Three Cups of Crap

By now most of you have heard the allegations of truthiness and mismanagement leveled against author and “philanthropist” Greg Mortenson on 60 Minutes last night. It was quite damning to say the least:



I personally have not read the book and barely knew the story. What little I did know until this 60 Minutes exposé has come in the form of word-of-mouth recommendations that start with a gentle hand on my arm at some event and end with breathless “you have to read it.” It always hurts society the most when the seemingly most beneficent emperors are shown to have no clothes.

In this particular case it was probably a helping of liberal guilt mixed with a shot of exoticism that caused so many people to want to believe. But the story is as old as the Bible. Dude comes down from the mountain a changed man and starts to spread the “word.” What is it about mountains that so changes men? If I had read the book I might have been swept away by it to. Who would possibly make up shit like this? This kind of deceit just turns the kindest of hearts cynical. I mean, the part where he claimed that the research director of a respected think tank in Islamabad was part of a Taliban unit that kidnapped him…really? If I was to play armchair psychologist I’d guess that at some point Mortenson felt his lying was for a righteous cause and probably started drinking his own tea. Outside Magazine has the first response by Mortenson. The crux of his defense? “It wasn’t my idea. I am too simple.”

Q: Greg, the 60 Minutes segment claimed that there are major fabrications in Three Cups of Tea. Are there factual errors in the book, and if so, how did they get there?

A: To answer that, it’s important to have some background. I started writing Three Cups of Tea in 2002, doing six chapters myself. I went to New York to four publishers and they all said the same thing: The story’s great but the writing sucks. [Laughs.]

That fall, Kevin Fedarko came over to Pakistan to do a story for Outside about the Siachen Glacier war–we arranged all the logistics to get him to the front lines of the India-Pakistan war zone–and on the way out he came to Korphe with me, where he witnessed a scene in which a woman named Jahan came up, walked into a circle of elders I was sitting with, and said, “I’m ready to go to medical training. You promised me you’d help, so here’s my proposal.”

After that trip, Kevin wrote a Parade magazine article about me in 2003, and the Siachen story and Parade put us on the map. Then Lee Kravitz, who was the editor of Parade, called me and said, I’ve got a book writer for you. This was David Oliver Relin, who co-authored Three Cups of Tea with me and has joint copyright.

That’s where some of the issues are. It’s really complicated, but I’m not a journalist. I don’t take a lot of notes. David and I collaborated. He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything. [Link]

So basically there was a lot of interest in this area of the world between 2002 and 2004 (right after the invasion of Afghanistan so we had some guilt that needed working off) and a bunch of writers/editors seem to have created a story using that backdrop and a lot of fiction with a few facts to tie it all together. I actually cited the same Outside Magazine article about the Siachen Glacier war here on SM in 2005 post.

Let’s keep things in perspective though. All is not lost. The cause is important still and will hopefully be picked up by others who do it right and well. Author and adventurer Jon Krakauer said it best last night:

Krakauer: He’s not Bernie Madoff. I mean, let’s be clear. He has done a lot of good. He has helped thousands of school kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan….He has become perhaps the world’s most effective spokesperson for girls’ education in developing countries. And he deserves credit for that…Nevertheless, he is now threatening to bring it all down, to destroy all of it by this fraud and by these lies. [Link]

97 thoughts on “Three Cups of Crap

  1. BTW what you are advocating for is a semi-autarkic state with a highly protectionist system . Last I checked the ideal of that is North Korea. How’s that working out?

    Is that what I’m advocating for? This is news to me! Are you sure you’re not confusing me with my Mexican twin, Yoga Fuego?

    Kidding aside, I’m advocating for commerce and employment as the solutions to poverty rather than grandiose projects implemented from the top down, or stuff being handed out for free. This is pretty much the opposite of what North Korea does so I don’t really get the parallel.

    As for saying that people should leave the policy and decision making to the professionals, that’s no more “autarchy” than advising people to disregard legal advice from people who aren’t lawyers.

  2. Yoga Fire, I usually love your observations so pardon my snark.

    No worries, I wouldn’t dish it out so liberally if I wasn’t willing to take it.

  3. @Razib – haha but i’m not nearly interesting enough to have a twitter, I promise! or a blog if you’re going to suggest that again 🙂

    @Yoga – I like the examples you gave; have you ever read the book Lexus and the Olive Tree by Friedman (the economist)? It discusses (amongst lots of other things) the economic and political consequences of international aid and transactions in a globalizing world. I think you’d like it whether or not you’re a Friedman fan; I read it in high school and it really changed the way I looked at economic trends worldwide. For example, one reason I chose to work with the organization that I did is that it specifically avoids catastrophes like “Hey let’s build a big ass hospital 30 miles from this village that will eventually be shutdown because they can’t maintain it!” etc…(which sadly does happen a lot).

