The Act of Giving

HenryToday’s post comes from Henry Guyer, a student of Applied Cultural Analysis at Copenhagen University. While writing his thesis on encountering poverty, Henry has been working for an online fundraising platform for charities called BetterNow. Today’s post is a glimpse into what it was like to work in Nepal for one year and the many experiential and sensory sensations he encountered. As the holiday season draws near, we are all faced with the decision of where to give our time and money, and we hope that Henry’s reflection will help you think critically about the world of giving.

The act of giving seems simple enough. If you have the finances, you donate to a cause. If you have the time and drive, you volunteer for those less fortunate, those that do not have what you do and might need you. The idea is simple, yet the execution is often not. In fact, I’ve learned that giving is an act that, despite one’s best intentions, is loaded with complexities and fraught with unforeseen consequences. I learned this in the manner that people often learn, the hard way, through experience.

Kids workingI worked in Nepal for one year and like so many before me, arrived with only the greenest intentions. Every day I would walk through Thamel, the nexus of tourism in Kathmandu, and witness a group of homeless children living on the street playing, scuffling, fighting, and begging. They were rather notorious in the area and rather straight-forwardly and unceremoniously referred to as the ‘Glue Kids’, for rather self-evident reasons. They begged their way into collecting as much money as they could in order to buy glue to huff. At first, I was shocked how easily these kids were side-stepped and ignored on a daily basis, refused off-hand and without so much as the courtesy of at least some eye-contact. Usually they were waved away, sometimes pushed if they became too physical, and one time I even witnessed a tourist screaming in unbridled fear at one of these kids walking towards her.

The people I came to work with told me that I should never give them anything in the fear of encouraging and perpetuating their habits. Numerous organizations, I was told, have unsuccessfully tried to get them off the streets. Naively, I thought that if getting them off the street is a task too much for me, then I could at least try to improve their plight through daily gestures, such as buying food or water for them.

ThamelOne day a boy approached asking for money. I had seen him regularly wandering around Thamel. He was short and thin, hair greased and swept across his face, his clothes ill-fitting and covered in dried mud. I offered to buy him something from the supermarket. He immediately took me by the hand and walked me to a shop and when I asked him what he wanted, he immediately went to a shelf of expensive imported cookies. I bought them for him, along with a bottle of water, and parted ways.

Recounting this interchange at work, a colleague rolled her eyes and told me I shouldn’t have done that. Often, she explained, the kids would later return the product to the supermarket, if it’s sealed and packed, and exchange the items for money to buy glue. Slightly embarrassed, I insisted on buying the same boy a sandwich and a water bottle that I opened myself so that the seal was broken. Whenever I gave something and broke the packaging so that it couldn’t be returned, there was a strong look of disappointment and even anger. No matter how much they insisted or got annoyed, I kept doing this until one day they just never came to me anymore and ignored me, as if I was a dried well. As a result, I rather ashamedly became inured to their plight and existence for a while, they were just another daily fixture I would pass by and gotten used to, like the cows that meandered the streets, the smell of spices and tea, and the people stopping to be blessed at altars built into brick walls.

A long time passed before I saw this boy again. I saw him alone on my way home from work and thought he would pass me by again, ignoring me as he had in a long time. This time, however, he stopped and asked for money again. I told him I would, as always, be happy to buy him something else instead. As we talked he showed me his arm, which had been grotesquely cut from a fight. I offered to take him to the doctor or to the pharmacy, which he refused. He only wanted money. So I took him to a bakery, all the while trying to get him to see a doctor, and he once again only pointed to the packaged goods. When I refused and got him a fresh sandwich, he said thank you and immediately walked off, waving from across the street as he approached somebody else for more money. We then went back to ignoring each other, our two divergent realities living parallel to each other but never meeting again.

Kathmandu Durbar SquareThe only time I ever saw him again was at a dinner a local organization threw for these ‘Glue Kids’ and as they ate someone gave a lecture, informing them of their choices and of the organization’s work to help them. While this boy never sought help from the organization, others did voluntarily. I didn’t work with them, didn’t aid them, but I did begin to regularly donate, having been impressed by the work they were doing.

We often want to do things ourselves, to help directly, and get our hands dirty, as if the personal validation we feel from helping directly is the best possible result of our ability to give. We need the proof, the evidence, the confirmation that we are doing something good, something worthwhile, and that we are making a difference. But sometimes the best possible way in which we can help is by supporting those local and grassroots organizations financially, to ensure they can efficiently continue doing the work that they do. For anyone who has ever worked with an NGO, they’ll know that you’re only as capable as the funds allow. I know the work they do and I have returned to Nepal but I know now that I can’t just show up anymore and think that I know the best way to help. Sometimes the best route is to admit that there are others out there who know better, can give better. So I fundraise from home, using my connections and networks, knowing that short-term solutions and feelings of fulfillment from doing hands-on giving is not always the best option. Sometimes to give also means to give up these personal wishes we have.


“Wednesday Wisdom” is a weekly series curated by Everyday Ambassador partnerships director Meg VanDeusen. Every Wednesday, we will feature updates from our partners and reflections from the Everyday Ambassador community. To stay current with our latest posts, follow #wednesdaywisdom or #wordstoliveby on our other platforms, and check back regularly for updates.

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