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Tourist Guilt and Helping the Poor

They Need it More Than Me: Tourist Guilt and “Helping” the Poor“I’m delighted to be called a romanticist. It tells me that I am on the right track. They mean I’m reporting only the good and trying to make everything seem perfect; in other words, I’m inventing it. I can respect anthropology only if it [...]

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They Need it More Than Me: Tourist Guilt and “Helping” the Poor

“I’m delighted to be called a romanticist. It tells me that I am on the right track. They mean I’m reporting only the good and trying to make everything seem perfect; in other words, I’m inventing it. I can respect anthropology only if it is a form of pilgrimage, where we are on a sacred quest to bring back from other societies the good things that can enhance our lives. To hell with people who say, ‘Oh, here goes the romantic again!’”
-Colin Turnbull

“They need it more than me,” spoke a student to her teacher, justifying why she allows herself to be occasionally cheated and scammed out of money while traveling abroad.

The teacher agreed with her and said that she sometimes does the same thing.
Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
in Brooklyn, New York City- November 15, 2008
Travelogue Travel Photos

In many countries, the presence of a white hide and a rucksack seems to be enough to make many merchants, street-touts, hoteliers, and restaurants think that can make a few extra bucks off of someone who is acculturated into believing that they are rich and the world is poor.

The con men are oftentimes correct, as many Westerners seem to try to purchase away their deeply ingrained feelings of guilt by giving away money to people they think are in need. I do not know how many times I have shivered while listening to tourists talk about “how poor” people are in various places of the world simply because they live in mud huts, are agriculturists, and do not have much money. I do not know how many times I have cringed while watching well meaning tourists distributing money openly to dirty children in a village because it is thought that just because they do not have shoes that they are starving. I do not know how many times I have wanted to scream while listening to Westerners talking about how they want to save the world by volunteering their nonexistent skills to people who are perceived as being unable to provide for themselves.

This seems rude to me. This all seems offensive. Handouts make beggars. To treat people as if they are useless is to construct an a useless way of living. These are my opinions, my impressions – I do not know if I am correct.

There seems to be a prevailing consensus that people in the West have more money than other people in the world, so they should therefore allow themselves to be robbed for charity – that they should have a moral obligation to help the less fortunate by being duped. I have witnessed far too many Westerners proscribing to this dogma and paying exorbitant prices under the guise of acquiescing the guilt that they feel by perceiving themselves and their culture as “rich,” from thinking that they are better off than the people whose country they are traveling in, and by trying to help the poor. The alms that they shed are oftentimes misplaced:

They are feeding the sharks in the ocean.

There is a relative scale of wealth in the world, and money is perceived and used differently according to culture. It seems to me that the absence of money is not always a sign of poverty. I do not feel that it is always appropriate to pity people who work hard for little income. Cultures are relative, and I feel that placing the values of one culture upon another – by thinking people poor because they do not possess the signs of wealth that another culture acknowledges – is degrading. It is my impression that the moral obligation for one culture to try to help or save another is oftentimes an outrage.

It is Kipling’s White Man’s Burden all over again:

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

As I listened to the student and the teacher talking I was reminded of the undercurrent ideology behind colonization – that Europe felt it was their guilt ridden mission to bring civilization, commerce, infrastructure, and religion to the heathen natives of the world. It seems to me that, in a very real sense, behind the bases of exploitation and imperial control that many of these missionaries and colonists really believed that they were helping the people that they took into their charge. I cannot help but to liken this ideology to Westerners who think that “they need it more than me.”

It is striking to me that Westerners just expect to see starving, hungry and poor people in other countries. Their blinders seem to be up and they will not absorb any other impression. I expected this when I first began traveling. I, too, once thought that the world was on the brink of abject poverty and that the people in whose countries I was traveling “needed it more than me.” I felt guilty for being for being raised in the USA and I wanted to help the “poor.” I think this is normal. In the USA we have been conditioned to think that our way of life produces better results, that we are privilege, and they we are, when it comes down to it, superior. We are taught that the world is poor and we are rich, and that to be a good person you have to try to help the poor.

But I cannot buy this now. I do not believe this at all.

