As a social enterprise working with marginalized communities and travelers from all around the world, we almost always get guests asking how they can do more to help. Most times the help they have in mind is the easiest and most immediate kind – simple conventional donation of old clothes, packaged food products, and other such items. This is understandable and indeed well-intentioned. Many times, however, it is not the best way to help.
Donation, of course, has its place. Easy and immediate are the best kinds of solutions to people with dire and short-term needs (e.g. victims of war or natural disasters). When people are stripped of their homes and belongings, the expediency of donation is undoubtedly beneficial. When it works, this kind of donation provides the scaffolding necessary for the beneficiaries to recover from catastrophes and rebuild their lives.
Relief operations for the victims of Typhoon Ondoy in 2009 who needed immediate assistance.
Past this point, however, needs cease to be dire and short-term, expedient solutions are no longer fitting or even necessary, and conventional donations can do more harm than good. It is here that the receivers must be enabled to give to themselves as well. Help should no longer just comprise of donation but must be partnered with long-term solutions. The problem arises in failing to recognize this point and realize that the readiness to supply donation unfortunately far exceeds the reasonable demand.
It takes a certain kind of security and pride to reject a gift. Even people with enough to go by rarely do it. What more those with just enough? We use “enough” here intently. Many communities are poor by urban standards but not direly poor. They may have only a fraction of what we have, but that fraction is enough to keep a roof over their heads and put food on their tables. It is just enough to keep them working hard to maintain and perhaps one day surpass the lives they currently know. They may want and will gladly receive easy and immediate gifts (who wouldn’t?), but they no longer need them. This is when it becomes irresponsible to provide these short-term tokens.
We must acknowledge and respect the fact that these communities have the foundations of sustainable livelihoods. They have jobs that pay, however little, and the means to work those jobs. Giving them standard donations is like giving a person already riding a bicycle a set of training wheels. It may look like help but it simply isn’t. It shows a lack of proper understanding of the context, which we have fallen into ourselves. Upon more accurately understanding these communities’ situations, we have learned that all it does to the person riding the bike is prevent him/her from making any real progress. It slows the person down. This kind of misguided help prevents marginalized communities from adopting the imperative mindset that they must work hard and create value in order to sustain themselves and imprisons them in the regressive mindset that they can and should always expect help from those who have more than they do. This does not alleviate poverty — it encourages it. It invites adults to wait instead of work and teaches kids to knock on car windows instead of look for doors of opportunity.
The hands of the receivers should not simply be kept open for this often keeps their minds closed. Mindsets must be changed and hands should be invited and empowered to work. This shift, in our experience, is difficult to achieve with bags of old things and new groceries.
When fighting poverty that is not desperate with tools that are fit for desperation, we take more problematic steps backward than we do forward. It is our responsibility as givers to determine which solutions address the problems the receivers face, maybe even before the receivers are able to understand those problems themselves.
Sometimes, it is the case that these communities accurately understand what it is they need. Take for example the Aeta tribe of Yangil, Zambales. one of our partner communities. When offered money, the tribe elders rejected saying that the money might be carelessly spent on cigarettes and alcohol. What they needed, according to their own evaluation, were seeds, agriculture training, and farming infrastructure. These will enable them to work and make their land productive until they are able to provide everything they need themselves. These solutions require far more thought, time, and effort than a basket of groceries but they provide much more than one night’s meal.
Freshly cooked ube chips harvested from their backyard, planted back in 2016.
The burden falls on us. When we feel the human urge to help, we must take a step back to assess what exactly help is in each situation. Sometimes those who need it will know, sometimes they will not, but we always need to take that step back. The solutions apt for a village recently hit by a super typhoon are not the same as those apt for a community of small-scale farmers. It’s the responsibility of the giver to know the difference.
If you’ve joined a MAD Travel trip and want to learn how else you can help, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!