« The first obesity epidemic | Main | your formless weekend open thread »

April 21, 2011

Comments

I read Mortenson some time ago, and having traveled in similar areas a long time ago, it occurred to me, fleetingly, that many of his encounters would be difficult to corroborate.

This "scandal" reminds me a little of the questions surrounding the veracity of the late Bruce Chatwin's writings.

But then I always wonder about the stories dealt out by explorers. Who was the bigger liar -- Lewis or Clark? Magellan? How do we know he didn't sail just over the horizon and spend those years coming about in small circles in the horse latitudes. Look, the Strait of Magellan was called something else by someone else for centuries before Magellan "discovered" it.

Talk about half-truths.

When an explorer runs across an isolated tribe in the forest, whom exactly is being "discovered". Yeah, we know who WE are and our place in the universe, the tribes must say to themselves.

Who are you? Let's discover that.

Maybe Werner Herzog could make a documentary about Mortenson's explorations into the heart of darkness and his alleged prevarications as a human character study.

Still, even if Mortenson's experiences are half-truths, they've done less damage to our delicate virtue and humanity than the hard, full, much more scandalous truths of American unmanned drones in that area of the world.


Actually, some of what Mortenson is accused of doing is criminal: diverting charitable funds to personal gain, among other things. And the "flawed but important ideas" argument really doesn't hold much water when you realize how little actual progress either NGOs or the US military have made attempting to utilize his methods. And he hasn't really been building schools: he's been building buildings. A school would have teachers, supplies, curricula.

Sorry, but sometimes the truth really is as bad as it looks.

For citations and further reading on these points, I highly recommend Aaron Bady's roundup of commentary, not to mention his own thoughts on the matter.

Thanks for the Bady link. Great roundup.

Other than Mortensen's entire narrative of how he got started being a complete fabrication, and other than his far-leap assertion that a school is a building, I've got no quarrel with the guy.

I read Mortensen's Three Cups of Tea a few years ago and enjoyed it. Too bad it's a fabrication. He's not the first to embellish an autobiographical story, nor will he be the last.

I also watched the show with dismay and disappointment. And on the show, he looked like a deer in the headlights---he looked frightened and confused.

A part of me wants to believe that while he may have exaggerated to make the book sell and gain America's heart, and that possibly his mismanagement to criminal degree of the charity was done in a sort of ignorance, I am still troubled by his apparent inaction to respond.

I do think he did good things, but I think he began to buy his own lies and act accordingly. He will destroy the good he did if he does not straighten it out and fast.

Nicolas Kristoff presents an interesting view. Mortenson apparently did build some schools with actual students, according to Kristoff, who visited them himself. I hope that Mortenson was just in over his head, and that with help he can redeem his reputation. His was certainly an inspiring story.

Everybody is the hero of his own autobiography. Why should Mortenson be any different -- except that he wrote his down, where the rest of the world could read and fact-check it.

Anyone who was actually a hero was also a human being, with all the possible flaws that entails. As the original post correctly notes, the man did a great deal of good work. For that, he should he celebrated.

He also seems (assuming that 60 Minutes got it right) to have embellished his personal story, and to have profited from his good works. For that, he will, and ought to, catch some heat.

On the other hand, one lesson someone might take from the whole story is that you can do well by doing good. You may do less good than if you profited less. But if it gets a few more people to at least do some good, that might be a net plus for the world.

I mean, suppose Mortenson had devoted his efforts to some other way to make money for himself, rather than building schools and skimming part of the donations? Then there would have been no schools built. Would that be better? Sure, the ideal may be to be totally selfless. But there is a distinct shortage of people willing and able to act that way.

Thanks, Ahistoricality, for that helpful link to Aaron Bady's overview-by-excerpt (which itself contains a pointer to a giant roundup of 77+ links).

This one expresses what I've thought about Mortenson since the first time I saw him:

Why, exactly, did we ever think that Mortenson’s model for education, exemplified in his Central Asia Institute (CAI), was going to work? Its focus was on building schools — and that’s it. Not a thought was spared for education quality, access, or sustainability. But building schools has never been the answer to improving education … Over the last 50 years of studying international development, scholars have built a large body of research and theory on how to improve education in the developing world. None of it has recommended providing more school buildings, because according to decades of research, buildings aren’t what matter. Teachers matter. Curriculum matters. Funding for education matters. Where classes actually take place? Not really. The whole CAI model was wrong.

