Laura's Reviews > Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way

Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer
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's review
Nov 06, 11

bookshelves: nonprofit-mgt, read-2011, nonfiction
Read in April, 2011

I did not read Three Cups of Tea. It seemed - from a distance - like a schmaltzy look at attempting large social change. That doesn't interest me, because I feel the terms are simplified to tell a story. And in that simplification, things are presented in a way that is too good to be true. This simplification loses how challenging it is to create lasting social change.

Jon Krakauer gave money to Greg Mortenson early on to support building schools in Afghanistan with an emphasis on reaching girls. Krakauer has three main concerns with Mortenson: 1) his story is not true and likely falsified to make a better story and therefore a better fundraising appeal, 2) he mismanages funds, co-mingling his personal and business expenses and then lets the non-profit entity, CAI, pay for them, 3) he has not built nor sustained the number of schools he claims to support.

This has stirred a lot of controversy including a 60 Minutes segment and an explosion of discussion on blogs. Krakauer also feels that Mortenson has rejected attempts to make CAI more transparent and accountable because ultimately he does not want to change his practice. Krakauer then goes on to guess why Mortenson does not want to be more transparent. It's this lack of transparency that I believe is the biggest problem - it hurts Mortenson but it hurts other organizations engaged in this work. And by this kind of work - I mean more than efforts in Afghanistan - I mean social change that seems insurmountable.

Supporters of Mortenson argue there are cultural misunderstandings that have lead to confusion which justify Mortenson's version of events. My concern is the US's consumption of celebrity driven activities and causes.

For me, this is a good example of the cult of celebrity. People wanted Mortenson's story to be true. I think some people still want it to be true. It helps them believe change is possible and feel that they have contributed to that change. And small projects are a bit like the question - "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" If a project does not receive a lot of attention and no one is around to see it, does it make an impact? The answer is yes - but will it be funded?

That is an imperfect comparison - but I do believe that people struggle with understanding social change as it is happening. We seek simplified stories that make big steps toward progress appear possible in our lifetime.

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Comments (showing 1-2)

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Janet I tried reading but didn't finish Three Cups. Although non fiction is my preferred genre, the book bored me. At the same time I was exploring the human rights issue of child marriage in developing countries. I read compelling journal articles that led me to Nepal to collect data for my thesis on the same subject. I traveled with a nonprofit that doesn't get a lot of attention, with relatively few people around to see its work, and yes, they are making an impact. Over 100 girls are staying in school, and the ripple affect of that cannot be quantified. But sustainable change doesn't happen with money alone. It is crucial that there is a paradigm shift in families' way of thinking about girls and education and their communities. I believe the shift is more effective and programs more sustainable when nationals are the primary contact and influence, in partnership with others who have the money, be they American or not.
The falling tree in a forest, maybe not a perfect comparison, but a good one nonetheless.

Laura I completely agree that there are good programs out there. I'm glad you had the opportunity to travel with one.

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