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Kristof on Mortenson

Posted by: Annie Voy | April 21, 2011 | 18 Comments |

Nicolas Kristof wrote a poignant op-ed in the New York Times about Greg Mortenson and the recent allegations surrounding his memoir and the CAI’s finances.

‘Three Cups of Tea,’ Spilled

I wholeheartedly agree with Kristof’s sentiment. Am I being too forgiving?

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Responses -

I like Mortenson, when I first watched the 60 minutes episode I found myself saying its not true. I wanted to be forgiving, I wanted to believe that it wasn’t true. What really strikes me and sort of makes me think the allegations are true is due to the fact that he has yet to respond at all to the criticism. I understand that he might be “sick”, but still the least he could do is release a statement, his silence is not helping him.
I was arguing about whether or not he was guilty of fabricating with a friend of mine and my friend honestly had a better arguement than I did. My defense of Moretenson went something like this “I have read Mortenson, I have heard him speak, there is no way he would fabricate, he is too down to earth and modest to do that.” But the evidence on the other side of the coin was much more convincing. The part where 60 minutes brought in the members of the “Taliban” that had taken Mortenson “captive” and it turned out they were simply other villagers that were not Taliban, was very convincing.
I want to believe Mortenson but he is not doing himself any favors by not responding to the allegations.
I want these allegations to be false, but if they are true then Mortenson goes from being a good guy to a bad guy in my opinion. I am sure that a lot of people will say “hey he is a great guy, look how much he has done” but if Mortenson is taking advantage of his position and fame (that may be fabricated) to better his personal finances rather than to build additional schools then he is a liar and it severely diminishes him as a person. Sure Mortenson has done more than I will probably ever do as far as charity work.At his worst Mortenson still produced 3 or 4 schools, but what makes him bad is that if he was given money to build 12 schools than he in essence took away the opportunity of education away from a lot of children that would have been educated in the schools he was given the funds to build. If Mortenson is taking money away that is not rightfully his, he is a bad guy. On top of this is the fact that it is money that could be used for additional schools and was given to do just that.
I do not have as much of an issue of him making up the stories of being taken captive or even his story about climbing K2 and then going into the village, as far as I am concerned if all of these things were completely made up it would not diminish Mortenson that much. Simply fabricating stories to make a better novel or to gain more donation dollars does not make Mortenson a bad guy, he is simply doing his best to do the most good even if he is being misleading.
Where my problem lies with Mortenson is the issue of him using the Central Asia Institute as his own person bank. Immediately when I heard that Mortenson was using the institute to pay for his book tours and speaking engagements, I thought that it was no big deal because he was giving all that money back to the institute, it turns out that this isn’t true, he keeps the money!! I was shocked, I thought he only spoke to raise money for the cause. He cannot even deny the fact that a small portion if any of the money he makes on his tours and book royalties goes towards the institute because the CAI released a statement saying just that.

I am not going to rush to judgement and say “Mortenson is a bad guy”, I want to give him a chance to respond to the allegations, I want proof that he didn’t do it. But I feel that if such evidence existed Mortenson would have came out with it already. He hasn’t, in fact he hasn’t done anything. He needs to respond, his silence makes me think that he is guilty.

And if indeed the allegations are true, then I would consider him a bad guy. I would not forgive him because of all of the good he has done simply because he could have done so much more, his actions would go against everything he said in his speech and in his books. This whole situation is unfortunate, I just hope that it is not true. But it probably is it.

Well, I must argue with myself for a moment. Do I want to continue my typical rebuttal to an article, or do I outright give my opinion? I think I’ll deviate from my rebuttals and start by giving my opinion on the matter.

