Times, they are a-changin’

There’s a good chance that unless you’ve been intentionally following what has come to be affectionately known in some circles as Three-Cups-of-Tea-gate, you missed this update on the KPLU website (KPLU is a local NPR affiliate based in Seattle, WA):

‘Three Cups of Tea’ and ‘deceit’ has international aid in hot spotlight.

It’s not a long article, but for those not motivated to click the link and read all of it, basically it is a short update on the status of the civil lawsuit being brought against Greg Mortenson, his co-author David Relin, the Penguin Group, and the Central Asia Institute. The language of the accusation is particularly telling: the defendants (Mortenson, Relin, Penguin and CAI) are being accused of fraud and racketeering. ¬†At the same time the States Attorney for the state of Montana is pursuing a full investigation of the Central Asia Institute to see whether it broke state laws which govern the actions of non-profit organizations there.

Much is made in the article of the similarities between Mortenson and James Frey who was convicted of fraud and forced to pay reparations after admitting on the Oprah Winfrey show that he’d lied in what was marketed as his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. And predictably, Mortenson’s attorneys want the civil suit against him thrown out because,

“Plaintiffs should not be allowed to create a world where authors are exposed to the debilitating expense of class action litigation just because someone believes a book contains inaccuracies,”

I’m no attorney myself and so cannot really have more than a layperson’s perspective on the legalities at play here. But it seems to me that this is both representative of a now almost complete shift in public perception of aid organizations and aid workers, and also a portent of tougher times headed for the aid industry. Regardless of one’s personal perspective on Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea and the Central Asia Institute, and even if this particular lawsuit is lost, we are now living in a time when donors can and will take us to court if they can make the case that we painted a picture in our marketing and PR which did not convey reality.

Those of you who work for an NGO that markets or fundraises in the United States, take a close look at your employer’s fundraising material and ask yourself how it makes you feel, knowing what you know about the real world of implementing humanitarian relief and development in the field. I don’t mean to say that the house of cards will come crashing down tomorrow. But the sea has changed.

We’re working in a strange, new time.