Greg Mortenson: A Simple Mistake or a Real Deception?

This past week my class was informed that Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute was being investigated by CBS News “60 Minutes”. It was horrifying to find out that the television news program had uncovered evidence that some of the compelling stories depicted in his book, Three Cups of Tea, were possibly untrue.

"Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson.

When the semester first started, my classmates and I began reading Three Cups of Tea. We were captured by his stories and his perseverance to make the lives of the children in Pakistan and Afghanistan better through education. This book opened our eyes to the specific cause we were striving for and made Greg Mortenson’s work into an example for us to emulate. It is unimaginable that someone who is doing so much good for the world would take advantage of the proceeds and would lie about various other aspects dealing with his organization, which is what “60 Minutes” published in its report on Sunday night.

I honestly did not believe all of the accusations against Greg Mortenson initially. It did not make sense to me that someone who was willing to dedicate his life to helping others would act out of greed or act in the wrong way in relation to his beloved organization. However, in light of recent revelations by 60 Minutes I am starting to change my mind.

"Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer.

I am usually not swayed by what the press says because I know that there are at least three sides to every story: one person’s side, the other person’s side and the truth is found somewhere in between their two versions. For example, Greg Mortenson spoke about a village called Korphe that took him in and practically saved his life on his mountaineering trip to K2. Yet, producers at 60 Minutes spoke with the specific people in Korphe that had allegedly saved his life and they assured the renowned news magazine show that no such events occurred. These people were shown in the news report as saying that Mortenson had never been to Korphe during that time, that it was a year later when Mortenson arrived in Korphe and eventually built a school there.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer was one of my favorite books in high school because it revealed the struggles and dangers of mountaineering to me. I built up a lot of respect for the mountaineering world and specifically for Krakauer after I finished the book. Krakauer’s interview against Mortenson was very strong considering that he talked about Mortenson’s former employees to attack Mortenson’s inappropriate use of the donations. I was shocked to find out figures such as $1.5 million was used for advertising Mortenson’s books and $1.3 million was used for domestic travel some of which was in private planes. The final evidence that took me by surprise was when 60 Minutes surprised Mortenson at a book signing and with a look of terror on his face Mortenson refused to talk to them at all; then he gave one of his men a look translating into “Get that guy out of here.”

The 8 boxes of school supplies I packed and brought in today!

While I still think Mortenson’s work is valuable and very important, I am a little worried that the Central Asia Institute is not everything I thought it was. I genuinely feel that his overall message is more important than the specifics of his book; after all, whether it was all true or not, it got me to believe and understand his cause more than I could before reading it. I am hoping that now the funds will be allocated correctly and that all of the schools will receive what they were promised since the Central Asia Institute will have to be careful of everything they do.

Here is a link to the CBS 60 Minutes report:

And here is a link to a rebuttal from Greg Mortenson and CAI:

On a happier note, today in class we also started writing thank you letters to everyone who has helped us along this journey to promote education in Afghanistan. I also brought in the 8 boxes of school supplies I packed alone that a fellow student in my science course went out and raised. Our last piece of the puzzle for now is to get all of our money in which should be coming together within the next couple of weeks. Zoe and I have plenty of people to thank so we are definitely going to start our thank you letters today! If you want to help send our boxes to the children in Afghanistan and want to promote education, go to and support our shipping fund! (Editor’s note: This class and the School Supplies for Afghan Children project are run in cooperation with Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, a registered 501c3 nonprofit. The donations are shipped to US troops in Afghanistan and distributed as part of humanitarian missions. A full 100% of the money donated to the shipping fund is used for shipping. For more information click the link below:

All of the school supplies everyone brought to class today!

About arantzazugarate

I am a student in the Honors College at the University of South Florida working with my classmates to bring education to Afghanistan's children.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Awareness campaigns, Charity, Education, Holland & Knight Foundation, Partner organizations, Shipping, Three Cups of Tea, University of South Florida, USF Honors College and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to Greg Mortenson: A Simple Mistake or a Real Deception?

