Saturday, October 3, 2009

how to give back (and not make things worse) while you travel

To assuage some of that first world guilt we all carry around a lot of people come on my tours and want to 'give back.' I think that this is a great, fantastic, and honorable intention, it just goes wrong so many times. Rather than attacking the tourists for not having a clue and constantly sticking their foot in 'it,' I figure I can write something about how to give back in a good way and maybe one or two of you fair readers will learn something and actually make a difference while you'' are out exploring our fair planet. All of this is based on my experience, and in no way am I claiming to be an 'expert.'
1. Stop giving things to beggars, especially kids.
Hey I know kids are cute, and when they have dirty snotty faces and ask you for food you really really really really want to give them something. It feels really cruel to stand there with your pringles and not give them anything but giving them chips/apples/ a bottle of water is a shitty thing to do. Why? If kids can get food by standing outside a gas station where they know tourist buses stop, they are going to do it. Why sit in school with a growling belly when dumb gringos are going to give you something to eat? One kid turns to three, three to five, and suddenly half the school is out begging and not going to school. If that person isn't a kid, why are they going go get a job if they can survive just fine on handouts? Aid, handouts, gifts, anything that is given with no impetus to improve oneself only hampers, it doesn't encourage development (look at what has happened to all the First Nations in Canada and the US).
2. Don't buy things from kids.
Kids are cute, are you really going to bargain with a 5 year old? Parents are smart, if their kid can make more money than them why are they going to send them to school? Kids who work on the streets are exposed to a lot more dangers as well. Child sex abuses are rampant through many areas of the developing world, when kids are working on the streets they are more exposed to these dangers.
3. Don't volunteer in a place which doesn't require a minimum commitment of time and a background check.
We wouldn't want our kids exposed to just anyone who walked in off the street and wanted to hang out with them, you shouldn't want other people's kids exposed to that either. You should want a place that you volunteer for to care about who has contact with them. Kids are also very sensitive to change, if you can't commit to make a positive difference by volunteering for a longer period of time figure out another way to give back (0ften a monetary donation is the best way to do this). I know that people love the idea of volunteering at orphanages, after-school programs, etc. But the main purpose of volunteering is to improve these kids' lives, not to take cool photos of you with kids, or to make you feel good, right?
4. Buy from fair trade vendors
It costs more because it is fair trade, make sense? If you are on a budget, buy one or two smaller items from a fair trade place. If you have a bit more to spend try and buy the majority of your gifts/souvenirs/etc from fair trade vendors, co-ops, or collectives.
5. Don't buy antique textiles, jewelry, artifacts, shells, coral, bones, etc.
Often times Maya and Hill Tribeswomen will sell their priceless textiles for a pittance to support their families. You take it home and ancient techniques as well as a small chunk of cultural heritage are lost. Unless you are a collector you really won't be that hurt by buying something new. As far as things from the natural world go, unless you really hate the environment you can understand that if everyone goes home with a black coral bracelet from Khao San soon there will be no coral left. Not so different from Ivory, animal skins, etc.
6. Eat somewhere that makes a difference
Asia is full of amazing projects which give back to the local community: Friends, Romdeng, Java (all inPhnom Penh), Starfish Bakery (Sihanoukville), Sala Bai and Chakmar (both inSiem Reap), Makphet (Vientiane), Tamanak Lao (Luang Prabang), Staff of Life (Danang), KOTO and Baguettes y Chocolate (Hanoi), Streets and Blue Dragon (Hoi An).
I'm told there is a similar project in Granada, Nicaragua, I'll have to check it out when I am back.
Full belly, satisfied soul, happy person.
7. Support smaller, locally/family run businesses.
The same reason it makes you feel good to go to your local book shop rather than Barnes and Nobles, staying at a small posada run by a family, or eating at a small cafe will stimulate the local economy and give you a family experience.
8. Give some money
Choose a project that puts a smile on your face, look at their financials and give them some of your hard earned dough. It'll probably a tax write off (not that I even know what that means).
9. Pay a bit more when you go to ride the Elephants
Projects which take better care of their animals usually cost more. Do you know how much it costs to feed an elephant? Plus you don't want to ride a sad elephant. Elephant Conservation Center and Elephant Nature Park (both just outside Chiang Mai) are great projects. Tiger Trails (Luang Prabang) also runs a much more humane operation.

Cool resources: stayanotherday, childsafe, friends international

Happy travels.

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