By Antonia Neubauer

Sam meant well.  He’d been to Cambodia during the Vietnam War and found the poverty in many areas heart-wrenching.  Now, he was going back as a tourist, and he wanted to take gifts for the villagers he would encounter along the way from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat.

When he told us he planned to take a large duffle bag of clothing and candy to distribute to the poor, we said, “It’s a lovely gesture, but not a good idea.”

Sam, like many of the people who travel with us to villages and tribal communities throughout Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America, wanted to give back.  It’s the “how to do it” that is rife with cultural clashes, conflicts, and misunderstanding.  In some cases, giving what a traveler thinks is helpful turns out to cause more harm than good.

To help travelers express their sincere generosity in positive ways that truly benefit the people in third-world circumstances, we compiled these don’ts and dos of ethical tourism and gift giving:

DON’T . . .

1. Give money, candy or pens.

Giving money to beggars by the side of the road or cute little children with sad eyes encourages more begging. And don’t fall for the coin collection scam. For example, a young man tells you he collects foreign coins and asks if you have one with George Washington on it.  Instead of offering up your quarters, you might say, “Oh good, let’s see your collection.”

Vietnamese Children in PovertyCandy is not nourishing.  And, depending on how remote you are, it can encourage a love of sweets in those whose diets usually don’t include sugar.  This holds true for other foods in your diet as well, be they Gummy Bears or even Pringles.

Handing out pens to individuals just encourages more people to ask for pens – not because they are needed, but because asking becomes a game.

The only gift we recommend giving directly to a child is an experience to share. Teach him or her how to say your name or sing and play a hand-clapping song. Take postcards from your town or city or photos of your family and show them to a family, explaining what they’re seeing.  (Use sign language if you need to.  It goes a long way and you may learn a few of their words.)

2.  Give a school, hospital or other major structure that is not totally sustainable by itself.

All too often individuals or organizations want to help a village with a school or other institution.  They return home and work to raise the necessary funds for the project from a local church or service organization.

What these generous travelers don’t fully understand is that villagers are often farmers or living at a subsistence level.  They can’t afford to maintain a school or hospital, and all too often these generous donations become village liabilities and fall into disrepair.  Built into every donation needs to be a carefully thought out method of sustaining this project and making it a true asset for the village.

3.  Give a scholarship to a student just because she tells a tale of woe.

Many times children will tell tales, such as “My parents are dead, and I want to go to school.”  Your heart goes out to the child and it compels you to figure out a way to support him or her through school. The other children in the village look at this, commenting that “this child’s parents aren’t dead, how did she get a scholarship?”  The next thing you know you have created a village where every child is talking about dead parents!

If you choose to help one individual in a village or school, be sure you have done substantial research to know whether this child has a problem that is real and unique. Find out how to assure that any money you send goes where you intend it to go.

4.  Give something that seems useful to you in your world, but is inappropriate in another. Group of Cambodian School Children Biking

Those $100 computers or western-style toilets may seem really wonderful to you but may end up being useless to those to whom you gave them.  The computers may break, and no one knows how to repair them.  The western toilets may look pretty, but locals may prefer squatting rather than sitting on something someone else sits on.

DO . . .

1. Be aware of your own motives.

Sam told us that he had distributed clothing and candy on a trip to India and said, “It was a big hit there!”  The truth is that the five minutes of popularity Sam experienced when he shared his gifts with the crowd, made him feel good about himself, but contributed to the creation of a village of beggars who would expect more gifts from other tourists.  He never realized the jealousy and conflicts he was inciting among those who received gifts and those who didn’t.

2. Give to people who provide a service or work for you.

Even if you plan on tipping those who have been your guides, cooks or drivers you may want to give something extra –a super warm jacket that you won’t need anymore to a trekking guide, for instance. Before giving it, check with the tour operator or head guide.  He or she knows the needs of the people who have helped you and can steer you away from making altruistic missteps.

Keep in mind that the staff and guides assisting you are proud of doing their job well. Telling them how much you appreciate their help, learning to say “thank you” in their language, or speaking of your gratitude for their professionalism can be considered a gift, too.

3. Give as a group, if you are traveling with others. Nepalese flags on mount Everest

If you’re traveling with a group, join with your fellow travelers to make a gift pool. We’ve seen this benefit both givers and recipients on our Everest Base Camp trips and others.

Here’s how we prefer to give: We ask those travelers who want to leave something for their crew to put their donations in a pile.  With the head guide’s help and knowledge of each crewmember’s economic circumstances, clothing and equipment needs, our tour leader makes individual gift packages of the donated items and, with the travelers’ assistance, distributes the packages along with the tips to the crew. The team appreciates the group’s generosity and, believe us, the givers feel just as good as they would have if they gave to a crew-member one-on-one.

4. Delegate the gift giving.

If you’re going to a village and are told in advance that the locals would appreciate school materials, give your contribution to the headmaster or teacher in front of other villagers. Let him or her be in charge of distributing the goodies.  You’ve heard adhesive bandages, antibiotic cream, and other first-aid goods are needed?  Take them, but give them to the headman of the village publically.

Delegating to a respected authority in front of everyone helps ensure that the school children or villagers will actually receive the gift. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that serve the area are another trusted way to donate material goods.

5. Think, “Is this appropriate?” before you give. Does it suit the people? The climate? The infrastructure–or lack thereof?  If you don’t know, ask your tour operator.

When iPods first became available, one of our clients wanted to donate a dozen iPods pre-loaded with music to a school in the village she’d be visiting.  We discouraged her because we knew the school had only intermittent electricity and that the hot, humid climate had ruined other computer equipment. Had our client given the iPods, there would also be the problem of what to do with them when they broke down. Who could fix it? Could they afford to? Was it recyclable or would they just end up adding to permanent trash piles? Ultimately, her gift would become a liability to the village.

Many travelers often choose to give used clothing.  While this may be a handy gift, giving extra large football jerseys to Southeast Asians, who typically wear small or extra small sizes, may be useless.

6. Make a donation.

READ GlobalWhen you return home from Nepal, India, or Bhutan, make a donation to READ (Rural Education and Development) Global. It establishes self-sustaining libraries and resource centers by partnering with Asian communities. What better way to give to those villages then to help them help themselves and the entire community? If you don’t want to give to READ, donate to another charity you deem to be worthwhile.

Travelers to Central and South America and Cuba can do some homework to find a Foundation or NGO (non-governmental organization) that is involved in an activity that appeals to them–education, family planning, medical care, etc. They can give generously to them.


“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give,” wrote Winston Churchill.  This could be modified to say, “We make a living by what we get, but we shape a life by how we give.”