Three Cups of Tea – H3a Reading Group Review

Three Cups of Tea (or Deceit?)
By Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin

Coincidentally, the decision to read Three Cups of Tea was taken just four days before an American television programme was aired which cast doubt on some of the accounts in the book, and raised serious questions about the behaviour of Greg Mortensen and the Central Asian Institute which he helped to form.

Triggered by a book called Three Cups of Deceit by former CAI supporter, Jon Krakauer, the controversy has continued to gather momentum during the summer.   There is the possibility of Greg Mortensen having to face IRS and other enquiries and perhaps action in the US courts.   Some organisations have already withdrawn awards they had made to Mortensen and others have suspended their support.

A couple of weeks before the Reading Group meeting, a summary of the allegations being made against Greg Mortensen, together with some discussion points,  was circulated so that members had a chance to consider the issues before the meeting.

At the start of the meeting we decided to try to assess the book on its merits, before discussing the controversy and our response to it.

We began by summarising the story;   some quotes from the book were read out, which set the scene and which resonated with all of us.

On Greg Mortensen’s character and management style:

  • “fluid sense of time”; “operates on Mortenson Time”
  • “hiring people with limited experience”; “working alliances with unsavoury characters”;   “winging it”

On his relationship with the Balti people:

  • Haji Ali’s lesson:
    “If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways.   The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger.  The second time you take tea, you are an honoured guest.  The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.  Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea”.   “That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,”

Mortenson says.

On his working methods and relationship with CAI Board:

  • “We often wouldn’t hear from Greg for weeks”  They wanted him to account for his time but “ werealised that would never work.  Greg just does whatever he wants.”
  • We really needed a few Greg Juniors (who) Greg could delegate projects to.   But he refused to do that….  And then he’d just bog down in the details of one project and neglect another

On his achievements:

  • According to co-author David Relin,
    “Though he would never say so himself, he has single-handedly changed the lives of tens of thousands of children, and independently won more hearts and minds than all the official American propaganda flooding the regions”.

Considering Three Cups of Tea in general, there was unanimous agreement that the book was an enjoyable read, and most members were inspired in varying degrees by the story.   Despite the controversy surrounding him, the group members felt an admiration for the character of Greg Mortensen as an individual.

We all found his story very believable.    Several members said that they had encountered Americans like Greg Mortensen who were present in Turkey in the 60s and 70s particularly amongst members of the American Peace Corps and in organisations such as Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere (CARE).

In those days, members recalled, there was a genuine desire to help, even though some of the concepts might have been born of naivety and ignorance.  However, throughout the period, the motives of the helpers were also the subject of suspicion;  many of those trying to help were suspected of being spies, tools of the CIA[1], or missionaries bent on converting Muslims to Christianity.

One member suggested that this suspicion is still present today and runs deep in the psyche not only of Turkey but possibly also of the region in general.

We speculated on whether, given the current climate in the region nearly 20 years on, it would have been possible for Greg Mortensen to have the same success in getting these projects off the ground today.  We concluded that he might not have survived, if he was starting out now.

One member mentioned the book “Sivil Örümceğin Ağında” (On the Web of the Civil Spider) by Mustafa Yıldırım which concludes that although the help through education which Americans offer is probably genuine, it is as much to help America as it is to help those on the receiving end.

This led into a discussion about the degree to which all philanthropy is inevitably tied up with propaganda, that helping is a way of persuading others to adopt our beliefs and values.

Still on the subject of motives, at least one member noted the apparent absence in the book of any overtly Christian agenda behind Greg Mortensen’s efforts and wondered whether this was being deliberately omitted from the book as a possible hindrance to selling the message.

Others noted that, although the son of missionaries, Greg Mortensen seemed to be genuinely ecumenical in his approach and admired the fact that he took the trouble to study the Koran and to pray with those he sought to help.  A quotation from Greg Mortensen hints at his attitude to different religions:

“Watching this scene straight out of the Bible stories …,” Mortenson says, “I thought  how much the different faiths had in common, how you could trace so many of their traditions back to the same root.”

In the second half of the meeting, we turned to the controversy surrounding Greg Mortensen and the CAI.

The most significant allegations made by Jon Krakauer are:

  • GM lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built
  • He lied to get donations
  • GM has misused millions of dollars of donations.  One former CAI senior manager claims GM regards the CAI “as his personal ATM”
  • The CAI has issued fraudulent financial statements

The issue of whether or not, as Jon Krakauer alleges, GM lied about the so-called “Creation Myth”[2] did not excite the group too much.   Some felt the over-riding point was that his life had changed, that he did go from being a sometime mountaineer and nurse to being a highly successful humanitarian.

Others gave him the benefit of the doubt, echoing the co-author’s remarks that Greg Mortensen was famously vague about times and dates, and that the Balti people are similarly challenged about linear time.

