04/20/2011 08:02 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2011

Condemning Greg Mortenson and a Thousand Little Girls

By now, you've at least pondered the question.

Did Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, really stumble into the village of Korphe in 1993 after a failed attempt at K2? Was he really kidnapped by the Taliban? Is Mr. Mortenson using Central Asia Initiative (CAI) as his "personal ATM"?

There seem to be two well-defined positions on Mr. Mortenson:

In the first camp are those who want Mortenson to pay for his sins, for his alleged fabrications in his book and the fiscal mismanagement of CAI. They are angry, indignant.

In the second camp, people feel sorry for the plight of a man who has helped thousands of girls on the other side of the world, who has, by all accounts, accomplished something very few ever will.

Every editorial, every tweet, every blog -- and there are many -- seems to ask the same question to the masses:

What does this mean for girls' education in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

But this debate not only fails to answer our question -- it is a dangerous distraction from that question. And this debate is going to cost young lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If you believe that certain elements in Three Cups of Tea are exaggerated or fabricated, and that makes the story unpalatable to you, then don't buy the book. As the author of a memoir that has been repeatedly compared to this book (due to the subject matter: rescuing children in the Himalaya), I understand very well the responsibility we have to the reader. We are telling stories to inspire and excite -- these narratives must be so well-documented as to withstand the most intense scrutiny.

If you believe that Central Asia Initiative is mismanaging its finances, then discontinue your support. As the founder of a nonprofit organization dedicated to reuniting trafficked children with their families in remote regions of Nepal, I know that donors must be confident that their money is going to benefit those less fortunate.

But what of the thousands of little girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan who are in danger of receiving less in donations this year?

In fact, forget about the thousands. Let's take one. I'm going to name her Lucy, because that's the name of my newborn daughter.

Lucy is six years old. She is learning how to spell words like "cat" and "house." She's counting on her fingers to figure out what 4 plus 3 equals.

One day, you learn that the principal, the man who started Lucy's school, has exaggerated his personal story. You hear allegations that he has benefited personally from donations that have come into the school. As a donor to the school you're angry. This man had inspired you, and he's profiting from it!

Lucy happens to be the student that was benefiting from your donation. Since you've withdrawn it, she'll instead be joining other children down the road, where they are pounding stones into gravel to pave some local back roads.

It'll be hard for her, because she's not very strong. She is also working alongside men; if she's lucky she won't be abused by them. But that's not really your problem, is it? You can't just let the principal get away with his deception.

But maybe there's another option.

Maybe you can forgive the principal. Or, if you're too angry for that, maybe you can find another way to support Lucy. Maybe you can find another school where she can learn to write capital letters. And maybe Lucy has fewer babies. Maybe she can better care for her infants. Maybe she can earn wages to support her family.

I don't know Greg Mortenson. I am not connected with CAI, and my organization is focused exclusively on Nepal. But I do know these children, because children are the same everywhere.

Is it manipulative for me to give an example where the little girl is named Lucy, where she looks like your daughter, where she's working on roads in your neighborhood? Yes, absolutely. Because it is too easy for us to ignore them when they are far away, when they look different and have unusual names.

Say what you will about Greg Mortenson, about your concerns with Three Cups of Tea and Central Asia Initiative. The fact remains that he has pulled off a near-impossible feat: to direct millions of dollars to little girls on the other side of the world that none of us would have even known about, let alone cared about. I have seen education save lives, and Mr. Mortenson has saved thousands.

Let's stop asking the question about what will happen to those girls. And let's start answering it.