7 assumptions travelers need to stop making when traveling to developing countries
1. “This is a “developing” country.”
Even the term “developing country” can already assume too much. To this day, there is still no standard metric used by global organizations to determine at what point a country is “developed” or not. Without any clear definition, travelers then are left to create their own standards, which are often relative to their own experiences. Is a country “developed” simply because it’s wealthy? Because it has skyscrapers? Because the public transportation runs on time? Without a standard, there is no way to determine which definition is more accurate.
The World Bank decided to stop using the term “developing country” this year, claiming it was no longer a relevant way of categorizing countries. When we travel, we should probably do the same.
2. “If I volunteer or donate to charity here, people will be thankful for whatever I can do to help.”
This hilarious video parodies the problem with this mentality: it arrogantly presents us as somehow the only people capable of solving international problems that we often know little about.
People simply “trying to help” have created some of the worst humanitarian disasters around the world. In most of these cases, these people underestimated the complexity of the problems they tried to solve, and ended up doing far more harm than good. William Easterly’s famous book “The White Man’s Burden” described how this pattern of behavior has played out on a larger scale, with prominent aid organizations entering countries with good intentions but hurtful policies.
Before deciding to volunteer, look for the red flags that warn that an organization may not be helping as much you think. Some even may have histories of taking advantage of travelers eager to lend a hand. The voluntourism sector is now a billion dollar industry. It’s worth doing your research and asking yourself questions before getting involved in any project that simply looks like it’s “helping.”
3. “Just by visiting and funding the tourism sector here, I’m already contributing something positive.”
Wrong again. Just because you’re traveling to a developing country doesn’t mean your tourist dollars are automatically going to the country’s neediest people.
The United Nations has found that in countries like Mexico and Thailand, more than 2/3rds of tourism revenue ends up leaving the country and going mostly to the hands of foreign corporations, not locals. They’ve also found that almost half of tourism revenue is often used to import products that tourists demand.
Tourists should research carefully before making decisions about tours, accommodation, and activities and think twice before requesting certain products while abroad. If not, odds are your tourism dollars haven’t helped any locals at all.
4. “This country is far more dangerous than my own.”
My colleague Matt Hershberger recently published a piece reporting the statistics of homicide around the world. His discovery: the murder rate in many Middle Eastern and Northern African countries is equal to or lower than the murder rate in the United States. The U.S. murder rate is also higher than the rate in India, Indonesia, and China. The United States also has more mass shootings than any other country.
With these statistics in mind, Matt argues that there’s a layer of xenophobia in the assumption that “developing” countries are the dangerous ones: “The implication is that here, at home, you are safe. There, abroad, you are not.”
5. “My country is way ahead of this one.”
Developing countries do not deserve to be the symbol for backwardness. In fact, in many ways, these countries are far more ahead than we are. There’s much the U.S. can learn from developing countries, especially in the areas of environmentalism, food sovereignty, gender representation, women’s rights at work, voting rights, prison reform, and general quality of life. In many of these areas, these countries have succeeded far more than we have.
6. “People here won’t mind if I take their picture and post it on my Instagram. ”
Organizations like Global Service Learning have written about the broadly accepted ethical photography guidelines for taking photos abroad.
Tourism photos can perpetuate stereotypes, degrade local culture, or generally make locals feel uncomfortable. Instead of assuming that your photos are harmless, always ask explicit permission before including someone in them.
7. “After taking a history class in college and reading the Lonely Planet, I know everything I need to know about this place.”
Our media, publishing industry, school curriculums, and travel guidebooks are all dominated by people from the West. With all of that in mind, it’s fair to say that most of us were raised surrounded by heavily biased messaging of non-western countries. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously called this “the danger of a single story.” She argued that these stories give us “incomplete” ideas of a place that don’t take into account a country’s complicated context.
We could never expect a book or college class to capture 200 years of complex, American history perfectly. So we can’t consider ourselves experts on a region’s history simply because we’ve devoted some time to studying it. Instead, we should take any “story” we’ve heard about a place with a healthy dose of skepticism, stay curious, and never believe we’ve heard all we need to know.