  1. Great post and congrats on Freshly Pressed. I tried several times to read this book and failed each time. It didn’t capture my interest…(well the writing didn’t capture me) the story about helps others I think is terrific. It saddens me when people fall into money, it happens all too easy these days and it seems Mr.Mortenson has fallen prey to the power of it. You should be proud of what you have accomplished with your class, you will bring many smiles to children in Afghanistan.

  2. Hearing about this controversy saddened me…deeply. I am embarrassed for the man, but more concerned that the story will take away from the important educational contributions that need to be made in other countries.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts — and for your own contributions!


  3. ALIVEalways says:

    You sure are up to something good and promoting education is the way to go.

  4. Reminds me of Wyclef and his charity Yele Haiti . Many people think he was pocketing the money. Videos was made out of Haiti where the people wasn’t getting any help. They were living in tents and basically starving. Great post!

  5. wadingacross says:

    I have never read “Three Cups…” and had zero intention to do so even though it was widely lauded. I read what I find interesting or impacting, not what mass media thinks is valuable.

    I do recall thinking that the number of schools he supposedly opened in a region known for being so culturally chauvinistic against women sounded a bit unusual. All the more so knowing he had to deal with the Taliban.

    Other information/articles/interviews beyond 60 Minutes have come forth apparently noting that Greg and his organization were known to be shady/problematic in the non-profit sector, but everyone stayed tight-lipped because Mr. Mortensen is supposedly bullish.

    The truth will always find you out. This is yet another example of doing your homework before you blindly support a non-profit. To be sure, his premise, education – specifically to the poor and women – is laudable, and this news will do great harm to such efforts, but hopefully people like yourself and your group will carry on.

  6. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! We enjoyed reading the book “Three Cups of Tea” and, like you, are having a difficult time processing this news. We did not see the 60 minutes show on this…but will go back now and read the report and the rebuttal. Best wishes with your project! Way to go in helping the kids of Afghanistan!!

  7. happypoppeye says:

    I don’t know – If 60 minutes has so much definitive information on this …where is it at? I’m going to believe Greg until some proof is shown. Look what the media does to the info from Afghanistan itself. It’s one side of the story… As for the book not telling the truth, or containing a non-accurate type of truth, well, I’m not sure many books do. I am sure there are some “variances” in there to make it a better read. No doubt. Thats just common sense.
    Good post, but for now it’s all heresay and rumor spreading,

  8. Summer says:

    I actually got that book but never got a chance to read it! good thing to know that some things are not entirely true!

  9. Yusra says:

    So, some of it isn’t exactly true, the overall impression the book/his actions gives me is still a very positive one. But his expenditure of donated money in so many selfish ways cannot be excused (and I rather hope that somehow they can be proven to be incorrect).

    (On a side-note, what you’re doing for the Afghan children is very very good of you. :))

  10. Nell says:

    I saw the 60 minutes feature on Greg Mortenson. Like you, I was disappointed to find out that his book could have been exagerrated. (Humanitarian efforts always inspire me.) Anyway, I hope that you are not discouraged because what you are doing is wonderful. Good luck with your project!

  11. Pingback: Three Cups of… we’re not sure… | St. George's Senior Library Blog

  12. Thanks for sharing your impressions on this news story, which I also wrote a blog about yesterday, on my WordPress. Education is so central to peace and to developing our individual freedom. When peace becomes a businses, the businessmen come into it. Best wishes with your educaitonal projects and work toward real peace.

  13. I loved the book. This just ruins it. 😦 I don’t know if I buy the “the way they tell time is different” argument. I don’t know. I hope they just continue the good work.

  14. Sherie says:

    I’ve read Three cups of tea and the sequel stones into schools and was very inspired by the kind of work being done. This is a bit of a let down. But shouldn’t deter the spirit of everyone else working on the project.

