Chris Blattman

No, I will not succumb to the temptation of using a bad Three Cups of Tea pun in my title

I don’t have much to say on the matter, but I think Nick Kristof sums up my feelings nicely:

My inclination is to reserve judgment until we know more, for disorganization may explain more faults than dishonesty. I am deeply troubled that only 41 percent of the money raised in 2009 went to build schools, and Greg, by nature, is more of a founding visionary than the disciplined C.E.O. necessary to run a $20 million-a-year charity. On the other hand, I’m willing to give some benefit of the doubt to a man who has risked his life on behalf of some of the world’s most voiceless people.

…I also believe that Greg was profoundly right about some big things.

He was right about the need for American outreach in the Muslim world. He was right that building schools tends to promote stability more than dropping bombs. He was right about the transformative power of education, especially girls’ education. He was right about the need to listen to local people — yes, over cup after cup after cup of tea — rather than just issue instructions.

I worry that scandals like this — or like the disputes about microfinance in India and Bangladesh — will leave Americans disillusioned and cynical. And it’s true that in their struggle to raise money, aid groups sometimes oversell how easy it is to get results. Helping people is more difficult than it seems, and no group of people bicker among themselves more viciously than humanitarians.

I also worry that a Three Cups of Tea scandal sends shock-waves around the globe, while outfits like UNDP (where 4.1% of funds going to programs, let alone 41%, would be a freaking miracle) get away scott free.

8 Responses

  1. 41 % of 20 million $ is only bad if the donors would otherwise have given the money to charities with a higher investment/impact rate. If without the fundraising qualities of Mr Mortenson the donors would have spent this money on yachts or a Rolls Royse, then he has still made a positive contribution to development.

  2. Sometimes things end up becoming greater than you could have ever imagined. I think this is the case with Greg Mortenson and his books. When he wrote “Three Cups of Tea” I don’t think he ever thought that it would amount to the force it has become. I agree with Kristof’s point that Mortenson’s book has done a great amount of good by opening the eyes of many Americans to the need of education around the world. However, I don’t think that his exaggerations were necessary. If anything, they have cancelled out any good he may have inspired in the minds of Americans. Now that this scandal surrounding his book has erupted, many cynical minds will judge and condemn him. Ultimately, the truth, while it may not be as exciting as fiction, is the best choice.

  3. I completely agree with AndyB. In my development class when discussing the matter I was shocked that several of my classmates were willing to sum it up to oversight and embellishment. Greg Mortenson has done many great things and he is probably one of the most effective people in raising funds for aid. But as mentioned before, he may not be the most fit CEO to run an organization of CAI’s size. I am conflicted on how this can be resolved. If he appologizes for any of the lies he has told it could severely effect donors who might in turn stop giving. If he doesn’t then it is another scandal like Nick Kristof said, will leave American cynical and disillusioned, it’s a catch-22.

  4. I agree with the other commenters. Sure UNDP’s has it’s own enormous problems. Good to draw attention to it. But I can’t get away from the basic idea with Mortensen is that you don’t get to lie about this stuff. You can’t lie about the story that makes up the heart of your pitch. You can’t lie about being kidnapped by the Taliban. And you really can’t show a picture of a respected think tank leader in Islamabad as part of your kidnapping story. It’s just not OK.

  5. Interesting stuff. I agree with some of Kristof’s sentiments, including Mortensen being right about many things and UNDP being a bigger scam. But there are some issues with those as the whole argument:
    1. “The other guy is a bigger thief” never was a home run of an argument from an ethical or legal point of view. Basic expectations of accountability remain. Exposing the reality about UNDP would also make Americans more disillusioned and cynical. So should we stop exposing them as well?

    2. Mortensen is not the first to think of the ideas that Kristof credits him with. He and his writing mates are good story-tellers, which made him an effective messenger. It seems these days that even non-fiction stories need to be enormous to get attention, and that people like Mortensen and Beah feel pressure to enliven their tales even though the reality of what they did and lived through should be more than enough to get our ear. Since when did simply traveling in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, or spending a few months as a child soldier, stop being extraordinary?

    3. This episode highlights the problems with making the US and European public, rather than the people actually receiving the services, the ultimate accountability partner. The rich-country public don’t have the ability or motivation to follow the situation closely, except when it’s a scandal (and this seems to be true for nuclear energy as well as popular charities). We as a development and humanitarian community need to come up with better mechanisms to have the beneficiaries vote on the programs which aim to serve them. Not of course that this is without problems. But it seems better than having the US public vote for the most fantastic story-teller, and then be shocked when they discover the story has some fantastic elements to it.

  6. I think Kristof’s column is timid. “Reserve judgment until we know more”? After the publication of Krakauer’s meticulously researched 25,000-word investigation (and Mortenson’s highly unconvincing denials) it’s hard to imagine what new data Kristof is waiting for. The only open question I see is whether Mortenson’s use of CAI for personal gain was just unethical or also illegal. The Montana attorney general’s investigation is looking into that, and it seems likely the IRS will as well.

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