But here’s the truly awful thing: Looking back, it’s clear that everyone knew that that CAI’s approach didn’t work. It was just that no one wanted to talk about it. [Alanna Shaikh at Foreign Policy mag website]

That he's skimmed quite a bit of $ from the whole enterprise, and has fabricated from the beginning, is just to be expected; a certain percentage of all self-promoters are cons.

More trenchant analysis than this rather contrarian guest post would involve what and when editors at Viking Press knew, and what kinds of efforts they exerted to check. A lot of the money given to CAI was used to promote the book. There were already a lot of alarm bells out there before this week, discussed in a New Yorker item by Peter Hessler.

Count me as preferring not to be represented, unofficially or otherwise, by Greg Mortenson.

His personal narrative, even if it turns out to be flawed, introduced millions of Americans to the concept of forming people-to-people partnerships to support the human development needs of local leaders and citizens.

So we're supposed to believe that these same millions of Americans had never heard of this idea before Mortenson enlightened them? Color me skeptical.

Something about that book even as it sits on the table in my local B&N has always made me roll my eyes and pass it by. Maybe it's guilt that I haven't gone out and changed the world myself, or maybe it's just cynicism exacerbated by age and hard experience. But when it gets to be as much about the do-gooder as about the good, that’s when I start rolling my eyes and passing it by.

I vastly prefer my own favorite, small-scale, non-book-writing, “local international” do-gooders. I have met a couple of these people; I could go on one of their trips if I wanted to. I bet there's an operation like this within local reach of every American, including everyone who gave money to Mortenson: personal, small-scale, 100% of the money going to support the kids. The Kakamega people pay their own way when they go to Kenya; they probably pay the damned postage to send out their newsletters.

Thanks, Nell, for the link to the Hessler piece, which I just read. It inspires me to also point out that the Friends of Kakamega -- and I'm sure many small outfits like them -- support a local (Kenyan) operation run by local people. They did not swoop down from the outside with ideas of their own, they simply brought support -- Quaker to Quaker in this case -- to local people who were already trying to accomplish something for local kids.

Hessler's piece also made me see my own earlier comment more clearly, in the sense that the line I quoted from the original post framed Mortenson not only as the hero of building schools in Afghanistan, but also as the great enlightener of the benighted American public.

Mind you I'm pretty sure a lot of the American public is pretty oblivious about other places and other cultures, but I'd also bet that it wasn't the oblivious ones, by and large, who bought Mortenson's book in the first place.

I cannot let the post by "Nell" go unchallenged. It is the height of arrogance to make the statements about Mr. Mortenson and his work since he has apparently never actually met the man or know much else about him or his work. I have met him, and am old enough to not have the wool easily pulled over my eyes. It is easier for me to believe he has been taken advantage of by a few people in Pakistan/Afghanistan (taking money from a few groups to build a school, and changing the sign when they know someone is coming to look it over), and any inaccuracies in the book were not his idea but done by his co-author and publisher taking literary license. Any doubts he had were over-ruled by them, and any "compression" or "fabrications" were of their making. I believe him to be a totally kind and unassuming person who isn't stupid, but just doesn't have a lot of business savvy, and has now been made to look bad. As others have also said, regardless of any possible complicity he has in this matter (even Krakauer said) he has still helped tens of thousands of children in a part of the world that no other government or NGO has been anywhere nearly as successful in educating their children as he has. And as far as it not being necessary for the buildings, it is far more practical to be in a warm building in those parts of the world during the long cold season to learn as opposed to scratching sums in the dirt when it is covered with ice and snow. You are only helping to create a tempest in a teacup. If nothing else, Mortenson has clearly shown that the only way to peace in this world is through education.

Here's an interesting article, especially this:

Gilgit-Baltistan, which is a peaceful, predominantly Ismaili region whose inhabitants see the Paris-based Aga Khan as their spiritual leader. There is a strong Tibetan Buddhist influence.

Gilgit-Baltistan, which is a peaceful, predominantly Ismaili region whose inhabitants see the Paris-based Aga Khan as their spiritual leader. There is a strong Tibetan Buddhist influence. Rather than Mortenson waging a lonely battle against ignorance, the Aga Khan Development Network has been building hundreds of schools in the region and has a track record of staffing them and keeping them open. As the Pakistani journalist, Rina Saeed Khan, points out, Gilgit-Baltistan has one of the highest literacy rates in Pakistan. She asks, quite rightly, why Mortenson didn't join forces with the network given their experience and expertise, instead of struggling desperately to work it all out for himself.