It now seems to met that if someone thinks that it is their job – their mission – to help other people then they are putting themselves in an upper hand position, they are flaunting their sense of cultural superiority.

It is beyond the pale of my ability to explain to a Westerner who has not traveled – or even many who have – that the world is not full of starvation and disparity, and that just because someone lives in a mud hut does not mean that they are poor and need to be helped.

“Eat your peas because there are starving children in China.”

“Appreciate what you have because you could have been born in Africa.”

“In Communist countries the government take children away from their families.”

“In Islamic countries women are treated like dogs.”

These are the stories that I was told of the world while growing up in the USA. In point, I was told tales of a world of oppression, strife, despair, and starvation to scare me into appreciating the mushy vegetables, stale macaroni and cheese, and reheated chicken that sat idle in front of my place at the dinner table. My parents did not know any better, these were the stories that they were told when they were children. The USA is rich, the rest of the world is poor is what I was socialized into believing. This is a lie, but it is obvious where it comes from: TV, movies, NGO propaganda, and the evening news beam in images of a world on the brink of all out starvation.

I thought the world was horrible, and I felt the moral urge to make it better. I wanted to go to Chiapas and join the Zapatistas, I wanted to stand strong with Prachana and the Nepali Maoists, and I wanted to volunteer my time to save the environment. I did not yet realize that these feelings were manifestations of my acculturated sense of imperialism, in and of itself.

There is a different set of symbols that represent well-being in any given culture. I feel that to place the symbols of well-being in my own culture over another is to degrade that culture – it is to belittle people who are otherwise living life well. To regard people as being impoverished because they engage themselves in simple agriculture, live in simple houses, and wear old clothes is nonsense. Money is used as an indicator of wealth in the West, but this is not so in many other countries. There are other forms of wealth and other signs of well-being.

As Andy the Hobotraveler once said to me in Guatemala, “In Africa, money is for buying cell phones.”

Well-being is told by smiling faces. It is my impression that the people who have not yet been told that they are poor are the ones who are smiling the most. I have found that the monetarily poorest people oftentimes seem to be the wealthiest.

We live in a very fat world – I can not understand how tourists can think that fat people are starving.

It seems to me that different cultures and communities have different benefits and disadvantages. I am from the USA, therefore I am able to travel easily, I learned a few trades and can make money. Someone from Latin America may not be able to travel as freely as me but they tend to have a lot that I do not: large families, community, and a solid social support network that my culture cannot provide. Everything is relative, and the grass always looks greener on the other side.

I try to stay away from the West because I know that people are far happier elsewhere. I go to where I smile the most, to the places where I make friends the easiest, to the lands that people are happy. These places tend to not be those with excessive amounts of money.

I am not alone in finding that I sometimes envy the ways of life of other peoples. I have found many places in the world that are far richer than the USA, though they do not have much money. Money is not a measure of wealth and well-being. People tend to have a difficultly measuring the wealth that they possess. America is one of the poorest and desperate places that I have ever been. I have never known more unhappy people than in the West.

After knocking about the planet a little, I still do not know where all of these staving people are; I do not understand why people think they should give money to others. I have been to poor places, I have been to slums in South America, ghettos in Portugal, all through Asia, and even the poorest people that I have come across have enough to eat, shelter, and family. From my observations, I have seldom come across cultures in disparity.

There are staving and abject places in the world, there are cultures on the brink of destruction, but they are not the ones who are scamming tourists out of their money.

The world is alright, “They do not need it more than you.”

Related Pages:
Honduras-Tourist Charity and Street Children
Africa Enslaved by Love
Morocco- On Moroccan Touts
Morocco- Travel Tip #5- Not Your Friend
Morocco- The Routine Hassles of Travelling in a Tourist’s W…
NGO Watchdog by HoboTraveler.com

Links to previous travelogue entries:
Travel to Central Asia Western China or Middle Eas
Lonliness, Traveling, and the Open Road
Begging for a Laugh in New York City

They Need it More Than Me: Tourist Guilt and “Helping” the Poor
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Filed under: New York City, Travel Philosophy, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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