Thursday, 2 August 2007

The Ethics of Tourism

Holidaying outside the comfort-zone that is Western Europe and the Med brings its own share of ethical dilemmas. Chief among these, it seems, is the question of culpability. India confronts you with poverty and illness of sometimes staggering proportions, side by side with the glossy malls and BMW's of the recent economic boom. It's all rather Dickensian really. The question is, how should we respond?
My travelling companion was unable to bear the weight of these dilemmas at first. She felt responsible somehow, she said. She couldn't countenance going to spend £40 (or rupees equivalent) on lavish wedding clothes when seconds outside the air-conditioned shopping complex families with small children were sleeping on the pavement and men with no legs were begging for her loose change.

I argued that simply by being there, by spending our money locally, and giving occasionally to those in need, we were doing as much as could be required. How could I, a citizen of a foreign country, be expected to take direct responsibility for what I saw around me? If this had been my own country, Scotland, I would feel it was my problem. I would vote, act, and pay more taxes to alleviate this sort of poverty. That, indeed, is what the political spectrum in any democratic nation is all about. In my opinion India's progress was India's responsibilty - specifically that of its government and political and business classes.

My friend responded that all our advantages are simply the result of good fortune, and the indirect effect of a global market which privileges the west at the expense of the rest. A highly Rawlsian argument. If we were no more entitled that these other people to our superior standard of living, why feel that what we have is necessarily ours to keep? Wouldn't it be ethically fairer to empty our purses in a poor district and get straight back on the plane to our comfortable lives rather than living it up surrounded by the failure of the market system eating directly into our consciences?

Even if that were true, I felt, simply giving right left and centre won't solve the central problem, namely why a country with expected 10% economic growth this year can't provide better basic services to its people. Corruption? Incompetence? Or simply the result of a system where class difference is institutionalised and poverty normalised? In any case, we were seeing everything through Western eyes. How could first impressions tell us whether globalisation, urbanisation and market liberalisation had improved or decreased standards for the average Indian citizen?

Since 1980 China, for example, has sustained the highest rates of growth in per capita incomes in the world. Not coincidentally, it has also been the most successful in reducing poverty. From 1981 to 2001, the numbers of poor people living on less than $1/day reduced from 634 to 211 million. Over the past decade it has become increasingly evident that trade policies are instrumental to reaching global development goals. Indeed, a study by the University of Michigan has proved that as a result of the Uruguay Round of WTO talks, worldwide welfare increased by 75 billion Dollars.

Before we presume to say what is in the best interests of developing countries, we should let them judge for themselves. As the eminent economist Jagdish Bhagwati explains, if workers in the Developing World accept what we - in the West - regard as extremely low wages, they must regard these wages as improvements. [1]. Several empirical studies find that - contrary to what Naomi Klein's 'No Logo' suggests - multinationals pay what economists now call a ‘wage premium' - that is they pay an average wage that exceeds the going rate, mostly up to 10 percent and exceeding it in some cases. [2] . That's why we have to be careful of taking the anti-globalisation lobby's fears at face value.

I guess the bigger problem for India is over-population combined with rapid urbanisation, as in many developing countries. Though I was surprised to learn that 75% of Indians living below the poverty line dwell in the countryside. Clearly poverty and quality of life are not directly correlatable. The villages I saw were mostly neat, clean and peaceful. They may have been poor but they did not suffer the overflowing sewers, rubbish and spread of disease that occurs in cities. People need space, they need greenery, they need fresh food and fresh air. Those cannot be measured by money alone.

[1] In his 2004 Treatise, In Defence of Globalization[2] (In Defence of Globalization, p. 172).

1 comment:

Michael said...

I agree that traveling to places where the contrast between rich and poor are huge, and at the same time very visible (not always the case), is very discomforting. A lot depends on what you count as poor - on village level, people may not have money but may have food... and I've encountered some great joie de vivre among poor people (in monetary terms). As a tourist, there is not much one can do, except for trying to ensure that the money spent will somehow benefit the local community, so that they can develop their economy. Oh well, I could go on but I'll leave it here. M.