  15. It is too bad that this man turned out to be a sham. I can only hope that people who truly believed they were doing a good thing were able to see their efforts go to the people who needed them the most.

  16. I’ve read the book and actually got my book club to read it as well. While I don’t have a “huge” problem with some fictionalization of his bio in order to make the story more compelling…hearing new of misappropriated funds does disturb me. I’m going to check into you links now. Thanks.

  17. jule1 says:

    I just read about this online (5 min. before seeing your blog). It’s so disappointing. Greg Mortensen portrays himself as a selfless person who barely made a dime going into areas no one else wanted to go into in order to build schools to help people who had no other chance of being educated. While the kidnapping seems to have been bogus (it seems to have been a voluntary visit, with the people in the village treating him as an honored guest), I probably could have lived with that part as long as the school claims were true.

    Guess what? Jon Krakauer mentioned in his part of the interview that G.M. said he built 11 schools in an area where it seems clear he built only 3. And 60 Min. investigated 30 schools (listed in G.M.’s taxes as schools his foundation supports) and found several of them don’t exist, and several others are being used to store foodstuff, while others claim they have never received monetary support, or have not received money in years. Great.

    This guy was an amazing hero to me and brought tears to my eyes. I believed in his humility and pure desire to just help, by building one school at a time. Remember that phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute”? I guess I was that sucker — believing a story that was too good to be true.

  18. Marilyn says:

    I was raised in Pakistan close to the area where Greg Mortenson began his work. Those of us who know the area, are familiar culturally and linguistically with Pakistan had two initial reactions when the book first came out. The first was a deep connection with a people and an area grossly misunderstood by an ethnocentric west. The second was “Really?” “I don’t think so” but we were grateful that he moved those with know knowledge of the area to see a world that is more than a terrorist beard. A major issue that has not been raised is why we need sensationlized versions of stories. If we are honest we will realize that 3 school in our mind is not good enough, we want 68. 3 schools is a wonderful accomplishment and should be seen as such but we are drawn to bestsellers and celebrities, not paying attention until it reaches that status. Years before Greg Mortenson set foot in the area the Agha Khan Foundation was doing tremendous work around education for girls and boys. While I am grateful that he raised awareness for an area of the world that I know and love, the damage from this will affect how people give in the future which is a tragedy.

    • I think I’d have been plenty impressed with the story of ONE school, if the story he’d told around it was true. To even complete and be able to finance a single school anywhere — especially here in the US, where at “budget cut” time we always seem to target education first — is a pretty impressive feat. But it becomes much less impressive when you lie and say you’ve accomplished much more than you have… it makes what you DID accomplish seem like a much lesser thing.

  19. jasminerose says:

    Thank you for sharing this post, I actually had not looked into the 60 mins piece because I do like Three Cups of Tea so much. However I appreciate your impressions and how this report has you conflicted. No matter what the case, as far as the story goes, I think the book did a great honor in shedding light o an area in the world that knows tragedy all too well.

  20. Meghan says:

    By what feels like a strange coincidence, I just started reading Three Cups of Tea this past week – now, not even halfway through, I’m sad to hear that some of the things that inspire me the most about Greg Mortenson’s story may not be true at all.
    I agree with what you said, that there are three sides to every story – so maybe the media are exaggerating, and Mortenson did take some ‘time line’ liberties, and somewhere in the middle is a lot of good work.
    Still disappointed to learn that he fudged the truth. 😦

    Congrats on being freshly pressed, and keep up all the good work!

  21. katblogger says:

    My class also read parts of this book – one of the teachers promoted Mortenson as a hero. It’s too bad to find out he was a liar. But at least people like you are actually helping.