I cannot let the post by "Nell" go unchallenged.

Steven, since you seem to be new here, let me explain: Nell has been commenting here for years and has established a great deal of credibility.

I have met him, and am old enough to not have the wool easily pulled over my eyes.

Everyday, very intelligent and wise people are taken in by con men. There is no shame in that.

It is easier for me to believe he has been taken advantage of by a few people in Pakistan/Afghanistan (taking money from a few groups to build a school, and changing the sign when they know someone is coming to look it over), and any inaccuracies in the book were not his idea but done by his co-author and publisher taking literary license.

Mr Mortenson claimed that several named individuals were Taliban terrorists who had taken him hostage and threatened his life. These individuals were not members of the Taliban, they were not terrorists, and they never threatened him. This sort of "inaccuracy" is not something that can be blamed on an overzealous coauthor or editor.

I believe him to be a totally kind and unassuming person who isn't stupid, but just doesn't have a lot of business savvy, and has now been made to look bad.

Does he look as bad as the innocent men that he falsely accused of being violent Taliban terrorists? Or does he look better than them?

As others have also said, regardless of any possible complicity he has in this matter (even Krakauer said) he has still helped tens of thousands of children in a part of the world that no other government or NGO has been anywhere nearly as successful in educating their children as he has.

This is not true. As novakent has mentioned, the Agha Khan Development Network has done a great deal more.

I read the book a few years ago and thought it was great. I have not yet and likely will not see the 60 minutes piece in large part because I find 60 minutes to be shit. It's typical US media tripe and doesn't surprise me that they'd do a large segment on unearthing lies of a non-profit. I found the book to be reasonably well written, have some good anecdotes, and an overall message and reminder that 'hope' and 'change' aren't just billboard advertisements. Not only can individuals make a difference, but as an American I'm in a unique position to have vast opportunities myself and it's up to me whether I use this to help others.

What's the problem?

If he lied about meeting Taliban, lied about the number of schools, lied about being saved off of K2, etc. it doesn't bother me. It's a frakken autobiography - people embellish or outright lie in these all the time. None of this changes the message of the book to me.

It does bother me if he took more out of the CAI then he should have, but that's why there are sites that track non-profits and score them in order to research the best 'bang for the buck' before donating. I don't need a 60 minutes expose to google "central asian institute rating" and see them on charity navigator. It's not as if the only people complaining are ones who have donated to CAI and now feel mislead about where their money is going. This is a witch hunt.

I'll read the provided links to others takes on this and I agree with the larger issue of questioning the value of simply 'building schools' vs. other methods of improving education and local ways of life, but that's also bullshit. This guy tried it his way. Maybe it wasn't the best, maybe he wasn't business savvy enough to make it the most efficient, or maybe he duped everyone and is just using the entire network to gain personal wealth. It is still a fact that he has funded the building of schools in countries that my country has spent its time bombing. That's pretty impressive in my world.

I haven't settled on what I think of Mortenson. Although 60 Minutes serves a valuable purpose, I do think it tends to hype things, and that any exposé should be scrutinized.

As to self-promoters and good works, certainly if Mortenson believed in his project he would have to make a compelling case to get funding for his efforts. If that's "self-promotion", any enterprise (profit or nonprofit) has to do a certain amount of it in order to be successful in the task that they are embarking on. There may be preferred ways to do what Mortenson was doing, but it's not a bad thing to have different models occurring at once so that strengths and weaknesses can be tested and compared.

If Mortenson's story is at least partially true, in that if he met people who asked for a specific kind of help, and if Mortenson tried to answer that request by taking it upon himself to raise money and build schools, I can hardly find fault with that. If Mortenson wanted to be a hero, so what? I wouldn't mind being one. It's a common motivator for people's desire to do good. Every college kid has had a discussion, I'm sure, as to whether there are any true altruists.

On the other hand, he should be held to legal account for any dishonesty or financial impropriety. A court might be the best place to resolve those issues.

