All of the ominous news about girls’ education charity founder Greg Mortenson is disappointing in itself - the sadness of a falling hero coupled with yet another story of corruption - but The Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg makes a point about the larger implications of this disillusionment.
Schools, of course, are what Mortenson is famous for. His books, Three Cups and its sequel, Stones Into Schools, tell of how an abortive attempt to climb K2 led him to a remote Pakistani village, where he made a solemn promise to return and build a place for its children to learn. He ended up founding a charity, the Central Asia Institute, to build schools, primarily for girls, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. But [author of the CAI-critical Three Cups of Deceit Jon] Krakauer shows that the organization has been haphazard and ineffectual, building fewer schools than it claims, and abandoning some that it has built so that they sit empty and unused. Worse, he reveals that much of the Central Asia Institute’s budget is spent on promoting Mortenson’s books—which sometimes means paying for him to travel by private jet—even though the group receives none of the book’s royalties.
If this were just about one author’s reputation, the story would have few repercussions outside the publishing world. But Mortenson is not just a memoirist—he’s also the single most famous champion of the transformative power of education for girls in poor countries. If his downfall leads to skepticism about his cause, it would be not just a scandal, but a tragedy. “It raises cynicism about the role of nonprofits in general, because I think that all of us who are in this space now are going to have to prove ourselves or do that much more to re-engage with our public, especially those who are not already donors,” says Shalini Nataraj, vice president at the Global Fund for Women. Adds New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof: “It’s probably true that advocates sometimes exaggerate how easy it is to help. But I worry that the latest round of sour news will leave people thinking it’s almost impossible to help.”
And now the Montana AG is investigating. Hero worship doesn’t make a particularly successful business or development approach, especially when it comes in the form of a foreign white man, but that doesn’t make the goal he was working towards any less worthy. I hope that the backlash doesn’t fall against the people Mortenson was trying to help in the first place.