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The Mortenson phenomenon

I've long been an admirer of Greg Mortenson, the author of the phenomenal best-seller "Three Cups of Tea." The book tells how he began building girls' schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan after making a pledge to the villagers of Korphe, who had rescued him from a failed attempt to summit the world's second-highest peak, K-2.

To see his work, I traveled with Greg in 2007 to visit schools he'd built in a remote valley in Pakistani Kashmir. As we bumped along dirt roads, this huge bear of a man talked passionately about the importance of girls' education. I met with Pakistani teachers who praised him, and with devoted members of the Pakistani staff of his school-building nonprofit charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). In later years, I also met Afghan elders who acclaimed his efforts.

I've cheered his work in several columns, one of which was quoted in a blurb on the jacket of his second book, "Stones into Schools." I've also watched huge American audiences devour his rambling, passionate lectures on the need for more girls' schools in poor countries. This plea has garnered tens of millions of dollars for his institute. , including $1.7 million collected by schoolkids in 2009 for Pennies for Peace (P4P), a program to buy school supplies for Afghan and Pakistani children.

So it was disturbing to watch a "60 Minutes" expose last week -- and to read an online booklet by author Jon Krakauer, once a Mortenson fan -- that accused Greg of lying in his books and of financial misfeasance. Among the allegations: that the Korphe story was untrue; that many of the 141 schools he supposedly built do not exist or are no longer functioning; and that his charity spends more on promoting his book and his lectures than on building schools.

In a written response to "60 Minutes," Greg says he stands by the facts in his books. His assistant Jeff McMillan told me Thursday that Greg will address all issues, and document all of his schools, once he recovers from a surgical procedure to repair heart damage.

I certainly hope so, because the Greg Mortenson phenomenon has become much larger than this larger-than-life man.

In an era where so much news is bad news, something about his upbeat story has touched a popular nerve. "Three Cups of Tea" offers a concrete prescription for how individuals can help in countries beset by Islamic radicalism. It puts forward the promise that education can change the mind-set that produced 9/1 1.

This is so, even though Greg's schools, no matter their number, can't make an absolute difference.

What's also important about the Mortenson phenomenon is that Greg's approach is the correct one for any aid project in the Third World. He insists on sitting down with locals, listening to their needs and getting them to participate in the project. This means the community has a vested interest in the outcome. Failure to get local buy-in has doomed far too many foreign aid projects.

So it would be tragic if Mortenson's errors -- of omission or commission -- tarnish the good he has done and the aid model he promoted.

It is easy to imagine that the "Three Cups of Tea" phenomenon grew too big for a visionary who didn't want to let go of control of his project. Yet a charity that collected $20 million in 2010 must meet basic standards of transparency and law.

Whatever the real story, Greg owes an explanation to those who believed in him. Otherwise, the "60 Minutes" expose will sap the idealism his work has inspired among so many Americans.

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