Under the burden of a 60 Minutes exposé on CBS and a blistering, 75-page takedown by adventure writer Jon Krakauer, Greg Mortenson's phenomenally successful weaving together of fact and fiction has already faced more scrutiny than most pop philanthropy ever receives in its entire shelf life. While opinions about Mortenson have always varied within the international development community and among humanitarian workers, that debate never really got a full airing. The ideas and philosophy driving the Three Cups of Tea mania for school-building has become a bit of an orthodoxy. Orthodoxies usually have the effect of muting debate. Pakistanis should know. Pakistan has endured far too much unjustified and illegitimate orthodoxy in its short history. Until the 60 Minutes exposé, only the very brave ventured to openly mock Mortenson. The fact that there is now unforgiving scrutiny of every aspect of his two books and the charity that he founded is therefore a wonderful thing.
Many Mortenson sympathizers are perplexed by the strong reaction to the unraveling of Mortenson's elaborate and carefully constructed fables. These sympathizers are not all innocuous middle-aged accountants or bleeding-heart housewives. Some very knowledgeable and clued-in people -- heads of NGOs, education experts, media personalities -- are also confused by the outrage at the little lies Mortenson told to help address a big truth: that girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan need help getting educated. Consider this: In Pakistan, the proportion of rural women who have attended school is one in three. In such dire need, many reasonable people wonder why there is such unmitigated outrage at a few Mortenson fibs.
The fact that Mortenson and his legions of supporters are perplexed by the tsunami of outrage and disappointment is a big part of this story. But if you've ever felt a sense of moral outrage about a big social or political problem (and which one of us hasn't?), then understanding these people's defensive crouch should not be too difficult.
Indeed, moral outrage is the raw material that helps build and sustain efforts like Mortenson's Central Asia Institute. CAI's donors evidently care deeply about the plight of girls in this part of the world. And that sort of emotion is the fundamental fuel that drives an entire globalized narrative of change being made in bad places (like Pakistan) by good people (like Greg Mortenson). The best and most effective practitioner of this narrative is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Kristof may accidentally stumble occasionally, but is decidedly anything but Orientalist -- and he has introduced dozens of heroic African and Asian women to the Western world. Kristof's columns and books help save lives; of this, there's little doubt. But they do more than just spur generosity and philanthropy. They help hone the lens through which people see the less-developed world and the less-privileged that live in that world.
One aspect of that lens, which Mortenson's book and several others like it share, is the notion that individual bravery, innovation, and action can be transformative for entire countries -- as Mortenson's various book titles clearly claim. The original hardcover subtitle for Three Cups of Tea was "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time" and the subtitle for the "young reader's edition" is "One Man's Journey to Change the World … One Child at a Time." (To his enduring credit, Kristof's reportage is almost entirely selfless, and he has rarely, if ever, credited himself as a savior).
Still, by any stretch of the imagination, the idea that anyone can save a country or the world is an emotional appeal, not a reasonable or rational one. There is nothing, of course, inherently wrong with tugging at people's heart strings while relating serious problems and the possible solutions that brave innovators are coming up with to solve them. But just because there's nothing morally or ethically wrong with this kind of narrative doesn't mean it is the right way to deal with complex and multilayered problems like HIV/AIDS in South Africa, malaria in Tanzania, female infanticide in India, or education in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Every single one of these problems should rightly compel us to act at a basic human level. The morality of doing something to address these problems is unquestionable. But the stimulus to act, and the action itself, have to be separated. Rushing into the serious and sober public-policy problems of health, sanitation, and education on emotional highs, induced by books like Three Cups of Tea, is a recipe for disaster. Exhibit A: Mortenson's post-60 Minutes reputation.
So what are the lessons from all this? There are a few. The first is that giving to charity without reading the fine print is tantamount to throwing your money away. Charity and philanthropy have an important place in a post-global world where our interconnectedness, from Kalamazoo to Karachi to Kyoto, is undeniable. Charity humanizes us and (hopefully) humanizes the recipients of our magnanimity. But you have to read the fine print. Luckily, I never donated to CAI, but owning to its elaborate and self-congratulatory subtitle, I also never read Three Cups of Tea. If I had, it would have been easy for me to resist the waxing eloquence of friends and family who were completely taken in by it. Mortenson's story of being kidnapped by the Taliban in South Waziristan in 1996? Possibly the most blatant and obvious lie ever constructed in pursuit of girls' education. The Taliban were busy taking over Afghanistan in 1996 and did not arrive in Pakistan until at least 2001.