Interesting discussion lately on Twitter about a country that I truly love, Egypt, and am looking forward to visiting again and again. I had the chance to spend over a month in Dahab, one of my favorite beach towns in the world earlier this year on my second trip through and have loved a great bit about this bit of land that spawned one of the oldest and most interesting civilizations the world has ever seen.
Got it?? I love Egypt. I even wrote a few posts after the revolution earlier this year, encouraging people to come visit this great county. That being said….
The Arab Spring and Egypt
In case you have somehow missed it, Egypt this year has been in the midst of a huge bit of turmoil and a lot of change in the last year, though frankly I seriously doubt anything will politically change too much in the end. The Arab Spring has swept across the region, toppling tyrannical regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and most notably, Egypt.
In recent weeks, what looked promising in Egypt has turned sour. The Egyptian military was amazingly restrained in the uprising at the beginning of the year that toppled the horrific Mubarak government. They then took control over the government during a “transitional period” and have promised democratic elections.
Recently, protesters took back to the streets wanting a quicker end to military rule and establishment of true civilian rule (which I frankly doubt ever happens) in recent days.
Unlike the big set of protests earlier this year, the military replied with ferocity, killing over 20 and wounding over 1,500.
The protesters have not backed down and it looks like the violent repression on the part of the military is likely to continue — from today’s NY Times, Chaos Builds As Truce Fails.
Why this world political update?
Recently there have been a fair number of tweets advocating the message to “come to Egypt now, because the people need your tourist dollars.”
It seems, not too shockingly, that people are loath to visit countries in the midst of turmoil, especially the kind where people are getting shot down in the streets.
My personal side of this debate, which is a discussion that can occur whether you want to visit Burma with its repressive (though perhaps lately getting better) government, Uganda with its anti-gay government crusade, or even some cities in the United States with how they have brutalized some of the Occupy Wall Street protesters (really appalling story and video of that here) is this…
Personally, I draw the line on governments killing peaceful protestors.
You either have a line regarding your social conscience and travel or you don’t. If you don’t, that’s fine. If you do have a line, draw it where you like, but personally, I am not really going to be happy supporting a country’s tourism income when they are shooting down peaceful protesters in the streets.
And don’t think for a minute that going to countries, especially still-developing countries like Egypt, doesn’t serve to help support the ruling government. Aside from money they get from visa fees, sales taxes and other tourist-based taxes, a good number of these countries are so corrupt that businesses (local and international) have to pay the government nicely for the right to do business there.
Tourism income, no doubt, does help prop up these regimes.
On the other hand, I also have quite some sympathy with the argument that you should go to countries like this and do your best to put your dollars to work helping the local economy. If tourism drops for whatever reason, the people in that country suffer from a lack of income.
I get it. I do see both sides of this and have really no problems with people making either choice that they wish.
While that part of it is a discussion I feel has two very valid sides to it, here is what came out of that discussion that I think has almost zero validity.
The Third World Guilt Trip
As part of this particular Twitter chat, the blogger that was currently in Egypt said they were sitting next to someone who owned a tour company of there. At one point she tweeted this:
These are his words, not mine: “You don’t get it. You are murdering us, not the govt. You are not helping us.”
To use Travels of Adam’s words, which he immediately tweeted in reply — “I’m not killing anyone.” Period. And to make that argument is assinine.
And trying to guilt trip me into going there is not only counter-productive, its pathetic.
I have occasionally heard variations of this guilt trip in a variety of places. The cabbie in Namibia that wanted to overcharge us, after agreeing to a fare at the beginning of the route, screaming at us “you are all rich white people — what does a few dollars matter to you?” The kids begging in a variety of places with variations of “but you are rich, just a dollar.” The restaurants with different menus with different prices, foreign or local, where they just shrug at you when you mention it. The people asking me to help them move to America, because “everyone is rich there.” The variations are endless.
I appreciate that the geography, and good fortune, of one’s birth is completely and totally random. I have written about it on this website more that a few times. There are amazingly difficult questions you confront when traveling in the underdeveloped world and the inequality of opportunity based solely on where you are born is high on that list.
