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Tracking Down Mortenson's Schools In Pakistan

Students at CAI's Immit Higher Secondary School pose with some of their school work in April 2011.
Students at CAI's Immit Higher Secondary School pose with some of their school work in April 2011.
Special to RFE/RL

IMMIT, Pakistan -- Strange but true. Greg Mortenson, the author of "Three Cups of Tea," is better known in the United States than in some of the mountainous areas of Pakistan where he claims to build schools.

But if local people don't recognize Mortenson's name, they do know the name of his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). And a recent visit to one valley in Pakistan's remote northwest, near the borders of Tajikistan and China, suggests that here his schools not only exist but function normally.

Radio Mashaal sent a reporter to check on some of Mortenson's schools after a U.S. television investigative show in April reported his Montana-based charity is beset by charges of fraud.

CBS News' "60 Minutes" quoted a private watchdog group as saying that CAI spends more money on publicity in the United States than on building schools abroad. The group, which examines U.S. charitable organizations, also charged that CAI has had only one audited financial report in its 14 years.

Writer and CAI founder Greg Mortenson with Gultori schoolchildren in Pakistan (courtesy photo)



At the same time, "60 Minutes" quoted a former associate of Mortensen as saying the best-selling author and mountaineer invented much of the inspirational story he tells to raise funds for building schools in Central Asia.

Mortenson's story describes how he was nursed back to health in a remote Pakistani village after becoming lost while descending K2, the world's second-tallest mountain, and how he repaid this kindness by giving the village its first school. But two porters who accompanied him on the K2 climb in 1993 told the news show that Mortenson was never separated from his climbing party as he claims.

The news show also reported that CAI's tax return for last year listed 141 schools that the charity claimed to have built or supported in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But "60 Minutes" said that when it looked into or visited 30 of the schools, it found "some performing well but roughly one-half were empty, built by someone else, or not receiving support at all."

Mortensen has rejected the allegations of fraud, but the scandal has raised doubts over how many of Mortenson's schools actually exist. The schools stretch across northern Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan, and many are located in difficult to reach places, so it is hard for journalists to confirm the truth.

High Praise

Pakistan's Ishkoman Valley, which we visited, is such a place. To reach it, one must travel 24 hours by car from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and up ever-ascending terrain to the northwestern corner of Gilgit-Baltistan, which itself is part of that vast mountainous region dubbed the Roof of the World, Trans-Himalaya.

Much of the way is along the famous Karakorum Highway, which follows the ancient silk route to China, before we branch off at Gilgit to go farther west to the town of Gahkuch and from there farther north to the Ishkoman Valley.

There, where three of the world's most famous mountain ranges meet -- the Himalayas, the Karakorum, and the Hindu Kush -- we start to ask directions.

"Are there any schools built by Greg Mortenson here?" we ask a resident as we enter the hamlet of Immit. The community, home to some 500 families, is supposed to have a CAI-built school.

The resident, Shaukat Ali, gives a blank look. He does not recognize the name, which clearly sounds foreign to his ears.

We ask, instead, if there is any school built by the Central Asia Institute. This time the answer, along with an unprompted endorsement of the CAI's work, comes pouring out.

"I've known about CAI for the past two years, and they set up schools in different areas and run these schools in a good manner," Shaukat Ali offers. "They recruit good teachers and they are doing a good job in the interest of this region."

In fact, the school we are looking for is just a little farther along the road. It is the Immit Higher Secondary School, a seven-room building made of concrete, with a corrugated roof, and surrounded by a spacious green lawn.

'Studying At Their Doorsteps'

Doulat Ali, the head teacher at the secondary school, says the building was constructed in 2001, the same year as the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The money was provided by an EU grant through the Aga Khan Education Service (AKES). But in 2010, the secondary school was expanded by CAI to include a two-year college, the first in the region.

WATCH: RFE/RL correspondent visits the Immit and Majaweer schools:

Two Schools In The Mountains i
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May 16, 2011
Amid charges of fraud leveled against Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute, two Pakistani schools funded by CAI -- the Immit Higher Secondary School and the Majaweer Village School -- seemed to be running smoothly.


The combination of a secondary school and college has revolutionized education in this remote area. One of the students, Jehan Bibi, who comes from a village elsewhere in Ishkoman Valley to study here, says women in particular benefit.

"Our sisters are studying at their doorsteps," Bibi says. "Previously, there was no such possibility."

Many traditional families remain reluctant to send their daughters out of their own villages for schooling, much less out of the region. The fact that this college is still geographically within the local families' extended network of relatives means women can get permission to pursue their studies when otherwise it might be denied.

