The problem is that simply erecting school buildings is far from enough. Teachers need to be recruited and paid. Textbooks need to be bought. Funds for maintenance need to be established. Parents need to be motivated to let their daughters go to school, which can be done in various ways—one program in Bangladesh that rewarded parents with cash payments doubled female school enrollment. These sorts of programs require local collaboration and sustained, long-term support. And that, it seems, is where Mortenson has failed. “CAI has become proficient at erecting schools off the beaten path, and Mortenson deserves praise for that,” Krakauer writes. “But filling those schools with effective teachers and actually educating children turns out to be much more difficult than constructing schoolrooms. On this front, Mortenson has delivered far less than he has professed.” Krakauer describes “ghost schools”—schools the Central Asia Institute built but then abandoned.
Mortenson became as famous as he did because people love the idea that one intrepid humanitarian can solve intractable problems in the world’s most desperate places. Schimmelpfennig calls it the “White in Shining Armor” approach to development. It makes for good stories, but it usually doesn’t work. In nearly every country in the world, there are people on the ground trying hard to improve things in their communities, and the most successful programs work through them. The Global Fund for Women, for example, takes applications for grants in any form and any language. It supports organizations like the Afghan Institute of Learning, which began by running underground girls schools during Taliban rule, and which has since trained more than 7,000 female primary school teachers. The problem isn’t that the world of development lacks real heroes. The problem is that they’re rarely the ones we hear about.
I pray that the good that comes of the scrutiny paid to Mortenson's operations awakens us all from the dreams of our postmodern slumber in which inspiration and commitment continue to be divorced, with the former becoming a substitute for the latter. Otherwise, Mortenson's "ghost schools" may become not only parables of our good intentions and social justice consumerism, but also, our reality. As Goldberg points out, it may not be only the straw men of our ideals that are consumed, but also, the lives of the very people - especially the women - who fuel the fires of our blind quest for meaning, divorced from personal transformation and sustained, sacrificial commitment.