If Greg was going to use the CAI as his personal bank, he might as well as said that the first day he used the CAI. As for whether or not Greg wrote real stories or fiction, I think we know who Greg should talk to—Oprah Winfrey. Yes, I realize she had James Frey on a few years ago when he wrote his book and how we came to find out it was mainly fiction, not real. Sure, we could have another fiasco, but this one would be self-inflicted as well. If he wrote fiction, then his book should have been in the fiction section of bookstores the whole time. If it was truly real, then he needs to have more people back his story up.
Chris, I think I can understand why you didn’t want it to be true. I guess (I only guess because I am not a psychology or sociology buff or major or minor) we can call it the hero factor. We see someone we like (and/or possibly want to emulate). I’ll give you an example. When I was younger (6, maybe 7 years old), I liked baseball and thought it would be so cool and fun to play alongside some of the great players of the day—Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey, Jr., Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, and so on. However, as time goes by, my interest in baseball waned. Also, the allegations of players taking steroids added to my waning interest in baseball. I felt betrayed, thinking I could, one day, play along the most popular players in the game—although we don’t know who was indicted of what charges. After finding out some of my favorite players took steroids, I too thought it couldn’t be true. (Yet a grand jury just found Barry Bonds guilty in obstruction of justice.)

I remember reading in an earlier article that the CAI had only one audited financial statement. I place part of the blame on how lax our charitable giving laws (and regulations and oversights) are. Here’s a thought—why doesn’t the IRS audit Greg as well as the CAI? That way, just like the President and Vice President, we can see how much the CAI and Greg made over the past 3-5 years.

However, Chris, if Greg did lie about using the CAI as his own bank, then we don’t truly know how much he truly lied about. He could have lied about anything and everything. We truly don’t know how many schools Greg started (or helped to start). How do we know the CAI was Greg’s second bank for sure? Where’s the proof?

“Instead of driving around in a white S.U.V. with a security detail, he wears local clothes and takes battered local cars to blend in.” Wait a moment—didn’t we see security at the entrance as well as blocking the exit to Hamilton down by the Law School when Greg spoke at Gonzaga? “He justly berates himself for spending too much time on the road and not enough with his wife, Tara Bishop, and their children, Amira and Khyber.” Well, why doesn’t he bring them with him when he spoke? I realize the kids might be of school age, but can’t Tara home-school them (or even hire a tutor)?

“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.” As I have heard, Greg wanted to help—but he probably was not expecting the demand to assist people that actually turned out . . .

I watched the 60 minutes piece as well and the entire time I was deeply saddened by the accusations. What struck me to be the most disappointing was the amount of money used for advertising and promotion for the “book tour.” It’s crazy how we just had Greg here to speak, I feel as if I was part of the shame (if it actually comes out as that). I don’t believe that Greg is mismanaging the charity or deliberately just trying to enrich himself. However, when the piece said that Greg used private jets on several occasions to travel around, I was taken back. He continually said that if we took a couple soldiers out of Afghanistan for the whole year, that would save thousands of dollars – dollars that we could spend on building schools. However, if Greg didn’t use private jets or so much advertising, he could also use that money to build more schools. I also was disheartened by the fact that none of the royalties from book sales goes toward the charity. I think we discussed this in class and we all didn’t know the answer, but suspected that undoubtedly the money would go towards his charity. Apparently that was illogical. It also astounded me as to why Greg would lie (if in fact he did) about how many schools he built in the Kunah valley in Afghanistan. He built 3, but said he built 11. That is a far exaggeration from the truth, which makes one question why even do that? Why risk your charity’s and your reputation on such a trivial lie? I don’t think that Greg is that careless, which is why these claims may prove to be false. I hope they are.

I have to say that I am refreshed to finally here someone defending Mortenson. I am always skeptical to judge people strictly off negative media before all the facts have been put on the table. It seems to me that if you are willing to spend your life in the public eye, at one point or another you will be berated by the media. The media is constantly looking for the “big break” or the story that will attract the eyes of the world. By now, we are tired of hearing about corrupt politicians, wars and terrorism. But a story uncovering one of the supposed heroes of the world? Yes, the world will be very interested to read up on that. Thus, I am very cautious to judge Mortenson based solely on these allegations brought up by the media.

However, obviously some of the information is true. The fact is that only 41% of the money raised in 2009 went to building schools. Does this mean, automatically, that Mortenson is no hero but rather a villain, taking money given to charity and using it instead to enrich himself? I, personally, am very, very hesitant to accept that conclusion. As Kristof pointed out, Mortenson is not a businessman. He really should not be acting as the CEO who has to supervise the whereabouts of 20 million dollars a year.