@Steven Barisof:

I have the utmost respect for the very">http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/ci_11668420">very effective work you and your wife have done on behalf of CAI, which not only raised significant amounts of money but involved many other people in your community. As an organizer with a fair amount of grassroots fundraising experience myself, I have a very good idea of the amount of effort involved.

Whatever the outcome of the recent publicity and ensuing investigations surrounding CAI and Mortenson, I know you won't let it keep you from continuing to work for peace and people-to-people development. You've certainly done much more for relief in Japan than most of us posting on this blog; the linked story has encouraged me to end my procrastinating and contribute to that effort.

You and I differ for now in our assessments of what kinds of projects have the most far-reaching and long-term effectiveness in Afghanistan. What I've seen and experienced of U.S.-led development (particularly in countries where the U.S. military is at war) led me to view Greg Mortenson and his foundation with a skeptical eye from the get-go. Learning that Three Cups of Tea was assigned reading for troops deployed in Afghanistan, and that Pres. Obama made a sizable personal contribution to CAI, only deepened my distrust. For others, who support the U.S. government's approach to Afghan development, these facts may well have been reasons for more confidence in CAI and its projects.

This has to have been a very tough week for you and other hard-working CAI supporters. You have my best wishes as events unfold.

I've been too busy this week to wade into any of this, but I'd like to thank Steven for commenting and welcome him. I also want to thank Nell for responding in a way that hopefully will further the conversation.

It has been a busy week here, as I've been in contact with some folks doing volunteer work, and two of colleagues drove up to the affected areas here in Japan for various assessments. Our school, which has a social welfare faculty, is deeply interested in a wide range of issues arising from the recent disaster here and other friends have had more personal experiences, loading up a van with supplies and driving up to the area.

I should emphasize that I don't know all the facts (nor does anyone else, it seems) and I'm not making any judgement on Mortensen. Rather, I'm interested in this mental challenge, best expressed by Groucho Marx as not being interested in any club that would have him as a member. Not only the linked articles from Nell describing Steven's efforts, but the overall reaction to the Mortensen case suggests that this quick rejection of organized effort as a solution is deep in the bones of the American psyche, and what strikes me as a general point is this incredibly delicate balance when we look at organized group action versus individual action. While we spend a lot of time discussing the proper role of government here, it seems that it is not simply government, but any large scale organization that is the focus. This creates this conundrum where any person who ends up creating an organization of any scale, because they have done so, becomes a target of mistrust. This is not to claim that Steven is wrong for being moved to do something, nor is it to make any claims about CAI, it is simply to observe that the paradox that following the dictum 'Distrust Authority' can lead to.

Finally, Steven, I'd invite you to make a guest post and I would be happy to put it up here. My address is libjpn at the google hive mind.

...but the overall reaction to the Mortensen case suggests that this quick rejection of organized effort as a solution is deep in the bones of the American psyche, and what strikes me as a general point is this incredibly delicate balance when we look at organized group action versus individual action.

This is baffling to me. I’d really like some quotes from whatever commentaries you read that contributed to this interpretation on your part, because it’s pretty much the opposite of mine.

It seems to me that this mess happened, and that the reaction is happening, precisely because the “actions” that were taken were mostly the heroics of one individual, and that it had nothing to do with the size of the group, unless it was that the group was too small. A 3-member board, one of whom was Mortenson? Money not kept track of, and/or spent to promote a book? What does that have to do with “organized group action versus individual action”?

I also don’t see where you get a generalized “quick rejection of organized effort” among Americans out of this or out of the news in general. Does no one donate to the Red Cross and a lengthy list of other large relief organizations? Does no one join clubs, churches, fraternal organizations, activist groups, etc. etc. etc., many of whom are out do-gooding on a regular basis? It seems to me that that's almost all anyone does! (Of course, I'm an individualistic introvert with a lot of activist friends, so maybe I'm over-reacting. ;)

Even my own example of a small-scale, local effort is one that yes, involves a small handful of core movers (three Quaker women in Maine, a similarly small core in Kenya), but it is definitely not built around one charismatic individual, in fact the individual qualities of the people involved seem to have nothing to do with it.

Which is another reason why I like it (and would like to see other people support similar efforts). It isn’t “about” the people who run it, it’s about the kids.

