*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Travelling to "Poor People"

So I've been reading Vollmann's "Poor People", and it reminds me of the poorer countries I have visted, and why I don't do that anymore.
The poorer countries I have been to include: China, the Philippines and Thailand.  All of these in the mid-nineties, when China was poorer.  Of other countries I have been to, I do not include the following as poorer, simply because it did not seem the majority had so little hope of improvement as the first three countries: Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.  Everywhere else I have been has not much more misery than Canada, except the US, which has the poorest social outcomes of any 'First World' country, such that it only earns membership by its military might.

There are very few good reasons to take advantage of the poorer.  I should say there are none.  Vollmann does not take advantage of them, despite his own self-criticism, because he gives them more visibility than he takes from them in dignity.  It's a hell of a book, just like his book on violence.  He makes you think for yourself on the subject.  He doesn't relieve you with answers.  That counts as 'difficult' among the humans.

People travel to poorer countries because they can get more for less.  'Backpackers' get more days and drugs than they would in Europe; 'tourons' more time at the beach more drunk, and 'sex-tourists' get what they are after.  You get more for less, by having much more than the people who have much less.  That statement will upset some people, but it is that simple.  You can use any sophistry you like about tourist dollars entering the local economy, or some other argument, except tourist dollars further enrich those who controlled the local economy already.  Worse, price inflation ensues from the foreign money, pricing out the many who are not part of the racket.

It's also corrosive to interact with people who need you to satisfy their wants.  It's amazing how few tourists get rolled for their cash, or murdered from pure class-hatred.  Vollmann took risks I never would, and he refused himself physical and psychological safety.  It may have often gotten him enough fellow feeling to protect him, but it did not always protect him.  I know I am not willing to risk that.  I trust people far less than he does, no matter how much they keep in their pockets.  He's been proven painfully wrong; have I?  Yes, I think so.  There are people I have not trusted, who might have enriched my life.  And yet I always felt like I was poaching in a poorer country.  I was taking advantage of their poverty.  I was bargaining to save myself a fraction of my savings and denying them a greater portion of theirs.  Yet I did not wish to refuse to bargain, because I did not want 'to be taken'.  Human communication in such disparity is bound to fail.

I was always tired in the poorer countries I have visited, not so much from the squalor, but from the wants of people.  I respect their wants, but I cannot satisfy them.  I empathise with their needs, but I am not the cause of them.  Not really.  The richest one-percent of the world are responsible for almost all of its misery, but don't have to live with the consequences, and I imagine are incapable of empathy.  Yet, don't I owe the poor something?  Yes, but I am not sure what.  I didn't make them poor.  I shouldn't leave them poor.  What do I do?  I start from not taking advantage.

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