Many tourists wonder how best to give back whilst exploring the different corners of the planet. However, without careful consideration misguided philanthropy can have disastrous consequences for local communities. So what exactly can the consequences be and how can you be sure your gift doesn’t have a negative impact on the lives of the community you are visiting?
It can be fatal for the child.
On my first visit to Rwanda just three years ago, I made the journey from the capital, Kigali, to the mountains to see the Mountain Gorillas in the Parc National des Volcans.
On the three-hour drive, the minivan would occasionally slow or stop as it passed through villages and towns. The vehicle would attract attention and soon children would approach the van in the hope of obtaining gifts. The temptation to fill those little hands with a trinket or gift is great, our guide however quickly intervened.
He explained that some children had been killed recently as a result of getting too close to moving tourist vehicles. This shocking thought quickly put an end to the sprinkle of little gifts from the windows of our minivan. This year I was heartened to see not one child approach our minivan as we made the same trip up to the mountains.
It can keep children out of school
Of course, there are opportunities to give gifts to children other than from moving vehicles. Any visit to a market or village will put you in arms reach of children.
In rural Rwanda, as I walked through village gardens on our way to visit a popular tourist site, local children who were tending the fields dropped their tools and ran up to us excitedly. One member of the group handed out a few tiny toys but once again our guide asked that we refrained. He explained that children learn that there is a profit to be made, however small, by skipping school and hanging out where the tourists are. In regions where family incomes are tiny, this temptation is understandably strong.
There may be greater needs.
Many tourists have read or been told to take pens, pencils, and paper for the children. But as A&K Philanthropy’s Camilla Rhodes told me, “a child cannot learn hungry”. When I met with Rhodes at the Sussi & Chuma Lodge in Zambia, she told me that she knew of villages with storerooms full of stationery, where children do not have sufficient food for breakfast.
I visited the nearby Nakatindi village which is supported by the Sussi & Chuma Lodge. Instead of making cash donations, A&K Philanthropy has established a number of enterprises. A bicycle workshop, vegetable garden, and a grain mill were set up to provide employment opportunities and profit for the village. Rhodes also told me about the A&K sponsored women’s clinic which has enabled women to avoid travelling to the town clinic – a whole day’s walk away since practically nobody in the village has access to a vehicle. In this specific case, Rhodes’ suggests bicycle parts or vegetable seeds would be much more useful gifts than stationery.
It encourages dependent and unsustainable behavior
If you are saddened by seeing children begging in the streets, then spare a thought for the elders of these noble communities. Endemic begging is created by the positive reinforcement of givers and creates an unhealthy dependency. This can in time eliminate the unique way of life that the tourism intended to visit in the first place and can be even more problematic in areas where tourism can wane or cease altogether.
Please look for local initiatives to support instead, your generosity is always welcome in the right ways.
So how can you give?
- Trust your Host. Whether it be a touring company, guide, camp, lodge or hotel, they will have experience and know how to best help the local community. They will be pleased that you want to give and can also ensure the dignity of the recipient is preserved.
- Trust the Village. The village elder system has been responsible for sharing assets like food for hundreds of years. Ask your guide to help you give to a village through the elders.
- Ask questions before you leave home. Ask your travel agent what you should take. If they say “pens, pencils, and paper” press for more than a stock answer and ask about the specific needs of the villages you will visit. If they cannot help then contact the Philanthropy arm of the company you will tour with. If the company is unable to provide this information it may be worth considering whether to travel with a more ethically minded company. You can always refer to Tourism Concern for a wealth of travel advice.
About the author
Neville Jones has been leading tours to Africa for Experiential Travel for eight years. He has taken clients to Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. He has won many awards for his photography, including a World Photography Award. He is currently on a volunteer assignment to Young 1ove in Botswana for Photographers Without Borders.