Why Do First-World Travelers Feel Like Walking ATMs in Third-World Countries?

SOUTHEAST ASIA—Walking through the streets of a third-world country, it’s immediately apparent how wealthy we are in comparison to so much of the rest of the world. In America and the rest of the West, you are considered poor if you don’t own a smart phone. We’re developed to the level where it’s expected that our society has the infrastructure to feed, house, and clothe the majority of it’s members. Not to overlook the scores of people in cities in America that lack basic access to these things, it’s simply that we live in a place where the per capita income is substantially higher than many other countries, and as a result we enjoy, on average, and incredibly high standard of living and expectation for the standard of our own lives.



In a place like Indonesia, there isn’t the same wealth circulating. The disparity between the haves and have nots is not based on community borders, it is based on national borders. If you live in the United States and are struggling, there is at the very least the infrastructure available for you to feed and house yourself. They might not be desirable options, especially when you see how other people a few streets over live their lives, but the opportunity to apply for government assistance exists. Indonesians do not have the same opportunity. For them, there is no option to attend community college and become an actuary. There are no trade unions to join whilst you work an apprenticeship and learn a valuable skill set. The capital circulation that exists in the US is simply nonexistent in the developing world, which makes it ever more apparent when you are in a tourist destination with Westerners walking around, taking photos on iPhones. We might not have a lot of money by our own standards, but judging by the standards of the third world, we are quite literally walking ATMs.


Walking down the street, you are constantly stopped and asked for money or to buy a souvenir or trinket. It’s true that there are large swaths of the first world where there are people who need help, but there is not as stark a contrast between someone who so obviously has money and opportunity and someone who does not. It raises a philosophical quandary that doesn’t exist in one’s home country: when traveling and visiting a foreign land, what obligation do we have to contribute to those who have so much less than us? Some of us may have automatic reactions one way or another—you might have had an experience which has caused you to stop giving money to strangers, or you might give everyone you see the spare singles in your pocket. Yet when you are in a different country and unaware of the customs and norms of the country you are visiting, it’s a tough question. Why do you have any right to walk the streets of their home city, take photos of their landmarks, perhaps stay in a Western-based hotel, but give no money to the people who may need it most? On the flip side, should you encourage begging in a place where it’s so common that there is no social taboo against it, when perhaps such a taboo would be beneficial?


The next obvious conundrum is the fact that so many beggars and sellers are children. What should you do here? You may want desperately to give the kid a buck…so many motion with their hands that they want something to eat, and you might be making a real difference in the life of an 8-year-old that has no other option. But at the same time, are you conditioning an 8-year-old to think that it’s OK to beg, and that this behavior will always be rewarded? What will happen once they turn 11? Or 14? When they are at an age when they could reasonably begin to support themselves by some other means, but have been socially conditioned to beg for a living, or hawk goods on the sidewalk, having spent the majority of their schooling years skipping out to make a few bucks, leaving them in a position where they have no opportunity at another kind of life?


It’s a difficult question, and there are no right answers. Yet it’s something to keep in the back of your mind when you’re traveling in a third-world country; that if you are a Western traveler you automatically have more opportunity than most locals could ever even conceive of, regardless of how much money you are spending on your trip. They see you as coming from a land of wealth and opportunity—a land where you can travel to another country for pleasure. Not everyone from the West can do that. But if you find yourself in this position, you are one who can. And it’s easy to see why someone from the third-world views you as a walking ATM…you have disposable capital that they could never dream. So the choice to give to someone who’s in need is yours, just remember to think about why you are viewed in that manner when you’re traveling, and be thankful for the opportunities you do have.