    I think when looking at international aid, we really have to assess each specific situation; you can’t look at it as “Asia” or “Africa” or even “Uzbekistan” or “Angola”; there are so many cultural/economic/political/legal implications to consider within an ethnic group or specific region.

    Let’s look at women in Afghanistan for example, since that is something Greg Mortensen focused on: the Taliban prevents them from both being treated by male doctors, and from becoming doctors themselves – this is partly why there’s a dramatic difference in average lifespan between Afghani women versus other S.Asians. The options for treatment at this point are very limited, to either the tiny percentage of female physicians in Afghanistan, or foreign medical aid from organizations like Red Cross/Docs Without Borders who provide female physicians, and establish community education/outreach (not giant hospitals, but training programs for local midwives which is acceptable in their culture). Again, it is shameful when someone like Mortensen deceived so many people, but he has brought attention to a worthy cause which I think deserves more attention than it is getting at the moment.

  4. “You’re conflating two different things. The developed country white person is going to a developing nation, and establishes a patriarchal relationship with the locals. They’re only assimilating at a superficial level, and in a way that is turned off/on at will. The whites are in a position of power. However, they don’t copy any aspects of the developing world’s culture: No language, no religion, no clothes, no names, etc. The only aspect that they bring are the photo-tagged memories in their “Summer 2011 in Botswana Babay!” folder in Facebook.

    The black American with straightened hair is not in a patriarchal relationship with the whites, but is trying to assimilate. Once again, the whites are in a position of power. The blacks who are trying hard to assimilate, like the Indians who may try hard to assimilate, will adopt the white man’s religion, names, and culture.”

    I think the problem here is just stereotyping and assumptions. Sure, there will always be some jerks like Greg who do something to show-off, but I don’t the the majority of people who spend time volunteering abroad do it just to show-off.

    Next: developed country vs developing country- I don’t know how many people still use these terms, but I find them both inaccurate and offensive. The idea that non-western countries are “developing” into a copy of western countries (who know it all and did everything right and are now showing the world how to behave like them) I find completely wrong, and also ironic that you would choose to use those terms, since you are accusing the west of being in power, and use exactly those terms that reveal just such a mindset.

    Assimilation–> Does anyone do it 100%? Do South Asian immigrants get to the U.S. and slap on a pair of blue jeans, make up beef lasagna for dinner and start drinking buds because they are in America now? It seems to me you have a very simplified idea of people’s thoughts and behaviors when they are in a different culture. I think most people pick and choose what they feel should be “assimilated” and what they want to retain from their own background or personal beliefs. This will look different for pretty much everyone. And I highly doubt that a person that say, grew up in India and moved to the U.S. as an adult, “assimilating” to the U.S. while there (say, wearing jeans and t-shirts) is then a faker if they go back to India to visit and wear a salwaar suit.

    “Those whites only learn superficial stuff about the places they go”. I find this statement incredibly ironic, considering the amount of flak I have gotten as a white American who has studied Hindi, enjoys South Asian films, and wears kurtas because I like to (and it became part of my style when I lived in India).

    “White man is in power once again” — so wait, if I’m in the U.S., the white man is in power, and if I’m in India the white man is in power? Is he also in power in China, Korea, Thailand, the Phillipines, Kenya? The people who run those countries are not white. Nor is the vast majority of the population. As a white person visiting many of those places, I have been seen as a curiosity, or perhaps some traveler they can scam. I have yet to arrive in a foreign country and find myself in power over them all. It’s amazing how much you can belittle non-white countries as part of your argument AGAINST white people.

    • @Lindsey:

      I was actually avoiding the use of the words “1st World” and/or “3rd World”, and I felt that “developing/developed country” was more correct. The former, BTW, is not PC.

      I commend your views and your manners while in India. I’m sorry if I’m coming across as a hater-of-white-people or finger-pointing on them. I can finger-point to the Indians as well 🙂 For example, in Eastern Africa, there are Indian communities who have been there for 4-5 generations, but they are so arrogant to the local populations: They don’t speak the language, live segregated lives, don’t intermarry, and basically have a coloniser’s mindset, just like the British who never spoke the local language, lived segregated lives, etc.

      I want to clarify that not all development work is self-congratulatory. For example, there are locals here in Boston who work hard to rehabilitate dogs in the animal shelter here in Boston. Also, we have free ESL courses that a secular organization has started to benefit many different new immigrants, including those from South Asia and Meso-America.

