Exploiting Local Cultures

My last introspective post spoke about my love of meeting locals and travelers abroad. Like me, many people travel to ‘see the people,’ and yet this is not always as well-meaning as it seems. In some scenarios, it can bring back the old scars of colonialism and exploit those who live in the countries to which we travel.

A very thoughtful cow in Cambodia...

A very thoughtful cow in Cambodia...

Specifically I’m thinking about the day tours that appear on the tourism bulletin boards in less developed countries. In France, no one ever decides to trek into the mountains to go watch the Alsatians dip bread in cheese and ski and go about their lives (at least not that I’ve ever heard of). But if you are in Thailand, there are tons of advertised outings that include a visit to a hilltribe’s village.

While I’ve never been on a tour or experience quite like I’m describing, I have met many travelers who have. And usually this comes from a genuine curiosity about the culture and people of the country. These travelers have similar travel styles to me--they want to go deeper than just the food and architecture to understand a country. So it is with good intentions that they can unknowingly hurt the local populations. But I believe that if they were aware of cultural exploitation, many travelers would try to travel more responsibly.

Looking into organized cultural trips, there are a few factors that stand out as enforcing power hierarchies. Tour guides, entrance fees, and souvenir shops among a small village are the obvious mark of the sale of a culture. There are less obvious signs: moments when tourists are offered amenities above what the actual residents have access to or restrictions on their lives. This may include restrictions on use of modern technology or maintaining of certain cultural traditions, even if they are partially fabricated (i.e. the people cannot use their cellphones in view of visitors). These cultural tours stem from a history of colonialism and imperialism to make profit off of the ‘quaint,’ romanticized culture of a people.

A craftsmen from Austria who he can sell his goods directly to travelers, decide when to book art shows, and whose lifestyle is not overly eroticized or trivialized. 

A craftsmen from Austria who he can sell his goods directly to travelers, decide when to book art shows, and whose lifestyle is not overly eroticized or trivialized. 

Although I did not go on a tour of the floating villages in Cambodia, I heard of a particular agency that exploited local communities. They offered rides in a motorboat between local houses on stilts. Firstly, they charge an ‘entrance fee’ in addition to the cost of the boat and guide, thereby making profit off of tourists actually watching the people of the village. This company was run by Cambodians, but not by villagers and this agency had no problem eroticizing their own culture. Because the money does not go to the people of the village, the local children are motivated to stay out of school to beg for money from the tourists. Even more sketchy are the  surprisingly expensive bags of uncooked rice one can purchase ‘for a local family.’ This type of tour does not benefit the actual people you are visiting, nor are you really visiting them as the tourists do not speak or interact with the locals. It in essence is a photo op that does not benefit those featured in the pictures.

Those from developed countries come from different backgrounds than the people they are trying to learn about. Thus they may have never lived without a refrigerator or access to modern technology and commodities, and they do not necessarily understand the difficulties that these populations face.  These developing populations do not often have a choice in their lifestyles. If someone offered a woman in Cambodia an electric stove and showed her how to use it, would she still cook over an open flame? Whereas, the traveler who bends over her, snapping pictures of her bare hands flipping food, does have a choice. They have the comforts provided by an advanced social security net and a developed economy. But there is still nostalgia for a more ‘simple’ time. Here is the deep scar left behind from colonialism trivializing some cultures and creating a hierarchy. This hierarchy still exists today, so when a tourist is viewing life in a developing nation they should be aware and considerate of history. While appreciating and learning about the culture is important, one should not romanticize the culture or forget the times of genocide, invasion, and other injustices.

Similarly, imagine visiting a Native American reservation. As you buy their goods and watch them go about their lives, are you thinking of the movies you watched growing up, where they went to battle on horses and Pocahontas sang about the colors of the wind? Or are you thinking about the genocide they experienced or the stolen land that you live and walk on everyday?

A typical household near Siem Reap, where there is no trash disposal service. It's not often you see pictures like this amid the temples, monks, and smiling children. 