I recently had a friend state that Mortenson is “avoiding the allegations” by saying that, since he is in the hospital now, he is unable to form a solid statement against all of the allegations, but will issue a statement once he is released from the hospital. My only response to that accusation is “how can we be so calloused against a man who has undeniably done more than any one of us will ever do for children in the Middle East?” Obviously, I would be severally disappointed if these allegations were proven true against Mortenson, but I am not going to pretend that I can judge him. It is proven that he has build schools in Afghanistan, and he has given so many girls a real hope for an educated future. These allegations cannot take that away from Mortenson.

After seeing Mortenson in person, I can honestly say that he seemed genuine and honest to me. I loved the spontaneous responses he gave to our questions, and I will continue to support him until there is concrete evidence that he never had the best intentions for the children of Afghanistan at heart.

-Katie Early

I think it is easy to say “look how much he did, even if he did misuse funds, or fabricate his stories he still built schools.” This seems to me to be a reasonable response and where you lie on the matter is simply a position, nobody is right or wrong. Personally I think that if the allegations are true( and again I really hope that they are not) then I would lose all respect for HIM…not for his work.

Here is why I have already lost some respect for him even if it turns out he didnt “take” money he was not suppossed to or make up his stories. I was misled by him, I was under the impression that he spoke for one reason “to continue to raise money for a great cause.” But he wasnt, like it or not he spoke at these things for some other reason, I do not know if it was simply for the money, to promote his books or even just to boost his ego, I dont know. He seemed like a really humble and genuine person which is why perhaps I am so distrught over the whole issue, I felt like I was taken advantage of. And Again I am not saying that he is doing it for his ego i am saying he was doing it for something other than giving money back to schools. But if he was using the CAI’s money as a way to fund his travel for speaking engagements without giving a reasonable portion back towards the institute is wrong and slimy.

I don’t really even have problem with the $30,000 per speech he makes. I think Gonzaga was right in bringing in Mortenson, after all he was a moving speaker and got me excited and motivated to do some good. So to that point I think Mortenson did what he should have, he spread awareness about an issue that otherwise I may have never even thought about. BUT… if his stories were fabrications I must admit it does dampen my spirits. Even though it has nothing to do with the issues at hand.

For now, until we have some definitive answers either way I think we should approach the Mortenson issue with prudence. After all everything could be made up or it could all be truth, we simply do not know. IF… Mortenson is guilty I want to make sure that I do not kid myself in to fully discrediting his message.

It is a lot like a TV show I was watching the other day, there was a guy that was out on the streets preaching the ills of cigarettes and chewing tobacco in front of a big tobacco company’s corporate offices… when the cameras and people went away he went back behind his van and lit a cigarette. Does this take away from his message? did it make the facts about how smoking kills fake? No. So I want you to imagine that Mortenson was the guy speaking out…Even if he ends up smoking the cigarette he still had some brilliant and moving points.

I think that Kristof’s piece is very well-written, and I agree with what he is saying. It is hard to believe that Mortenson was intentionally “using the Central Asia Institute as ‘his own personal A.T.M.'” after having read Mortenson’s book and seeing him speak. Perhaps that is too optimistic of a view in today’s times and he was really working trying to get as much money as possible out of the organization, but until that is proven, I think I would rather think that it is more disorganization and there are other explanations.

Kristof’s mention of the effects this will have on the cynicism of the American people was something that I had originally thought when I heard about the accusations. It is very unfortunate, but I think that people will see this going on and start to have serious doubts about organizations like the CAI and will be less generous.

If these accusations are proven to be true, it will be terrible, but it will not change the fact that Mortenson did make at least a small difference in the lives of some Afghan children, which is more than most of the population can say. He might have gotten swept away in the money and “fame” from his work, but in the beginning there had to have been a real honest motivation to provide the children with an education.

Kristof’s final statements were also striking, and I agree completely that the real loss will be to the children of Afghanistan. It is important for us all to keep that perspective and realize that regardless of what turns out to be true in the Mortenson case, the children still need and deserve an education, and we must work to help build an infrastructure that can provide that for them.

I was using my friend’s e-book reader when I stumbled upon something. One of Mortenson’s past donors wrote an e-book. So far, the reviews seem to be against Mortenson.

It’s Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit on Amazon.com. Here’s the link: http://tinyurl.com/429zubx

I find it somewhat sad someone is mimicking what Greg started, yet Jon is donating to a different group than the CAI.

