Greg Mortenson


I have never read any of Greg Mortenson’s books. I know his backstory, generally: lay person in Central Asia, gets to know people – and hey! they’re normal people, just like you and me! – and he comes home and spreads the word, and magically everyone starts helping everyone else, and now there are schools, and everyone is singing and dancing and drinking Coca-Cola.



I am generally mistrustful of stories like this. There are really very few selfless people in the world. I learned in the Peace Corps that the business of international aid is just that – a business – and there are surprising numbers of people who are in it for selfish reasons: self-aggrandizement, opportunism, laziness, and even personal gain, if you can believe it. There’s also the Great White Savior thing: the American who goes to a foreign country and makes everything better.


Now it turns out that Greg Mortenson was maybe too good to be true.


All of the facts are not in yet. It does appear beyond question, however, that a large percentage of his foundation’s money – money that was ostensibly being raised to build schools in Central Asia – was used for his own travel expenses, and publicity for his own books Investigators have found that some at least of the schools he “built” are not actually schools.


Mortenson is holding fast. He is blinkingly cheerful about the whole thing, and is assuring everyone that everything will be fine, and that he will be proven to be a Great Guy.


The thing that saddens me, though (even beyond the abuse of trust Mortenson and his foundation demonstrated – using money contributed by schoolchildren to pay his own expenses!), is how people react after they realize they’ve been taken in.


In a recent bulletin from my alma mater Gonzaga, for example, there’s a ravingly idolatrous write-up of an appearance that Mortenson made there in March – what a wonderful guy, how charismatic, blah blah blah. With an afterword from Gonzaga’s president: “We have seen the allegations made by ’60 Minutes’ and other sources. We still believe that Mr. Mortenson is an inspirational figure.” Or words to that effect.


And Nick Kristof of the New York Times wrote something almost exactly like it. He notes with foolish fondness Mortenson’s chronic lateness, his carelessness, but makes it all sound like Mortenson was a big ungainly dog, full of love. And, after all, isn’t it worth it if Mortenson did some good? Not all the money was wasted. Some of it was sent to Central Asia. Some schools were built. A few people were inspired.


No, my dears, no. He fooled you. This is nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing for the skeptics like me to gloat over. Con men are good at their game. Do you remember, right after 9/11, how every corner store had a FOR THE VICTIMS jar on the counter? People poured money in by the handful. Did you ever wonder what happened to that money? I sometimes wonder how much of it actually made its way to the victims, or to any reputable aid agency.


Kids, keep believing in your causes.


Just don’t send your money by way of Greg Mortenson, or (for that matter) anyone you don’t know really well.






About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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