Saturday, April 30, 2011

Book Review (Kindle Single) - Three Cups of Deceit

Is a Kindle Single a book? It's longer than a long-form article in, say, The Atlantic. But shorter than, say, Keynes' General Theory. Yet longer than any of Seth Godin's "books." I don't know.

Anyway, Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer is a somewhat depressing read, given the amount of time I've spent reading and defending Greg Mortenson. Nick Kristof devoted a column to praising Mortenson's work. To Kristof's credit, he has RT'd several articles critiquing him, including this one which sounds credible. Mortenson has a lot of explaining to do. And it's turned into a he said, she said thing.

Krakauer donated over $70,000 to Mortenson's Central Asia Institute and quit donating when he saw how opaque the accounting was, and that Mortenson had no accountability. Here is the best that Krakauer has to say:

IN ALL FAIRNESS, Greg Mortenson has done much that is admirable since he began working in Baltistan sixteen and a half years ago. He’s been a tireless advocate for girls’ education. He’s established dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have benefited tens of thousands children, a significant percentage of them girls. A huge number of people regard him as a hero, and he inspires tremendous trust. It is now evident, however, that Mortenson recklessly betrayed this trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair.
The stories in Three Cups of Tea that I had doubts about were ones where locals make profound remarks that we have to trust were translated correctly, or where Mortenson happens to meet some important person who immediately blesses his work. According to Krakauer, most of those stories are made up-- there are people who claim they never happened. Worse, the dates Mortenson gives for these stories don't line up with historical record in those people's lives (like his attending Mother Theresa's funeral). Mortenson's sequel, which I haven't read, is worse in that he's never actually visited the places featured or witnessed the events himself. Apparently, a lot of people over there haven't seen him in a while... But much of the problem is Mortenson's need to embellish actual events.

There are plenty of anonymous current and former CAI employees who bash Mortenson, and several former board members with serious complaints. The turnover on the board and lack of accountability are indeed problematic, both legally and from an operations standpoint.

I think Krakauer and 60 Minutes did a terrible job trying to interview Greg with "gotcha" tactics. If Mortenson is so bad, why do so many people who have seen his work vouch for him?

Mortenson was raised in Africa, and Three Cups has plenty of quotes from people frustrated with him because he just doesn't seem to be "on our planet." I know plenty of Third Culture Kids who act that way-- they're almost not real. I don't mind this, because I want my own children to be TCK's, but it's a problem when the symptom is sinful-- compulsive lying. I'm troubled by most of what I read in Krakauer's book, and I'm glad he wrote it.

Three Cups of Deceit introduces us to other foundations doing good work there, and other Americans who also had the same bold spirit-- either working with NGOs or doing PhD dissertations in the remote parts of Central Asia. I found that encouraging.

Let's go and do, but let's be honest and transparent about it.

Going to give this 3 stars out of 5. Could have had a lot more on-the-record stuff earlier, and that would have helped everyone.

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