Three Cups of …

An interesting controversy is erupting around Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI). A 60 Minutes investigation is alleging that part of his story in Three Cups of Tea is fabricated, and, that – more damningly – CAI has not accomplished all that it says it has and that the organization has been plagued by financial mismanagement. The 60 Minutes investigation sought to interview Mortenson, who declined. Apparently, though, they only contacted him at the very end of the production process and “ambushed” him after a talk to speak with him. In any case, this is bad news for Mortenson, who has been hailed as an inspirational figure for many years for his efforts promoting community-based education in some of the world’s toughest spots.

I don’t have cable and I can’t get 60 Minutes content in Canada, so I might not be able to watch it, unfortunately. There is no doubt in my mind that Mortenson’s organization is not perfectly managed. CAI’s 2009 financial statements show that $1.5 million was spent on advertising, while roughly $3.5 million was spent on actual “overseas projects” (H/T Saundra and Cynan). The statement also shows that only $35,000 went towards teacher salaries – with about 145 schools, if my math is correct, that is about $240 per year, per school for salaries. Even in a poor country, even if there is only one teacher in each school, that is not a lot of money. There are other red flags. For example, the 2009 statement seems to be the only publicly available one, and the 60 Minutes investigation points out that schools that CAI claims it built do not exist.

All of these allegations are really damning for Mortenson and CAI.

Here’s my two cents. I hope that there will be a real opportunity for Mortenson and CAI to explain themselves and offer reasonable explanations for the allegations put forth by 60 Minutes. This is also a great opportunity for the organization to improve its practices, and grow from the experience. Because, after all, while it may be true that some schools don’t exist (or, as this photographer notes, are not being used), while it may be the case that CAI has been badly mismanaged, the reality is that thousands of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been able to receive an education thanks to CAI. We can be cynical and critical, and demand that CAI explain itself and improve its operations and transparency, but we can’t take away these achievements.  I hope that we can take a positive, constructive approach rather than a hostile one. I hope that the outcome of the 60 Minutes controversy is a better, improved CAI, and not a ridiculed and shamed Mortenson.

Update, Monday 04/18: This document outlines the responses of CAI’s board to questions asked by CBS producers. To me, most of the answers reflect an idiosyncratic management and governance style, not unsurprising for a small NGO. Fair enough. Two things though really stood out for me. One, is the board claims that they are “unaware of any organization qualified to undertake” and independent assessment of their work. How is that possible? Mortenson and staff must have – at the very least – ran into NGO workers whose job is to evaluate development projects. The board is either dishonest about this, or they are very worryingly uninformed and oblivious. Two, is the fact that said board only has three members, and one of them is Mortenson himself. There is no excuse for not having a more established board, other than being obsessive about retaining control over “your” organization. With a budget in the millions, and nearly two decades of existence, it’s unacceptable to have such poor governance and oversight. (H/T Saundra for noting the size of the board)

8 thoughts on “Three Cups of …

  1. I absolutely agree with your post, well said… I don’t know what the truth is but it seems so many are hell bent on defaming this guy, no matter what. Let it be a lesson learnt for CAI and may they improve their practices whatever the outcome of this debacle.

  2. Just an observation, but can the image in that last link really be a school? I wonder why CAI might go to the effort of moving tonnes of cement to a remote location when the job could have been done using (apparently) local materials and yurts.

    1. I agree. It’s very strange. Seems they probably aimed a little too high with this particular school project. It looks pretty horrible.

  3. This particular case epitomizes why a certain segment of of blogosphere writes about the effectiveness of aid programs and charities. Most DIY aid organizations don’t like partnerships or collaborations because they are afraid of scrutiny. They want to create their own standards and rules to follow. Everyone wants to be a hero. The founders of these DIY organizations fear that someone else may get credit for their ideas and accomplishments. I call this the “Nobel Syndrome”. Being transparent might jeopardize their egotistical dreams of standing on a stage in Oslo and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding contributions toward humanity.

    These are some of my observations regarding the subject.

    Slactivism in Africa | Independent Global Citizen
    http://independentglobalcitizen.com/2011/01/19/slacktivism/

    1. I agree with you that many small(er) organizations fear scrutiny, though I wouldn’t generalize by saying *all* are this way. As with organizations of all sizes, there are good ones and there are bad ones. I’ve come across some wonderful work done by small community-based organizations that do not follow “standards” or “rules” that otherwise are common in the aid/development industry. Partly because of lack of resources, partly because of lack of expertise. Whatever the reason, the fact that these small orgs do not submit themselves to regular, independent evaluations doesn’t take away from the fact that they are accomplishing good work and meeting goals.
      There’s also something misleading about the categorization “DIY” for NGOs and non-profits. Many very well respected organizations today began as a vision by one or a few individuals years ago. If all “DIY” orgs were deemed worthless, then innovation would stall. It’s worth evaluating organizations based on their own merits, on a case by case basis.

  4. And another interesting question: CAI claimed in the 2008 tax return that they have $8.5million (and according to their recent press release this is now up above $30 million) in savings change anything?

    According to the tax return, they ‘only’ collected $35million in the years between 2004-2008.

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