America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

A Couple of Thoughts on Greg Mortenson

Written By Benjamin Orbach

I watched the 60 Minutes piece on Greg Mortenson with disappointment. If you haven’t heard of Greg Mortenson, he is a humanitarian that has built more than 100 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea (co-written with Oliver David Relin). Three Cups of Tea is the inspirational story of Mortenson’s personal journey from a lost K2 mountain climber to the founder of the Central Asia Institute, an organization devoted to children’s education, primarily girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

If you haven’t watched the 60 Minutes piece, Mortenson is accused of embellishing his personal story and of his mismanagement of the Central Asia Institute. He has offered a partial response to the accusations – none of which are criminal – and I hope that he clarifies further the points that have been raised.

In the interim, I have two thoughts on the subject. First, by the impact of his actions, Greg Mortenson remains a hero. He built mountains from sand both on an individual and organizational level. He went from sleeping in his car to building more than 100 schools, many of them for girls, in villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Without his personal efforts and investment, there are thousands of young women who never would have had the opportunity for an education. There are about double that number of parents who have been able to see their children take a path to opportunity. In the end, that impact, and the future accomplishments of those children as productive citizens are more important to Mortenson’s legacy as a person and activist than the details of his personal narrative.

Second, however this story unfolds, Greg Mortenson’s actions were an extraordinary service to the American public.  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. These partnerships and their impact are unquestionably in our country’s national interest, both at home and abroad. Three Cups of Tea ruled the bestseller lists at a time of acute disinterest and despair with the war and people of Afghanistan. The story that Mortenson and Oliver David Relin introduced to the world showed Americans the complexities, humanity, and needs of a people who were stereotyped en mass for harboring terrorists and abusing women.

Whether it is in Pakistan, Palestine, or Peru, if you have worked in development in a marginalized community, you understand the human element of it all – that parents want the same things for their children around the world and that young people aspire to dreams of their own success and normalcy if given the chance. Through his story, Mortenson took American readers – from Oprah book clubbers to servicemen about to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq – to a place of understanding that we are dealing with people in our foreign policies, not just faceless security issues. And from that, he inspired people to act – to donate and to serve. In this moment of national apathy, that is admirable.

Frequently, when I’m speaking about America’s Unofficial Ambassadors, I mention Greg Mortenson, his achievements, and comment that very few of us are going to devote our lives to building people-to-people partnerships in development in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet, many if not all of us are able to engage in some type of short-term volunteer service for a week or a month or even a year in the Muslim World, as an English teacher in Indonesia perhaps or as a public health volunteer in Senegal. Mortenson is still hero. His actions have made the world a better place; he has mobilized tens of thousands of people to support the dreams of strangers in need. He understands that those dreams intersect with our American aspirations, and he educated people about that connection. None of us are perfect, and I’ll continue to cite Greg Mortenson as one of America’s fine Unofficial Ambassadors.

Benjamin Orbach is the Director of the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors initiative at Creative Learning and the author of Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey through the Middle East.

5 comments on “A Couple of Thoughts on Greg Mortenson

  1. Tutu
    April 21, 2011

    Thank you for your beautiful piece. I’m doubly blessed because now I am also aware of your work.

  2. J Bishop
    April 21, 2011

    It saddens me how many people want to give this guy a pass. They are completely willing to ignore, excuse and apologize away his lies and exaggerations because of the supposed good these same lies have allowed him to do..

    The charges go well beyond exaggeration and mismanagement. He has lied not just about his original story, but also about the number of schools that have been built and the impact his organization has had.

    Just like he has lied about everything in his book, he has lied about every thing his organization has accomplished. Further he has used these lies to enrich himself personally.

    The 60 minutes expose was only the tip of the iceberg.

    I see you just published this today so you have no excuse for not being aware of all the charges leveled against this guy. Get your head out of the sand and stop being an apologist for a liar who deserves to rot in jail for the crimes he has committed.

  3. ben
    April 21, 2011

    J Bishop,

    Thanks for the comment and posting the link for other readers. Krakauer’s piece is damning, but I’d like to see the response from Central Asia Institute and Mortenson before dismissing and condemning them. As an aside, I’m curious about Krakauer’s personal motivations in writing his piece.

    Mismanagement is a common problem in the not-for-profit sector, both in the US and abroad. As I mentioned at the outset of my post, I’m already disappointed but if CAI is actually guilty of fraud (not proven yet), then this disappointment and situation will evolve to a different level for me. I’m withholding judgment, though, until that happens. I haven’t given him or the organization “a pass” on that front. The point of my post, rather, is two-fold: Mortenson supported locals to build schools where they could not or had not built them previously, and he brought a human face of international development challenges home to America in a way that was effective and that has created a lot of positive ripples – more than the negative ones at this point. These accusations don’t take that away, and I still consider him a positive figure for his actions.

  4. J Bishop
    April 22, 2011

    “First, by the impact of his actions, Greg Mortenson remains a hero. He built mountains from sand both on an individual and organizational level.”

    “Second, however this story unfolds, Greg Mortenson’s actions were an extraordinary service to the American public.”

    This is a guy who has lied about the mountains he has climbed, has lied about his personal experiences in Pakistan, has lied about meeting the king of Afghanistan, has lied about visiting Mother Theresa, has lied about how he spends the money thousands of people have donated, has lied about the number of schools he has build, has lied about the affect and impact of those schools. He has lied about the trivial and the consequential..

    And yet, your still calling him a hero – that sounds like a pass to me.

    The impact his organization has had in the region (if any at all) is totally unknown. The lies has has told have allowed him to enrich himself personally.

    He has taken donations from school children in the States and put those pennies in his own pocket instead spending them to build schools as promised. And your still calling him a hero..

    “His actions have made the world a better place; he has mobilized tens of thousands of people to support the dreams of strangers in need.”

    His actions have not made the world a better place and there is no evidence that he has mobilized anyone to support strangers in need. Rather he has swindled thousands of people and insulted a region of the world with his intentional mis-characterizations about them.

    Shame on him and shame on you for calling this guy a hero.

  5. Robbie
    April 25, 2011

    I agree. I haven’t seen any evidence that indicates Mortenson is a criminal. There are some who would disagree with how he wrote the books or how he handled the finances at CAI and while that’s understandable, I’m disappointed that so many are jumping on the witch hunt style band wagon. I too am skeptical of Krakauer’s motives, as I think any student of human behaviour would be. I appreciate that you and others are mature enough to wait and see how this unfolds.

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