When charity bites the hand that feeds it
Inspirational ... Greg Mortenson with Afghan children.
In Afghanistan it's mop-up time. As foreign armies eye the exits, a meeting in San Francisco last week was a different kind of mopping-up for a non-combat force that is likely to remain on the ground in central Asia.
Around the table were seven new directors of the Central Asia Institute, appointed by order of state authorities in Montana, hoping to instil badly needed management and accounting rigour in a multimillion-dollar charity better known globally through the titles of books written by its co-founder Greg Mortenson - Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools.
The mountaineer Mortenson's style and timing were exquisite. He might have remained an obscure and well-meaning aid-worker, were it not for the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, which turned the world focus on central Asia. But this shy, former trauma nurse's Indiana Jones appeal made him a darling of philanthropists and the military and, very soon, his struggling charity was awash in millions.
Amid rising disillusionment over the war in Afghanistan, Mortenson's stories of schools for girls and his daring-do adventures in making them happen were heart-warming, inspirational - and utterly believable. Such was Mortenson's appeal, he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize. And when he was edged out of the running by Barack Obama, the US President thought it politic to donate $100,000 of his winnings to Mortenson's charity.
A cloud still hangs over the veracity of Mortenson's story telling.
By some accounts, his first published account of his first school project in Pakistan has none of the drama of more breathless subsequent accounts, which tell of him getting lost in the Himalayas while attempting to honour the death of his younger sister by placing her amber necklace atop the forbidding K2 peak - and his promise to reward his local rescuers by building a school in their village.
His tale of holding the hand of the dead Mother Teresa is problematic - apparently he times it three years after her actual death.
Likewise, a Pakistani academic is furious over Mortenson's depiction of his family as a bunch of Taliban fighters who kidnapped him and seemingly would have killed him. The academic says he was Mortenson's guide, his family are village notables and the American was their honoured guest in wild country on the Afghanistan border.
Mortenson's Stones into Schools includes a photograph of the 13 Kalashnikov-wielding Waziri tribesmen who ''abducted him''; the academic produces another picture for The Sunday Times in London - Mortenson hamming it up for the cameras as he brandishes his own Kalashnikov.
The cloud remains, because numerous claims of Mortenson presenting fiction as fact and of bending fact to make it sexy have not been tested beyond being outlined in media reports. But the Montana investigation of CAI's financial operations is damning.
Published in April, the investigation paints Mortenson as a plunderer of the donations for schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan - spending millions of dollars on charter jets, family holidays and personal items. Overseen by a board of himself and loyal associates, staff who challenged Mortenson's spending were resisted or simply ignored, the report finds.
At a glance, it might be argued that the man, the charity, the books and the schools were all the same project and that a blurring of the finances was inevitable. But the year-long investigation overseen by the Montana Attorney-General, Steve Bullock, suggests a more calculated bilking of the donors.
It reveals a deal worth $3.96 million for CAI to buy Mortenson's books from online dealers, which saw Mortenson benefit by earning his royalty, rather than CAI benefiting through a publisher's discount. And though an agreement was drawn up for Mortenson to donate the equivalent of the royalties he earned on the CAI-purchased books back to the charity, he did not.
Likewise, CAI paid $2 million for charter jets to haul him to some of his hundreds of speaking engagements. But the investigation found that Mortenson was ''double-dipping'' - while CAI paid for the travel, he pocketed travel fees and honorariums paid by the event organisers. Mortenson was paid as much as $30,000 for speaking fees, only $7500 of which went to the charity.
The investigation also identified more than $75,000 charged as personal items by Mortenson and his family to CAI credit cards, "including LL Bean clothing, iTunes, luggage, luxury accommodation and even vacations". In examining 10 years of CAI credit card activity, the investigation found receipts and support documents for just 38 per cent of the total amounts charged.
As early as 2002 - which, effectively was the first year of the Afghanistan war - the CAI board attempted to strip Mortenson of some of his duties as executive director but, the report says, tension grew and three board members ''were effectively ousted''.
Similarly, when audits turned up problems, the response was to stop auditing rather than to fix problems.
Bullock effectively sacked the board - and called for the new, expanded membership that gathered for the first time last week. Mortenson was allowed to continue as a paid employee of CAI, but he is banned from voting as a member of the board and he has been ordered to pay back more than $1 million to the charity.
Given that Mortenson is to remain CAI's public face, a letter he has published on the charity's website is disappointing. It points to the Attorney-General's report elsewhere on the CAI website, but at the same time it glosses over its findings, almost as though the author thinks he got away with it.
Mortenson blithely states CAI's one-by-one schools survey is continuing, without acknowledging why it is being undertaken - a charge by the American 60 Minutes program that some of the school projects did not exist.
Of 30 visited by the program, six did not exist. The others either were empty or in use as fodder stores; and had not been funded by CAI for years or had not been built by the charity.
The report reads as a morality tale for Washington. Just as few would doubt Mortenson's altruism, the liberties he took with funds, which donors believed were destined for educational projects, reflect the recklessness of a shabbily managed American venture in Afghanistan.
It's not good enough to expect Afghans to be grateful, simply because there is a foreign presence on the ground. Being there required Mortenson as much as Washington to put up all the resources available for the job at hand. ''Good enough'' would never be good enough.