Well, in the linked article, Steven said the following

Barisof, who is organizing this week’s Help Japan Relief Concert at the Rio Theater, is able to keep a sense of humor. Speaking of the event, which will be held this Saturday, April 23, he said, “We have a way to get the money directly to the people in need in that part of Japan. It’s not just going to the Red Cross or some general organization that has a lot administrative costs—like a $1 million–plus executive director,” he joked, referencing the Mortenson investigation.

I also note that the tenor of the comments is pretty critical here. I suppose it is the same problem as with book reviews: you don't talk about the parts you agree with, you go after the parts you don't agree with. That is just a short answer as I am out the door for to visit my daughter's school (class on Saturday every week. what a concept) I will try and answer that a little more in depth, but probably not until at last 16 hours from now.

"that Pres. Obama made a sizable personal contribution to CAI, only deepened my distrust"

Just out of curiosity, Nell, why would you be skeptical of an organization because Obama believed that it was enough of a worthwhile effort to donate some of the Nobel Prize money? We all know you hate him for some reason. (By the way, you've mentioned that you eschew politics, but who would you have preferred? Or are you a libertarian who doesn't believe in government at all?)

I don't distrust organizations. I've worked for nonprofits. My experience has taught me that 1) nonprofits have to be run effectively; 2) nonprofits cost money; 3) volunteer efforts are sometimes unbelievably helpful, but not reliably so; 4) an ongoing enterprise can't run on volunteers unless they're wealthy;

As to JanieM's comment that "A 3-member board, one of whom was Mortenson?"

(5) Large boards often are composed of members who spend more time arguing among themselves than seeing to the work of the organization; 6) many people involved on nonprofit boards are egotists with their own agenda, who are interested in turf battles, etc. Anyone who was involved in (or witnessed) their high school SCA, or their PTA, or any other organization knows full well what I'm talking about here. Sometimes someone with a desire to get something done is better off with a small board of like-minded colleagues.

Again, I'm not excusing any wrongdoing by Mortenson. But Nell's and JanieM's criticisms strike me as "He's not really cool enough for school." I find that kind of criticism extremely unpersuasive.

"Nell, why would you be skeptical of an organization because Obama believed that it was enough of a worthwhile effort to donate some of the Nobel Prize money? We all know you hate him for some reason."

Sapient, we all know you love Obama for some reason, to the point where you leap to his defense if anyone criticizes him.

Nell explained her reasons for skepticism in the paragraph that mentions Obama, but the fact that she mentioned Obama in a critical way seems to have caused your knee to jerk. You ought to stop doing that. Maybe Nell's skepticism of Obama's policies in Afghanistan is unjustified, but if so, that's the position you should be attacking, instead of pretending that it's merely some irrational reaction to someone for not being "cool enough".

Just out of curiosity, Nell, why would you be skeptical of an organization because Obama believed that it was enough of a worthwhile effort to donate some of the Nobel Prize money? We all know you hate him for some reason.

I'm heading out the door, so just a warning shouted over my shoulder. sapient, while I was struck by the comment as well, I think there are a lot better ways to phrase that last sentence. I'm not going to get all school marmy here and ask you why you said we, and then demand evidence for your interpretation, I'd just ask that you and everyone else take it a bit easy. Thanks

Incidentally, I haven't yet read anything about Mortenson and have no strong opinion about him. On the celebrity aspect I have mixed feelings--Paul Farmer is a do-gooder who has received a fair amount of publicity (though less than Mortenson), thanks in large part to Tracy Kidder, but in his case that is a good thing. Successful do-gooders sometimes attract that sort of attention and they'd be silly not to take advantage of it if it helps their cause.

I'm also suspicious of do-gooders who are praised by mainstream politicians, but then, Paul Farmer has received praise from Bill Clinton, so this doesn't always mean anything.

(5) Large boards often are composed of members who spend more time arguing among themselves than seeing to the work of the organization; 6) many people involved on nonprofit boards are egotists with their own agenda, who are interested in turf battles, etc.

This seems like a very strange response. Mortenson is, by all accounts, a very charismatic individual. The central claim underlying his pitch was that he could bring people to work together to solve real problems. If he lacked the interpersonal skills needed to get a half dozen middle class educated english-speaking American board members to work together, then he didn't have a chance in hell of getting anything done halfway around the world amongst people from an alien culture who don't speak english.