      Also Lindsey, even Indians may have a coloniser’s attitude towards “white” nations, and this is evident in them not trying to assimilate and viewing themselves as being superior.

      • Boston Mahesh–

        Thank you for such a thoughtful reply. I don’t think that 1st/2nd/3rd (2nd being the dirty “reds”!) world OR developed/developing countries are either appropriate terms– both place the West as fully evolved and at the “top”– superior, most knowledgeable– while placing the “developing” nations as something that will eventually learn how to “get it right” (i.e. do what the West did). In reality if all the countries try to emulate the west– we will probably not have a world left to live in due to war and environmental degradation. Personally, I think western countries are still learning and developing as well– and I hope they continue to do so, for all our sakes.

        I do agree though that it is difficult to then find appropriate terms to use– and most would then be awkward and long– I have seen the global north and global south used in anthropology, or the west (vs. the rest, I guess).

  5. Well, Rahul Rvd, you seem quite fond of talking, so let me get you started.

    (1) You actually seem to have studied Vedic Hinduism, unlike most of us, who merely say the obligatory respectful things of it. So what do you think is the content of Vedic Hinduism? Does it have no notion of punishment? No fear of the Lord? No rebirth? No nothing?

    (2) Jyotsna–another loquacious soul–felt that India’s liberal historians took upon the burden of cleansing Hinduism, and propped Buddhism as an example of what Hinduism could and should have been: “a sort of Protestant reformation” were Jyotsna’s words, if I remember correctly. Well, Senator Rvd, where do you stand?

    (3) Back to my poser to Boston. What to do about the white liberal guilt?

  6. @Lindsey – interesting point you brought up here. I always thought that 1st/2nd/3rd world was pretty offensive, and can see how developing vs developed are offensive, but I really don’t know what else to use….? I don’t like saying West vs the rest either, because some non-Western nations are “developed”. I guess you could refer to nations as “wealthy” vs “poor” but again that is so subjective and could involve factors like gini coefficient, gdp, etc….

    So at this point I will probably continue to say “developed” vs “developing” under the full recognition that we are all really developing constantly and it shouldn’t be one group of countries trying to emulate another…again I really don’t know what to use and am sorry if people in poorer countries get genuinely offended by these terms.

  7. YogaFire, Those video’s were hilarious–thanks so much! I loved the way the aid-worker kept adding “HIV-AIDS intervention program” to her starvation-talk, and I loved the way the applicant kept saying he wanted to meet Bono!

  8. Replacing first world v. 3d world w/ developed/developing and then w/ north/south is a perfect example of the “euphemism treadmill.” Don’t fall for it guys.

  9. Don’t use “global South” around an Ozzie or a Kiwi to mean 3rd world (sh!thole!)–s/he will (deservedly) clean your clock!

  10. The 1st/2nd/3rd world thing isn’t un-PC. It’s just sloppy terminology. The terms are supposed to refer to the NATO allies (1st world), the communist countries (2nd world), and the non-aligned states (3rd world.) It was never meant to be an economic development metric. Global South is a stupid term and developed/developing is a clumsy, artless dichotomy. I prefer just calling them low, middle, and upper income economies. It’s direct, clear, honest, and avoids any euphemistic obfuscation.

    @ Lindsey: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Keynes said that, and he’s still right. While White people may not always wield direct political authority, Western culture still maintains hegemonic dominance over the international discourse on everything from economic policy to human rights and education. You can’t be an internationally acclaimed author unless you write in English and do a lecture circuit in the US and Europe. You don’t get to be an internationally recognized expert in your field, any field from the humanities to the sciences, unless you spend some time in the US or Oxbridge or a few recognized continental universities.

    @Alina: You read Lexus and Olive Tree in high school? That’s a good high school. I’m not a huge fan of Friedman myself, mostly because he takes about 400 pages and 40 anecdotes to communicate a paragraph’s worth of content. I put my money on Joseph Stiglitz. His writing isn’t quite as light as Friedman’s, but he maintains a really balanced perspective and he not only diagnoses issues, but proposes solutions. Mostly, though, I think he has a really good handle on the importance of letting communities take the lead on their own development.

    It is cool that you’re doing field-work though. Having field experience when you’re young will help so much in getting a job in the development field. Disregard haters giving you grief about putting it on your resume. If you think you have something to offer, don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. Don’t sell yourself short about not being interesting enough for a blog or twitter either. Your traveling, the pictures alone will be subscribing to.