Last week, while he was in San Francisco promoting his book Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux was asked by fellow travel writer Brad Newsham what he thought individual Westerners could do to affect the world’s current situation. Theroux’s reply, which Newsham posted on his website, is as follows:
“I think there’s a lot you can do. The main thing, the first thing you should do, if you’re reasonably fit…is go to the place you wish to help. Don’t put money in an envelope and send it. Maybe Afghanistan ain’t a great idea, but let’s say you want to give money to help people in Kenya. I would say go to Kenya first, walk around. Have your b.s. detector finely calibrated and then go to a village, go to villages, travel around, talk to people, ask questions about the government.
“In other words, before you do something, pre-ramble the territory and see what they need. Actually, I think what people need doesn’t come from the outside, it has to come from the inside. But if it makes you feel good to give something I would say go — be a traveler first, a reader, a traveler, an investigator. Research the whole question, and then you might say that someone needs a cow. Buy that person a cow. You might want to find a little individual and give him some money to go to school, adopt someone. I wouldn’t give money to a charity, I wouldn’t give money to an NGO, I would not give money to a religious organization, I would give it person to person. I would go, find the person or the situation, and then adopt that thing to make myself feel good. I would not give money personally.
“When I left Africa after this trip I stopped giving money to panhandlers, I stopped giving money to aid agencies, and I started decrying the IMF and the World Bank throwing money at problems. I thought: It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard of, because in 40 years nothing has improved, nothing in Africa has improved because of money.
“But if personally you want to make a contribution, I would say be a reader first, then a traveler, and then maybe… give something.”