I mean, even if you double the non-Mortenson complement, we're still talking about a 5 person board...that's not large. I'm a bit shocked at the arrogance implied by anyone who'd think 'eh, I am good and smart and able to make all the decisions for a $20 million/year organization without any oversight or accountability except two hand-picked friends'. Good leaders know that if you believe in a cause and want it to succeed, you need people to hold you accountable, to tell you when you're full of it, to help see things that you missed. I'm sure we've all seen what happens to organizations where that doesn't happen. It ain't pretty.

Anyone who was involved in (or witnessed) their high school SCA, or their PTA, or any other organization knows full well what I'm talking about here. Sometimes someone with a desire to get something done is better off with a small board of like-minded colleagues.

When your board members resign in protest over financial irregularities, I'd say your board is too small for the organization to continue functioning. Especially if you can't pass an audit without fabricating finances.

@sapient: If you or anyone reading are interested in my political views, click on my name on any of my comments and read around on my near-dormant blog.

I'm back, after a rather long day, so to try and flesh out my suggestion about 'a quick rejection of organized efforts'. I may be misreading all this, but wouldn't the whole existence of gotcha journalism, while undeniably important and necessary, suggest that there is a basic mistrust of organized efforts? Grassroots is a term of praise, not of admonition.

I also think that this is part of a larger reaction that Americans often seem to express when things are too smooth, too polished. Spontaneity is like sincerity, in that if you can fake it, you've got it made. 'He seems practiced' doesn't seem like a compliment, it comes across as a complaint that he's not really being honest. Leaving aside the individual case of Mortensen, there is a general distrust of organizations. I don't think this distrust obtains here and it certainly seems like an anglo-american trait. If I had argued that it was 'large' organized efforts, would you have disagreed? But it is not the size that people seem to react to, it is something about effort on a basis that attracts attention. Perhaps I'm merely projecting, but I myself feel a certain backing away when things don't have rough edges. This seems like a prejudgement (a word less harsher than 'prejudice', but with the same basic meaning, nonetheless). It can be a catch-22, where a group that is too rough is 'amateurish', meaning not serious, while upping its game makes it 'too slick'. This shouldn't be considered a comment on any individual's view of organizations or any organizations themselves. It's just an attempt to describe a thread that I think is there. Hope that answers your question, Janie :)

Turbulence, you're absolutely right that any large organization needs oversight. The right kind of board can be very helpful. People who have worked with nonprofit boards will tell you though that, often, people who are attracted to board membership (and those who have credentials that are considered impressive enough to attract grant money, etc.) are often very high achieving, ego-driven people from corporate backgrounds whose "vision" for the corporation might be quite a bit different from the founder's. It's a delicate balance that's difficult to achieve for someone who's embarking on a project.

I do not intend to imply that Mortenson's project didn't need oversight. But managing a board certainly requires considerable skill. I'm not sure that it's the same skill as the adventure-seeking do-gooding that excited Mortenson in the first place. It can be a full-time job managing a board, and if Mortenson's interest was in building schools and working with people from across the world from an interesting culture not his own, managing a board of American businesspeople is not going to seem very similar to doing that. I'm not quibbling with the point that he needed better advice.

My comment regarding your comment, Nell, was that it sounded like "I'm suspicious of anything Obama would support". Since I've never seen a supportive word about Obama (although I see from your blog that you supported his election - thanks for reminding me to look there), it seems that now there's nothing that he can do right in your view. I understand that you oppose the war in Afghanistan, but I don't see how Mortenson's school-building project supports the military effort there other than the fact that Obama wanted the military to learn some lessons in listening from Mortenson.

Donald, I am a knee-jerk supporter of Obama, not because he's perfect, but because he's good. I agree with most of his policies and I think the alternative is the most frightening thing we've seen in my (long) lifetime. I've explained before that I believe solid support is the most effective way to fight encroaching insanity.

The book lies are just stories... I don't mind the embellishments at all.

The issue comes with what's been happening in the charity. And that's what's scary. And there is a lot of evidence put forth that, in fact, much of that 'scary' can be corroborated as malfeasance.

We all know you hate him for some reason.
We do? Do you have a survey on that? I know I don't know that Nell "hates" Obama. Therefore it cannot be true that we all know such a thing.

Who, exactly, appointed you to speak for all of us? (Especially falsely?)

Sorry, Gary. It was a careless thing to say. Would that you would admit to your sometimes carelessness.