But, there are a LOT of places far, far worse off then Egypt right now.
If “helping the people” was the primary reason for travel, then we all better hitch up our wagons and get ready to spend our money in Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Haiti, because their people are doing far worse than Egyptians are.
Hell, just in the Middle East, if “helping people” were the criteria, then its time to hit Yemen, Libya and Tunisia before Egypt. I dare say there might be some people reading this post in Michigan or Ohio saying, “hey — we aren’t exactly doing great here also.”
Egypt is about middle of the pack in terms of per capita GDP at 137th out of 227 countries. Certainly not rich, but far from dragging along the bottom. In fact, in non-per capita terms, Egypt is the 27th richest county in the world — they have a fair bit of monetary backing to be doing some good things to their own economy.
And to the Egyptian tourism operator, who I bet has probably made a pretty good living over the years, let me ask, have you been spending your tourism dollars in downtrodden countries like Chad or Niger or Mali, so as to help those people with your spending?
Because if you have been vacationing in Europe instead… let me say, pathetic argument and you are a hypocrite.
Here are the two groups of people that I have a duty to support with my spending: my government, to which I pay taxes and to which protects me and provides various basic necessities for my fellow citizens, and my children, of which I don’t have any right now…. that I am aware of.
Other than that, I’m free to do whatever the hell I want with my money. As are you.
Speaking of my tax dollars, let me also remind you that Egypt has been sucking off the U.S. taxpayers teat strongly since 1979. Egypt is the 2nd largest recipient of the entire U.S. foreign aid budget. We have given your country an average of $2 billion per year, every year, since 1979.
And I, along with the rest of my fellow citizens, have been the one’s ponying up that cash transfer to your great country all this time.
So hop up off my ass and stop accusing me of somehow being worse and more culpable than your current military government… who is literally shooting its own citizens in cold blood.
There is somewhat a sense of entitlement in some of the developing world that, as hyper-liberal as I am in my politics, I found quite on my travels. When I was in Ethiopia, the President was on the front page of the paper saying they needed to become more self-sufficient — somewhere between a quarter and a third of their entire annual government budget is from foreign aid. When I was Nicaragua, the locals in San Juan del Sur complained long and hard about the poor state of the road from Managua — the entire amount that was sent to them by the World Bank to pave the road was stolen by the President at the time, who ended up serving a little easy time under house arrest for it later. When in Saigon, I heard a story about a western company that lost out on a contract to build a bridge, because their engineering specifications would have made the bridge last for 30 years.
“But then there won’t be any jobs for people to repair the bridge when it breaks,” was the local reply.
There have been numerous books written on the topic of how long-term foreign aid just makes countries dependent on… more foreign aid, and really doesn’t end up doing much for the people of the country. Leaders steal the money. There is corruption all down the line from the top to the bottom. On the whole, it is just money thrown away for the most part, never to do any real people any good in the end.
Personally, even as a bleeding heart liberal, after even my little bit of travels in the developing world, I am a little sick of the sense of entitlement that I see, from governments down to some of the people on the street. There is an argument that dependence on foreign aid at the government level seeps into the consciousness of the people and leads to a sense of entitlement at that level also.
Frankly, I think that’s more than possible.
I don’t OWE you anything. If I choose to spend my money in your country, that is my choice. Just as it is your choice whether you or not you want to visit my country, or buy Coca-Cola or go to McDonald’s.
What Am I Going to Do to Help
So I am going to turn my annoyance at this misguided, but I am sure lovely and caring, Egyptian chap and do what I can for people in need in Egypt. Hopefully in a thoughtful and meaningful way, although I wish I could do more.
For each person that posts a comment on this thread that is a constructive and productive discussion of this difficult issue, I am going to donate $3 to the Egyptian Red Crescent organization, unless someone can suggest a better charity to get to the people in need in Egypt.
And if you make a donation to them also, I will match the first $20 of any donation you make. Here is the link to the Egyptian Red Crescent donate page.
Edit: If you want to donate by credit card, it appears the Egyptian Red Crescent page doesn’t accept online payments (though you can send a check). The link for the International Red Crescent is here.
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