Lessons from the Greg Mortenson scandal for social justice advocates

It’s been crushing for many in the feminist community to read about Greg Mortenson, much-celebrated champion of global girls education, and his alleged hypocrisy, deception, and dysfunction. In short, “60 Minutes” and investigative journalist Jon Krakauer (a one-time champion and funder of Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute), revealed damning research indicating that many of the stories Mortenson tells in his two bestselling books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, were fabricated, and further, that he misuses funds.

I, in fact, wrote a review of Three Cups of Tea on June 19, 2008 in which, strangely enough, I hinted at a discomfort with the nature of the stories therein:

But what I found missing from this account were the moral complexities. In Korphe, for example, Mortenson helps the village people—historically separated from “civilization”—by an abyss, build a bridge. What seems simple, however, had to have caused all sorts of wild changes in the community. Relin only dwells on the positive, briefly mentioning that there are often unintended side effects of well-intentioned acts. As someone interested in all the gray of international development and civic involvement, I want to read about those side effects, not see them glossed over. In short, the biography was too sunny for me, to glowing and angelic.

Last week, my partner, John, and I got to talking about what Mortenson’s fall from grace reveals about the current state of social justice work, development, and in particular, funding and the philanthropic sector. John has been the executive director of nonprofits that advocate design for the social good. We ended up writing this piece for the Christian Science Monitor. Here’s an excerpt:

The case with Mortenson and CAI is at once a call for greater accountability and honesty, and also acknowledgement of the reality of social change. It is often slow – as evidenced by Acumen Fund founder Jacqueline Novogratz’s notion of “patient capital.” It is also, even when scalable, small at first. And it is inevitably characterized by setbacks and the learning that follows.

This scandal is not just about Mortenson; it’s about all of us. It’s not just about empty schools; it’s about a sector that too often doesn’t allow for genuine learning. Unless we – nonprofit executives, development experts, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and donors alike – can be honest about the pace and nature of social change, we are not only perpetuating a false ideal, but also doing a disservice to the people we profess to help.

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