THE DARK SIDE OF TRAVEL
Updated: Sep 17
There's a side of travel that most people don't see or think about. What you see is mainly major attractions, tourist sites and breathtaking views, especially on social media... It's really all you'll see if you search a location online.
The first time I ever saw a child begging in the streets was in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. A child approached my study abroad group on a walking tour of the city. All I had was 10 BAM in the currency which equates to $5.94. As we walked away, I pulled the guide aside and asked if this was common - he admonished me for giving the child money at all - explaining they were Gypsies (which is an offensive term for someone who is Romani). Frankly he went on a bit of a tirade about it and I finally got frustrated with his perspective. Like I told him, "that doesn't mean they aren't hungry."
These photos were taken later in Skopje, Macedonia. This particular city was like nowhere else I've ever been to.
There were random daunting statues towering over us that looked like something out of a movie. All of them were dripping with red paint from a protest the previous day.
It kind of amazed me that in a capital with so many towering expensive looking statues, there were still kids having to beg.
And then I thought, that even where I'm from in the United States 1 in 5 kids go hungry. That's 16.2M kids who experience food insecurity in one of the richest countries in the world. And around the world - more than 300M kids are chronically hungry.
It's difficult to know what to do in these types of situations. Do you give money to them on the street? Volunteer? Donate to an organization you think is reputable? And if you do, how do you know that they truly benefit those who live there and are in need of support?
It's honestly a hot debated topic. What should you do???
In regards to volunteering abroad, it's actually been gaining negative attention in the past few years. It's now a term called "voluntourism."
The Huffington Post wrote an article, When Volunteering Abroad Does More Harm Than Good which said, "There’s a growing body of scholarship demonstrating that the potential inadvertent harms of short-term international volunteering often outweigh the positives. Voluntourism can reinforce paternalism, expecting hosting communities to be passive and grateful “recipients.” Volunteers’ efforts often shirk pressing issues like infrastructure and resource shortages, or unknowingly duplicate existing resources. Sociologist Judith Lasker finds most global health volunteering benefits the sending organizations and the volunteers more than the host communities. Anthropologist Nicole Berry’s work reveals that volunteer medical missioners often prioritize their own interests rather than local needs."
I discovered volunteering responsibly revolves around asking the right questions. Go Overseas shared their advice, particularly for those who are looking to do "short-term" volunteering to ask:
Is this organization locally run and well-supported?
What specific activities does this organization do regularly? Will these be up and running while I’m there?
Are my skills and interests an obvious fit for this organization? Are they mutually compatible?
Is anyone liable to be harmed in any way by my temporary involvement? (Kids fall into this category -- going to a school for two weeks may result in children getting emotionally attached to you when you're not a permanent member of their community.)
Coming from someone who has personally done volunteer trips abroad when I was a teenager, looking back on the things I tried to help with (which were all with locals and local organizations) i.e., volunteering in Costa Rica when I was 13, building bunk beds for kids living in a slum, helping build a cafeteria for a remote high school and painting murals.. helping in food kitchens and cleaning beaches in Spain when I was 16, building a bathroom for a disabled girl in a remote village of Peru when I was 17... I'd like to think I helped, but now I don't know.
I genuinely don't know if it would have been better to just give the money used to get me there and give it to an organization in those countries to fund and build it themselves, have citizens volunteer their own time to help their own citizens or clean their own beaches. When I googled what were the best solutions (yes, I googled this) - the search engine didn't really come up with a definitive or consistent answer.
Those who are the most vulnerable and at risk in this world are unequivocally children and I think they deserve all the help they can get, but it of course it needs to be done in the best way possible.
Overall this is a side of travel that many don't see on social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. There's a lot of pain and struggle in this world and it's not all rose fields and scenic views - it's the "uglier" truth to life we don't always want to showcase. But it exists and it won't go away by covering it up with prettier content.
I hope this made you think a bit about what you would do in situations like these and if you want to help/volunteer - what research you should do before proceeding.