Review: Three Cups of Deceit

This is Jon Krakauer’s critique of Greg Mortenson’s biographical works and charity.  His claims are serious: that Mortenson made up significant parts of his books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones to Schools, and that he has misappropriated significant funds intended for his non-profit charity, the Central Asian Institute (CAI). Krakauer also believes that much of the work that CAI has done has been mismanaged, resulting in unused buildings rather than the functioning schools that the CAI claims.

The situation is ugly.  Mortenson has sold a lot of books and raised a lot of money for the wholly laudable goal of building schools in the disadvantaged world.  Until these allegations were raised by Krakauer and 60 Minutes, he was well respected.  It is difficult for a random reader to assess the veracity of either author’s claims.

And yet.

My gut feeling is that Krakauer is probably right about the inflated claims in Three Cups of Tea.  I said in my earlier review that Three Cups is breathless in places, and that’s an understatement.  Much of that book feels overwrought and the narrative just too overheated to be true. If that was the extent of the allegations, I would be disappointed, but a few white lies to build schools for the disadvantaged is not the worst sin.

Krakauer goes on to say that the CAI is basically being mismanaged to the point of fraud and that funds intended for those schools are not making it there.  Mortenson’s alleged mismanagement ranges from using CAI funds to advertise for his books (which do not directly benefit the CAI) to losing touch with the operations on the ground.  The latter manifests itself as not keeping the schools that have been built operating by training and supporting teachers.  Without them, the school is just another building.

As I say, I am not in a position to judge these claims – other than my literary assessment above.  However, Krakauer’s claims all seem testable, and I think that an audit of a multi-million dollar charity accused of such malfeasance is worthwhile.  One would hope that the CAI would be eager to use such an audit to clear their name.  With the attention this is getting, I suspect the audit is imminent.

I hope Krakauer’s wrong.  Mortenson’s story is compelling and inspiring, and I’d like to believe that he’s made people’s lives better.  I fear he’s right.

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