I find myself sitting at a small stone table, low to the ground, as a whiteboard is wheeled out. Reminiscent of a high school classroom, now long forgotten, the whiteboard stands in contrast to our simple accommodations set in the middle of vast rice fields. Our teacher for the day is Paul, an engineer turned sort-of philanthropist who now lives full-time on the homestay where we will be for the next few days. He tells his story first. I’ll relate it here, much simplified due to time and memory: he was a high-up engineer in a UK-based company, doing very well for himself for a number of years. His company decided they should do some sort of philanthropy project, a “do good, feel good” (and look good) initiative in a developing country, and Paul was on the team heading it. They organized what they thought was a perfect project: a week-long trip to a small village in Cambodia where they would build a school for impoverished children. The project went off without a hitch; they went, built the school, presumably took pictures with the children, came back and published a report about their good deeds. The company was happy.
Some time later, Paul was able to go back to that same village, hoping to see the benefits of his work. To his surprise, he found that the school had been abandoned — there were no teachers to teach there. They had come into this community, helped to build a shiny new school, but never stayed around long enough, nor done enough research beforehand, to realize that their project was useless for the community.