After spending time with local communities and forging relationships with them in developing countries, students may want to offer a gift to express their gratitude. However, their best intentions can cause unintended issues in these countries.
Often, gift giving can result in locals becoming dependent on hand outs. It can create jealousy within communities and cause internal conflicts if some beneficiaries receive gifts while others do not.
At its worst, certain gifts can also result in health problems. For example, if lollies and chocolates are distributed to young children in an underprivileged region with limited or no access to oral healthcare, this will contribute to their development of gum disease and tooth decay.
“In some cases, material goods given are not something the community needs, and may end up being something members cannot use – such as a remote control race car that require batteries or an electronic device that requires regular charging,” says Donna Lawrence, Responsible Travel Manager at World Youth Adventures.
While gift giving is a lovely gesture, it is important to be considerate and mindful of the presents your students offer to communities.
Here are nine tips to share with your students on how to give presents responsibly:
1. Don’t make assumptions about community needs. Plan ahead. If your students intend on giving to a school, hospital or organisation, contact them in advance to find out what items they need and purchase and hand deliver the products.
2. Avoid giving drinks or foods that are high in sugar, especially when it is clear that dental health care is not available. Poor nutrition is often worsened by consuming sweets. Instead, buy fruit from the local market, which will provide children with a nutritional treat and support local businesses.
3. Avoid giving directly to an individual; rather, give to the head of the community or the head master of the school so that they can distribute the gifts fairly. Don’t be offended if this occurs once you’ve left.
4. Don’t give gifts to children begging on the street. It reinforces the bad situation they are in. An alternative is to donate to a local charity that works to keep children off the streets and to stay with their family and in school.
5. Don’t give gifts that are broken or damaged, unhygienic, dangerous or which contribute to waste. Think of the waste your students’ gifts will generate over time. Avoid donating plastic toys and choose pencils and crayons over pens. In more remote regions, there are no waste disposal facilities, so your presence will be around for much longer than you think.
6. Be aware of the limitations of a gift. For example, giving a gift that requires batteries that are not readily available to the recipient or are expensive locally. Instead, give manual or solar powered torches. Some houses do not have electricity at all or experience frequent power cuts.
7. Think practical over superficial items. In remote regions, communities have a huge need for basic necessities. Items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, sanitary kits, hairbrushes and hair ties are very practical.
8. Don’t give out medicine. Each country has different laws about the use of medical supplies and medications, and some pharmaceutical drugs are not permitted. Instead, consider practical supplies such as bandages, thermometers, gauze, as well as hygiene products and re-usable sanitary items to help prevent the spread of disease. You can also consider donating to charities or organisations that support local hospitals or medical centres.
9. Share your time and skills instead of a material gift. You can join a community project to help make tangible change in underprivileged areas, such as completing grass-root construction projects in villages of Cambodia, Romania and more.
If you are unsure of an appropriate gift, ask your travel company or the school, hospital or organisation you are helping.