"I am a knee-jerk supporter of Obama, not because he's perfect, but because he's good. I agree with most of his policies and I think the alternative is the most frightening thing we've seen in my (long) lifetime. I've explained before that I believe solid support is the most effective way to fight encroaching insanity."

Supporting him when you think he's right and criticizing him when you think he's wrong seems like a better approach to me. Insanity can come encroaching from both parties sometimes.

"Supporting him when you think he's right and criticizing him when you think he's wrong seems like a better approach to me. Insanity can come encroaching from both parties sometimes."

Sometimes, for sure. Most of the time? I think most of the time, the prize for insanity goes to Republicans. Republicans are insane most of the time. Electing Republicans is a recipe for insanity most of the time. Just IMO. Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, John McCain, Eric Cantor, John Boehner, etc. - most of the time, most of what they say is insanity. To me, there is no comparison with almost any contemporary Democrat. Of course, there is occasional insanity from Democrats.

Back to the topic of Greg Mortenson. I don't like crookedness. I hope that Greg M isn't a crook. If he is, I can't defend him. But the idea that Mortenson may have been idealistic, and wanted to be a hero, and aspired to doing something really great, and did so in some small measure, and inspired other people... I just think the slightly nasty personal comments about not trusting him because he was a self-promoter, and that Obama liked him... I reacted negatively to those comments because they seemed unfair.

@sapient: You seem to interpret my comments about Mortenson and about Obama as describing a personal reaction, when it's a political one -- something that I thought was clear from what I posted.

It was not Mortenson's self-promotion that made me skeptical of him, but the development model he was enacting. It reminded me of the school-painting period of the U.S. occupation war in Iraq.

That's the context for my wariness about Obama's contribution to CAI, which was effectively a government endorsement of the project -- made with part of the prize money for the Nobel that was awarded to Obama as President. The book is also being purchased in large quantity by the military and promoted to troops. In my experience, aid programs in U.S. war zones that get that kind of official imprimatur are part of the war. In this case, as cover -- the comforting national story about what we're doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

My motto has for many years been If you're doing counterinsurgency, you're somewhere you shouldn't be. A charitable program promoted by a military engaged in a counterinsurgency war is at best not doing a whole lot of good.

If anti-imperialist motives just make no sense to you, then my reactions will continue to baffle and offend. But please resist the habit of interpreting them personally; that won't make it any easier to communicate.

I'm more or less with Krakauer at this point, although I haven't read his ebook. I don't get how anyone can simply overlook imperfections like this just because a lot of good has happened. For me its both the lies in the book and the financial impropriety. It's sad because it could bring the whole thing down and any good it has done.

I advise non-profits as part of my practice. I don't do it a lot, so I'm not an expert. But I don't like ED's on the board in the first place, nor 3-member boards, nor traveling in a private jet (although that hasn't come up yet for my clients) etc. And the biggest non-profit I advise only has revenues of $2M. I don't care what his attorney said. This violates the spirit and purpose of non-profits, if not the law.

The problem is that the "excess benefits" test simply compares FMV to what the non-profit pays. How do you value Mortensen's "services" apart from his exec. comp? And I don't know if there have been interpretations where donations exceeding the pay passes the test as the attorney seems to suggest. That doesn't seem right. Here in California we have to do salary surveys for our execs and make a determination of FMV for all exec. benefits. I would not pass this. And if the "hero" ED insisted on it I would seriously question his commitment to the cause.

How much money has Mortensen made off his books? I wouldn't think he needs CAI to pay for his travel. I could be convinced otherwise. I don't buy the naivete line of thinking either. It simply smells and anyone with any sense of propriety would steer clear of what Mortensen has apparently done. I'm going to read the Krakauer book.

Sorry, Gary. It was a careless thing to say. Would that you would admit to your sometimes carelessness.

Rephrased, this reads something like: I'm sorry that I was as big of a jerk as you can be. Which doesn't really sound all that apologetic at all.

And, really, why are you mentioning your opinion about Gary's behaviors, here? It's completely unrelated, I think. But I might have missed something crucial.

You and I differ for now in our assessments of what kinds of projects have the most far-reaching and long-term effectiveness in Afghanistan. What I've seen and experienced of U.S.-led development (particularly in countries where the U.S. military is at war) led me to view Greg Mortenson and his foundation with a skeptical eye from the get-go.

