When travelling to developing countries many people want to give gifts but which is best? Not everything you give is suitable and some things can be harmful or even offensive to local customs, traditions and religions. Living circumstances in many developing countries are very different from your own, so often it’s the simple things will bring the most joy.
- Manual or solar powered torches: are a great item to bring with you. In many developing countries there are frequent power cuts. In Nepal they can last up to 12 hours a day. Some houses do not have electricity at all, and in some cases toilet facilities are very far from the house. Just try finding them at night and you will realize a cheap, hand powered torch is a great thing to give
- Candles: Even though you can buy candles in developing countries, ours are of a better quality and last much longer. Candles give light and warmth and make a great gift.
- Exercise books, pencils and crayons: Many children have no possibility of attending school regularly or at all. With exercise books and a little help from a literate neighbour they can start learning and getting creative too.
- Toothbrushes: Dental hygiene awareness is quite low in some developing countries. Giving out tooth brushes as presents and educating about dental hygiene is a good idea. You can buy them in the country instead of bringing them from home, so they won’t take up space in your luggage.
- Clothing: Whatever you don’t need anymore or don’t want to take home is welcome. Good quality shoes and black children’s shoes are always appreciated, as well as school uniforms, winter clothing, sunglasses (for mountain porters) and hats. Flip flops make a great gift as well, you can buy them cheaply in the country. Note that in some countries western clothes are less appreciated, for example in Bhutan and Tibet, where people prefer to wear their traditional dresses.
- Games and jigsaws: games make great gifts, especially educational games like Scrabble. Teach them how to play them as well! Balloons are a difficult case. On one hand they are lightweight and do not take up much space. On the other hand they will burst within minutes and leave waste behind. In some cases the children’s tears over a burst balloon will last longer than the joy of having had one. A better idea might be to bring Frisbees, which don’t take up much space and last much longer. Again you can teach them how to play!
- Pictures, calendars and posters: You find it exciting to visit their country, and they find it just as exciting to find out about yours and see different places. Calendars are extremely popular, particularly in India.
- Hygiene products: In some cases shampoos, lotions and other hygiene products can be a good idea. They can be bought cheaply in the country, but some women might enjoy trying western products. You can just leave your leftovers instead of taking them back home.
- Buy local: Whenever possible it is better to buy presents from the local market to strengthen the local economy. By buying presents in the destination country you will not only find great presents for your hosts, but also much needed income to the local vendor and his family.
- Your friendship! The greatest gift you can give anyone. Share your stories, teach them songs and games.
We don’t recommend:
- Sweets and soft drinks: Please refrain from buying sweets or soft drinks for children. Because of the lack of good dental hygiene, insufficient medical care and often poor nutrition you are not doing them a favour by giving them sweets. Better buy fruit from the local market. This will provide the children with a nutritional treat full of vitamins and goodness.
- Packaging and waste: Think of the waste your gifts will generate so don’t donate plastic toys and chose pencils and crayons over pens. In more remote regions there are no waste disposal facilities, so your presents will be around for much longer than you think.
- Alcohol: Many beliefs forbid drinking alcohol, so it is a tricky question whether to give alcoholic beverages or not. Often poorer communities have to fight drinking problems, so to be on the safe side and to not offend or cause trouble its best to refrain from giving alcohol. It is ok, however, to buy a guide a drink in the evening if you’re out together.
- Make Up: Many people in developing countries don’t have the opportunity or money ‘go out’ to fancy clubs or bars as we do in the west so make up will be useless to them.
- Open clothing: No need to donate open clothing like short skirts and scanty tops. No one would wear them. Also women usually prefer wearing their traditional skirts instead of jeans or trousers. Don’t bother bringing old socks and knickers with holes. In very poor areas, however, good and clean underwear may be appreciated.!
- Give with the right hand: In South Asia it is very important to give presents with your right hand, usually with the left hand closed around your right ankle. In many other countries you give presents with both hands. Generally, giving with the left hand is considered disrespectful.
- Don’t give to everyone: It is not good practice to hand out gifts to just every child, as this will encourage begging. Only give presents to children if you spent some time with them, for example by staying with their family or at their hotel.
- Disrespecting elders: Do not undermine parents’ authority. It is often better to give the presents to the children’s parents or teachers, so they can hand them over at an appropriate time and distribute them fairly.
- Pictures: If you take pictures of people on your journey do not promise to send them copies unless you really mean it. By all means write down the address and send them when you get back, but try not to forget because they certainly won’t!
Header image by Jane Barlow