As Nepal-based charity worker and resort owner Douglas MacLagan sees it, to keep giving is the best way to keep receiving the greatest gift of all
Being handed a dying child is likely to affect anyone. In Douglas MacLagan’s case, it changed his life.
It was 1994, and MacLagan was on his second trip to Nepal. Having hiked the famous Annapurna Circuit the previous year, he had returned looking for a deeper experience. He took a room at a monastery and then set off on a trek to three villages in Kaski district.
“I had heard that this particular area, though relatively close to Pokhara, had no facilities at all: collapsed schools, no health posts, erratic water supplies, and a massive landslide eating away at Saimarang village. I had a strange feeling that just maybe there was something there for me.”
The people there amazed him: “They had so little but were willing to share everything to please and to respect a person they had never met before. I was astonished at this. Sincere kindness really did exist. The other thing that really took me by surprise was the happiness of the people. They didn’t need materialism, something that I had grown up with. Their entertainment in the evening was themselves as a family, as a community, sitting around a fire, joking, discussing village matters, discussing family issues and what needed to be done on the land.”
Then, in a small hamlet called Khima Jee, a woman thrust her one-year-old daughter, desperately sick with pneumonia, at MacLagan.
“After the wonderful hospitality I had received from this community, I could do nothing. The next day when I left the village, the only thing in my mind was the look on the mother’s face when I handed her child back and said I could do nothing and wasn’t a doctor, and had no medicine. Her expression of ‘this was my only hope and last chance’ said it all.”
The child died that night.
“It later transpired that in this area 34 per cent of children under five would not celebrate their fifth birthday, and for me that was just simply crazy and had to change,” says MacLagan.
He decided the answer was to build day-care health centres. Selling his house in the UK raised enough money to build two over the course of 1995, including one in Saimarang, where the village chose a capable young local woman, Insuba Tamang, to run things.
Aiming to build two more the following year, he left the monastery to head to Hong Kong to raise more money. On his departure, the Rinpoche asked him why he had rarely joined the monks in prayer: “I responded that I had my own interpretation of Buddhism. I told him that somehow providing goodness to others comes back to you in some way or form. Even if that is the simple but most important thing called ‘fulfilment’...It is then important to do this (for me at least) with people that really need your support and who are willing to give back themselves once they are back on track with their own lives.”
In Hong Kong, waiting tables at Hard Rock Cafe proved a good way to meet donors. “They even allowed me to replicate one of my centres using a big display supported by Lego,” says MacLagan. “Each Lego brick represented a real brick of our day-care health centre and dining customers could add HK$10 to their bill which would buy them a brick to add to the school.”
With two more centres finished, other villages began asking for help, so in 1997 he started Child Welfare Scheme (CWS) with Hong Kong-based lawyer Gordon Oldham, and the late socialite and philanthropist Sandra D’Auriol. Together, by 2008, they had completed 14 centres and had branched out to help other marginalised factions of Nepali society.
Meanwhile, MacLagan had married Tamang and bought a plot of land at Chisapani, just outside Pokhara, where they built a cottage and organic farm. When his mum died in 2011, leaving him some money, the couple saw how the property could be the next stepping stone.
“I realised that there would be a day when I wouldn’t be able to fundraise anymore, and I would hate to see that what Insuba and I had set up, could simply collapse.”
They had run a homestay on their farm which visitors loved, the profits supporting the village health post they had set up.
“We decided that if we expanded the idea and made more cottages or villas with more luxury service and an exclusive market in mind, we could use a large percentage of profits as a considerable contribution to ensuring our charitable and social services could continue.”
“Douglas wanted to create a world-class environmentally friendly resort which gives away a major chunk of profits to help the needy and set an example for others to follow,” says local architect Alex Shrestha, who was hired to design what became The Pavilions Himalayas, Pokhara, which opened in November 2015.
“We cannot change the world but we can support a positive growing network that wishes to make a measurable difference,” says MacLagan. “The only way to do that is to set an example. So we decided to eventually provide 70 percent of all net profits the lodge makes to the social services we believe in, whether these be in Nepal or further afield. The other 30 per cent is needed to grow the business, so we can continue to give more in future. We do need to clear loans but we hope this can be taken care of by 2020. In the meantime, we have continued to support the health post, and added the local primary and lower secondary school to the portfolio.”
Today the resort sources around 80 percent of its 42 staff locally, providing them with a job on their doorstep, allowing them to remain with their families rather than move away as is common in much of the country. To ensure a supply of suitable labour in the future, MacLagan’s latest charity, Right4Children, part-funded by CWS HK, is now building a hospitality training centre closeby. Guests at Pavilions will meet trainees doing their on-the-job training and they, and other visitors, will be encouraged to patronise the training centre and its future cafe.
Asked how he stays motivated, MacLagan says: “It helps that I realise that I do not care about materialism and I prefer to give than receive...I think other people feel that what I am doing creates satisfaction and a buzz in me, and maybe they want to be part of that buzz, happiness, fun, and above all, fulfilment.”
Zein Williams, director of CWS HK, agrees: “Douglas’ personality drew me in [to CWS] immediately – because of his belief in others and always seeing the best in things and people. He stayed in Nepal during the height of the Maoist conflict and was even locked up trying to rescue street kids. His involvement creates a strong trust that donors really buy into.”
“We could even dare to say that I am selfish,” says MacLagan, “as I wish to get a lot of satisfaction and I let others pay for it. It’s a weird statement, but it has some truth.”