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How Do You Give Back as a Traveler?

by Matt Hershberger Jul 30, 2014

Whenever I get back from traveling in a developing country, I always feel like I need to give money to someone. Travel perforates the veil of privilege like nothing else, and that can do three things:

  1. It can make you feel really lucky.
  2. It can make you feel extremely compassionate toward those less fortunate.
  3. It can make you feel incredibly guilty.

These three elements have a tendency to combine and morph into a strong desire to help in one way or another. But this desire is often blind. What should I do? Should I give to the local Kiwanis Club? Should I like this Invisible Children video? Should I tweet at Barack Obama?

There are obviously some things that work — contacting politicians and news outlets, giving to certain charities — and some things that don’t work — liking Facebook videos, giving to certain charities. But it’s hard to know which is which. Here’s a starter guide for some of the things you can do to be both a traveler and a giver.

The “Help While I’m There” Approach

To be honest, the jury is out on voluntourism. It’s a new field, and it’s often ineffective, harmful, or even straight-up criminal. The basic rule of thumb is this: If you’re going to travel somewhere to help, try to help with something you have experience and training in. As Pippa Biddle points out, your presence may simply be a burden — you may actually be making life harder for those you’re trying to help. So if you’re a doctor, great! Go help sick people get better. If you’re in construction, awesome! Build that house. If you don’t know how to do these things, chances are you’re not helping.

That said, there are some good voluntourist sites to check out. One of the best is ( if you’re in the UK). They’ll help you find a trip, and can also help you book it.

The “Help as Many People as I Can” Approach

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer implores philanthropists to consider one thing when they give: How can I get the most bang for my buck? In his incredible TED talk, he uses the example of blindness. In the developed world, it costs around $40,000 to train a seeing-eye dog. In a developing country, however, it costs $20-$50 to cure someone with glaucoma. Singer argues that the most ethical thing to do is to cure the 400 to 2,000 people in the developing world rather than provide one blind person in the developed world with a guide dog.

Several of his proponents have put together, with his cooperation, a website named “The Life You Can Save,” which is designed to help people get the biggest bang for their buck when they give. They only recommend 10 charities — charities that don’t waste their money on bureaucracy and manage to affordably fix big problems. It’s an incredible site if you want to get a lot done when you give, and it helps ensure you’ll help as many people as you possibly can.

The “Think Globally, Act Locally” Approach

There are plenty of stories of people traveling to small towns in Africa or Asia and finding that certain products they use in their day-to-day lives back home are made in an appalling factory in the town they’re passing through. Or maybe they’ll see young kids wearing secondhand, discarded Western shirts trumpeting the traveler’s high school senior prom. All of these are possibilities because we live in a very globalized world. And that’s probably not going anyway anytime soon — barring the collapse of modern civilization.

So the “Think Globally, Act Locally” Approach to living is a good place to start. By changing the way you behave at home, you are helping change the lives of people elsewhere. Unfortunately, there’s almost too much information to keep track of in order to live this way. Not only do you need to buy local food and drive your car less, but you need to make sure the products you’re buying don’t outsource their manufacturing to factories with terrible labor conditions.

Here are a couple places to start: First, calculate your carbon footprint. You can use that to figure out what areas of your life are contributing most to climate change. Second, if you have a smartphone, download the Buycott app and use it to scan your everyday products so you can determine if they’re in line with your ethics or not.

The important thing to remember is that globalization has made a hypocrite of everyone. It’s very likely that you’re against slave labor, but are perhaps unaware it’s responsible for many of the products you use (here’s a calculator for that). That’s okay, as long as you’re trying to fix that hypocrisy. You’ve gotta start somewhere.

The “Fight the System” Approach

Of course, a lot of problems are systemic and aren’t going to be changed simply through volunteering, giving, or by living sustainably. Sometimes, you need to campaign. If you’re living in a democracy, you have the fortunate ability to change the way your society works. First, Americans, find your representative. There are people who are specifically employed to read your emails, snail mail, and tweets, and to field your telephone calls. You may not think you can make a difference, but you’re wrong. Democracy, bitch.

Second, you can join campaigns and groups that are geared toward making the world a better place. A really good spot to start is at Amnesty International. Ultimately, there are a billion things you can do to make the world a better place. The key is to start doing them now.

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