  22. EndlessExcursions says:

    Congrats on being freshly pressed.
    Today, my class also talked about whether Mortenson’s “Three cups of tea” was nonfiction. I never read it before but we discussed that if he wrote that not everything is true then it will be more acceptable. If he claims everything is true, then he is a liar.
    One thing that caught my eye reading the 60 minutes argument was that they said Mortenson lied about being kidnapped. If he fabricated the kidnapping, for me the moral is lost. Why would someone lie about being kidnapped? He’s getting Nobel Peace prizes for this book and contribution.
    We also talked about the money (donations) used for transportation, talks etc. were just though he did get paid a lot of money. I mean he set up schools for children.
    And I will still have “Three cups of tea” on my reading list.

  23. Leah says:

    Very nice post. I saw the 60 Minutes story as well. I agree with you the message in the book is what should count. I’m not condoning what Mortensen did mind you. I think writers need to be careful when they label work non-fiction. But I really like the point Krakauer made toward the end when he said that Mortensen has done a lot of good. He’s not Bernie Madoff. But people should be aware of his business practices. Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  24. As we begin to engage in our mission to deliver medical supplies to orphanages in the same regions traveled by Mortenson, we can only admire his accomplishments. Whether or not IKAT funds were misused, it cannot be argued that Mortenson gave of himself to help those in need, and that makes him a good man. We applaud his work to educate the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  25. John Galt says:

    John Krakauer’s article (on did it for me. He wrote such a compelling, clearly well thought out and researched piece on Greg that there’s no way I can support CIA or Greg in the future. He clearly meant to do well but what he’s done with the money generous people have donated to him is both disheartening and malicious. I think this is am important topic – we need to make sure every penny we donate is going to a good cause, and ultimately, I am not sure Greg is a good cause.

  26. My word. I have missed all of this and am all prepared with kiddos to make popsicles for peace for CAI during Spring Break.

    As bloggers I think few of us have not ‘spun’ something to make a good story and it has certainly helped bring his message to the Barnes and Nobles of our comfortable high streets. CBS uses the same tactics to captivate its audience as do all the networks. They are a formidable gang to eclipse to deliver any message to the US public. My neighbour told me that her neice got a job at NBC. She came back with some local reporting on a neighbourhood tragedy and was told never to come back ‘until she had made them cry’. They were referring to her interviewees.

    If Greg Mortenson were pocketing funds as well that would be a very different matter. Buying your own books, well unfortunately I know of a leading newspaper that buys its own copies to boost sales figures and it is far from alone. It is a marketing tactic , which though unappetizing, happens, and if the message is worth it maybe it is a necessary expedient.

    The US is also up in arms against many of these Asian/Middle Eastern charities. Their first line of attack was crippling legislation. Some of the quotes from the right wing following 9/11 suggested they just wanted to bring them to their knees. A friend in Yemen who has been working with Children’s charities for years is terrified of buying her stationary from a guy who might have the wrong connections for fear of imprisonment. If any one is interested I have short World Bank paper on how US legislation is blindly stifling charities in the region.

    If I can succeed in getting my children to school on time, much less building it… I feel I am doing well.

    Here is to hoping that it is just a little spin, we are off to make our Mango popsicles at $1 each.

  27. Eva McCane says:

    wow…that’s all very interesting. i’ll have to watch the 60 minutes clip to learn more. thank you for your efforts!

  28. It never ceases to amaze me how ready people are to accept a report that someone who is doing good work is a sham because he’s not beyond reproach. Guess what folks — we’re all human. And the only ones among us who are not in some way hypocritical are those whose philosophy of life is complete self-centredness and who fulfill that philosophy in the way they live. The rest of us are just out there doing our best, and often getting criticized for it. It’s interesting how often the criticisms are levelled by people who are making little to no effort to leave their corners of the world better than they found them, only to disparage others’ efforts. If you go looking under the bed for monsters and you’re really determined to find them, you will — whether or not they’re there. Seems to me Greg Mortensen is doing something good, and that’s a helluva lot more than most of his critics are doing. As to the readiness of the American public to accept whatever they see on TV — most of it is one-sided hype and its goal is not to expose frauds but to sell advertising. Maybe people accept reports like this without questioning them to make themselves feel better about doing nothing.

