Greg Mortenson and CAI Roll Out a Defense
Journey of Hope 2011, Courtesy of Central Asia Institute
Late last Friday, Outside obtained an advance copy of the Central Asia Institute’s annual Journey of Hope newsletter from Anne Beyersdorfer, the independent public relations specialist who has, for the past three weeks, acted as the organization's temporary director. On April 17, a report on CBS’s 60 Minutes, followed by Jon Krakauer with his exposé Three Cups of Deceit, leveled charges of fraud and fabrication against Mortenson, alleging the Bozeman, Montana–based philanthropist misappropriated funds, lied about the events of his bestselling books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, and made up the story of his 1996 kidnapping in Waziristan at the hands of a so-called “emerging Taliban commander.”
For supporters, who have been anxiously awaiting an official response from Mortenson and CAI, the 14-page Journey of Hope newsletter serves as a broad outline of CAI’s defense rather than a blow-by-blow rebuttal of every allegation. In a normal year Journey of Hope, which is usually released in November, serves as an annual report for the organization’s most fervent supporters. What’s surprising about this special edition is its general lack of urgency.
Neither 60 Minutes nor Krakauer are ever mentioned, and the first reference to the “recent media reports” doesn’t appear until the sixth paragraph of the opening note from board chairman Abdul Jabbar, who flatly denies any wrongdoing: “There has been absolutely no financial misappropriation.” His note is followed by another three stories that lay out an aggressive and expansionary plan for CAI, including a “female teacher’s training college” in Kashmir, “60 new schools across Afghanistan in 2011,” and “three schools in remote southeastern Tajikastan,” a country that the charity has not previously operated in.
As for the defense, it begins on page ten and takes the form of an FAQ. It starts off strong. In Deceit, Krakauer accuses CAI of spending only 41 percent of its budget building schools and of reporting “the millions of dollars it spends on book advertising and chartered jets as ‘program expenses.’” Central to Krakauer’s criticism is the notion that “Domestic outreach and education, lectures and guest appearances across the United States” shouldn’t count as programs but fundraising and promotional overhead. CAI’s mission, after all, is building schools for girls.
On this count, CAI offers a convincing defense, noting that its 1996 certificate of incorporation spelled out a dual mission: “[T]o establish and support education in remote mountain communities of Central Asia and to educate the public about the importance of these educational activities.” (Its current mission statement, though different, could arguably mean the same thing: “To promote and support community based education, especially for girls…”)
CAI’s position is that its outreach is every bit as important as building schools and that Mortenson’s talks and his resulting travel expenses are a crucial part of its mission. If you buy this argument, and many supporters do, the percentage of its spending on programs is above 75 percent, putting it on par the industry’s best practices. On this count, the newsletter also hints at a possible legal defense: “[Mortenson’s] presentations and his books help fulfil the stated corporate and charitable purposes of CAI.”
The charity’s explanation for Krakauer’s so-called “ghost schools” also seems reasonable, if you believe that Afghanistan, and the areas of Pakistan where the charity operates, are difficult places to maintain security let alone accountability. CAI chalks up lapses in oversight to in-country project managers and, in at least one case, to a disgruntled employee who conned the organization into believing he’d been building schools, when in fact he’d been embezzling.
“I trusted him and loved him like a brother,” says Mortenson in the report. “Unfortunately, for the first time in our history, CAI wound up on the short end of the stick.”
The organization also points out that “many schools in the remote, mountainous areas close for two months or longer in the winter,” which could explain why visits by 60 Minutes appeared to show that some schools were no longer operating.
But while the report openly addresses critiques of CAIs spending and on-the-ground effectiveness, explanations for Mortenson’s alleged financial improprieties and fabricated stories are conspicuously absent. There is no mention, for example, of the millions of dollars CAI spent on advertising to promote Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, the proceeds of which, the organization acknowledges, are “[Moretenson’s] alone.” Nor do they address Krakauer’s accusation that a school in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor was rushed to completion in order to meet a publishing deadline for Stones Into Schools. During the 60 Minutes report, Steve Kroft points out that CAI has released only one audited financial report in 14 years, a disturbingly low number for a non-profit of its size and stature. In the FAQ format, CAI’s response appears intentionally misleading:
Q: “Every nonprofit must file an annual tax return. According to reports, your nonprofit only filed once in 14 years – is that true?”
A: “No. IRS 990 forms filed for every year since CAI’s inception are available on our website, http://www.ikat.org/about- cai/financials/
While those forms are indeed available, tax returns and audited financial statements are not the same thing. And Outside couldn’t find any reports that accused CAI of failing to file a tax return.
As for the allegations that major parts of Three Cups of Tea were fabricated, the newsletter offers only boilerplate: “The contents of Greg Mortenson’s books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools are based on events that actually happened.” Given how much latitude for dramatic license that statement offers, it can hardly be the reassurance that fans of the book had been hoping for. Still, CAI is sticking to the story that Mortenson actually did visit Korphe, the site of his first school, in 1993—a claim that Outside no longer believes is plausible. He also maintains that he was, in fact “detained and held against his will” in Waziristan, in 1996.
Mortenson is quoted frequently throughout the newsletter, but his byline appears only on the last page in “A Message to the Children.” In his note he calls the allegations against him “mean spirited” and apologizes “if these attacks left you feeling confused, hurt, upset, or disheartened.”
For supporters who were hoping for a more direct response from CAI’s founder, board chairman Jabbar offers that Mortenson will do a series of longer interviews “after his impending [heart] surgery,” which is scheduled for sometime in May.