Faces of Need

by Lauren on August 22, 2011

In recent travels, I have become increasingly aware of the notion of “giving back.” It may take the form of staying in an eco-friendly lodge in Costa Rica, leaving a generous tip for a porter on a trekking expedition, or simply sharing travel stories with the owner of a Swiss health food store.

The common thread is that traveling is about more than your own experience on the trail. It considers how the visited part is different after you leave. Have you invested dollars into a developing economy, assisting in job creation? Have you attempted the local language, leaving natives with the feeling that you are sensitive to their culture? My personal belief is that one’s footprints should be light, and positive.

But what about encounters with those who are less fortunate? Are we necessarily obligated to give to them, when traveling? As an American, my travels in Bangladesh were enlightening. Giving to a blind beggar on the street may have eased his struggle to find food for a day, but it was far from a long-term strategy to alleviate poverty.

I was fortunate to intern at Grameen Bank, where I witnessed a robust banking system extended to the country’s poorest. Through small loans with a low interest rate and no collateral, participants were encouraged to build their own small businesses. The Grameen model encourages loan recipients to think creatively of the ways they can lift themselves out of poverty. Many have been, or are on their way to being successful, whether living off the fruits of a stool-making business, or being able to provide meals for their families.

As travelers, do we have an obligation to help those that are needy? Or is it better to not meddle with local, successful programs? My experience has been that the greater the disparity in wealth between my home country and the visited country, the more I am expected to give.

In the United States, I am struck by how differently some homeless people present themselves, when compared with certain individuals who beg in developing countries. I have seen homeless in the US wearing ear buds, holding a sign saying, “Need 40 cents for bus ride home.” One weathered-looking individual clutched a cell phone, carrying on at length about the day’s events with whoever it was at the other end of the call.

I’m not likely to give to the guy with ear buds, or to the one chatting on the phone.

But each has his own story, the details of which I am not aware. It is clear that there will be varying states of “poorness,” between countries with disparities in wealth. However, does that affect one’s propensity to give? Should it? While I ponder these questions further, I welcome your tales. What have been your experiences of giving back while traveling?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura August 23, 2011 at 2:02 am

When did you intern at Grameen Bank? I've read so much about it recently since my job this summer in South Africa was in social entrepreneurship. I would love to hear more about it!

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Lauren August 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Always happy to chat more! I interned there during the Summer between MBA years, in 2009. A lot of the work was in rural areas, studying the ways the rural beggars benefited from various lending programs. The Grameen model is not without critique in the area, but it was an eye-opening experience.

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