That often means that we go to places where there is a far lower standard of living than we are accustomed to. Indeed, we may well encounter poverty that astounds us and also makes us want to help.
But what we think will help may actually be exploitative, offensive to local people, or detrimental to the local economy.
The Center for Responsible Travel has a wonderful list of "Dos and Don'ts of Travel Giving." Some of these tips are just common sense, but others may come as a surprise, even to seasoned travelers:
- Don't offer to help build or finance a local project such as a water well or help build a school. Only projects identified by that community are candidates for such help. It is usually better to work through an existing NGO.
- Giving books seems innocuous, but those books should be purchased locally so you support the local economy. Bringing them from home may take business away from local small businesses. All books should match the local language and the curriculum. Most of the time we don't have access to books with the proper language, and we don't know anything about the curriculum.
- You may want to visit a local school, orphanage, or health clinic. Do so only with prior arrangement. And really, entertaining tourists is a distraction for such projects. Only go if you can offer some appropriate skill while you are there.
- Your travel group may want to send used clothing back to the community. Again, do this only if you have been requested to. Even then, it might be better to purchase inexpensive clothes right in the community. The best thing is to restrict such donations to emergency relief situations.
- Don't bring school supplies unless you've been asked to. And never present these yourself. You will only emphasize the inequality between your lifestyle and the community's. Think how you would feel under similar circumstances.
- Don't expect to visit local villages or homes unless it has been pre-arranged by your tour operator with the community. There are many tours that do include this, so look for them when researching your travel.
- Don't expect or offer to stick around after your vacation and volunteer. Volunteer opportunities are better for the recipient if they are of longer duration and must be appropriately managed. Many service opportunities are offered by travel groups. Seek them out if you want to combine travel and volunteering.
- Don't bring along small gifts such as candy or toys to give to the local children. Such giving can make begging more attractive to children, even tempting them away from school attendance. Candy can be especially damaging in countries where dental care is lacking.
- It can be hard to resist giving money to street beggars, but that money would do much more good through a donation to an NGO working in the area.
- Don't employ local children to carry your bags or be a guide unless you have consulted your local tour guide on what the customs are. Again, that money would be better donated to an NGO that is helping street children.
- Sometimes when you take a photograph of someone local, they may ask you for money. The best thing to do is never take that photograph unless you've asked for the person's permission.
Source: You can read an extended version of these tips at TravelersPhilanthropy.org.