Our Role in Helping Others

“Do you give back to the communities where you film?” asked a woman during the Q&A portion of Anthony Bourdain’s show on Saturday.
“What find of fucking monster do you think I am? Of course, I give back,” he quickly retorted.

After the laughter quieted, he added, “I’m careful to give back in ways that won’t disrupt the dynamics of the community.”

I was glad he made this clarification because I think it’s an important one that people need to hear.

He then proceeded to share a story from when he was in Haiti. He was eating street food with friends when he noticed there were hungry kids all around. He decided to buy all the food that the vendor had to feed the kids.

At this point, the St. Louis audience applauded his valiant efforts. To which he yelled, “NO! Don’t applaud. This was a terrible idea.”

He continued, “To my horror, I watched bigger kids come take the food from the smaller ones. Then adults came and took the food from the bigger kids.” Ultimately, officers with clubs got involved. He created chaos by his simple, well-meaning gesture of buying food for the kids on the street.

His story reminded me of my first trip to India, back when I was a novice traveler and hadn’t really figured out the fine line between wanting to help and knowing what my role should be as an outsider to the community.

During that trip I brought a suitcase full of gifts: pencils, soccer balls, books, toys. One day in the center of Bodhgaya, a town in the state of Bihar, I started handing out pencils to kids I saw playing. Within minutes, I was surrounded by kids reaching towards me. There were so many kids. I don’t know where they all came from, but I was in the middle of them and was out of pencils.

I felt terrible. I had unknowingly created a situation.

Without experiences such as these, I don’t think people realize the negative impact their kindness can have. When people bring suitcases full of toys into a community, as I did, local businesses are affected. The six new soccer balls that I brought to the kids at the school meant that the small village store probably did not sell any soccer balls for the immediate future.

In many countries, I’ve been approached by children on the street who want me to buy bracelets or other trinkets. The kids tell me the proceeds will support their school, but they are on the streets at the same time they should be in school. I now know that by giving them money, I am helping to keep them on the streets, that the money they earn often goes to the mastermind behind the operation, not to their schools.

Instead of bringing suitcases full of gifts or giving money to kids on the street, I recommend finding out what the community needs and offer support that way. The most effective way to help a community that I have found is to find an NGO in the community and support their work.

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