While traveling in South Asia, you hop off a bus (one without air conditioning that just took 15 blind mountain curves, mind you) when your stomach begins to tell you the chicken you ate at the food stall wasn’t chicken at all. Walking across the street to find a restroom, you pass a small child with big white eyes, his hand to his mouth, motioning “feed me.”
Soon you see that the street is filled with these children, begging for food from locals and tourists alike. What should you do? Should you show the poor children some compassion? Or should you walk on by, callously shaking your head, like you’ve been taught to do at home?
While poverty may be “out of sight and out of mind” in the West, when you travel in many parts of the world, you’ll find it right there in your face. But understanding its complexities goes beyond deciding whether to give your spare change to one person. Read on for ways to handle these situations when you travel—and what you can really do to help.
1. Get to Know the Faces (and the Structures) of Poverty
Unfortunately, when you’re approached by dozens of begging children with their hands outstretched, you have to put a wall up and walk away. Often beggars are controlled by gangs, and those kids don’t necessarily get to keep the money they collect.
But while giving out money may not help, you can get to know the people standing in front of you. Remember that everyone, no matter how wealthy or poor, has his or her own story. Showing a little respect, or just breaking the silence by introducing yourself, can go a long way. Listening, even when you don’t understand the language, can go even further.
And yes, when you do need to walk away from someone who appears to be in need, it can seem harsh—and that’s why it’s important to try to understand the underlying structural and economic issues that cause this type of poverty.
Let your experience motivate you into taking action. Instead of giving out spare change, work toward ending poverty on a larger scale. Gain firsthand experience by participating in local anti-poverty initiatives and researching sustainable programs such as micro loans. Get to know the communities, too. For me, researching the livelihoods of refugees living in a garbage dump community was a profound experience that has guided many of my ideals on poverty alleviation since.
2. Challenge the Poverty of Ideas
It’s important to remember that a person’s lack of resources doesn’t equate to a lack of knowledge, says business professor Anil Gupta. Poor communities are often overlooked, but they have a lot to teach mainstream societies.
Instead of offering a quick fix with cash, encourage the development of a “can-do” spirit. Learn about networks such as SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institution), which support grassroots innovations and intellectual property rights among poor inventors and makes sure new ideas are heard—all of which are essential to global progress. Some of the most relevant and creative inventions to come from these efforts include a pedal-powered washing machine and an amphibious bicycle for monsoon season.
Pushing traditional or Western solutions may not work for other cultures and economies. The people within impoverished communities don’t need scholars and experts to solve their challenges—often they just need help spreading their message. Acknowledge that innovation is everywhere, and get refreshed by finding big ideas in small places.
3. Acknowledge Global Complexity
“Why can’t the United Nations just end poverty?” you may wonder. It’s easy to blame world leaders and international institutions for the problems you see while traveling. But consider how challenging it is to make change happen with an issue that’s so pervasive, and bureaucratic processes that slow progress. And whether you’re encountering poverty, trafficking, or even armed conflict, understand that much history has led up to this moment and the issue isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem.
Read up on that history, along with current issues and foreign policy, to get all angles of the story. But, also realize that there have been many success stories of progress. Watch Hans Rosling’s “New Insights on Poverty” TEDTalk for a great visual demonstration of important advances.
4. Get in the Field
If you’re tired of witnessing injustice or poverty on the news or when traveling, take action! You can volunteer, teach abroad, or get a job with an organization in order to learn and serve. You can also serve as a researcher or create a start-up with sustainable and ethical solutions to global challenges. For ideas, check out organizations like Global Exchange or Students Helping Honduras. Know that you can’t change the world overnight, but with determination, small community-based projects and organizations do make an impact.
When traveling, you may see things that make you feel helpless or wear you down. But that doesn’t mean you should fall into callousness or apathy. Take a moment to make the effort—you’ll be surprised at how when you treat people with respect and humanity, it will find its way back to you.