For a four year stretch, Greg Mortenson was heralded as one of the world’s greatest humanitarians. His book Three Cups of Tea hit the shelves in 2006 and millions were able to read about his experiences in the region of Afghanistan and Pakistan known as Baltistan. He stumbled upon a village in Northern Pakistan in 1993 while attempting to descend K2 and promised the locals there that he would build a school, and according to the book, this launched Mortenson’s endeavor to start schools around the Middle East through his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). He was the light to girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan who just wanted an education.
The admiration for Mortenson did not last, as it was eventually revealed that he used less than half of the funds from CAI on school building, several schools were little more than walls with no one inside them, and many of the accounts in Three Cups of Tea were at best, exaggerated and disorganized, and at worst, blatantly false.
Suddenly, Greg Mortenson became someone different in the public eye. He did not selflessly give himself up in order to help girls learn how to read. Rather he used the situation to promote himself. He misappropriated funds from CAI. Essentially, he became rich off of charity and donations.
The criticism, the spite, the disappointment in Mortenson is what has been in the public eye over the last three years. What has been missed to a certain degree is what has happened to the schools, to the girls’ educations since the fallout of Mortenson’s revelations.
Some of the chief criticism of Mortenson has been his building of “ghost schools.” In essence, he had buildings constructed but no one was able to be hired. Students were not able to be gathered. And though he claims that over 60,000 girls have received educations, there is little value in these educations because it is difficult to find high quality teachers. Mortenson believed that the building was what qualified the school. But much like a church, the building does not make the education. It is the teachers, the faculty, the students.
According to CAI, 170 schools have been established in Balti areas, though critics suggest that it is actually far fewer. They report that 60 million dollars have been raised for the purpose of starting these schools. Ignoring the apparent misappropriation of funds, that leaves slightly more than 350,000 dollars per school. Considering the cost of construction and the payment needed for faculty salaries, that seems like a very large amount to invest in a school for a small village. Schools built in similar areas typically create far higher literacy rates at far lower costs. So basically, CAI raised 60 million dollars and likely made little progress in education Balti girls. Mortenson tweeted on the New Year’s Day 2014 that Pakistan ranks in the bottom three percent for literacy rates.
The implications of this scandal are potentially far reaching. Mortenson has stories of women who have graduated, passed exams, and started careers, but assuming these stories are true, they are few and far between. The general consensus has been that Mortenson has been the true beneficiary of his experiences. Because Three Cups of Tea spent so many weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List, and because the allegations of fraud were so public, moving forward average Americans may be less than willing to donate to charities like CAI, regardless of the cause. Americans agree that there are few things more valuable than teaching young girls to read, but there are also few things less appealing than a man getting rich while he tries to teach them.
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