Khairun Nissa, a teacher at the school, says that the most determined girls tried to study at home while the rest simply stopped studying after finishing their village school.

"Prior to this [school], almost the majority of students had to sit at home and study through tutors and then appear for exams at private schools," Nissa says. "Now it is altogether a different story."

According to the principal of the secondary school, Shah Raees Khan, the CAI remains actively involved with it. He says the charity is establishing a computer lab in the college and pays the tuition fees of at least 15 of the students at the college. He says the CAI has also agreed to pay the school fees of at least 100 students from poor families to attract them to the school.

Making A 'Better Future'

Beyond Immit, the villages in Ishkoman Valley become few and farther apart as the terrain gets steeper and harsher. Some 10 kilometers north of Immit, we come to the village of Majaweer and spot a billboard beside the road. The sign identifies a nearby building as a CAI school and around the building workers are digging a boundary wall. Inside, a group of male and female teachers is taking tea inside a staff room.

Majaweer Village School is noticeably empty of students, but the staff explains that is because the school is currently in recess after holding exams. But there are plenty of signs the single classroom is used regularly. The room is carpeted and the walls are hung with teaching aids divided by discipline: science, arts, music, and history.

Staff pose in front of the Majaweer school in April.



One of the teachers, Zar Wali Shah, says 82 boys and girls study at the school and that there are at least six teachers. He says the CAI pays the teachers' salaries, while the village itself contributed the land for the school and constructed the building. That follows a formula the CAI has frequently used in remote areas to engage local communities in education: the charity provides building materials, books and teachers' salaries, while the community matches the deal with sweat equity.

The school itself is run by a local community association, not the charity itself. The president of the association, Zardosh, tells us that the villagers worked five days to build the school.

"We cannot take land with us when we die," Zardosh says, "so we donated this [parcel] for a better future for the next generations."

He adds that when he and the other adult villagers, who are mostly illiterate, see their children studying, they "think of sacrificing everything for a better future."

'An Angel'

We continue another 15 kilometers up the valley and find another similar story. In Tishnaloot village, there is another CAI school in the village center. It, too, is closed following exams and workmen are busy improving it by building a boundary wall. When it's in session, 60 students attend, taught by two teachers who are paid by the CAI.

Back in Immit, we meet CAI's regional representative, Saeedullah Baig, who is on an inspection tour from Gilgit.

He says that throughout this corner of northwest Pakistan -- the Ghizar district of Gilgit-Baltistan -- there are 19 projects either completed or under way. He also expresses shock at the "60 Minutes" story that raised doubts about the CAI's work.

"We do not do much promotion, but you can see for yourself what we claim to do in any area that is on our list," Baig says.

He adds that personally, for him, Mortenson is not a human "but an angel for me and this region."

Given the difficulty of the terrain, visiting all the schools on Baig's list would take weeks or months. But it is not only the news report that today hangs over the CAI like a cloud. Here in Pakistan, a national Urdu-language internet daily has reported the charity is in trouble for reasons similar to those cited by CBS News' "60 Minutes."

Doubts Will Remain

The daily "K2," named for Pakistan's highest mountain, recently reported that one of Mortenson's first local partners has appropriated some of the CAI's buildings for his own commercial use.

The newspaper says that Ghulam Mohammad Parvhi has taken over one of the CAI schools in Skardu district -- in the west of the sprawling Gilgit-Baltistan region -- and now charges the students tuition when previously they received free education. The paper also reported that in the district capital, Skardu city, he has rented to a university a dormitory building which CAI constructed to house impoverished students.

RFE/RL was unable to independently verify the allegations. But they are in line with charges by the CAI's critics in the United States that the charity's management structure is disorganized and lacks oversight over its many initiatives. According to "K2," Parvhi registered the CAI charity under his own name with the authorities and so is legally free to do what he wants with the properties.

To get to the truth of such charges will require more trips to the Roof of the World and months of digging. But if a pattern in Mortenson's story seems to emerge from this quick ground check, it is a pattern of both successes and failings.

Mortenson has unquestionably built highly appreciated new schools in some of the most inaccessible terrain known to man. To do so, however, he has had to create a chain of trust, between his charity, its local partners, and its donors. The same rugged terrain that makes the work so worthwhile also bedevils it by making oversight exceptionally difficult.

