On Tuesday, Greg Mortenson reappeared after the scandal surrounding his books and charity to apologize for lying. “I stand by the stories. The stories happened, but … not in the sequence or the timing,” Mortenson told Brokaw. If his only fault was rearranging the facts, then I would never have cared. After all, All Marketers are Liars Tell Stories.I don't mind that he changed the truth around a bit to make a good story.
What really upset me was finding out that he didn't run a charity focused on building schools in Afghanistan. Instead he ran a self-promotion company. Jon Krakauer's book, Three Cups of Deceit, was more damning of how poorly run the Central Asia Institute was than of the poor story telling. He showed how the Central Asia Institute seemed to exist more to promote and purchase Greg's book than to build schools. Rather than Greg's book being a source of income for the Institute, a large portion of the Institute's budget went to funding Greg's book tour and purchasing, at full market price, Greg's books. Many of the schools that were built weren't even being used.
As Seth tells in All Marketers are Liars, everyone tells stories that have shades of untruth to them. Rearranging the facts to make a better story is fine as long as the central story is true. The real lie that Greg Mortenson told was claiming that he was trying to improve education in Afghanistan. Instead, he was just trying to get rich. This is why the Central Asia Institute has lost nearly all of its funding.
By contrast, Kiva managed to survive largely unscathed when its great untruth was exposed. Kiva claims to allow people to lend directly to small businesses in poor countries. Their website is full of stories of micro-entrepreneurs who need a little cash to grow their business. You can pick someone with a compelling story, lend them money, and when the loan is repaid so are you. It seems like a fun, easy way to help out. Except it doesn't work that way. Back in 2009, David Roodman showed that most entrepreneurs are funded well before their page even appears on the Kiva website. If the entrepreneur defaults on a loan, the intermediary organization that facilitates the loan repays it. There really isn't any link between the donor and the entrepreneur.
Big scandal, right? No. Kiva quickly admitted that this was indeed the case and that it was a matter of logistics. The entrepreneur needed the cash quickly. It didn't make sense to make them wait for funding to come (or not come). Yes, the intermediary organziations would repay loans but that was to prevent occasional defaults from disqualifying them from managing future loans. Kiva was in the business of funding micro entrepreneurs, just not quite how they had originally described it. So Kiva is going strong while the Central Asia Institute is nearly closed.
We all tell stories and no story is ever completely true. If the Central Asia Institute was doing great work in Afghanistan as Kiva is doing with microfinance, I would have easily forgiven Greg for playing with his facts. Instead, I feel as if his whole story was just a con.