 with the headline: It's Not About the Tea

I've spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and the mountains of northern Pakistan, so family and friends have been asking me what I think of the Three Cups of Tea dust-up.

As it happens, I went to see Greg Mortenson's work in 2000. I was en route to Kabul when I got word that the friend with whom I was to work had been unexpectedly jailed by the Taliban for overstaying his visa. He got along with his captors pretty well, and they said they'd let him out soon, but I was left with couple of weeks on my hands. I had heard of Greg's work and knew the region, so I thought I'd go up and have a look. I got in touch with Greg, who was in China, and we agreed to meet up in Hunza.

Long story short, he never showed up, so I went off on my own to meet his people in Skardu, the jumping off point for K2. Things didn't look good. The local Central Asia Institute (CAI) staff was up in arms about his reckless promises, lack of follow-up, and refusal to stay in touch—the country program manager lamented: "He is ruining my good name in the marketplace." The whole thing had an unhealthy cult-of-personality vibe. I tried to follow up when I got home, but Greg never returned my calls.

I didn't think about it much subsequently; certainly our Mulago Foundation wasn't going to get involved. However, I ran into the story again in 2008 while working in the remote Wakhan corridor of northern Afghanistan. Traveling with local Wakhan conservation rangers, we came across a couple of empty schools put up by CAI a few of years before. Asking around, local villagers portrayed Greg and CAI as cowboys who parachuted in and didn't listen. Now they had schools in the wrong places and no one to teach the kids.

During my time in the valley, I got to know Ted Callahan, who lived with local Kyrghyz herders for a year while doing his Ph.D research. He's an honest, straight-up guy who'd hoped CAI would succeed and did what he could to help. By the time I met him, he was pretty disgusted about the whole thing. His story about the bogus school up in the Kyrghyz high country—the one he told on 60 Minutes—was unsurprising in light of what I'd seen.

People seem most outraged by the apparent fabrications in the book (and yes, it's not nice to portray one's hosts as kidnappers), but the real crime is that CAI appears to have raised 60 million dollars and doesn't have that much to show for it. No one really knows how many schools are actually are up and running. CAI says 170; my own tiny random sample and the 60 Minutes investigation indicate that there are probably a lot less. Even if you allow for a generous figure of 150, that represents $400,000 of donor money per school. That's ridiculous. Jay Kimmelman and Bridge International Academies in Kenya are building hundreds of classrooms for $1,800 each. Greg's first school in Korphe was built with only $8,000 worth of materials. The Agha Khan Development Network built 280 schools in a small corner of the same region and achieved more than 95% female literacy—for a fraction of the cost. The argument about what's fabricated and what's not will rage on for a while, but what we really should be asking is how did CAI spend so much to accomplish so little and why did people keep giving Greg money?

Jon Krakauer (author of Three Cups of Deceit) and 60 minutes have been slammed by many for having the temerity to expose CAI, when in fact, they seem to be the only ones who've done any meaningful due diligence. Nicholas Kristof and others offer the classic noble-visionary-as-poor-manager defense, portraying Mortenson as a flawed hero who nonetheless accomplished great things. He didn't. One hundred schools in 15 years is a sideshow. He didn't have anything to say that lots of people more accomplished than he weren't saying already—he just had a lot more donor money to spend on promotion. "Creating awareness" is not the same as creating impact, and it too easily becomes a black hole that seems to justify almost any expenditure. I'd argue that CAI didn't even have the right solution: The biggest threat to peace in that region is that there are legions of pissed-off young men who don't have even the faint hope of a job.

In the end, though, the responsibility for this mess lies with the donors. By and large, CAI's supporters went for a feel-good story, didn't do their homework, and didn't ask the right questions. It appears that there was never a systematic attempt to verify whether schools were up and running, and the fact that there was only one audited financial statement over CAI's history is jaw-dropping. If you smothered me with adulation and gave me a ton of money without much oversight, I'd probably run amok too.

If this turns out as bad as I think it will, it's going to have some big ripple effects. I'm worried that some donors will be scared away from international giving, or that they will react by requiring more of the wrong kinds of due diligence. And paradoxically, more NGO's may get away with a relative lack of impact because CAI has now—very publicly—set the bar so low. It's going to be even harder to look bad.

On the whole, though, this stuff is healthy, and we owe a lot to Jon Krakauer. If nothing else, I'm grateful I no longer have to grit my teeth when people start raving about Three Cups of Tea.