An extraordinary service? Wow. What Mortenson claimed over and over was that only he and people like him -- not organized groups and governments -- could help those in need. And the reality? It's laid out two places very clearly: 1) Krakauer's ebook. Essentially Mortenson lied, lied, lied to make it look like only he could save people: not government, not NGOs. Only a White in Shining Armor, working by himself. In reality, his "charity" was a $1.7 promotional machine for his books and $30,000 a pop speaking engagements (from which the charity received ZERO).
http://www.amazon.com/Three-Cups-Deceit-Humanitarian-ebook/dp/B004XHVOW4
2) if that is too long a read, how about the very simple one page, harrowing report from the American Institute of Philanthropy:
http://www.charitywatch.org/articles/CentralAsiaInstitute.html

Slartibartfast, as to the quality of my apology, it was offered to Gary who was speaking on Nell's behalf, so perhaps they should evaluate it. As to the my comment about Gary, he recently accused me of being a John Yoo follower, and made false claims about OLC opinions, comments which he never retracted. I believe that he wrote those comments carelessly. I didn't realize that it was a violation of the posting rules for a commenter to refer to another thread.

That said, I was careless, for which I apologize.

he recently accused me of being a John Yoo follower

I'm guessing that you considered that it might have been sarcasm, but then dismissed the idea. In general, it's bad form to put statements to the effect of "you did the same kind of thing" next to an apology. As in most other things, though, YMMV.

I didn't realize that it was a violation of the posting rules for a commenter to refer to another thread.

I don't think anyone said that it was. Certainly I didn't, and did not mean to imply that it was.

Bady excerpted a portion of what Foust wrote, but I found this part more interesting:

There, while staying at FOB Morales-Frazier, in the French-controlled province of Kapisa, I tried to follow Mortenson’s lead by thinking locally instead of through the military.

Case in point: We had a warm rapport with the local kandak, or battalion, of the Afghan National Army (ANA), and they would complain constantly of the persistent puddles by the front gate of the base. The puddles were nothing to laugh at: Mud in Afghanistan very quickly gains the consistency of thick snot when it’s wet, until it refuses to absorb more water and becomes a bog. At this gate, the water was more than three-feet deep in the biggest puddle, and the smaller ones were permanent slicks of muck that got onto everything regardless of how careful one was. Although trucks — western military vehicles mostly — could enter the base just fine as they had the tires and the ground clearance to shrug at such a barrier, local traffic could not, and visitors were often required to wade through waist-deep filth or climb on top of the HESCO barriers that ring the base. The ANA did not drive military-grade vehicles; they drove slightly modified Ford Ranger pickup trucks, which, while great fun to toy around in, did not handle the deep water very well. In the depths of winter, even, you could see the rust and mold building up from the constant flooding. I was also worried that when the weather turned warmer, so much standing water would become a serious malaria hazard.

So one day, my colleagues and I wandered over to the nearby bazaar, where we had a good working relationship with the main shop owner. We asked him how much it could cost to pay some workers to come dig culverts under the HESCOS and install pipes to let the water drain out down the hill. After some haggling, he agreed to do it for $60. That is, $60 for about two days’ worth of work for four to five people digging ditches and laying pipe.

We walked over to the French, and asked them what they thought. The French, it turned out, had been planning to “re-engineer” that gate entrance for a long while, but hadn’t gotten around to it. We got them to promise not to shoot the Afghan men digging at the base of the HESCOs. We scrounged up from behind one building on the base some discarded pipe of an appropriate length to let the water drain. We then walked back to the shop owner and gave him $60 we had pooled from our personal funds. Inside of 48 hours, the worst of the puddles had begun to drain — and the ANA was ecstatic. The net result of this minimal amount of effort and money is that five Afghans were given work for two days, a health and equipment problem at the base was resolved and the ANA’s relationship with the Westerners at the base was vastly improved.

In retelling this story, I can still recall how much “Three Cups of Tea” inspired me, and how the idea of trying to relate to people on their own terms has deeply affected my work ever since.


Yes, he undermined and hurt his message, but the principles he espoused are worthy of putting into practice.

Slartibartfast: "In general, it's bad form to put statements to the effect of 'you did the same kind of thing' next to an apology."

Is this a lesson in etiquette? Thanks!

Charles Bird: "Yes, he undermined and hurt his message, but the principles he espoused are worthy of putting into practice."

i think that's true.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad