Sustainable Gift and Donation Tips for Visitors to Africa

Malawian schoolgirl sitting at a desk with pen and paper

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Africa is one of the most beautiful and richly diverse continents on Earth; but it's also the poorest. After all, one in three Africans (and that's around 422 million people) live below the global poverty line, accounting for more than 70% of the world's poorest people. Many tourists find themselves wanting to help in some small way, usually by bringing gifts or making donations to the people or communities that they encounter on their travels. In this article, we take a look at the most sustainable way to spread the love on your next African adventure.

The Importance of Sustainable Giving

The urge to give to those less fortunate than yourself is a positive one, and indicates a kindness and generosity that the global community needs a lot more of. However, making sure that your gifts or donations are sustainable is an important part of responsible tourism. The last thing that any well-meaning traveler wants to do is cause offence to their chosen recipient by giving inappropriate or unsolicited donations. Certain gifts may even encourage corruption, perpetuate dependency or create a burden (if they cost money or resources to use and maintain).

Travelers' Philanthropy, a project of the Center for Responsible Travel, has come up with an excellent set of guidelines to help you navigate the best way to give so that everyone benefits. This article is based on those guidelines, as well as the anecdotal observations of experienced Africa travelers. If you're interested in benefiting African communities, remember that money and/or gifts are not the only option: often, your time is the most valuable resource of all. Consider booking a volunteer vacation or signing up for a long-term volunteer position.

Donating to Orphanages, Schools and Clinics

A visit to a local orphanage or school is a worthwhile addition to your Africa travel itinerary. You'll get the chance to see beyond your luxury beach resort or safari lodge and experience the reality of life in your chosen destination; while children and staff benefit from the opportunity to meet people from other countries and cultures. If you want to bring gifts, find out in advance what is most needed. Usually, requests will include basic school supplies such as pencils, notebooks and erasers; rather than expensive toys or electronics that are difficult to look after in a rural setting.

For example, old computers are quite useless if there's intermittent electricity, no internet, no technician, no lab and nobody to teach pupils how to use them. Also, while every school needs books, your second-hand books from home may have limited value. Firstly, many rural African schools do not teach their students in English. Secondly, popular children's books in North America or Europe may be culturally irrelevant or difficult to understand in communities that aren't familiar with say, dinosaurs, malls or western folklore.

Instead, funds for buying books, uniforms and other necessities may be a better idea – and much lighter to pack! Make sure you give your donation to the head of the school, orphanage or clinic, so that items can be bought as needed and distributed fairly.

Donating on a Village or Home Visit

Many safari lodges and/or tour operators offer cultural visits to tribal villages, traditional homes or townships. You may be able to watch ceremonial dances, help prepare an authentic local meal or play soccer with the village children. Often the communities you visit will lack resources – but they're also proud of their heritage and unique way of life. Usually, offering money will only cause offence. Instead, the best way to help is to make sure that your chosen tour operator uses your fee to give back to community initiatives. You can also support local craftspeople and artists by buying souvenirs.

Some lodges and operators are affiliated with Pack for a Purpose, a website that compiles lists of supplies that are needed by local communities and would certainly be appreciated. Items range from medical and school supplies to clothing and hygiene essentials.

Donating to Beggars and Street Children

In towns and cities across Africa, you will see people begging on the streets and at traffic lights. Generally, it's better to give food than money, as addiction is a common cause of homelessness and your well-intentioned cash may be used to buy alcohol or drugs. It's particularly difficult to resist giving money when the beggar is a child. However, giving cash can actually perpetuate the problem as children (and their parents or caregivers) soon learn that it's more profitable to beg than to attend school. Without an education, their future is unlikely to change.

If handing over a sandwich, a bottle of water or even an item of useful clothing seems insufficient, consider making a donation to one of the many children's charities dedicated to helping street kids in Africa.

This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on August 6 2019.

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