Cambodia, Featured, Poverty Tourism

“We can’t wait to go back to take toys for the children.”

“Thank you for your work! We were in Cambodia and can’t wait to go back to take toys for the children,” the Instagram comment read. 

At first glance, this may seem like a sweet comment and gesture. However for me, my heart started racing, alarm bells went off in my head, and I immediately texted a friend to complain about this group of people who are finding impoverished children in developing countries and giving them toys, “no strings attached.”

According to their website, “By giving toys and electronics to poverty-stricken children they are empowered and can find a way to make a living in our modern society.  Coming soon, simple jobs like being an auto mechanic or taxi drivers, which are standard jobs for them today, will be employment out of reach for the disenfranchised individuals who live a childhood without access to toys.”

I disagree. Sure, toys are great fun to play with, and they can also develop fine motor skills, but do you know what children living without toys use? Their imagination. Time and time again, I was amazed by the games the children at Human and Hope Association created using basic resources, such as a stick and sand, or their shoes. They would develop games that could be played by one person or a dozen, and taught themselves to work as a team whilst doing so. The hula hoops and jump ropes we originally put out in 2014? Broken and discarded within a month. The sand we filled the play area with? Used every day for a new game.

In addition to making the children reliant on physical possessions, there are many issues that can occur with this group travelling to developing countries, seeking out impoverished children and handing them out toys.

  1.  Giving can inadvertently open children up to grooming – Although this group says that they are giving out the toys no strings attached (although they do take a photo of the children they distribute the toys to), not everyone does give things with no strings attached. When you are giving presents to children, it makes them trust you, and perhaps think that all strangers who give them presents are nice with no bad intentions. So, when the next person comes along and starts to groom a child, they are more susceptible to trusting this person and it can end all so badly. It is far better to be extra cautious than too relaxed, and you wouldn’t think twice about protecting your children from stranger danger.
  2.  Giving can cause resentments in communities – Think about it. If there are eleven kids reaching out their hands to take a toy from you, and you only have nine presents, what will happen to the other two kids? How will they feel? 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 have lasting repercussions in the community.
  3. Giving can lead to a reliance on direct aid – 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. 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.

Time and time again, I plead with people to think carefully about the methods they use to help people in developing countries. We are literally playing with people’s lives, and our actions can have unintended consequences. The best thing to do is fine reputable not-for-profits, like Human and Hope Association, who are run by local staff and will use the resources you provide as part of their education programs. That way, a whole community can benefit in a structured, culturally appropriate way.