Skip to main content

The holidays are almost here. The fire logs are lit. The Christmas tunes are grating. And there's an overdone scent of pine everywhere. Now there's only one task remaining: The final, simple, uncomplicated act of giving. This year, will it be a goat or a chicken, a sponsored orphan or a bore well, an emergency kit or a microloan?

December is critical to charities. It is, without a doubt, if not the most wonderful time of the year then certainly the most important. Why else would our newspapers be weighed down with glossy charitable gift catalogues, and our inboxes overloaded with Dick Clark countdowns appealing for end-of-year donations? So in the spirit of the holidays, I would like to offer the following guide to anyone wishing to infuse a little meaning into the season:

Don't give stuff. If you are supporting an international cause or responding to a humanitarian emergency anywhere in the world, please don't give hard goods such as food or clothes. It suppresses local economies, hurts local workers (many of whom already live in poverty), won't get there in time, and is too expensive to ship and distribute.

There is no greater proof of how destructive giving hard goods can be than the loss of hundreds of thousands of textile jobs in Africa directly linked to the dumping of used clothing originating from donations on our side of the world as "charity" endeavours.

Don't send yourself. If you are going to selflessly give of your time and energy, please do it locally: Join charity boards and fundraising committees or help in their offices. But unless you are a highly skilled professional with unique abilities and training that can be useful and relevant in an overseas context, be very careful about any "gift" that involves volunteer-type programs – especially if you are paying for this privilege.

If you really want to help, the better way is to invest directly in fostering those opportunities for local communities to do the work themselves. If you want to go to Africa, for example, please do it. It is a vast and beautiful and wondrous continent. Liberally spend your dollars in local markets. But there is no need to sign up for busy-work philanthropy like repainting a classroom or reading to orphans. In fact, recent psychological studies of orphaned children in the developing world exposed to well-meaning international volunteers found this exacerbated the children's trauma by causing them to form emotional bonds with strangers that were repeatedly broken. Poverty, like politics, should not be treated as spectacle.

Don't give and forget. How you give is as important as how much you give. Emergency interventions that focus on basic needs are necessary to keep people alive in times of crisis. But these cannot come at the expense of longer term programs that reduce poverty and human suffering overall, and promote community self-reliance.

The risk of aid dependency increases when handouts are much better funded than programs that address underlying challenges such as illiteracy, violence and high youth unemployment. It is for these reasons that regular monthly donations are far more effective than one-off contributions. The enemy of effective aid isn't corruption or lack of capacity or even insecurity: It's inconsistency. It's the gains that evaporate when the cameras go home and the donors drift to a new crisis and a new quick fix, even as the heartbreaking reality persists on the streets of Darfur, Afghanistan, eastern Congo, Syria, Somalia and the countless other tragedies we soon forget about. I have walked those streets as the big white landcruisers stop hurrying to their destinations. And I have walked those streets when the NGO logos blanketing every conspicuous wall begin to fade – thin reminders that we used to care, before it all became too complicated and too messy and exhausted our compassion. This is when the real work begins.

When deciding who and what to give to this holiday season, help ensure your donations work for you by having a balance of local and global, and think not just short but also long term. And above all, please don't give to charity; give to change.

Dr. Samantha Nutt is a bestselling author (Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid) and a Founder of the charity War Child.