Privilege and responsibility

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According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), in 2013 there were 168 million children world-wide who were working to help support their families instead of attending school.

As a teacher, I find figures such as this both saddening and alarming since it means these children won’t have a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty. Even though education is highly prized in many parts of the developing world, particularly India, dire financial circumstances sometimes dictate that children must work during the day in order to have enough rice for the family to eat at night. Sure, many of us have read about forced child labor or seen documentaries about the children who work long days in brick-making factories or use their small hands to weave rugs since tiny fingers can produce finer weaving, but do we see issues such as this as simply being someone else’s problem or as being so totally overwhelming as to be insurmountable, and therefore not worthy of our reflection?

One of the main differences between Westerners who’ve traveled widely and those who haven’t is that travel brings you much closer to the realities of daily life for the poor masses living in the developing world. It’s much easier to turn off the TV news than it is to remove yourself from an uncomfortable situation while being surrounded by a new language and culture. I believe that being faced with such challenges and observing how we react to them is a chance to make huge strides in learning about ourselves and fostering personal growth.

For me, traveling on a teacher’s salary has always meant staying in small, inexpensive 2-star hotels or hostels which don’t offer luxurious living, but this has actually been such a blessing in disguise. You’re much more likely to meet and get to know locals if you’re staying in a small, locally-owned place since inexpensive hotels are more likely to be located in less expensive (and less touristy) areas of a city. The more expensive international hotel chains with their tour bus mentality are often located in the high-rise business centers of major cities away from the neighborhoods where the average citizens live.

Leaving your small hotel each morning and returning each evening to a more authentic local neighborhood allows you to get accustomed to the rhythm of life lived by the locals. I find this aspect of travel quite compelling and always appreciate any opportunity to have a conversation with the local workers inhabiting the small shops and restaurants around the hotel’s neighborhood. And while it’s always nice to share a journey with friends, my experience has been that you’re much more approachable and more likely to become engaged in conversations with locals if you’re traveling solo, as I usually do.

Seeing what we’d rather not

Unless a traveler becomes a complete recluse and never leaves the comfort and safety of their hotel room or apartment (in which case, why not just stay at home), then traveling and living in a developing country also forces an individual to view/witness/see some of the ugliest aspects of our world: the pervasive poverty that still exists in many places, environmental degradation that threatens the lives and livelihoods of local populations and the lack of infrastructure and institutional support by governments where corruption is endemic. How should we as Western travelers or expats react to such realities?

Certainly, there are the wealthy elite in virtually every country on the planet who should be doing more to relieve the plight of their poor fellow citizens and who, in even the poorest of countries, would be classified as far richer than me. However, when you’re traveling on a tight budget, your daily interactions are more likely to take place with those who are working for basic subsistence wages–wait staff in less expensive restaurants, small shop keepers and the desperately poor who are usually part of the informal economy and hawk their goods to tourists on the street.

In some countries, everyone seems to have his or her hand out when they see the foreigner passing by and this can be very disturbing if you’re the least bit like me and carry a load of white man’s guilt on your shoulders because you had the good fortune to be born in one of the world’s richest countries. So, when we’re involved in those often too close for comfort encounters with dire poverty, how should be behave?

While traveling in Cambodia, I met two sisters who were just bubbling over with personality. They drew a very artistic picture for me while they waited outside a restaurant where I was having lunch with my local tour guide near  the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Both the young girls seemed very bright and entertained me with their excellent spoken English, as each one tried to out-do the other in a bid to impress me. As they giggled and chattered away, I felt sadness creep over me at the thought that they spent every day in this same tourist stop trying to make a few dollars to add to the family’s budget. Or, I wondered, as an even darker thought raced through my mind, if they might be orphans who were totally responsible for their own survival. But, my next thought was the most horrible–what if they were trafficked children who are systematically controlled (and abused) by gangs in countries all over the world, including the West?

Back in the car, my tour guide tried to reassure me by saying the girls most ‘probably’ had a family living nearby and were being taken care of to some degree, but I couldn’t shake my feelings of sadness. For some reason, I found the plight of these perky young  girls harder to deal with than the amputee bands playing their music wherever I seemed to go in Cambodia. Hadn’t the amputees’ futures been compromised in a similar way by being unfortunate enough to step on one of the land mines left behind by the years of civil war in that country?

My fear was that the girls’ proficiency in spoken English had come at a very high price–their POTENTIAL–which would be given an opportunity to blossom if they were free to attend a school for a more comprehensive and disciplined education with other children their age. How should a traveler react when faced with such situations? I had given the girls an extravagant tip for the picture and thanked them profusely for producing such a beautiful and creative drawing, then had gotten back into the car and continued to view more ancient temples with my guide.

What are our responsibilities to others who aren’t friends or family?

Eventually, I forgot about the young girls as their faces began to be replaced by numerous others I ran across in South and Southeast Asia. I’m not naive enough to believe that societal issues like homelessness and poverty, which are rapidly becoming systemic in both developed and developing countries world-wide, can be resolved easily or immediately. But what other actions could I, as an individual, have taken at the time (and since) that could have addressed such daunting issues?

Most of us are aware of the many NGOs, government-sponsored international aid organizations and private charities and foundations that work to address the needs of the poorest individuals in the developing world, especially poor or homeless children. The work of many organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,  are producing positive results that can be both seen and measured. But, despite the efforts of these organizations, some of the world’s neediest still fall through the cracks, like the two young girls I encountered in Cambodia.

So, what are our individual responsibilities to the fellow human beings we encounter in these often unsettling situations? Would you have given the young Cambodian girls some money and then continued on with your life as I did? Would you have asked questions and tried to bring about an immediate change in the lives of these two young girls–some sort of intervention–being mindful of cultural differences and understanding the possibility that your interference might have been seen as offensive to the locals as well as possibly being illegal as a non-citizen of the country? Would you do more research on the specific problem in that country with the intention of donating money or time to an organization or cause? Would you change your life, as some have done, and devote your time to starting an organization that addresses a specific need that you think isn’t being dealt with properly by others?

There are no easy answers when it comes to prioritizing and fulfilling the many needs so evident on our planet, but wouldn’t it be rewarding to give those smiling little girls in Cambodia the opportunity to study with others their age, so they can become more productive members of their  communities and hopefully break the cycle of poverty?

peace, henry


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