Others again suggested that, like many another author, he was merely taking a bit of artistic license, thus making the story more exciting.

Regarding the issue of being abducted for 8 days by the Taliban – which Jon Krakauer says is a bit of creative writing without any truth whatsoever – one person pointed out that in the book Greg Mortensen does not actually say it was the Taliban who abducted him.   She wondered where the evidence was.[3]

Again, some members wondered if this apparently exaggerated account was forgivable as a bit of artistic license to help sell the book.

The group were less impressed to learn that Greg Mortensen keeps all the profits from the books and the proceeds from the many paid-for promotional lectures he gives, even though the CAI pick up the cost of, often, expensive travel and accommodation.    Jon Krakauer says the CAI defends Greg Mortensen, saying that he donates many thousands of dollars to the organisation but, according to the critic, the accounts do not bear this out.

In Three Cups of Deceit, much is made of Greg Mortenson‘s apparent unwillingness to confirm to normal standards of probity when it came to accounting for monies he spent.  He is criticised for being a “one man show” with no ability to delegate, having a cavalier attitude to rules and being incapable of building and keeping a good relationship with his Board of management.   Even the wife of his first benefactor says “Greg had no sense of what it takes to run a business”.

In response, many members of the group talked of their own experiences of working with the “Gregs” of this world –  often high fliers, they are mavericks who are driven relentlessly by their goals, incapable of admitting they need help, incapable of sharing or delegating, disorganised, undisciplined, unwilling to submit to rules.  Most members admitted that working with such people could be very frustrating ……. but also tremendously inspiring and motivating.

Balking at the word “sins” or “crimes”, the group felt Greg Mortensen’s failings were:

  • being an incompetent manager;
  • not being a team player;
  • not surrounding himself with expertise that could take up the excess load;
  • generally not growing the company’s infrastructure as the whole enterprise grew;
  • throughout, but especially now, not having good public relations people to answer his critics.

Someone suggested that his problem may have been that he was trying to deal with two diametrically opposite cultures: one, the Middle Eastern, “heart” driven, emotionally based, human-centric culture, where honour, respect, family, country counted for everything;  the other, the Western world, the rational world of the “head” where rules, laws, bureaucracy and accountability take precedence over “fuzzy edged” emotional concepts.

Someone else said that his hopping back and forth between the region and America did not help him in this task;  he might have been better to base himself full time in the region.

The group considered the famous Thomas Aquinas 13th century doctrine of “Double Effect”[4] which has become the basis of many theories of ethics.   The basic idea is that one can commit an act that has some bad consequences, if on balance the act is good, and if the bad effects are unintended.

This idea seems a good test of the actions of Greg Mortensen.

The group recognised that Greg Mortensen had some very impressive acts of good to his credit:

  • a large number of schools built;
  • a significant number of girls educated in some of the most deprived and troubled areas of the world;
  • the formation of an Institute that aims to “win the war on terror, one school at a time”;
  • the prime source that raised awareness of the problems, and the inspiration that persuaded millions across the globe to donate up to $53m to date of the CAI.

Yes, there are “bad consequences” that can be laid directly at his door, but the group felt these are ones that often come with the patch when dealing with the Greg Mortensons of this world.

The question that has to be asked is whether, in the words of the important second half of the doctrine, “the bad effects were unintended”.

At the end of the meeting, members were asked whether or not, knowing what they know now, they would be prepared to donate money to CAI.  Most seemed to prefer to reserve judgement for the time being, although one probably spoke for all of us when she said “If Greg Mortensen walked into this room now, I would give him money, if only for the inspiration he has provided”.

Over the coming weeks and months, IRS enquiries and possibly court proceedings will try to decide whether Greg Mortensen is cynical and self-seeking or whether he is a brilliant but flawed visionary.


[1]Of course this was at the height of the Cold War, and with a country like Turkey of such geo-political strategic importance, it would perhaps be naive to suppose that America was motivated solely by unalloyed philanthropy

[2]Jon Krakauer’s term:  that GM’s life changing experience, when he decided to dedicate his life to helping with the education, particularly of girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, came about after he got lost coming down K2, staggered into Korphe, was nursed back to help and promised to build them a school.

[3] The nearest he gets is to say that he assumes the English-speaking leader of the group called Khan was “an emerging Taliban commander”.   In reply, it was pointed out that, in the second book there is a photograph of this group which Greg Mortensen labels as his abductors;  in his lectures he repeatedly calls them “the Taliban” and, indeed, in a promotional video, Jon Krakauer says Greg Mortenson talks about being kidnapped by the Taliban.

[4]  For the full article on Trolleyology and the Double Effect doctrine, see Prospect Magazine website:

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