Gift giving overseas – is it okay or not?


After spending time with local communities and forging relationships with families and community members, you may want to offer a gift as a form of gratitude or even as a farewell present. But when it comes to gift giving, especially in developing countries, our best intentions can cause unintended issues.

“Gift giving can create an unequal relationship between the visitor and host community. It can lead to dependency and sometimes host community can come to expect hand outs, disempowering them,” explains Donna Lawrence, Responsible Travel Manager at World Expeditions.

Often, gift giving – when carried out incorrectly – can result in locals becoming dependent on hand outs, it can create jealousy within communities or groups, as well as cause internal conflicts if some beneficiaries receive gifts while others do not.

At its worst, certain gifts can create health problems. For instance, if lollies and chocolates are distributed to young children in an underprivileged region with limited or no access to oral healthcare this will contribute to their development of gum disease and tooth decay.

“In some cases, material goods given are not something the community really needs, and may end up being something members cannot use – such as a remote control race car that require batteries or an electronic device that requires regular charging,” says Donna.

When it comes to certain toys, appliances and plastic products, these items can also come at an environmental cost to areas that are affected by waste and pollution, and who also have limited access to reliable and affordable power supplies, or waste disposal.

While gift giving is a lovely gesture, it is important to make mindful decisions when offering such presents to communities so you can help create a culture of social responsibility and inclusion.

10 tips on how to give presents responsibly

1. Don’t make assumptions about community needs. Plan ahead, if you intend on giving to a school, hospital or organisation contact them in advance to find out what items they need and purchase and hand deliver the products.

2. Avoid giving drinks or foods that are laden with sugar, especially when it is clear that dental health care is not available. Often poor nutrition is compounded by giving sweets. Instead, buy fruit from the local market which will provide children with a nutritional treat full of vitamins and goodness and support local economies.

3. Refrain from giving directly to an individual; rather, give to the head of the community or the head master of the school so that they can disperse the gifts fairly. Don’t be offended if this occurs once you’ve left.

Speak with the head of the community or project organisers who can make sure your donations are dispersed fairly. Photo: Asia DMC.

4. Don’t give gifts to children begging on the street, it reinforces the bad situation they are in. An alternative is to donate to a local charity that works to keep children off the streets and to stay with their family and in school.

5. Don’t give gifts that are broken or damaged, unhygienic, dangerous or which contribute to waste. Think of the waste your gifts will generate over time, avoid donating plastic toys and choose pencils and crayons over pens. In more remote regions there are no waste disposal facilities, so your presence will be around for much longer than you think.

6. Be aware of the limitations of a gift, for example: giving a gift that requires batteries that are not readily available to the recipient or are expensive locally. Instead give manual or solar powered torches. Some houses do not have electricity at all or experience frequent power cuts.

7. Think practical over superficial items. In remote regions, items such as toothbrushes and toothpaste, socks, sanitary kits, and hairbrushes and hair ties are all very practical.

Offer practical supplies that can benefit communities in the long run. Photo: Scott Pinnegar.

8. Don’t give out medicine. Different countries have different laws about the use of medical supplies and medications, and some pharmaceutical drugs are not permitted. Instead consider practical supplies such as bandages, thermometers, gauze, as well as hygiene products and re-usable sanitary items to help to prevent the spread of disease. You can also consider donating to charities or organisations that support local hospitals or medical centres.

9. Why not offer a heartfelt gift? Although a gift from the heart may not have monetary value and may not be practical, it is often meaningful and appreciated, such as a drawing or a photograph.

10. Share your time and skills instead, rather than a material gift. You can join a community project to help make tangible change in underprivileged areas, such as completing grass-root construction projects in villages of Peru or Nepal.

The fundamentals are: if in doubt, ask! Ask your travel company, an associated charity or the head of the community.

Want to learn more about how to leave a positive impact on the places you visit? View our current community projects and read our latest The Thoughtful Traveller e-book.

What’s your stance on gift giving? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. zee 10 May, 2018 at 17:56 Reply

    I totally agree with this, a lot of people from abroad come with good intention but in the end changing the way of local seeing tourists, they would see them like a person with unlimited fund, all you do is beg and they give it to you, I don’t like this, it’s very important to know the boundaries, if we wants to give them something better offer non monetary items, i love sending my photograph to the people i met on the road, in fact they are more happier and treasure it really instead hand them out money, especially to children within a second they just run to store and buy snacks that is not even healthy for them.

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