Posted by: Titus Presler | April 19, 2011

Three cups of controversy: Lessons from Greg Mortenson, “60 Minutes,” and the Central Asia Institute

The controversy that is emerging about Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute that partners with him to build schools, especially for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan is sad and even tragic.  Beginning in the early 1990s Mortenson has catalyzed among many around the world an important commitment to girls’ education in a region where religious extremists have sought to destroy schools, especially those serving girls.

For people concerned with Christian mission, it was especially sad that the “60 Minutes” report about Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute aired on the evening of Palm Sunday.  Mortenson’s work is explicitly secular, but it has caught the imagination of church people across the denominations.  Many Christians have contributed directly to his work, and many others have been inspired by Mortenson’s vision to connect with the mission work of their churches.

At the same time, for all concerned with international cross-cultural mission the controversy is useful in highlighting the importance of absolute accuracy in reporting, clear distinctions between personal and organizational finances, and mindfulness that today’s information technologies expose work anywhere in the world, regardless how remote, to the scrutiny of outsiders, whether they are public media or casual observers.

“An affair with the dark side”

Mortenson’s best-selling 2006 book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations . . . One School at a Time, written with journalist David Relin, has sold about 4 million copies, and the sequel, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is also doing well.

At an Episcopal diocesan mission conference I keynoted last year, one attendee spoke of how reading Three Cups of Tea was the initial impetus for her thinking about global mission, and one fruit of that was her attending the conference.  More recently a toy store proprietor told me that as a member of an evangelical congregation she had read Three Cups of Tea, was very excited about it, and that her two children, one a graduate of Liberty University in Virginia, were interested in ministry in Pakistan.

In connection with an upcoming mission engagement in Pakistan, I’ve been reading Three Cups myself and have been planning to connect with Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute.  I still plan to do so, especially with an interest in connecting graduates of his schools with opportunities for higher education in Pakistan.

Three Cups of Tea is vividly written, and David Relin has a knack for conveying the driving vision of Mortenson and his sense of being at sea in the details of running a large and complex effort.  It could be that the spectacular growth of the work – over a hundred schools built and/or supported with part of $60 million in contributions – prompted hyperbole and exaggeration.

The quote that closes Sunday’s New York Times story on the matter is telling:

“I am awkward, soft-spoken, ineloquent and intensely shy,” he wrote in Stones Into Schools, the 2009 sequel to Three Cups of Tea. For that reason, he added, “the duties of speaking, promoting and fund-raising into which I have been thrust during the last several years have often made me feel like a man caught in the act of conducting an illicit affair with the dark side of his own personality.”

One can presume that the “dark side” is the desire for success, the desire to be well known for one’s success, the desire to be seen to be at the top of one’s game – all of these common to human nature, including many missionaries over the centuries.

Points at issue

On the particulars of the “60 Minutes” report, however, Mortenson and the CAI board have issued stout denials, all available at the CAI website, that Mortenson’s story about how the effort began was fabricated, or that the number of schools was exaggerated, or that there is anything untoward in the financial arrangements between CAI and Mortenson.  On Monday, April 18, Viking, the imprint of Penguin that published Three Cups, said that it would review the book and its contents with Mortenson, a move that the New York Times characterized as “a strong signal” that Viking is not convinced of the book’s accuracy.

Especially stinging in the CBS report was the entry of Jon Krakauer, the well known outdoors writer, into the controversy.  While Krakauer honored Mortenson’s dedication and accomplishments, he was clear that Mortenson’s touching story of his first encounter with the village of Korphe could not be true and that the number of schools directly affected by CAI had been exaggerated.  Krakauer had to evaluate many claims and counter claims in Into Thin Air, his account of the 1996 Everest disaster, and his reputation for honesty and accuracy is considerable.

Whether Mortenson was kidnapped by the Taliban is another point in contention, with some of the people pictured with him as kidnappers telling CBS that they were friends and protectors and neither kidnappers nor Taliban.  Mortenson’s response that people’s affiliations, and their accounting of their affiliations, are fluid in the Pakistan-Afghan border area is credible, but it does not prove his account.

More problematic is his principal response to the question of when he visited Korphe:

It is important to know that Balti people have a completely different notion about time. Even the Balti language – an archaic dialect of Tibetan – has only a vague concept of tenses and time. For example, “now” can mean immediately or sometime over the course of a whole long season. The concept of past and future is rarely of concern. Often tenses are left out of discussion, although everyone knows what is implied. And if a person is a day or week late or early it doesn’t matter. The Balti consider the western notion of time quite amusing.

