Photo courtesy of Halfpoint via Shutterstock.

For many people, the words “giving” and “good” are almost synonymous. Giving is a selfless act. It helps others. It makes both parties feel, well, good.

Even when your intentions are in the right place, there are times when the act of giving can actually be harmful.

But, how could that be?

Take, for instance, when you’re traveling through an impoverished country and a child comes up to you on the street begging for money or food.

Your heart aches. Maybe their appearance is disheveled, or they look malnourished, or maybe you just feel like you have plenty to give, so why not help someone in need. What harm could it do?

A lot.

By giving in this manner, you begin a vicious cycle that involves people — in this case, a child — becoming dependent on foreign aid. Instead of learning how to earn that $3 themselves or purchase that cookie with their own money, they realize that all they need to do is ask a tourist and they’ll get what they want.

According to Friends International, a social enterprise working to save lives and help build futures for children and families in Southeast Asia, giving money to begging children in particular can keep them out of school. If they’re making enough to help support their families, why would their parents send them to get an education? Their already doing well off, at least in their minds. The reality, however, is that instead of becoming independent and self sufficient, these kids become dependent and reliant on others. Basically, you keep them on the streets, begging.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Slumdog Millionare, you’re also aware of the fact children are sometimes used by groups, known as “begging mafias,” that essentially force children into a life where they are forced day in and day out to beg for money and give it to the mafia leader. Often they’re kidnapped from they’re families. Sometimes, they’re even injured or disabled to encourage more sympathy from tourists. It’s an extremely tragic situation, and one that’s important to be aware of if you’ll be traveling to a developing country where street begging is prevalent.

And it isn’t just children you need to worry about. When you encounter adults who say or who you deem as “in need,” by simply giving to them you’re again causing a dependency that often doesn’t help the individual, community or local economy, but instead promotes poverty.

Hello Hubs in Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Project Hello World.

This year, Epicure & Culture covered an initiative called Project Hello World, which we think has a great model that breaks away from the giving cycle. While they provide Hello Hubs — solar-powered computers that allow children to use educational software and play learning and skill-enhancing focused games — staff train locals how to build and use the computers themselves. From there, these locals teach other locals how to use the computers, and a positive cycle begins. The Hello Hubs are located in outdoor and community-accessible areas so that everybody, regardless of income and status, is able to use them and educate themselves.

Recently, Project Hello World posted a letter from one Hello Hubs user, Huzaifa Lawal:

My name is Huzaifa Lawal and I am 16 years old from Anguwan Dallatu Suleja Niger State. Am very impressed with the Hello Hub because I can learn how to type and I have access to the internet for free through the Hello Hub. I usually visit the hub 5 times a week. My favorite activities on the Hello Hub are typing, playing games and browsing the Internet. My future dream is to be a qualified medical doctor to help the people of my country Nigeria.

There is also the problem with giving a community something you think they need, but they really don’t.

One notable occurrence of this that attracted media attention was with TOMS Shoes. TOMS is known for having a globally-conscious brand (they were founded in response to a need for shoes in developing communities), but sometimes, even when we mean well, the outcome isn’t positive. Their One-For-One Program gives one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair purchased. Sounds great, right?

TOMS faced a lot of criticism about this program — which you can read more about here — such as that it didn’t get to the root problem of why these people were shoeless (hence, keeping them in poverty) and took business from local shoemakers and sellers in these impoverished areas.

The company has since tweaked its model by building factories in the places it largely donates and helping to create jobs for locals, although there is still work to be done; however, by giving communities access to markets instead of simply giving them “things,” TOMS is taking a step in the right direction.

Photo courtesy of American Spirit via Shutterstock.

How do you figure out what a community needs? Start by getting in touch with local non-profits, churches and community organizations to find out. If you’re on the ground, schedule an in-person visit to learn more about how you can have a positive impact on the destination you’re visiting.

But, how do you know when giving is good and when it’s bad?

Try to think about the big picture. Let’s go back to the begging child example. Sure, maybe that $3 you gave will buy that child a meal or a toy — or something less positive, like drugs, which is also a very real possibility — but what about after that? What about tomorrow? What effects will this gift have a week from now?

Also important, how can you potentially make your gift more sustainable and have an on-going positive impact?

To be fair, these situations are typically ones you’ll need to be prepared for, as you probably won’t be imaging the next 10 years of a child’s life as you’re standing on a street in Thailand, a child tugging at your pant leg with his or her hands raised.

This is where research comes in. Before going to a destination, do an information search on the culture, traditions and what to expect. Try to learn about some of the issues facing the population and how you can positively contribute.

  • Are there organizations focused on long-term benefits of communities? If you do give money to an organization, make sure to ask exactly how that money is used. “Project development” isn’t an answer — find out what that means exactly. If you’re not comfortable giving money, see if there is a way you can donate time or supplies.
  • Go local with all that you do: eating, touring, shopping. While it may not feel like you’re giving because you would have been doing these things regardless, by putting money into the community you’re helping the local economy and supplying demand for local jobs. Plus, you’re having a more authentic cultural experience. A win-win!
  • Come up with your own project idea and employ locals or partners with local organizations to implement it. For example, when I was doing some work in Ghana, Africa, myself and a few other travelers noticed two major problems at a local orphanage were lack or funds and lack of food. We came up with the idea to build a chicken coop and pay for chickens, teaching the children how to take care of them after the initial setup. Fifty-percent of the eggs were to be used for food, and 50% for children over 18 to sell at the local market.
  • Interact with the locals. Ask them questions, get to know what their daily life is like. Try to understand their plights as well as their positives. Make sure if a local opens up to you about an issue you listen with an open mind, resisting the urge to act like you have all the answers.
  • Also resist the urge to give to begging children. Sometimes there are ways you can actively help out or give to better a community. Other times, it’s what you don’t do or give that will be most helpful.
  • Use your qualifications and skills for good if you choose to volunteer. So many times volunteers sign onto projects they’re not truly qualified for. Along with check that you’re not taking a job from a local, make sure you’re being put to work in a position where you can actually make a difference. Check out our article on ethical volunteering for more on this and how to make a positive impact when trying to give back on the road.

Interested in learning more about responsible tourism? Check out our Global Ethics and Get Involved sections, and join us every Wednesday at 6AM and 6PM GMT for Responsible Tourism Twitter Chat (#RTTC).

Also Check Out:

How A Farm-To-Fork Food Truck Is Providing A Positive Future For Formerly-Incarcerated Youth 

Grassroots Volunteering: A Guide To Global Good On The Road 

Have you signed up for Epicure & Culture’s FREE responsible tourism e-book?

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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  1. You’re totally right Jessica, but sometimes it’s very hard to understand when “helping” or “giving” is really beneficial for the local communities, as you said research is key!

    1. @Franca: No doubt it can definitely be confusing. Luckily, we’re always learning and evolving 🙂

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