Today, if the CAI seems to have trouble overseeing its activities, so does the public in overseeing the charity. Until journalists -- both in this region and the United States -- can piece together a more complete picture of how well the charity works, the concerns about it are likely to persist.

written by M. Shah, a Peshawar-based journalist in Pakistan
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: CF from: Montana, US
May 16, 2011 16:52
Thank you for your efforts to ferret out the real story. It is too easy for programs like "60 Minutes" to throw questions and doubts out to the public without doing their homework. Given the terrain, the vastness of the region, the difficulty in obtaining construction materials, and hiring of qualified teachers, I am frankly astounded Mr. Mortenson has been able to accomplish all he has. To build one operational school would be a major challenge, to build 30 or 50 or 150 is a miracle. I doubt most people realize that you can't simply call your local hardware and have materials dropped at your door like we can in the US. Or that it is so easy to hire a teacher willing to live in a remote village where electricity is unreliable, and food and water may not be what you are accustomed to. No one in their right mind would go to so much effort to establish a charity like CAI simply to support their own lifestyle. Sure, mistakes were made in the process. Most likely due to Mr. Mortensons zelous drive to accomplish so much with so little in such a short time.
I doot know Mr. Mortenson, have never met him, and never finished reading the entire book. But I do recognize that his detractors are probably envious, or ill informed as to the hurdles one must face to even attempt such a task.
Responsible journalism requires one to gather all the facts, sift thru the personal issues and gossip, and then report the truth.
Thank you for your efforts at responsible journalism.

by: EyeNeverSayNo from: California
May 16, 2011 19:12
The real story here isn't that Mortenson has been doing some good in bringing education to some folks in some very remote and challenging regions. Even his harshest critics give Mortenson credit here, including Krakauer, who's was careful to point out that "we're not talking Bernie Madoff here," making this whole article something of a strawman defense.

No, the real story is Mortenons’s conversion of millions of dollars of CAI’s donated funds into book royalties and appearance fees for himself.

Good journalism would be to read Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” then follow up with the source materials to see if his allegations are supported in the public record. A good place to start would be CAI’s lone audited Form 990 tax return, the one from 2009. There one would find that, by their own admission, nearly three out of every ten dollars donated to CAI that year was spent directly on the promotion of Mortenson’s books, much of it on private jet charter travel from city to city, more than 100/year, where Mortenson’s typically collects $30,000 per appearance to say a few words about his great works, show a few slides and, of course, sign books. Millions of donated dollars have also been spent on print advertising and other promotion of his books, nearly $2 million in 2009 alone, and yet all of the millions in book royalties and speaking fees have gone right into Mortenson’s own pocket, while the charity has been covering his expenses.

Even CAI and Mortenson’s latest defense of his year-long practice of flying around like a rock star on private jets, paid for with money donated to help poor women and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, contains a tacit admission of prior wrong doing, closing with this gem: “Greg began paying his own travel expenses in January 2011.” Of course there is no word as to whether or not Mortenson plans to reimburse CAI for the millions of donated dollars he has converted into book royalties and appearance fees over the years. Now THAT would be a fine question for a good journalist to ask him sometime.

by: sue gilchrist from: washington state USA
May 16, 2011 19:36
I am thankful to finally find a fair and true report of Dr. Greg Mortenson. I have met him both in Seattle, WA and also at Washington State University. He is an angel, as you report... We have collected, read, and shared his books (all four, 4,) with as many people as we could find interested. We have encouraged our local libraries to buy and promote these life changing books.
As your article reports from the vast and unreachable places in our world, Greg Mortenson is an angel. THANK YOU for fair journalism.
In Response

by: EyeNeverSayNo from: California
May 21, 2011 16:01
Each time Mortenson flew private jet charters instead of of "making do" with first class commercial, he spent the equivalent cost of building 2 to 5 new schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan (depending on the distance flown). And according to CAI's own defense of the practice, he's been flying to 126 US cities per year over the last four.

That's thousands and thousands of schools that could have been built and/or staffed with the money saved if he had just flown first class commercial.

In Response

by: Sue g from: Washington st USA
May 21, 2011 21:34
If Greg
hadn't flown all over to make the money and build awareness, there wouldn't be any schools. And besides, I am sure that we do not need to build thousands and thousands more schools. Have you read the books. Educate, share, and look around and outside the box of your own simple life. What is your personal accomplishment in the world?

by: marc from: portland oregon
May 16, 2011 19:57
Like the other two readers who commented, I do not doubt that Greg Mortenson did some good work, but what bothers me most is the 57% rake off that Mortenson's charity(CAI) is taking from American donors.
I periodically try to raise money for a Tibetan refugee school in the Indian Himalayas where I taught a decade ago.
Much of the money is funneled through an American charity, Tibet Fund. The Tibet Fun takes 7% for administration and fund raising combined and sends on theremaining 93% for programs.
How many more schools could hav been built, how much more good could have been if the overhead of CAI could have been kept at a reasonable level?
In Response

by: D Perrault from: Boston, MA
June 09, 2011 23:17
Hi Marc,

How much money does the Tibet Fund raise every year. Has the Tibet Fund reached it's fundraising ceiling based on the 7% adminsitration/fundrasing cost? What if the Tibet Fund wanted to increase fundraising by 5x. Would they need to spend more than the 7%. Do you think that there is a non linear relationship between funds raises vs administrative/fundraising fee.

