In ‘Three Cups of Tea’ scandal, a valuable lesson

Greg Mortenson better watch out. The reporters from news program “60 Minutes,” the Montana police, his publisher Viking, and — yikes — “Into the Wild” author Jon Krakauer are painting him as the Bernie Maddoff of the humanitarian world.

FAWE's Nsaba Diaspora Community Senior High School (NDCSHS)
Mortenson based his best-selling books “Stones into Schools” and “Three Cups of Tea” on his experience building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan — but it turns out that these projects aren’t as successful as he made them out to be. So, it’s no surprise that Mortenson, who was a major inspiration to me, is becoming less known for his school-building and more known about his scandal. And media attention for his work (or, in this case, alleged work) is crazier than it’s ever been.

Unfortunately, there is little to no doubt that many of the allegations against Mortenson are valid, as evidenced by the growing number of investigations and a new lawsuit filed against him for alleged civil racketeering. As more people attack him for taking credit for empty or seemingly non-existent schools, we can’t forget there are many lessons to be learned from the attention that his story brings to education.

While researching, I learned that Mortenson’s work is neither the fairytale described in his books nor is [he a greedy vilian philanderer], as the media has painted him. The truth lies somewhere in between. Mortenson did build schools, but what’s relevant is what he didn’t do. Edward Wong, a journalist and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, actually traveled to two of the 170 schools supposedly built by the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson’s organization.

Wong discovered that the school Mortenson founded in Bozai Gombaz for the Kyrgz people was not being used at all. The Kyrgz parents and the people of the region had collectively chosen to take their children out of school. Culturally, they found it more valuable to have their children tending herds of sheep -– their source of income -– instead of staying in school. So, what does this one fact indicate about Mortenson’s work?

His tales of miracle school-building are embellished, but more importantly, it highlights the complexity and need for collaboration when it comes to development work. Effective school-building comes from the prioritization of the government and development assistance. ONE’s progress report on education in sub-Saharan Africa highlights the importance of cooperation between donor agencies and recipient countries in creating effective school systems.

The Fast Track Initiative (FTI), a partnership between donor countries and developing countries, proves that joint effort from government and non-government actors can result in great success. In fact, because of FTI, 15.2 million additional children were enrolled in primary school in sub-Saharan Africa since 2002.

While the social and political climate in sub-Saharan Africa is vastly different from the mountainous regions of Central Asia, the lesson is universal. Mortenson’s scandal is more than just gossip. What we can take away from a disheartening story is the lesson that partnerships are critical for effective development.