Leave No Trace

Reading my journal from before I left home is strange. It feels like I’m reading my diary from 5th grade- only this 5th grade me ditched my family and friends, and hopped on a plane to the middle of South East Asia (Right- ok. Not quite the same…) But the similarity is in the sense that my perspective about this place has already shifted so drastically in such a short period of time, and I already feel like a very different version of myself. Five weeks ago, I was thinking about this experience in terms of the “me” and the “I”. The proof is in my earlier blog posts- “What would I contribute?” “What legacy would I leave?” “Would my relationships be meaningful?” etc. etc. etc. I am sure that I was not alone in grappling with these questions (amirite @fellows10???)

Cambodia is rebuilding. Essentially from scratch in terms of business, culture, and education. There is a clear need for sustainable development, and the void is being (somewhat) filled by copious eager NGOs. Intentions are mostly good, but the execution could use some work.

Many people come to Cambodia and other developing countries to work for NGOs or humanitarian organizations. And for various reasons, they end up staying longer than they originally intended to. This is great- it boosts the economy, creates a community that people are eager to visit, and development is rampant. But this development is not sustainable.

Too many people are thinking in terms of the “I” and the “me.” There is simply no room for ego or personal intentions in this field of work.

I am here for 9 months. And while in earlier posts I deemed 9 months as a long period of time, in reality, it is quite insignificant on the timeline of an aid organization. Our purpose is not to carry plans for change on our backs until the goal is achieved. With this approach, we neglect the foundation. The goal of sustainable development is, in due time, for a person, organization or a business to be completely independent and self-reliant within its own community. If the foundation is non-existent, then the enterprise or organization in question will cease to exist.  Organizations become comfortable with western ideas and aid, and thus, often become reliant.

Remember that good ol’ Minerva Fellows Mantra? I used to think it was really culty when Tom and Hal made us chant it at every PUBLIC fellowship gathering pre-departure… but I’m starting to get it now:

“But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.’”

Here’s my perspective shift: for true sustainable development to occur, I need to take myself out of the equation. I need to help, but leave no trace.

Here are some of the ways I’m trying to live by this philosophy:

  • This past week, I opened a line of communication between TGC and Naga Earth, an amazing environmental NGO in Siem Reap. Naga Earth has various ongoing projects, but their current work is focused on collecting used cooking oil from local restaurants and converting it into biofuel and organic soap. Too often in Siem Reap, used oils from restaurants are sold to street vendors and reused, often causing serious illnesses. Joe To Go (the café that TGC operates) will be donating their used oil to support their work. Additionally, Naga Earth provides recycling workshops to their partner organizations, so the staff and students at TGC will be getting their hands dirty making awesome recycled paper in the coming weeks. My hope is that this relationship will carry on long after I’m gone.
  • One of my students has expressed a serious interest in studying human rights law. She certainly has the potential to succeed in the field, and as long as she presents an interest, I am going to help her in any way that I can. Together we have been researching local internships in law, as well as scholarships available for her continued education. Who knows, maybe this will be the student that changes the education system in this country for her fellow Cambodians.
  • Finally, in imposing myself on a beautiful, new, and developing country and community, it is so important that I truly live these values in my day-to-day life. I hope that in my endeavors to bring sustainable development to TGC and Siem Reap, I will also “leave no trace” in Siem Reap, and leave this city more beautiful than it was when I arrived. Each day I strive to be more conscious of the waste I am producing- I hope to be living completely waste-free in the coming weeks.


If you’ve stayed with me this long, thanks for reading all my jumbled trains of thought (:


Peace and love, xoxo

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