Pros: A look at charity and the monsters it creates.
Cons: A very disturbing read.
This is the time of year when charitable appeals start to arrive on my doorstep. It's not exactly something that makes me comfortable, as I live on a very limited income, and my donations tend to go towards those groups that I know actually do the work -- the ASPCA, the Red Cross and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don't like having to say, No, I'm sorry, I can't afford to give anything. And in recent years there have been scandals over those who oversee charitable funds who are discovered to be looting the organizations of thousands if not millions of dollars to provide a lavish lifestyle for themselves.
Noted author, Jon Krakauer in this short book -- it was less than seventy pages on my Nook -- takes a look at another writer, Greg Mortenson, and his life and especially the events surrounding his bestseller Three Cups of Tea. It's a simple enough tale, about a man who finds himself in war torn northern Pakistan, striving to reach the summit of K2* to leave the necklace of a deceased sister as a memorial. Once he descends, he finds himself lost and separated from the other members of the expedition and sets out to find some sort of shelter and a way back to civilization. On his way, he comes to a small village where the locals take him in, and he learns a bit out their lives. There is no school, the children gathering out in the open to learn, and Mortenson gets his inspiration: why not build the schools that these children need and arrange to get the teachers here? He manages to get back to the States, and is soon receiving the funds to help start the schools. The idea takes off and Mortenson is soon writing his bestseller, which proceeds to make the contributions soar. Mortenson travels about, collecting hefty speaking fees, as well as the sales of his books, seemingly the picture of a man who has been through hell and back, and deciding that life is meant to be spent helping the less fortunate.
Well and good, think I. Then I got to Krakauer's research and interviews with the people around Mortenson, and the story started to shred to bits. Not just once, but over and over again. Certainly there was a bit of truth to the story that Mortenson uses in his tale of meeting people, and the dream of building schools, but each time, the locale or the people change and something happens to stall the progress.
But as I read through Krakauer's account, something in me shifted towards Mortenson. As I read, I got angrier, wondering who was really manipulating the reader. Was it Krakauer, an author whom I respect mightily, and knowing to be truthful in his recollections and research, or was it Mortenson, weaving what actually happened into a grander tapestry of half-lies and fabrication to make a bundle of loot? By the end of the book, I wanted find Mortenson, shove him into a sack and beat the sack with a stick until the sack stopped moving. There is something in me that really hates folks who rip people off in the name of the greater good, and then get away with it.
For it seems that Mr. Mortenson tends to be someone who likes to be in charge, not just of the project, but of the people around him, and especially the financial books of the organization that he founded, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). Money meant to be spent on the building and staffing of the schools is vanishing somewhere, and even more appalling, many of the schools that are actually built aren't being used. Most egregous of these was the school planned to help children of the Kyrgyz near the town of Bozai Gumbaz; the Kyrgyz are nomadic, and come to the town to trade regularly, but they already had a school -- based in a yurt, a circular, portable tent -- and really didn't need a permanent school as they wouldn't be near it enough out of the year to use it. The cover photograph, by the way, is of that school in Bozai Gumbaz, and as they say, a picture says a thousand words.
To his credit, Jon Krakauer never comes right out and says that Mortenson is a fraud. He just tells Mortenson's story and then points out where the accounts get a bit murky or run off the rails. For the most part he leaves the decision making up to the reader, and the only real demand that he makes is that the financial books of the CAI be opened and investigated. That I can respect. Charities should keep their books open to the contributors and carefully reviewed on a regular basis; when donations start to reach the thousands and millions of dollars, the temptation gets mighty to scrape off a bit for those who have access to it.
Krakauer also provides footnotes and references to his sources, and it's clear that he isn't just venting spleen over Mortenson's success. Mr. Krakauer has plenty of successful books under his belt, and even better, he doesn't need to make anything up. I remember listening to the broadcasts and news of that fateful Everest climb that led to the book Into Thin Air, and the more harrowing Into the Wild.
I leave it up to those who read this slim volume to make up their own minds as to whether Mortenson is running a scam or not. All I can say is that by the end of this I was pretty angry and remembering once again, that if you want to give to a charity, be certain to see if they are legitimate or not with a bit of research. All I know is that while I find the idea of what Mr. Mortenson is doing a very good one, I will never give a dime to his or his organization as I suspect that it will be siphoned off to unknowned parts, and not the original purpose.
Excellent writing, five stars overall, and left me wanting to see where this story will eventually wind up.
Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way
2011; Byliner, Inc.