I read “Three Cups of Deceit” in its entirety today.

Yes, Mortenson has brought awareness to an important issue and built school in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, he has clearly inflicted more damage than good if all the accusations are true.

Mortenson’s stories are fabrications. I think that part of the debate is settled. There are multiple respected people on the record claiming he has lied. Many of these people were CAI supporters and they have no incentive to lie or risk their reputation attempting to trash Mortenson’s. If the only issue were Mortenson’s fabricated stories, the scandal would be less serious.

However, Mortenson has betrayed the publics’ trust with his BS accounting and lack of organizational transparency. The former treasurer of CAI says Mortenson says Mortenson took $270,000 and never provided receipts or accounted for any of it, even after internal controls were implemented by the board requiring employees to account for all expenses. In any other job, you get fired or sent to prison for fraud for pulling that kind of BS. There are other accusations made about Mortenson’s financial gimmicks also.

Mortenson cannot plead ignorance either. Multiple board members resigned over the fact he refused to account for his financial activities relating to the organization.

In conclusion, I would like to share one final thought some consider extreme, but I think the analogy is correct. If Mortenson is found guilty of misappropriating CAI funds (we will likely soon find out when the IRS investigates), he is no different from the Ken Lays and Bernie Ebbers of the world (Enron, Worldcom). In fact, I view him as worse. At least Lay and Ebbers didn’t claim they were doing charitable works while running their respective companies and fraudulently lining their own pockets.

I agree with Kristoff as well on just about every point he makes. It is important to regulate both politicians and humanitarians and this should not be forgotten, however it is also important to not forget what was done by Greg and remember why he started doing it. There is very little to comment on about Kristoff in my mind since I agree with so many of his points, the only comment that made me a bit uneasy was when he ends his article by stating that we should not forget that Mortensen has done more than Kristoff himself or any of us in helping those people. Although this is definitely true, I tend to become skeptical when guilt trip arguments are used. Fortunately the rest of Kristoff’s article was very sensible and I now have high respect for him, however these quick guilt trip arguments are, in my opinion, cop outs to focus on what we haven’t done rather than what Greg has done.

I believe the basic logic, when broken down behind guilt trip arguments such as this is that one uses a man such as Greg Mortensen who is a humanitarian, and compares him with an average person (most of whom are not humanitarians) in order to create such a large gap of difference, concentrating on the gap as a moral gap rather than a difference between people. Some people simply are not wired to be a humanitarian let alone Greg Mortensen. Then using this moral gap, the writer can simply put the guilt on the reader and detract from the situation at hand.

Aside from that small critique I also agree with Kristoff quite vehemently.

I agree with Carson’s comment. I didn’t know too much about Greg Mortenson before this class or his visit to our school, but after I was deeply touched and somewhat inspired to help anyway I could. After reading what Kristof had to say and what my fellow classmates have written, I feel disheartened to say the least. If you’re going to take the time to come out to Gonzaga or anywhere for that matter, and tell us what you’ve done and what needs to be done then you better be able to be back yourself up. It didn’t seem possible in my mind for someone so invested in helping these girls become educated to virtually lie about his life’s work. How can one show respect for a man who talks about being an “average” citizen and then turn around and fly personal jets and enrich himself before these people he so deeply cares about. I don’t want to believe the rumors are true, but in our world today it wouldn’t come as a surprise if it was just all a fabrication.

I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about Greg Mortenson this semester. He is driven, dedicated and an inspiring individual. Although the recent accusations are serious I think it is important to remember all of the great things Mortenson has done before we rule him as an awful person. 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 completely agree with the content of this article and the opinion that Mortenson should not be completely discredited.

I think that his article is quite compelling .I really do like what Greg is doing and the work that he has commited his life to. However, as with any business, the figure head of the company’s actions affect the future of most organizations and the relationships with investors. I think this will prove true with the Mortenson case as well. I would really like to believe otherwise, but history tells us this will not be the case. A complete restructure of the CAI is definitly in order if it is to continue ( which i definitly think it shoud). Ultimately, Kristoff is correct in the grand scheme of it affecting the institute and the way people look at Mr. Mortenson as a person, i just hope that this does not end up affecting the people the CAI was designed to help!


