By: Phillip Nagler | Opinions  | 

YU Goes to Thailand: Activism or Exploitation?

Before embarking on what would be an amazing journey to Thailand, I was unsure what the trip would be like. The YU mission to Thailand was pitched to its participants as a chance to explore the culture and scenery of the country while also engaging in activism and learning about the social issues that the country tackles. The trip’s flyer stated that roughly half of the activities would be participating in activism, but it was unclear to me what exactly this activism entailed. I was skeptical of the impact that the group could make in only ten days, especially considering that only half of that time would be devoted towards activism.

In addition to my hesitations about the activism component of the trip, I felt the common moral dilemma one faces when it comes to activism abroad: Would it not be more helpful to donate money to a charity rather than to spend money on a hotel, lodging and food during my travels? There was guilt attached to the idea of traveling to a country and calling myself an “activist” while I could have simply donated money to a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Thailand.

On top of this guilt, I had the fear that our group would end up having more of an exploitative impact on the country than a charitable one. I use the term exploitation loosely, as it can range from taking advantage of the cheap prices for goods and services — which is what we were doing — to benefiting from illegal sex trafficking. Nonetheless, exploitation is still exploitation, regardless of its magnitude.

Upon leaving Thailand, I started to evaluate what we as a group had done during our time in the country. As a pessimist, I immediately focused on how I and the group may have taken advantage of the Thai people. We took advantage of the cheap labor, getting 30-minute full body massages for the meager price of $4.50. We boosted our Instagram and Facebook profiles by posting cute pictures of ourselves with Thai children in their schools. These actions are not inherently bad, and I wouldn’t say that I have regret from doing them. I do think, however, that it is important to reflect upon why I did what I did, and if I should act differently in the future.

At this point in my article, many of my fellow trip participants are probably fuming with disapproval over the tone of my article. Thus far, I have reported a very cynical account of the trip, and, admittedly, I have omitted some of the amazing things we accomplished.

A personal highlight of the trip was spending two days at Thai elementary schools, volunteering our time to teach English to poor and underprivileged students. The smiles that we put on the faces of these children could not have been replaced with a donation to a charity. Yes, it is true that we got to feel good about ourselves for volunteering, which in a sense can be viewed as exploitative. With that said, however, we still provided these children with a unique and positive experience that they would not have received otherwise.

In addition to the active volunteering, our group visited two NGOs and spoke to their founders. The first activist we met founded an organization called Home of New Beginnings, and she spoke about the issue of widespread sex trafficking in Thailand. After speaking to her, we walked the streets of the Nana red light district and saw the women working in bars, forced to sell their bodies to support themselves and their families.

The second activist we met started an organization devoted to helping Burmese refugees, called Thai Freedom House. She spoke to us about the general difficulties and the discrimination that these refugees face upon immigrating to Thailand. Although hearing from the speakers did not result in us actively contributing to the Thai people, I think that everyone in our group gained a social awareness to these issues which also serves an important purpose in activism.

Ultimately, I maintain my original position that true activism was not accomplished on this trip. True activism is about implementing permanent and meaningful change, and that simply cannot be done in such a short period of time. It would be inappropriate to give myself the title of “activist” upon the completion of this ten-day mission in Thailand.

I did, however, take away an important lesson from this trip: the moral obligation of social responsibility. Virtually all of the issues that we encountered (i.e. sex trafficking, poverty, etc.) exist within our own communities. While the experience was not the full package of activism, it served as important enlightenment. Every person who attended the trip is a young, bright and determined individual. We each have the ability to use this experience as a stepping stone towards implementing positive change in an opaque and imperfect world.


Photo Caption: YU Students visit a school in Thailand over winter break.

Photo Credit: YU/justifi