For Greg Mortenson - two time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, builder of schools, best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea, and now disgraced philanthropist - the hits are coming fast and furious. After 60 Minutes and John Krakauer revealed massive cracks in his “zero to hero” story, he has undergone what The Guardian described as a ”dizzying fall from grace”, including rescinded speaking engagements and honorary degrees, multiple lawsuits, and plenty of vitriol. I guess you could call him the Barry Bonds of international development.
Unlike the elation that comes with creating heroes and telling their stories, there’s no equal measure of satisfaction from seeing them torn down. To celebrate their fall, no matter how well deserved, is like taking pleasure in revealing to a wide-eyed six year old that there is no Santa Claus.
I’ve worked on and off in the social enterprise and international development sector for several years now, and I can tell you that there are plenty of Greg Mortensons out there. Outrageous goals, unwillingness to play by the rules, a gift for story-telling, and a desire to persuade and obtain the approval of others for the advancement of the mission is one of the recipes (although not the only one) for those out to change the world. Even Mother Teresa was accused of ”behaving like a political opportunist, adopting the guise of a saint in order to raise money”….Not to imply that Mortenson is a saint like Mother Teresa – he is not.
Promoting literacy and education, particularly for girls in the third world, is a wonderful cause. And Mortenson did indeed raise awareness amongst the millions who read his books or collected pennies in their schools. But as Megan McCardle of The Atlantic pointed out, the magic of instant development is a myth:
“There’s a reason it took centuries for the west to evolve modern economies, the kind where basically everyone is rich by global or historical standards. This stuff is really complicated. The simplest product you buy could not have been brought to your market without a thousand institutions and systems, from double-entry bookkeeping to anti-fraud statutes to telephones and commodity brokers and universal literacy and rail rights-of-way. This stuff cannot be developed overnight, and it cannot be developed by one person, one group, or one plan. And in the end, there is no substitute.”
The myth of Greg Mortenson was enabled by the desire of many to believe otherwise. It’s the same desire that leads many to believe that sending money to Haiti after an Earthquake can mitigate the problems caused by the years of economic and ecological neglect before the quake. Or that there’s a magic bullet for living sustainably or reversing the climate changes that our western lifestyle causies.
Faith in Greg Mortenson may even be driven by the same suspension of disbelief that led so many to lose so much with Bernie Madoff…Not to imply that Mortenson is evil like Madoff – he is not.
But which brand of negligence and deception is worse? One built around a cause, or one built around pure greed? Is it about intentions or consequences?
The lesson for me in all this is to pick your cause, and stick with it…as Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Don’t be silent, in words, deeds or giving. But think about the long term, instead of acting reactively and impulsively. Take some chances, and support new ideas, but do your homework. And don’t get seduced by tall tales.
After all, there is no Santa Claus.