In poor countries, many locals think of a foreign traveler as a sponsor. A sponsor which has the duty to “hand over” his money. But this is not the actual problem.
On journeys the traveler accepts everything. He looks, he listens and he is wowed by everything because it is new. Good travelers are unkind. So said the modern novelist Elias Canetti.
Well, we don’t think so. Neither are travelers unkind nor was he.
If you travel to countries like Nepal, Bolivia or Morocco you will, without a doubt, meet poor people along the way. Many travelers, especially the ones who are on a cultural- or educational trip, might develop remorse: “I can afford to fly here and live in hotels where one night costs more than most of the locals earn in a month”. Because of this, some develop an “I want to help” reflex. That is ok and one can help by booking the trip via responsible and ethical travel businesses which will pay hotels, bus drivers, etc. fair and square.
But how should we handle the poorest of the poor, begging children, or sick people? Before we pull out our wallets we should inform ourselves: What is the average income in this country? Who is considered as poor by the locals? And then, we must learn how to adapt to poverty. Otherwise we cannot judge wisely.
Actually, not too long ago the same situation could be observed in the European Alpine regions: The reputed rich townspeople were seen as cash cows. Locals let the former nursery, sold their bacon, and the war invalid expected alms.
On one hand, this should not lead to the anxiety that we will be ripped off everywhere we go, subsequently avoiding any contact with the locals. On the other hand, we should also not give too much money. A good guideline is the behavior of the locals. If they give money than it is for the right reason. If we decide to do the same, we should give the same sum as the locals do.
If a traveler gives too much it can destroy the structure. A former colleague worked as a tour guide in Africa. He supported a blind local man by letting him sell postcards to his travel groups. Because of this the blind man lost all support from his friends in the village. ‘The foreigners are helping you now’, they said.
Never give begging children money. Otherwise their parents will send them to beg instead of sending them to school. I you really want to help, donate to charity organizations in the country.
If you are an individual traveler who travels extensively then you might be invited from time to time by locals. This can be a great experience but it has potential for a catch-22. Even the poorest families will offer you the best and most expensive they can afford. ‘So, are they not waiting for a trade-off?” you might ask yourself. In this case just relax as in many poorer countries good hospitality might be more important than in our regions. Simply inform yourself prior as of what an appropriate gift for this occasion is. You might laugh but a sack of rice, sugar, or cigarettes are in some regions highly appreciated.