Last time, I argued that those of us in rich countries can help more by earning money to give than by traveling to poor countries. But what about the understanding you can get from first-hand experience?
Travel is always a learning experience. It's a good way to see things about your own society that you never noticed until you saw a system that worked differently. It's a way to meet people whose lives have been very different from your own.
But most of my learning from living in other countries (Denmark and Ecuador) came from talking to people who had lived there all their lives. Conversations with my host families and teachers there were more illuminating than what I was able to observe walking around the streets. If you're in a place for a few weeks or months, you spend a lot of time getting your bearings. Unless you're going to spend years in a place, most of your learning will be mediated through people who have lived there a long time. And you don't need to leave your home country to meet people from around the world.
Several times when I've been between jobs, I've volunteered for a few weeks at a refugee services organization. I didn't accomplish anything earth-shattering, but I got to know people from places I had only read about: Nepal, Cuba, Ethiopia, Haiti, Somalia.
Instead of statistics, they became real people to me. I admired their bravery, their humor, their work ethic, and their loyalty to their families. When you listen to other people's life stories you get things through their filter, but when you hear enough stories you can piece together a complex picture.
Sometimes I hear “armchair philanthropists” criticized for not getting out there and seeing the situations they are trying to change. But you don't need to go to a refugee camp to hear someone's experience of what it's like there. If you want to meet people from hard-hit places, there are certainly immigrants living in your town.
For that matter, there are hard-hit people who are from your town. As a social worker I meet people who have been through appalling deprivation just miles from my house. But the elements I see missing in my client's lives are usually related to parenting rather than material resources.
Learning about people's experiences doesn't always mean I can help. Learning about what life is like in a Quito orphanage, Kenyan refugee camp, or South Boston doesn't enable me to fix any of it. Civil war and broken families are not problems that I can make much of a dent in. So I focus my donations on lower-hanging fruit.
But I still think there's value in learning from other people's experiences. Sitting down to talk with people from the other side of the tracks or the other side of the world can help us be more aware, more compassionate people.
In your town, there are refugees and immigrants who want to learn more English. There are kids at homeless shelters who want someone to read to them. There are people who want help writing a resume so they can apply for jobs. If you want to see a different side of life, try working with them for a while. No plane tickets needed.