Mortenson has shown his sincerity for his cause regardless of whether or not he was taken captive or not. I have noticed that in promoting an idea, you need something captivating. I’m sure that in writing his book Mortenson realized this too. It goes along with the idea of why you tell a joke before you tell a speech because you need to bring the audience in. Hopefully Mortenson has seen this view, and used it for good, and not to line his own pockets. Once again though, at his speech at Gonzaga, you could sense his sincerity.

I agree that Mortenson has done some amazing things. I like what Krakauer said in 60 Minutes that it’s important to remember that Mortenson is not Bernie Madoff, he is still an incredible humanitarian. And, I wouldn’t mind one bit if Mortenson fabricated part of his story if the proceeds were going to the CAI. But when you look at all the pieces of the puzzle (at least as they stand right now) it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. From what I have read, Mortenson has made 5-6 million dollars from book sales in addition to the money from his speaker fees. He claimed that he only made $100,000 and said that all of the proceeds were being donated to the CAI. I realize that the speaking tours raise funds and are an investment for the institute, but he should be upfront about that. I understand why Krakauer would be upset when he donated $75,000 dollars to subsidize the $1.5 million a year Mortenson accrues in travel expenses. And, when you consider that parts of his book may be fabricated, it seems that he is profiting by dishonest means. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but for the head of a charity to be making that much money doesn’t seem right, especially when he lies about it. Again Mortenson has done amazing work. I hope that facts will come to light proving this to be a misunderstanding.

This guy really hits it on the head when he says that Greg has done more for Afghan girls than you or i ever would. Its true. Regardless of his financial transparency the fact that he has risked his life to create learning opportunities for kids in some of the harshest environments in the world is indeed admirable. However, I tend to be with Austin on this one. I think that anyone that commits illegal action should be considered criminal. If he has legitimately committed fraud by hiding elements of his income then I do not care how much he has done because that does not make it ok. He should be held accountable for every penny and until he can come up with exact expenditures I think the organization should be put on hold. However this does make me wonder how it came to be in the place it is. I don’t think that if this turns out to be a scam, it started that way. I think that Greg had a genuine interest in helping girls he might just have gotten caught up in the money, which is unfortunate but still criminal. Finally, I think before any actions are taken to investigate, we should wait to hear his side of the story. He chose an awfully convenient time to come down with a hole in his heart but I am REALLY excited to see what he has to say for himself. I’m curious if the humble pie will come back to bite him

I like how Kristof is standing up for Mortenson, but at the same time not completly agreeing that he is innocent. Like he said in the article, I don’t think it is fair to make any assumptions or accusations until there is more information regarding some of the issues Mortenson is facing. Even though Mortenson has done more for the Muslim world than he or any of us have, it still does not justify any of Mortenson’s actions if they turn out to be true. Mortenson may not have the business savy skills that those with business experience/education do, does not mean he is exempt from properly disclosing any financial expenditures that occur within the CAI. His lack of knowledge on how to run a business does not justify his actions if they are true.

I like how Kristof is supporting Mortenson, but I do think he has a point in that all allegations need to be cleared up before anyone assumes Mortenson is guilty of some of these issues. If Mortenson is at fault for abusing some of the funding that goes to CAI, I do not think his lack of business knowledge justifies this mistake. He is fully aware of knowing how he is handling the money that comes into the organization, and if he doesn’t know how to properly distribute it, he needs to learn as the leader of this organization! I hope these allegations turn out to be false because I would like to think Mortenson means well.

From Kristof’s view of Mortenson he is fabulous man constructing and funding many schools, working until work cannot be found. Rather than walking around wearing the newest fashion clothing in stores, Mortenson walks around wearing normal clothes while driving a normal car.
Then we come the all of the accusations made against Mortenson. These include the schools, the kidnapping, and the use of CAI as an ATM.
The connection I made with Mortenson was with Jesus. A man who walks around in normal clothes. Christ walked around helping others, trying to tell them the Word of God. Along the way he healed the sick and the blind, and also fed the poor. All good deeds. Like Mortenson he was accused of things related to his work. It saddens me that a person like Mortenson is being accused. If he is guilty then I hope Mortenson finds it in himself that though I may have committed wrong doing, I can start over from now and do the truth.