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Sometimes, Help is Not Helpful

The school we visited today was constructed with breath-taking shoddiness. We could see rusty reinforcing steel protruding from under the stairwells and along the beams. The beams themselves, which should have been plum and smooth, jutted at weird angles. More awkward still, the concrete slabs were stuffed with garbage — as though refuse would be strong enough to hold up a building.

Yet, the mason who built the school seemed knowledgeable and concerned. Where the engineer had told him one measurement, he did two or three, intending the school to be extra strong. I was flummoxed.

The abysmal construction and the motivated mason did not seem to corroborate until we understood who was involved in the construction.

This was no ordinary construction where local masons simply worked together. This public school was funded by a charity from the U.K., which sent Brits as volunteer labourers. The mason was given 22 volunteers with zero construction experience and told them to help build a school.

The headache that ensued was almost laughable, if not for the dangerous undertones. Three groups of volunteers stayed for six months each. Even though schools usually take a few months to complete, they were certainly helpful in some tasks. They carried stones and helped dig an especially deep foundation trench at the insistence of the mason. But, when it came to construction tasks that required a modicum of knowledge, they seemed to cause more harm than good: they didn’t know how to bend bars properly, stepped on reinforcing steel and shifted it out of place, and built brick walls with mortar seemingly anywhere but between the bricks. The mason said it was impossible to be everywhere at once and make sure tasks were completed properly.

The principal pined for a steel beam to support the second floor, knowing the earthquake risk. But the U.K. has no earthquakes, volunteers had not experienced the violent shaking and hellish aftermath, so they didn’t think it was necessary.

The result was a new school — an unsafe new school. Though the principal and mason were appreciative of the support and volunteers, they wished their help hadn’t involved novices building the school their kids would attend for decades.

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