    • jill says:

      Thank you, Lynn, for expressing my sentiments, exactly! It saddens me deeply that otherwise “good and decent” people who have NOT read either of Greg Mortensen’s books and know little or NOTHING about Central Asia are eager to believe the worst about this man. Yes, questions need to be answered, but why the rush to judgment?? The Bible says “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and teaches us to “judge not lest ye be judged”.

  29. mythago says:

    I too am glad that your group is carrying on despite this disappointment.

  30. Like many here, the book also failed to ‘grab me’. Part of that had to do with my immediate impression of Mortenson being a shamelessly self-promoting, self-aggrandizing individual. I was truly unimpressed and not at all surprised by the 60-Minute revelation.

  31. da45ve says:

    I’ve been really looking forward to reading ‘Three Cups of Tea’ being a bestseller that it is. Somebody got a chance to borrow it from someone else before I did. I missed getting a copy in Cambodia, but finally picked up one in a secondhand bookshop while visiting the UK. If all that it’s turned out to be is a contrived story, then I’m not sure I want to, now. May as well read a novel.

  32. Pingback: Greg Mortenson: A Simple Mistake or a Real Deception? (via School Supplies for Afghan Children) | eloisie

  33. Pollyanna says:

    I like the way you have shared your thoughts about this. It really doesn’t matter what Mortenson did or didn’t do or even whether 60 minutes is true (they have probably taken as much liberty with the truth as Mortenson). If you have a genuine passion for this, do not be deterred. Following what is true for you will always include doubt and difficulty. It will also always lead to your heart.

  34. Katie Gou says:

    True or untrue, I think it is great that it has spurred individuals like yourself into action. Keep up the great work!

  35. AnastasiaVS says:

    I have not read the book, but a friend has mentioned it recently! Great press!

  36. richannkur says:

    well written article…..

  37. Sounds like it’s “A Million Little Pieces” by Frey all over again. Except this time the lie was compounded exponentially by theft from the very poor. I’ve always felt that greed and the concept of ‘because I can’ are the most dangerous. Why did he exploit the reading masses? To line his pockets by perpetrating a myth, all because he could. He could profit while having people view him in a saintly way. Dangerous.
    Thanks for expanding on the article by 60 Minutes.

  38. farah says:

    I only read the young reader’s edition. And i like it. I rate it 4 stars. One of my favorite book. But I felt shocked when i read and watch the news video. It’s not the first time someone make up stories, and published it as a memoir…
    So very sad.
    And running charity organization is not an easy task though, it’s very risky indeed, because we have to manage others people donation money… I’m just … >_<

  39. katrinamauro says:

    Oh man! I’m totally distraught by this news!! I loved that book, and the hope it carried!

  40. Pingback: The Weekend Wrap-up: 4.18.11 – 4.22.11 | The Lit Witch: A Book Blog

  41. theteachingwhore says:

    Thanks for writing on an important issue. Your comments about the press are what stood out to me. You said, “I am usually not swayed by what the press says . . .” Even if we aren’t swayed, we have to listen to what the press tells us because no one can research every issue on his or her own. All reporting is not an extreme. The challenge is to find an objective, reliable source–they are out there–and cross-reference what you find there. The press must continue to be a watchdog of sorts to help the public understand and control the manipulation of individual profit-seekers and other liars.

  42. Young22 says:

    My school paid Greg Mortenson $30,000 for a speaking engagement. Every student in the high school had to read the book and had assignments over it. It was disappointing to learn that parts of the book were either exaggerated or not true at all. If he did build a few schools, that’s better than none and there is no reason he needs to pretend he did more.

  43. Pingback: Greg Mortenson: A Simple Mistake or a Real Deception? (via School Supplies for Afghan Children) « docblogs

  44. Pingback: Greg Mortenson: A Simple Mistake or a Real Deception? (via School Supplies for Afghan Children) | MUHAMMED MASHOOD'S BLOG

  45. Pingback: A definite success all around! | School Supplies for Afghan Children

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s