In fact, many languages describe time, the most difficult dimension of existence to conceptualize, in elastic terms, and English is no exception. “Now”, the word Mortenson takes as his example, can refer in English to this very instant, the period since last month’s flood began to ebb, the decade since a turning point in one’s life, history since the Industrial Revolution, or the entire so-called Christian Era.  “60 Minutes” reporters are not naïve and can be trusted to be at least somewhat aware of the linguistic vagaries involved in their work.

Considerable attention is being devoted to financial issues.  One is the fact that CAI covers advertising and travel expenses for Mortenson’s speaking engagements that highlight the books, but the institute does not by contract receive any portion of the book royalties or speech honoraria, estimated at $30,000 per engagement.  CAI understandably states that the contributions generated for it by the appearances far exceed its outlays for travel and advertising.  More troubling is the allegation that less than half – perhaps much less than half – the funds contributed to CAI have gone to schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the remainder being chalked up to education and promotion of the cause in the West.  Doubtless this is not what donors had in mind when contributing, and that situation must be rectified.

As with many charitable activities of Westerners in Two-Thirds World countries, the success of this particular venture is driven by the story and charism of its founder.  However, as many missionaries have found, there comes a time when the ongoing institution has to be separated in formal ways from the personality and work of the catalyzing missionary.  It sounds like the sooner that happens in the intertwined financial codependency between CAI and Mortenson the better.


Mortenson’s brashness accounts for some of his appeal with the public.  The first book’s subtitle – One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations . . . One School at a Time – resonated strongly with the many who have tired of the complicated issues of fighting the Taliban in that region and supporting a viable Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Mortenson’s emphases on schools, not bombs, on individual initiative rather than massive multi-national campaigns, seemed right and do-able to many.

In light of the current controversy, of course, the subtitle conveys a hint of grandiosity.  But it was always a bit grandiose, for the real pioneers of education for girls in Pakistan were Christian missionaries who started establishing schools for girls as well as boys well over a century ago.  They may not have reached some of the areas reached by Mortenson, but in that era many places they did reach required the same kind of initiative and exertion that Mortenson has been willing to undertake.  They established the foundation for education as it exists in Pakistan today.  The founding of Forman Christian College in Lahore by USAmerican Presbyterians in the 1860s and Edwardes College in Peshawar by British Anglicans in 1900 testifies to the churches’ extensive groundwork of primary and secondary schools.  St. Elizabeth’s Girls High School in Peshawar is one such example at the secondary level.  None of this was “one man’s mission,” but rather the mission of entire church communities and thousands of missionaries who felt called by God to innovative ministries in education.  Throughout the entire history of these institutions Muslims have far outnumbered Christians as students as the churches sought to serve the entire society, not a Christian enclave.

Mortenson may have stumbled into a temptation that afflicts us all: to imagine that no one has done quite what we’ve done, no one can do it as well as we can, and those who preceded us were clueless and benighted.

Three Cups of Tea suggests that Mortenson is ambivalent toward his own past as a child of Lutheran missionaries in Tanzania.  On one hand, he is proud of his parents’ commitment and his father’s success in establishing a hospital there.  On the other, he seems to ignore his Christian heritage but is eager to describe how attractive he found the Muslim way of prayer.  The ambivalence may be real, or it could be that his writing collaborator and the publisher thought the book would sell better if Mortenson came off as having outgrown the Christianity of his youth, a missionary Christianity that probably had much to do with setting him on the path of sacrificial service that he ultimately chose.

In sum, the issues of the Mortenson affair are complex, sad and instructive for all engaged in cross-cultural mission.




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  5. I found this article as I did research on the controversy in preparation for a meeting David Relin. I’ve read lots of accounts and found this article particularly thoughtful. I am a memeber of a mainline Protestant church. I have had missionary family members. While I applaud any efforts to help those who are unfortunate due to place and circumstance, I am not so comfortable with the idea that Christians do the best job of delivering services, particularly in a non-Christian country. I am aware that the role of most Christian missionaries today is not of actively proselityzing, but of giving care. My hope is that those who go as missionaries, go to be Christ-like in their love and care of fellow humans and not to convert.

  6. Excellent analysis, Titus.

    As we discussed, Mortenson has many fans, but he really needs to own up to his mistakes on this. The 60 Minutes report was very well done.

