Featured, Poverty Tourism, Voluntourism

Is giving direct aid a good thing or a bad thing?

A few years ago I was at a hospital about 60km from Siem Reap, Cambodia. My friend, a nurse, was working as an advisor there to build the capacity of the nursing staff. She became frustrated as the staff weren’t taking care of their equipment. When she raised the issue with them, they shrugged and responded, “Who cares? We will just get more donated.”

Giving direct aid is a sensitive topic. In some cases, it can be effective, such as cash transfer programs. However, there are potential repercussions to think about when handing out direct aid.

Awhile ago, I was approached by an Australian charity who were doing work in Cambodia. They wanted feedback on what they were doing.  Basically, they come over every couple of months, working with the local community in Siem Reap where they see a need, and give direct aid. They come armed with hundreds of kilograms of luggage, holding countless stuffed toys, shoes, clothing and electronics amongst other things. These items are distributed amongst families, students, teachers and health centre workers. I was gave my honest feedback, which didn’t go down well.

First let’s look at the giving clothes issue.  When we give clothing for free to people in developing countries, it undermines the local economy. Small, local businesses are affected as the recipients of the free clothing don’t purchase new clothing from the local markets. Africa experienced a 50% reduction in apparel production between 1981 and 2000 due to the influx of clothing donations. This resulted in a decline in employment, which meant that citizens who didn’t need assistance from aid programs before were more likely to……because of the effects of said aid.

Added to this, when we give clothing it shifts the responsibility of providing for children and families from the parents/guardians onto donors. It gives the wrong impression to the recipients, who begin to think that it is normal to receive handouts from foreigners, and they come to expect more of these donations. Let me be clear; it shouldn’t be normal, and local governments and NGO’s need to be providing education and training opportunities to their citizens so that they can afford to buy clothing themselves, and not be shifting their basic responsibilities as parents onto someone else. It isn’t sustainable, it isn’t empowering, and it isn’t effective.

Then, there is the toys issue. Oh my, how many times I have seen charities distribute toys to kids in Cambodia. But why? Why do kids in Cambodia need toys? They are very versatile, and can create their own games with no resources apart from their imagination. Yet, foreigners are distributing homemade stuffed animals made in their knitting circles and other toys because they THINK that is what Cambodian children need. It makes them, the donors, FEEL good.

I have news for you; supporting marginalised citizens is not about how it makes you feel. It is about what is best for the local communities, and to determine what is best for the local communities, you need input from the….that’s right, LOCAL COMMUNITIES. I guarantee you, that when asked what they need, they will not be saying ‘stuffed animals’.

I once went out to a rural community in Siem Reap with an NGO who was distributing donated goods. The villagers rushed to get close to the van that was filled to the brim with toys, shoes, clothing and stationery. It was chaos. I saw one woman who ended up taking ten pairs of shoes, without permission, and other villagers  shoving each other to get their free goods. After everything was (unevenly) distributed, I took a walk down the road. To my disgust, I saw a few colouring in pages and toys that had been distributed to children laying on the side of the road, broken and discarded. Just 10 minutes after the children had received them.

When we give things for free, people don’t tend to value them, as was the case of the nurses who worked at the rural hospital. This goes for many people, regardless of their wealth or status. I know that I personally respect and take care of things more when I have worked hard to purchase them myself. When you are given something, you don’t connect that feeling of accomplishment and achievement with the item. Thus, there isn’t a big willingness to protect those items, especially if the recipient is under the impression that there is plenty more where that came from.

We once signed up a lady living in poverty to study in our sewing program at Human and Hope Association. However, just before the program began, a local NGO built her a house. After that? She didn’t want to study in the program, gaining a skill that she could use to earn an income to support her children as a single mother. She already had a house given to her, after all, and the sewing program required dedication and hard work. 

The charity I spoke about at the beginning also builds houses for people. Do you agree with it? I mean, sure, it isn’t that expensive to do so. You can build a very simple house for $1,000USD in Cambodia. But what about the repercussions of that? Is this house a long-term solution? Will this bring a family out of poverty? Will this create a dependence on aid? Will this cause them to stop seeking employment opportunities?

Some might argue that when we give direct aid, we are setting the recipients up for failure. I tend to agree with that. We are encouraging people to take aid instead of empowering them with the skills and education they need to earn an income. It isn’t a long-term solution. It is putting a band-aid on the problem, more often or not to make the givers feel like they have done something useful.

During Christmas 2016, a tourist visited Siem Reap. At the last minute he decided to gift food, and put a call out on his Facebook page for people to donate money to buy rice bags. He distributed these rice bags with the help of a translator who drove up to ‘poor shacks’ and asked the stories of the people living inside. He raised thousands of dollars and randomly gave these rice bags to handfuls of people. 

I was asked by three different friends to approach this man and persuade him to direct his money elsewhere. I knew it was a hopeless case, however I reached out to him and explained what my Cambodian workmate thought about the situation. My workmate said that distributing the rice really creates a dependency for people. Even though to the donor it was a ‘one off’ donation,  the mindset of many people is that when they receive something, they think it will always come, and become dependent on it. Many actually then don’t have a willingness to work/seek income from other sources due to it.

Not only this, the unfair distribution of aid can cause jealousy resentment in communities. Think about it. If there are five houses on a piece of land, and you are distributing rice to two households, how will the other three households feel? Regardless of whether or not they are poor, they will expect something as their neighbours received it. There is a whole ‘losing face’ culture in Asia, and I have known of villagers who get very very jealous when one child/family receives something, and they don’t. It can cause conflict and we don’t want that, do we?

Needless to say, the man didn’t listen to me. Like many others, he attempted to justify his actions. He didn’t see anything wrong with the fact that a stranger was going into people’s houses and giving them rice. His message that this sort of giving was to be commended spread very far; I actually saw several people post about it and congratulate him on his actions. This was very concerning, as countless other people would be believing that this is a great way of helping people, and would be more likely to do it when they visit a developing country in the future.

I don’t have a solid answer to the question of whether direct aid is a good thing or a bad thing. However, I do know that we need be very VERY careful in what we do. We are undoubtedly affecting people’s lives and their futures. As an alternative to giving direct aid, I highly recommend supporting education and training programs in developing countries that empower people with the skills and knowledge they need to break the cycle of poverty. Do your research, find a reputable and effective NGO, and donate. Because we need to be thinking before we act.