Three Cups of Regret

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in his “zero to hero” story, he has undergone what The Guardian described as a ”dizzying fall from grace”, including rescinded speaking engagements and honorary degrees, multiple lawsuits, and plenty of vitriol.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.


Photo: Some rights reserved by Alcino


Shirley Marsh
Shirley Marsh6 years ago

If this man has done all he is accused of, that's very sad. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and this one is the fact that awareness has been raised for the value of education of girls and women in undeveloped nations.

While I agree with Megan McCardle of The Atlantic's comment that it has taken centuries to reach current economic standards, this time period will be accelerated exponentially with the technological and scientific advancements available to us now and continuing into the future. The engine that drives change is desire; change that is beneficial to all requires the addition of 'good will' to the equation. The brilliant minds of men and women of good will would chart a brilliant global future.

Akin Adelakun
Akin Adelakun6 years ago

thanks for the great article

Janet Ives
Janet Ives6 years ago

It can be an error to judge before all information is available. Why would any film maker consider that there is anything to be gained by tackling it whilst one party is in heart surgery and unavailable for comment.

Samantha T.
Samantha Trosky6 years ago

I did actually see this on 60 Minutes. I have not watched them in years. They "reported" an untruth years ago that I caught and it was the first time in many years they were on in my home again. I don't know if I fully believe the whole thing. I think both have some truth and some lies.

Rosie Lopez
Rosie Lopez6 years ago


Grace B.
Grace B6 years ago

Well let's support the cause and not the person. Schools for girls are important around the world.

Julia W.
Julia W6 years ago

I haven't read Mortensons books, but I have been aware of them.
I didn't watch the "60 Minutes" expose on Mortensen.
But I did read Jon Krakauer's 90 page article on Mortenson.

It's a lot more signifigant than which village he went to first and under what circumstances he promised them a school. He has been using the CAI, the 501 (c) 3 organization he started with others to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan 'as his private ATM.' (That's a quote from many people close to CAI & Mortenson.) Many of the schools he has erected are 'ghost schools,' with no students, no teachers. He has treated his employees here and in Asia very poorly, lied to them, forced them to lie and pitted them against each other. Profits from his books go directly to him, not the CAI. People on the board of CAI who ask for receipts, or other basic management steps are forced off the board.

Krakauer gave a lot of money to Mortenson's charity over the years. He is saddened that Mortenson and The CAI are not what they say thet are.

Cindy B.
Cindy B6 years ago

I must say I haven't read the book, and though I usually watch 60 Minutes I missed that particular one. SOOO, I'm not in much of a position to comment.... But I DO AGREE WITH LESLIE C! As far as I know, Mr. Mortenson had many adventures there, learned much, shared much of himself, worked hard to write the book, and did raise consciousness amongst many people.... All those things DO, in my book, put him above the garden-variety charlatan or huckster. He might have been SO motivated to catalyze concern that he unwisely decided to, ah, stretch the truth, believing that would create more good in the long run... He might not have counted on the accolades, TV appearances, etc., and after awhile, couldn't get the courage to 'fess up. A sad situation.

Claire M.
Claire M6 years ago

Its not like 60 minutes would have any reason to trash this guy because he speaks out against war and promotes educating some of the most destitute people in the world. [I was being sarcastic] What I don't understand is why after all these years and revelations people actually believe much of the tripe that show dishes out. They are a conservative backed media program, hello?' Why are people just assuming they are telling the truth?

Erika L.
Erika L6 years ago

I'm still holding out some trust that things aren't as bad as they look. It isn't hard to gang up on someone and make a situation look much worse than it is. He can't really defend himself much as he is having heart surgery.