‘Poverty porn’ and ‘beg-packing’: colonial etiquette in developing countries

By Danielle Cuaycong

Rudyard Kipling once eminently wrote, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”, and with increased tourism in developing countries, you would never expect this quote to still ring true.

Coming from the Philippines, a developing country in Southeast Asia, I have witnessed the prevalence of the patronising tone tourists naturally adopt when they approach the local population. Conversations typically comprise of saying that Filipinos are ‘so cute’ and continue with the idea that the people are ‘out of reality’ since they do not have the same privileges as us.

However, this is the issue – whilst it may be noble of these backpackers to appreciate the warmth of Filipinos, the ignorant ideas of travellers from colonial nations materialise. Often they demean the people they meet overseas by using simplistic phrases, as well as seeing locals as an ‘attraction’ instead of being a part of society. Rather than immersing themselves in the true (and sometimes, harsh) reality of the conditions of these developing countries, they remain onlookers and choose to imagine that Filipinos are ‘noble savages’.

Often tourists see locals as an ‘attraction’ instead of being part of society

Most of the time, privileged, white backpackers exert their narrow-mindedness and seem to think that ‘poverty porn’ is justified, as they inundate images of themselves on their Instagram feeds with street beggars and poor orphans in a rather unconvincing attempt to appear ‘kind’. However, if the local people hesitate at being photographed and ask for a small payment in exchange for the photos, the backpackers are deeply offended and often baulk at sparing twenty pence because they’re ‘on a budget’.

We should see the population with respect, rather than as a spectacle

The fundamental concern is that travelling to a country is not purely about seeing the ‘cute locals’, it is about enriching your history of the country in a responsible way by appreciating the place, history and people. We should see the population with respect, rather than as a spectacle.

To make matters worse, in an attempt to ‘save money’, some tourists indulge in ‘beg-packing’. This controversial spectacle ranges from backpackers begging in the realms of train stations to selling ‘art’ in the busiest of roads, all in an attempt to ask people in the poorest countries to fund their extravagant country-hopping. Social media has been besieged with images of sad-looking ‘beg-packers’ holding signs, claiming to have ‘no money left’. Meaning, ‘no money left’ to throw at sleeping in a warm hotel, or dining in a fancy restaurant, whilst plenty of locals likely have ‘no money left’ to buy a cup of clean drinking water.

I have witnessed the patronising tone tourists naturally adopt when they approach the local population

Unfortunately, a lot of backpackers who struggle to carry the load of their Osprey backpacks around Thailand, are unaware of the true meaning of ‘struggle’. They continue to objectify the locals in develop- ing countries and sometimes, even ‘beg-pack’ to fund their next trip to a waterfall, where they hope to ‘find themselves’.

Photograph: David McKelvey via Flickr Creative Commons

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