A typical household near Siem Reap, where there is no trash disposal service. It's not often you see pictures like this amid the temples, monks, and smiling children. 

It’s hard to define exploitation of cultures or to create hard and fast guidelines for what is exploitative and what is not. I have not always been ethical in my travels, and still make plenty of mistakes. The key is to become aware of the choices we have abroad. When we learn about a culture and people, it should not be a manufactured experience. Here are my best tips for learning about cultures and people while minimizing their exploitation:

  • Research tourism companies, check where the profits are going, and who is in charge--with the goal of supporting companies where the profits go back into the community.
  • Try venturing outside city and tourist centers without a guide or organized tour.
  • Consider whether you are simply taking token photos and buying souvenirs to show off at home or if your actions motivated by a curiosity of the culture.
  • Have you asked for permission before taking photos? Are you actually experiencing the lifestyle or viewing it through the lens of a camera?
  • Have you considered staying in the area for an extended time?This could be through a workaway, homestay, or another way to get to know the people.

As I continue to travel, I try to consider the guidelines above and be aware of how I treat the residents of the country. As a traveler, I have the good fortune and ability to visit places unlike where I was raised. So it is important to me to try not to intrude or disrespect my hosts. Others should do the same, to create a truer understanding of our world and show appreciation for hosts who share their culture and country with us when we travel.

Keep your eyes wide, your mind open, and your suitcase packed. 

Does Volunteering Abroad Hurt Developing Nations?

Lately, I was looking through old photos and I realize how much I miss the days spent in Cambodia, occupied with teaching English. I worked at a school that was an hour outside Siem Reap. There I lived among the other volunteers and the principal’s family. My memories are sweet and sweaty: full of making lesson plans, helping my students with sentence syntax, and playing games of freeze tag. Although my life there was so different from what I experience at home or in the western world, I had so many amazing, joyful days with the students and my fellow teachers. I have been carefully cautioned by a friend that this is where I stop talking about the ‘amazing impact’ volunteering abroad has had on my life, and not present other sappy, emotional anecdotes. So instead I will skip to the important part.

Despite my personal feelings, there is always the question: did I do more harm than good? Is it possible to volunteer abroad without promoting the image of the 'white savior'? If a person lives among locals and does not try to change their ways, can the implicit message of neocolonialism (using capitalism and imperialism to assert cultural dominance) be out-measured?

This discussion is often linked with the modern term ‘voluntourism.’ This is used for when a person from the developed world volunteers for a week or two in a developing country. Voluntourism is applied to high school and college trips, as well as programs that take travelers to organizations. Those who take part in voluntourism are unskilled for the particular tasks at hand, whether that is construction or medical help. It is hard to draw the line of where voluntourism ends. Does voluntourism end after a specific period of time volunteering? With certain tasks? By using a different mindset or approach? This ambiguous definition is why I will refer to the general term of volunteering abroad, which definitively covers what I did in Cambodia.

Many people go abroad without utilizing their specific skillsets to volunteer. Why build a library in Africa if you have no background in construction? In that case, it is better to simply donate to an organization that will hire skilled locals to do the job, solving the problem effectively and stimulating the economy. I will be honest when I say that I did not have many qualifications to teach English; I had to fill out an application for the volunteer opportunity that tested my grammar and spelling, but nothing more. I taught relatively basic English reading and writing, so I believe that I had the most of the skills to do so, yet I certainly do not have any expertise in teaching. This is a problem, as it is admitting that unpaid work often justifies a lower level of qualifications and experience—which should not be the case. Look at your skills and see how you could be of use to a community. When I was teaching, a man by the name of Bryon Lippincott came to visit the school. He, a photographer, and his wife, a writer, formed a company that created press, websites, and attention to non-profit non-government organizations. They would photograph, promote, and help NGOs that were working with disabled or disadvantaged children and others. This is the perfect example of two people who looked at the skills they had available and asked themselves, ‘How can we help?’

