Published on February 8th, 2013 |
by Joe Lo
Image © akoayecandice
Third-World Poverty and the Gap Yah crowd
During my recent travels in South-East Asia, I came across many fellow travellers, most of whom were charming, friendly, eccentric, and an overall interesting bunch of people. But what also struck me was the unfortunate commonness of callous, selfish and ignorant attitudes, rooted in the view that we, as travellers, were being “ripped off” by the greedy locals.
The practice of two-tier pricing is common across Asia; it is a system whereby “farang” (foreign tourists) pay a much higher price for things than locals. It was also a major cause of annoyance for the backpackers in my acquaintance, who felt they were being made a fool of and discriminated against. In one obvious sense they’re right: economists call this practice “discriminatory pricing” and it’s common worldwide as it makes sense for business to charge richer people more. This is why in England we have special prices for students and OAPS because they tend to be poorer. Amazon has tried to introduce discriminatory pricing, by offering different prices for the same goods depending on how wealthy your search history made you look. For example, if you’d been searching for caviar and opera tickets you’d be given a higher price than if you’d been searching for super-value cider and baked beans. They had to stop this because of a public backlash, but to me it seems perfectly fair that the rich should pay more both in England and especially in Asia.
Backpackers may not feel that they are “the rich” – as in England, most of them aren’t – but in Asia they definitely are. Anyone in England who can find a job can earn £6 an hour, which may not be a lot, but it is far more than £30 a month, which is the minimum wage in Cambodia. Therefore, it would be ridiculous and impossible for locals and foreigners to pay the same price. It would result in business going bust and neither tourists nor locals being able to travel.
Furthermore, the injustice lies not in the two-tier pricing system for Thai coaches for example, but the massive inequality between Europe and Asia that Western backpackers exploit for a cheap holiday.
This ridiculous and unfounded resentment leads even pleasant Westerners to voice some very cruel attitudes and statements. One friendly German social worker I met said that “if you can’t afford to have children, you shouldn’t have them”, which is very easy for a Westerner to say, with her western salary and welfare-state safety net. The statement effectively condemns many Asian women, who are poor through no fault of their own (but rather, largely through the fault of Western governments and their electorates), to never starting a family.
Watching Westerners haggle in the markets was similarly unpleasant. The fact that there are many market-vendors selling the same thing gives buyers the power to bargain down the already low prices to rock-bottom level, taking smug glee in walking away and listening to the sellers’ desperate offers of further discounts. It is a dynamic which is mercilessly exploited by Westerners, a game which forms part of their third-world market experience, but which, for the sellers, determines how much money they will get, and whether they can send their kids to school; whether they can repair their roof before the rainy season. A frequent excuse backpackers give is that for Asians, bargaining is “a traditional part of their culture”. This is half-true: local people of similar means haggling to find a price which they can both accept is traditional – but rich foreigners bargaining down cheap prices to super-cheap prices is a very new and unsavoury twist. Another excuse is to claim that locals “like haggling”. But, they’d like it a lot more if they were given the price they originally asked for. For them, it is not a game.
During my travels I also witnessed a lot of ignorant moralising about parents not sending their children to school. The basic logic behind this was “I’d send my kids to school, so should they”, which fails to take into account that the circumstances affecting a Westerner’s decision and an Asian person’s decision are completely different. You (a Westerner) have free schooling until 18, a guaranteed basic standard of living and child labour laws. They (an Asian) don’t necessarily. Arguably, they should send their children to school – but an outsider to their experiences cannot say that without first putting themselves in their shoes, and making decisions based on the circumstances they face, not the ones you face back home.
Underscoring all these attitudes was an apathy to poverty. I did not hear anybody say that it was tragic how poor the countries were. There was no discussion of who was responsible for it, no guilt in the role of Western governments, corporations and citizens, no desire to make things better. All discussions were focussed on how that poverty affected us as travellers: “too much hassle”… “everyone wants your money”, etc. Much of the problem is that poverty in this part of the world is seen as natural (“of course Asia’s poor, it’s Asia”). But this attitude is an abomination: poverty should never be taken for granted or accepted, and it shouldn’t be considered casually. To quote Nelson Mandela, “like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings”. Anyone travelling in poor countries would do well to remember this.