Traveling to Developing Countries
Many travelers to developing countries seek the authentic experience of seeing life lived differently. But part of the issue in traveling to areas of poverty is the uneasy rift between the visitor and the visited.
Traveling through Varanasi, I noticed the overt poverty: street side begging, homeless people, floating bodies in the river because families couldn’t afford cremation, and children not in school. Parts of the city were dirty, but it’s unfair to hold developing countries to the same standards as developed countries.
Walking through the alleyways of Varanasi, I grappled with whether to photograph everything I saw or to acknowledge my presence through my own eyes. It’s always a conflict being aware of who is viewing and who is being viewed. Have you thought about the following ethical considerations when traveling to developing countries?
Ethical Consideration #1 Taking Photographs
The danger of photographs is that they only capture one side to a story and fail to capture the intelligence, happiness and the resilience of the local communities. This reminds me of the powerful TED Talk from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story”. I’ve shown this TED Talk many times in my work with students and teachers to show the danger of misunderstanding a single story about another person or culture.
When volunteering in Kenya with Me to We, our group guide enforced a no photography of locals rule. Since we were there to establish connections with the communities, everyone taking out their cameras would create a divide of us versus them. We could only take photos once we got to know the members of the communities we worked in.
As travelers, we have an ethical responsibility to ensure the pictures we take won’t cause misperceptions of an entire country based on what we choose to capture. One way to do this is to always ask for permission before photographing a stranger.
Ethical Consideration #2 Child Beggars
Another ethical dilemma involves encountering child beggars. Some children may sell trinkets like the children I met in Cambodia selling postcards and souvenirs. Though it’s so easy to give spare change to the person in need, this is only a band-aid solution.
It’s much more worthwhile to find a local volunteering opportunity to teach children and contribute to their education. If you want to make a material donation, it’s better to give school or health-care supplies to a local nonprofit organization, school, hospital or church that serves the community.
Ethical Consideration #3 Bargaining Fairly
Along the lines of money, remember to bargain fairly. In many countries, you’re expected to haggle with tuk tuk drivers and at markets. It’s true that some vendors will inflate prices to try to take advantage of Western tourists. It’s a fine line between being taken advantage of and negotiating hard with people who live in poverty. A rule of thumb: offer half of the asking price and then meet in the middle of their counter-offer.
Ethical Consideration #4 Animal Welfare
I personally find this to be a tricky issue. There are so many tourist attractions that center around animals. Just think about stingray encounters in the Caribbean, petting tigers in Chiang Mai, and riding elephants in Southeast Asia. When we participate in these attractions, we may be contributing to poor animal treatment. The best thing you can do is to do your research and go with reputable tour companies. When in doubt of animal treatment and welfare, just ask.
How do you deal with ethical issues when traveling to developing countries?