How to donate responsibly during travels?

Most of us will have made donations during travels. We are overwhelmed by feelings of pity and guilt when we see misery and sadness especially when we travel in less developed countries … we know they deserve more and question our own fortunes… Our first reaction is often ‘lets give them something’. Please.. before you do that next time .. read this article.

Trust me when I say this we are only perpetrating bad behaviors in locals by following our first instincts  of donating things to locals in money or kind. We are being oblivious of the long term impacts of our behaviours.

To give a real life  example quoted by a fellow traveler during one of our trips in Africa: “When travelling in Southwest Ethiopia, I met a school teacher and enquired about the attendance of the school children. The teacher explained that the children attend regularly except on Tuesdays and Thursdays when there is a big local market. The children know that lots of foreign tourists visit the market and they often distribute sweets, pens or other goodies. So the children bunk classes to hang around at the market waiting for handouts.”

I sincerely think that education is key to most woes of less developed countries on its path to progress. Can you think of a more evil side effect of our short sighted behavior?

Other example side effects of donating directly to individuals :

  1. It encourages begging. We had first hand experience of this where kids on the streets in Uganda and Rwanda were shouting “give me my money” “give me sweets”, “give me pen” as these were the most probably items that were donated in the past.
  2.  You make them dependent. By giving them fish instead of teaching them to fish you are robbing them of their dignity and self respect, and their capacity to stand on their own feet.

In summary, by donating directly to individuals you are just trying to cure the symptom instead of resolving the root cause. If you want to really have an impact and help, please follow the below do’s  and dont’s.

Dont’s

  1. Please try NOT to give out sweets, money, clothes to people you see on the streets, especially children.
  2. It is rarely a good idea to give cash donations. Despite having the best of intentions, you just don’t know where your money is going when you give on the street.
  3. Do NOT donate to unregistered NGOs and organizations. There are a lot of scammers trying to take advantage of your emotions. Resist the temptation to give without doing due research. Choose the organizations you are comfortable with or you are  used to.
  4. Do NOT succumb to emotional or peer pressure while donating. Its a follow on from point 3 .. donate only when you are confident that its for the right cause.

Do’s

  1. Please direct your donations through local organizations. E.g.: schools, village leader,  NGOs, your travel guide (if he/she is a local and is part of an organisation that partners with NGOs ), your hotel (many hotels support local communities).While doing the above, I would insist on requesting the village leader/ organisation to tell people that the donations are from them instead of the foreign tourist.
  2. If you are buying things to donate, do some research on what is it that people are needing the most .. see if they are available to buy locally … If yes buy locally instead of buying it in your home country. That way you are helping the local business as well.
  3. When I am travelling, I take clothes that I can part with.  And once I wear them a few times, I wash them and donate to either of the sources in point 1. Now this is a bit contentious as second hand clothes flooding third world countries (especially Africa) has killed the little clothing industry they had.
  4. The cleaners in especially budget hotels are generally receiving very low salaries … You could just leave the clothes etc that you can part with in your room.
  5. Try to use travel organisations that are in to sustainable tourism. They often cost a little more but it can make a huge difference to the local communities and environment.
  6. Eat at restaurants that are run by disadvantaged women or youth, or organisations that are supporting the poor (check your travel guide for suggestions).
  7. Buy with local vendors at local markets rather than buying your supplies are larger (chain) supermarkets.
  8. Visit local communities using a local guide. When you see local artifacts or produces: buy them! Prices in my experience are very reasonable and the profits directly end up with the producers.

The most important theme you would notice in  most of the above points is that you donate in exchange of a service or product to the needy so that it gives them a feeling of having earned it. Nothing in this life is free and it’s important that we don’t teach any other lessons through our donating practices.

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