The Price Westerners Pay

If you have traveled to a developing country, and you are from a global north country particularly if you are from America, you probably have noticed that the price for commodities, entrance fees, services etc. are more for you than for locals. While this is normal throughout the world, this raises the question: do global north travelers, particularly white travelers, have a responsibility to pay more for commodities and services than locals pay? If so, how much more, and how do we determine that price?

To me the answer is, OF COURSE! Americans have global economic, social and political power. In, almost all developing nations holding an American passport means you have rights and privileges that nationals and other international people do not have. However, I feel compelled to write about this because as students and aid-workers (who make little to no money), we are on a tight budget, saving whenever we can, so navigating through economic privilege while traveling and working for an NGO can be difficult.

Throughout my time in Ethiopia so far, I have found myself in situations where my group and I feel frustrated about the extra money we have to pay here. Taxi rides are 50-100B + more for us, there seems to be a cover charge at the bars when we enter with our group (while Ethiopians enter for free), even water can be a couple Birr more. We have recently discovered that Ethiopian flights are up to 60% more for foreigners (particularly global north foreigners) than for locals (if no special discounts are applied). Moreover, we are easily scammed into buying extra items, not being allowed into clubs/lounges/bars/restaurants without a cover charge that locals do not pay, being kicked out of places for not spending enough etc. We are often reminded that as foreigners we will have to do more to use and buy the same services/commodities that locals use and buy for a lot less.

So where is the line? How do we stay away from scammers and pay a reasonable price while still being mindful of our privilege?

The first question I think we need to address is, why do local businesses feel as if they need to scam us? The more and more I think about this, I realize that “scam” may not be the best word to use in these situations. Business owners, taxi drivers, local boutique owners know of our economic privilege, and they also have experience with foreigners (including aid-workers) exploiting their nation for selfish reasons with no intention or action of giving back. They know that the Birr we pay for services here is a mere couple dollars, and they are trying to leverage that economic power for their benefit. It is a hustle. As social-justice minded people, we need to be aware of this: while a couple Birr (even 100 Birr) may not mean much to us, it probably means a lot more for locals. So when we notice the price difference between us and locals, and still choose to argue for prices closer to local prices, are we not scamming them?

My larger question is, when we (American foreigners) are upset about the extreme price difference between us and locals, are we really upset about the price, because by American standards we aren’t paying much, or are we upset about the expectations the locals have for us; the fact that we will have to pay a price (metaphorically- pun fully intended) that local people do not have to? Is this a question of entitlement and privilege more than it is about price?

We are privileged people, regardless of our student/aid-worker status, coming into this country, using their resources, taking up their space, traveling and experiencing things in this country that many locals don’t have the opportunity to experience, and then leaving back to America. While in America we may not be economically, politically or socially privileged, we must consider the relative privilege when traveling to developing nations. How unfair is that privileged foreigners will experience more of Ethiopia than some Ethiopians will experience in their lifetime!? To me, this is a form of exploitation. Yes, we are aid-workers, yes we are students but we have hell of a lot of American economic privilege during our time here. And let’s be honest, we are fully taking advantage of the currency difference between Birr and dollars when it is convenient for us.

These questions, topics and themes are a lot more complicated than this blog leads on. Western foreigners are not a hegemonic identity; westerners compromise of many different races, genders, classes, political identities etc., and therefore not all western foreigners have economic, political or social privilege in developing nations. I do not mean to create a judgment or a mandate that all western foreigners must pay exuberant prices while traveling to developing nations. On the contrary, I do believe we should be knowledgeable of local prices and reasonable rates.

What I am learning to consider and imploring fellow students and aid-workers to consider is the relative economic privilege that one has, especially holding an American passport, and to consider how we can be mindful of this privilege, whether it be paying more for commodities and services, or frequenting local spots and businesses rather than larger chains businesses or foreign owned businesses.