The time period over which a traveler acquaints him or herself with the country and volunteers also makes a huge difference in the outcome. Often, acts of international aid over a short period of time create more problems than they solve. Stability and long-term improvement are simply not achievable from short-term aid, as the ability to create and implement innovative strategies for development is limited.

“It can't all be about the volunteer which is what voluntourism sadly is becoming. It is meant to be mutually beneficial for yourself and the organization, as well as a sustainable project that doesn't rely on volunteers to keep running.” -Lauren Kate of Grassroots Nomad

A major concern with volunteering abroad is that of promoting globalization or diluting the culture of a place. This is a possibility, but it is no different from the same risk that is possible with all travel and tourism. The key in any situation abroad is to go in hungry to learn about a culture and with an acceptance of different lifestyles. An experience and open-minded traveler does not think that some cultures are superior or ‘ahead’ of others, but simply that they are different and each has their own value.

Volunteering abroad should never be just another item to check off your bucket list. I often hear criticism that volunteering abroad is a ‘feel good’ activity, as in people only volunteer in other countries to feel good about themselves and look good in the eyes of others. The focus of volunteering should be on those who are receiving help; however, there is nothing wrong with being happy for having helped. Service to the community is not lessened by the fact that the volunteer receives positive feelings because of what they did. Knowing that you helped someone is part of the human response system that reinforces actions that benefit the community.

Lastly is the largest—and most commonly addressed—issue with volunteering as you travel: perpetuating imperialism. Yes, in many cases, voluntourism results in neocolonialism. Those who are more privileged may act like they know what is best for a local who does not have the same amount of material wealth. But not everyone who volunteers thinks this way. And I think that a true volunteering experience promotes the opposite of an imperialist school of thought. If I had never volunteered I would not know of the pollution that plagues the Cambodian countryside simply because there is no proper disposal service, nor of the specifics of the Khmer Rouge and of the thousands of landmines that are still buried in the country. I would not have known that there is racial tension still alive in the country, as I found out the first of multiple times when a passing woman motioned to my skin and said the Khmer word for beautiful. With that knowledge my pride grew and my heart broke as a student told me that he didn’t care that the other boys thought the color of his skin was too dark; he loved playing soccer in the sun, and was not going to stop. If I had never volunteered, I would have tasted green curry made by western hands, but I wouldn’t have been taught to make the Cambodian spring rolls that are everyone’s favorite or been taught to dance like a proper Khmer lady. Volunteering and immersing myself in the culture of a society for a formidable period of time only ever caused my understanding and appreciation for the Cambodian people to grow.

the little football player

the little football player

So if you are still interested in volunteering abroad, or will be traveling and are considering giving back to the countries you visit, take a look at this checklist:

  • Do you know where the money is going? Is it being used effectively and responsibly?
  • What skills will you bring to this project? Do you have knowledge or expertise that can be helpful? Can you complete the tasks with little training?
  • Are you planning to accept and experience the beliefs and cultural norms you encounter? Or perversely, do you hope to bring the modern world or civilized skills to a developing country?
  • Is the organization you are working with providing what the host country needs? Do the people you will be helping want your help?
  • Will the amount of time for which you are going to be volunteering amount to anything? Will it be long enough to produce a lasting benefit?
  • Is what you are about to do respectful to the host country?
  • Does the organization (or will you) patronize those you will be helping?

My feelings about volunteering abroad have deepened and changed over time, as I learned of the many negative effects that can result, and as I also saw how people can and will help each other. Elizabeth Sellers of Awesome Wave and Rosalilium put it perfectly: 

“It’s not really about how ‘we’ feel as the volunteer. We are already privileged to be traveling and learning about the world and other cultures.”

I was lucky enough to experience an authentic piece of Cambodian life. Now, I can see more clearly the issues in an area, as well as the strength of the human spirit. There are people all around the world that need a hand, the help of someone who is willing to listen to their history and learn their culture. In the correct set of circumstances, volunteers are citizens of a global community investing in the future of our world.

"Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future." -Nelson Mandela

"Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future." -Nelson Mandela

If you have a differing view or experience volunteering in other countries, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!