Walking out of the killing fields in Cambodia, I found myself face to face with an ageing man on crutches, his left trouser rolled up around the stump of what once was his leg, one arm held towards me, begging. After the highly disturbing experience of mass graves and genocide I caved in, fumbling in my pocket for some loose change and pulling out a dollar note.
In that moment I had felt compelled to give the man something, for the sake of himself and because on a basic level it would make it look, ever so slightly, like I cared about the plight of his country and the horrendous events that befell it and would make me feel that I wasn’t some inhuman, callous monster from abroad. Who knows, maybe he did lose his leg under the Pol Pot regime, maybe he lost family, maybe he stood on one of the many landmines that still blight the country’s fields and forests.
The next day I thought about how I’d promised myself I would try not to give to beggars on this trip. I wasn’t angry that I had broken this pledge, but it got me thinking about the best way, if you really want to help a country or its people, to go about donating money and time. I genuinely believed that short term ‘voluntourism’ was wrong, I felt that unskilled, untrained volunteers helping in local communities could never achieve anything of any long lasting value and for the most part was a pretentious charade aimed more at self fulfilment and travel, not to mention the fact most of these projects were heavily overpriced and it was never clear where your money actually ended up.
I came to the conclusion that the most effective way to donate, was not on the streets, giving to beggars or signing up to volunteer projects that I felt would do no real good. Indeed, in the long run I felt I would exacerbate the problems that already meant these people needed help. Working unskilled on some project would take jobs away from locals, would leave them reliant on outside help with no long term benefits to be reaped by the community, whilst giving to beggars would encourage the practice: why work for a dollar a day when you can earn two dollars from a tourist?
The best way to donate my time would be go out and find volunteer projects I could make a difference on, local projects that would really benefit from and make use of my time and where, importantly, I could know and see what my time and money was achieving, as opposed to expensive volunteer projects that never seem to make as effective use of money as they should. I also realised that my money would be well spent giving to charities that helped the governments or communities create long lasting improvements, rather than frivolous, short term projects, as ultimately the best way to donate your time and money is with a charity or project that can make a real, standing change in a community, so they are not reliant on charity indefinitely.
By Richard Collett
For more on our begging debate see the latest issue of Impact, out now around campus or available on ISSUU.