    As a Pakistani-American who supported Mortenson, I was particularly troubled and hurt by the cavalier way by which he dismissed any critics and sent out his minions to defend him with vitriolic blog posts rather than humbly accepting a mistake and correcting it.

  7. Sir: Please see the comments posted at the 60 Minutes site/blog. People are outraged at the shoddy, biased reporting done in the segment. Why wasn’t the co-author contacted AT ALL? And Krakauer? Honest and respected? He has taken down respected professionals over the years and makes his living writing about dead people (Hall, Chandless (sp?), Fisher, Tillman). Greg works hard to help the living. Couldn’t Krakauer have a tiny agenda here? Why is Greg the only one “at the mercy of human nature”? Please look up Krakauer’s controversies on the Internet. He never let facts get in the way of a good story. Withhold your judgement until all the information is in. 60 Minutes is a professional machine – Mr. Mortenson is stretched so thin, his health and family is suffering. Give him a chance to “mount a professional defense”. Too much to ask? Thanks.

  8. Thank you Titus for your continued effort to bring back integrity to reporting..a lost art we all hope to cast our eyes upon again.
    Many blessings,

    • Thank you, Mark, for your kind words. I find that casting a missiological eye on many current developments is illuminating for mission, but also for much else besides – theologically, sociologically, politically.

  9. Interesting post all around, especially the penultimate paragraph about Mortenson’s relationship with his MK status.

    But I think one thing that is important to talk about here is method. When I read “Three Cups of Tea” (I haven’t read the second one), I was surprised there was so little talk about what goes into the schools once they are built – teachers, resources, etc. It struck me as a little bit simplistic to think that building schools was what was necessary. But it is that very simplicity that made the book so appealing to people tired of endless stories of war.

    I would hope the revelations about Mortenson would spark some more conversation about the difficulties and challenges of “making a difference” in cross-cultural settings like this one.


    • Thanks for the comment, Jesse. A related phrase from the history of USAmerican interventionism is “winning hearts and minds,” an unfulfilled aspiration from the Vietnam War era. Interestingly, that is what David Petraeus & Co. have been turning to in the Afghan intervention, amid all the (literal) flack of the military campaign. Discussion of USAmerican foreign policy over the last couple of decades has increasingly highlighted the futility of trusting in military might and the possibly greater effectiveness of initiatives in health, education and economic sustainability in turning people toward democratization and away from various forms of extremism, religious or otherwise.

      As you point out, this is right where Mortenson’s initiative has hit the sweet spot of Westerners’ desire to “make a difference” in remote and conflicted parts of the world. Mortenson began with relationships with ordinary people on the ground, and his warm and generous personality strengthened that appeal to outsiders. The specific urgency his addressed – education, especially for girls as well as for boys – also has made perfect sense, especially in the widespread concern about extremism. His work has also fulfilled another key aspiration of concerned Westerners, that the work be “grassroots,” that is, working with the initiative of local people in the microcosm of their village, not working with government administrators and their top-down orientation for their districts or provinces.

      I don’t know about the issue of what went into the schools, but there could have been legitimate grounds for policy choices that ultimately may not have worked out. For instance, CAI could have taken the stance in some instances that they would build the school but that it was up to the local people to recruit teachers and negotiate with the provincial government for their salaries. Such a choice might be influenced by the desire to place limits on the intervention and to avoid the dependency of perpetual paternalism. If, as CBS asserts, some of the schools are not actually functioning, it could be a result of such a policy.

      Mission organizations have faced these issues perennially. Interestingly, the United Thank Offering, the longstanding grants program of the Episcopal Church Women, historically made grants only for buildings and vehicles, not for programs. They would, of course, be concerned with the plausibility of what was proposed to occur in the buildings and what the vehicles were to be used for, and their assessment would be the basis for making or not making the grant as requested. They would check up on things after the fact for the sake of accountability and the credibility of an organization in the event of future grant requests, but they specifically eschewed involvement in program. (I say “historically” because I have an impression that UTO has in recent years supported program as well as infrastructure, especially related to women and girls.)

      In the various defense documents CAI and Mortenson have put out around the “60 Minutes” report, it is explained that their involvement in schools varies: sometimes buildings, sometimes helping to complete, sometimes supplying teachers, or whatever. As in any such venture, the complexities are infinite. Yet the key questions, as you suggest, relates to “making a difference”: How much of a difference has been made? How is it measured? When cultural differences are vast, what kind of making a difference should be the focus? And what is the followup?

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