According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), in 2016 there were an estimated 152 million children world-wide who were working to help support their families instead of attending school.
As a teacher, I find such statistics 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 in 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.
Many of us have read about, or seen documentaries which focus on, the impacts of forced child labor in impoverished societies. We may be shocked by scenes of children working long days in brick-making factories in places such as India or using their small hands to make rugs in Pakistan, since tiny fingers can produce a finer weave. Do we see issues such as these as being someone else’s problem, or as being 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 while sitting at home in your living room 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.
Lower travel costs = a richer cultural experience
For me, traveling on a teacher’s salary has always meant staying in small, inexpensive 2-star hotels or hostels which offer little in the way of luxury. This has, however, been a blessing in disguise. You’re much more likely to meet and interact with average people if you’re staying in a small, locally-owned place since inexpensive hotels are more likely to be located in less expensive, and less touristed, areas of a city.
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.
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 humanity: 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. When you’re traveling on a tight budget, however, your daily interactions aren’t likely to be with a country’s elite. As a tourist, you’re far more likely to communicate and interact 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 a 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 abject poverty, how should we react?
A quandary in Cambodia
While traveling in Cambodia, a country still healing from decades of civil war, I met two young girls–who said they were sisters– and were simply 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 just outside Siem Reap. 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 watching the amputee bands playing their music wherever I seemed to go in Cambodia. Hadn’t the amputees’ futures been compromised in a similar way?
My fear was that the girls’ proficiency in spoken English had come at a very high price–their POTENTIAL–which might otherwise 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. Unfortunately, the girls in a poor family are less likely to receive a formal education than the boys.
How should a traveler react when faced with such situations? I had given the girls a large tip for the picture and thanked them profusely for producing such a beautiful and creative drawing. Then, I got back into the car, waved goodbye and continued to view more ancient temples with my guide.
What are our responsibilities to others?
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 shown concern, but in the end, just 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 be unwelcome and 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 don’t seem to be any 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?
Poverty is the enemy.