Don’t Bring Gifts

Don’t Bring Gifts

This is not the way to help.

One of the most frequent questions I get from clients preparing to go on safari is, What can I bring as a present?

My answer is, Nothing.

This blog is a more sensitive explanation of this, and it’s not as easy as the curt reply above might suggest. There are two basic reasons that I discourage arriving safari clients from attempting small acts of charity.

The first is that single acts of giving can be dangerously counter-productive, producing exactly the long-term effect it intends to alleviate.

I will never forget pulling out of a gas station at Karatu, just south of Ngorongoro Crater, with another company’s Landrover just ahead of us. No one was going very fast, because we were just starting out. But before we knew it, we had hit a young boy who had run onto the road in front of us, seemingly for no good reason. We really couldn’t figure it out, and fortunately, we were going so slowly that he didn’t seem to be hurt very much. In fact, he was screaming that we let him go as we tried to examine him for injuries.

The minute he pulled away from us, he ran back to where he had been hit, and scooped up several small paper wrapped hard candies. Candies, apparently, that someone in the car ahead of us had thrown carelessly out the window.

From that day on, I realized that it could be physically dangerous for clients to try to dispense anything at all. Had that traveler alternatively tried to hand it out to a small group of needy children who gather around the cars as they’re being filled with gas, he or she might have sustained the injury instead of the child! There is usually very little decorum among a group of kids in need. That presumption may have motived that traveler to throw the candy out the window as his car began to move away.

This happened years ago, but for me it was an epiphany. It provoked me to examine very carefully my long-held reluctance to assist clients with any charity whatever. It helped me put into focus an intuition which I believe is very, very correct.

A single instance of dispersing a gift can be not just miserly, but deadly. First, candy is about the worst thing you can give children who are under nourished. It destroys their already fragile GI system, it makes them even more hyper and irrational, and produces none of the expected “happiness” I presume clients want to achieve. Even a high energy granola bar might be bad, depending upon what that poor child has been eating and is capable of digesting. And if the two foregoing concerns don’t apply, then the kid certainly doesn’t need candy for the same reasons most kids don’t need candy.

But the more important point is that it really doesn’t matter if it’s candy or a Laptop. What I have tried to explain, over and over again, is that regardless of the contextual need – poverty, hunger, bad water, illiteracy – single acts of giving are usually more destructive than no giving at all. It can be dangerous to raise expectations that can change behavior. If a child in Karatu expects to get a bandana or tennis ball every so often from a tourist vehicle stopping to get gas, it is likely he will skip school to do so. And if he misses school, he won’t improve his station in life, and he will never emerge from his cycle of dependency.

The cycle of dependency is a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, it has morphed from the single incident of a child missing school in the hopes of getting a present, to entire Third World economies failing to plan properly as they expect packages of co-optive aid that never totally reaches their needs. Nobel Laureate, Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, puts it this way in an interview in Ode Magazine:

“What all these pop stars and politicians want is the usual recipe: charity. But charity is not the way to help people in need; it is not a healthy basis for a relationship between people. If you want to solve poverty, you have to put people in a position to build their own life…

“The approach [many take] to poverty is thwarted by our fixed convictions: Poor people are helpless, unhealthy, illiterate and thus stupid, they have nothing, they know nothing, we must take care of them, we must give them food… It is completely wrong to think like this. I am convinced that poor people are just as human as anyone else. They have just as much potential as anyone…”

So is there nothing that you can bring on your trip, to give as a present, to help?

No. The least damaging attempt which I tolerated for a few years was collections of school supplies that could be given to a school directly. But even that is probably a bad idea. What is so misunderstood, is that everything that a traveler might wish to give can have such extraordinary value in the bush, that it rarely gets used as it’s intended: Rather, it will be traded, and when in the hands of a child, generally traded for something that has more immediate value, like candy, or glue to sniff, or some other instantaneous gratification. A box of school supplies given out piecemeal to children is about as productive as sowing your garden from a hot air balloon.

And even more ironically, if it is used as intended and successfully so, then when it’s gone it’s considered indispensable! Even when accepted with gracious pomp from a responsible school official, it might still have a bad long-term effect. What happens once that box of supplies is used up? Often the answer is depressing. Not only the children, but the teachers as well, sit on their hands until a new box arrives. If it doesn’t, learning stops.

There is a second more philosophical, and perhaps more important reason. I go back to my old mentor, Herbert Marcuse, whose theory of co-optive liberation can be as exactly applied to this discussion as to macro social politics: With apologies for likely destroying his greater ideas with this reduction, let me try to summarize Marcuse in terms of a traveler coming to Africa who wants to give something away:

(1) The need the traveler presumes exists in Africa exists right at his home. Poverty, hunger, ignorance – most of us can find it pretty close to our residential address, certainly closer to us than Africa. Yes, it may exist to a greater extent in Africa, but certainly the small act of charity the traveler has in mind would have no greater impact in Africa than in the slum in the city nearest his home, right? So why wait for Africa to affect this generosity? Are the poor kids in Watts less needy than in Karatu?

(2) All the combined charity in the world has actually not stopped the slippage into greater poverty and hunger. It keeps getting worse. So all our combined efforts, individual and aggregate, aren’t working. The sums are documented in numerous places:
John Hopkins Univ.
Indiana Univ.
Boston College

So why do we continue? We do so, because it makes us feel good. Invariably I field the argument, “But at least it helped that one school for a day.” As I tried to point out above, you can’t reduce the problem to individual immediate incidents without compromising the more important long-term. It may have helped that school for the day, but it probably really hurt that school for the term. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to understand this. And yet there is this dogmatic individual certainty that giving is good in all cases. It is good, as Marcuse would point out, for ourselves, and by so doing it relieves us of the very natural human instinct to help one another. So we co-opt the visceral intuition to help, by doing something that in the larger perspective doesn’t help at all except to relieve ourselves of the feeling that we need to help.

(3) Basically, the problems we would like to solve have become so enormous that there is no hope of solving them through individual or even collective charity. When a remedy occurs, it will undoubtedly rely on individual initiative, but it will be overseen and vastly underwritten by governments to governments. Only governments are big enough to tackle these urgent problems. In 2007, total worldwide charity approached $400 billion. But the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a UN agency) has time and again affirmed its “10-15″ prescription necessary for making (only) black Africa self-sufficient: 10-15% of the developed world’s budget given as directed aid to Africa for 10-15 years. 10-15% of the developed world’s budget is at least 25-50 times total worldwide charity, and much of that world-wide charity would do nothing for black Africa. Africa is only part of the needy world. And this is a prescription that must continue for 10-15 years! Just for Africa!

Marcuse argues so well that individual initiative often co-opts that citizen’s necessary ascension to his government’s need to act. There’s a feeling – so deadly wrong and especially in America – that individuals, and not governments, are the answer.

People are beginning to realize this. One easy-read explanation is by Tim Harford, a Financial Times columnist, in his recent book, The Logic of Life (available at I think, though, that a thumbnail sketch of his themes has been better reduced by

Charity, especially again in America, has become selfish, because it has been so personally internalized and individual. The world is just too complex. The tiny piece of candy you might wish to give a child in Africa, might just end up killing him. The box of school supplies you’d like to leave with the Headmaster may doom all 40 children in his class to poverty for the rest of their lives. Rather, help those in need at home and help your government work better so that it can help the world.