Sally Hetherington OAM on why you shouldn’t give to children when you travel

The following is an excerpt from ‘It’s Not About Me: Discovering Voluntourism is a Problem, Not a Solution’ by our CEO, Sally Hetherington OAM. With travel from Australia currently paused, now is the perfect time to read this book and press reset on how we interact with people in low-income countries.

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‘TEN POSTCARDS FOR ONE dollar. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.’ The young girl at Ta Prohm temple showed the postcards she was holding to the tourist waiting in the tuk-tuk beside her.

‘No,’ he answered.

‘I need money, you buy 10 for one dollar,’ she persisted.

The man kept saying no. The girl stayed firmly planted. Finally, the man gave in.

‘If I give you one dollar, will you leave me alone?’

Watching all this unfold from the comfort of the tuk-tuk I was sitting in, I finally decided to say something. ‘It isn’t a good idea to buy from that child or give her money,’ I called out.

The guy looked over at me and responded, ‘I know, but she is so annoying, I just want to get rid of her.’

‘That’s her strategy,’ I replied. ‘However, stand your ground. If you give her that dollar, you’re just perpetuating the problem and she’ll just continue begging on the streets her whole life.’

The man nodded and didn’t reach for his wallet. Eventually, the girl walked away.

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DO YOU GIVE TO children when you travel? I used to take pencils, coins, and lollies to low-income countries and give them to children I came across. I will never forget when I was ambushed at a temple in Myanmar in 2008 whilst giving out Australian five cent coins. I gave a coin to one child, and then dozens of other children rushed over. There was even an elderly man pleading with me for that tiny piece of copper that held such worth to them. I will never forget the scene that I inadvertently caused while trying to help. Years on, through reading case studies, talking to local people and seeing other tourists doing similar things, I have realised that this well-intentioned practice causes problems.

When we give lollies to children, it might seem like we are providing them with a little treat for the day. But didn’t we grow up learning that we shouldn’t accept candy from strangers? When we give candy and other trinkets to children, we are potentially opening them up to grooming. Call this far-fetched, but it happens. When you are giving presents to children, it makes them trust you, and then perhaps think that all strangers who give them presents are nice and without bad intentions. So, when the next person comes along and starts to groom a child, preparing to abuse or manipulate them, the child is more susceptible to trusting this person. It is far better to be extra cautious than too relaxed; you wouldn’t think twice about protecting your children from stranger danger.

Giving can also cause resentment in communities. Think back to my story about the five cent coins. There were dozens of people, but only so many coins to give out. How was it fair that I gave to some, and not to others? If there are eleven children reaching out their hands to take a present from you, and you only have nine presents, what will happen to the other two children? How will they feel? There is a culture of ‘losing face’ in Asia, and I have known of community members who get extremely jealous when one child/family receives something and they don’t. It can cause conflict that will last long after you have departed in your tuk-tuk.

When you give to a child, they see the benefit then and there. An issue in Cambodia is that many people do not see the benefit of studying; they see the benefit of getting money immediately. So, when you give to a child, that child will put 2 + 2 together and see that if they are on the streets begging instead of in school, they will be able to support their families now; they won’t care about the future when they are not ‘young and cute’ anymore and have no education to back them up.

‘It’s Not About Me’ is available as a paperback and e-book.

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