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Why Giving Matters

In my travels around the world, I've spent at least a hundred nights sleeping in rickety bamboo huts on the beaches of Asia. All through the tropics, those bamboo huts are the dwelling of choice. They're breezy and comfortable in that climate, they're inexpensive to build, and they're made from a material that grows like a weed. Unfortunately, it doesn't take much to wash them away. So when a 9.0 earthquake hits Indonesia and a tsunami crashes into Thailand, Sri Lanka, and southern India, major devastation is a certainty.

Anyone who has spent time in these affected areas watched the news with special horror. Whole villages washed away like a matchstick sculpture. Where there was something sturdier made of concrete, the water surged underneath and the building collapsed, often with people trapped inside. When a disaster hits where we live, it wreaks havoc and destroys property. When it hits a developing country, the devastation is exponentially higher.

A lot of the early TV news in the U.S. and Europe focused on the tourists. That decision could be justified, since any Western viewer can relate to the horror of sitting on a beach in front of a hotel one minute and being sucked out to sea the next. Or not knowing whether our vacationing relatives on the other side of the world survived. Some 2,500 tourists from Sweden alone have died, close to the number of Americans who died in the World Trade Center bombing.

But the foreign deaths pale next to the staggering and ever-rising death toll from the local population. By the time this issue goes to print, the death toll could hit 120,000 on just one island in Indonesia. People who already had next to nothing have lost that little bit, along with loved ones or their entire families. For many people, every breadwinner in the extended family is gone, or the business that supported a hundred families is completely wiped out. The Asian Development Bank has estimated that the disaster will push millions of additional people into poverty.

The world's governments have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars and corporations have admirably opened up their coffers as well. This may be exceeded by the private donations that have also set new records for giving. Who knows what it will really cost to rebuild after the modern world's worst natural disaster, but it is certainly encouraging to see everyone trying to make sure we don't come up short.

If all the tsunami victim assistance dollar figures in the news are making your head spin though, it's understandable. Eyes glaze over when you read about $50 million here, $350 million there, planes, boats, helicopters, and headlines like "Tons of Medicine." After a while you can be forgiven for thinking, "What difference is my drop-in-the-bucket donation going to make?"

Well it will make a difference, especially in places where people have lost everything. If you've traveled in that region, you know how far even $20 will go. It doesn't take a whole lot to make a difference. Back when I was staying in one of those beachside huts in Thailand, a couple staying two doors down left a candle burning one night and fell asleep. One thing led to another and the whole bungalow went up in flames. The owner naturally insisted they pay to replace it (bringing up another point; almost nobody has insurance in this part of the world). The couple paid up, and rebuilding the small house cost a total of $300. It doesn't take much to help a family literally rebuild their life.

You can find a comprehensive list of charity links at Transitions Abroad's website, but like lists you'll find anywhere, it can be overwhelming. If you can't decide where to start, think about giving to small operations without a lot of overhead. In the city where I live, for instance, the local Hindu temple is filling up their own container, shipping it across the ocean, and having a network of relatives in India personally escort the goods and money. There are also plenty of online options for a more direct route to the afflicted. You can do plenty of good by donating to organizations such as CARE and Oxfam, especially after all the attention has died down.

Once the situation is more stable, make a real difference by spending your travel money in those countries where they need it. Don't penalize these destinations twice by avoiding them. If you really want to help out the people of western Thailand, Sumatra, southern Sri Lanka, and the rest of the Indian Ocean coasts that were affected, travel to these areas in 2005 or 2006 after all the reporters have left. Spend real money on real commerce: local restaurant meals, local hotels, and local cab drivers. That's what's really going to get their economies back in motion and help people rebuild their lives.

TIM LEFFEL is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, a Better Life at Half the Price, and editor of Perceptive Travel.

Cheapest Destinations travel blog
A Better Life for Half the Price

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