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Margaret Wente

When three cups of tea and goodwill are not enough Add to ...

Three Cups of Tea is a book that's captured the hearts of millions. It's one of the most inspiring stories I've ever read. It recounts the quest of co-author Greg Mortenson, a gentle giant of a man who found his calling in the remote mountains of Pakistan. After bonding with villagers who nursed him back to health after a dreadful wilderness misadventure in 1993, he decided to devote his life to building schools. Since then, he has built dozens of them for the most impoverished children in the world, in the most remote places on Earth.

Three Cups of Tea and its sequel, Stones to Schools, made a global hero out of Mr. Mortenson. He has won Pakistan's highest civic award, the Star of Pakistan, one of few foreigners ever to be so honoured. People have donated millions to his charitable foundation. His story shows that one man can do much, that people of goodwill can build impressive bridges between cultures, that essentially we all want the same things for our kids. It also reassures us that terrorism can be eradicated by educating children in impoverished societies.

But now Mr. Mortenson is being accused of fabrication. A devastating exposé on Sunday's 60 Minutes accuses him of making up key events, exaggerating his achievements and diverting funds that donors thought would be used for building schools. 60 Minutes said it went to 30 of the schools and that roughly half were empty, built by someone else or not receiving any support.

The man behind the exposé is Jon Krakauer, an accomplished journalist who himself donated more than $75,000 to Mr. Mortenson's charity. He tracked down dozens of former employees and associates and, this week, published a detailed report called Three Cups of Deceit (you can Google it). One example of Mr. Mortenson's misdirection, he says, is the popular Pennies for Peace program, which has been adopted by thousands of schools in the U.S. and Canada. Pennies for Peace is a cultural studies course that urges kids to donate their lunch money for children's education in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2006, says Mr. Krakauer, Mr. Mortenson's foundation spent $619,000 on Pennies for Peace projects. But it spent $1-million to promote Mr. Mortenson's books (none of whose proceeds go to the foundation), and $1.25-million to fly him around on chartered jets.

There were earlier signs that not all was rosy. When a New York Times reporter visited one school last fall, he found it empty. "Kyrgyz parents prefer that their children herd livestock," the local foundation manager said. "We need to convince the people to send their children to school." So much for universal values.

Mr. Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea has been a valuable propaganda tool for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. It's a favourite of General David Petraeus, because it exemplifies his strategy of nation-building: The way to get results is to show respect, be humble and drink lots of tea. Mr. Mortenson has been made an adviser to the U.S. military. In turn, he assures his huge and enthusiastic North American audiences that education is the path to peace.

Well, maybe. But Mr. Krakauer says Mr. Mortenson's schools are not located in war zones, or even in areas where the Taliban recruit. And Mr. Mortenson is not popular with many of the locals, who don't appreciate the unflattering (and sometimes erroneous) way he portrays them in his books.

This week, Mr. Mortenson issued a sweeping refutation of the allegations. But it's too late to undo the damage. His board members and many of his staff have quit because, they say, he was out of control and unaccountable. He has done some admirable things. But he also appears to have betrayed the trust of countless people who believed in him.

Maybe the moral of this story is that, if it's too good to be true, it's probably not true. And doing good is harder than we'd like to think. When it comes to our good intentions, we have every reason to be humble. After all, if all it took were goodwill and three cups of tea, we'd have this thing licked by now.

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