How much do you think CAI would raise if there was no book tour? Although Mortenson started paying his own way in 2011. I am a donor to CAI, and think that Educational Outreach in the USA is really important. CAI claims 78% other say as low at 60%. I would be interested in a comparison of charities that have the same level of fundraising. I suspect that you would find that some are more efficient than others. We all would learn from such a study.

In the mean time I will continue to fund CAI's mission as is, because it is a lot more efficient at crating peach through education than the $50biliion/year that the US is investing in the war in afghanistan, and the $1+billion annual aid to Pakistan

by: Ali Ahmad Jan from: Gilgit Pakistan
May 28, 2011 08:17
A sane person with a little knowledge about social or community development knows the very basic difference between charity and development. Charity without an accountability mechanism and systematic approach leads to an unending social chaos and disorder in society whereas societal development is a systematic approach with built-in mechanics for monitoring and evaluation for proper accountability and strategic direction towards already set goals. There is an observation from professionals that the schools Mortenson claims to open with the support of local activists are without a support mechanism and proper supervision. There is another opinion that the community referred in the above report belongs to Ismaili Sect of Islam whose spiritual leaders Aga Khans had introduced an educational system in 1947 in this region and Mortenson has claimed a number of schools by Aga Khan as his effort. Local people and media is also critical as he has also claimed work by local people in his credit which is not only a cheat on local people but a crime to mislead the US people who have generously donated money to his claims.
The above report seems to be a media campaign by non professionals in the education and community development sector. It would be better if an authentic third party evaluation is conducted by professionals comprised of an international team and come up with a report for general public to decide.
In Response

by: Linda from: Duquesne University
June 08, 2011 18:00
Dear Ali,

I am very impressed with your knowledge and the fact that I have lived in Lahore for twenty years, I too understand the ways and chaos in our culture in Pakistan. You, though are from the mountains and should be able to track down some very important information about the issues at hand. I have volunteered in the US for Mortenson's "Pennie for Peace" campaign, and I must say that my Pakistani goodwill ambassadorial efforts were respected by the young children and teachers here. Mortenson is not the Aga Khan, not a Prince but a simple man who has really shown the world what one person can do to make a difference. Just think if all of us did what he has done, it would truly be a better world.

So, as a Pakistani who is from the Himalayan region, where all the scandal is taking place, can't you talk to people there for the world? You are very bright:: I can see that from your writings, so I am here in the US in graduate school, and I can't go back to help defend or straighten this out. We would appreciate any local information you can provide that is reported from authority. Gossip in Pakistan is a wonderful past time, so even if you hear the local gossip, it might still be very slanted. Yes, an international organization like the UN could do an investigatory campaign, but they already have a lot on their agenda.

The Aga Khan Foundation is so respected, if they could give some advise or information that would also be very helpful. From my research on the Aga Khan Foundation in graduate school, I have discovered that great rural development projects must be sustainable, so Mortenson's CAI has to have enough in savings to last for years, in order to continue funding the teachers at the school. People are not considering these things, they are just jumping to the media accusations.

Thanks for your thoughts, and since you are in that very region of the world, please get people to report the truth. Don't worry about the press here, you must remember that funds are needed to run these schools twenty years from now. Dr. Mortenson is not in good health, and this smear campaign will add to his condition and stress, so he might not be around to fly in a jet to a public speaking occasion. Without him the funds will stop coming in!

Thanks,
Linda Khan Niazi

In Response

by: Naveed from: Islamabad, Pakistan
June 13, 2011 09:48
I totally agree with you Linda. though I never had the luck to meet Greg in person and now that you just informed of his bad health, it appears even less likely, but what I have heard of him through the web and several news articles, my intuition gives him all the credit for being the man he is. you don't need much insight and investigative journalism to find out whether a person is a genuinely honest or otherwise. Greg has done for us what many of us failed to do for ourselves. Thank you Greg

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