Well, that is one way of doing it
June 10, 2003 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Backpack Nation has an interesting idea about helping out the third world.
The basic mission and strategy of Backpack Nation is to transform the world's dire political situation by sending individual travelers from the developed countries to serve as roving ambassadors to the world's less-wealthy countries.
posted by Karmakaze (50 comments total)
Wealthy American Hippie Schmuck: Greetings, Indigineous Person, I am a representative of Backpack Nation, here to bring you glorious good news of international cooperation.

Bemused Indigenous Person:: [thinking Her backpack costs enough to feed my village for a year. Plus her shoes look familiar. Oh yes, that factory my children worked in. Um....[grabs machete] Welcommmme...
posted by jonmc at 9:41 AM on June 10, 2003

Well said, JonMC.

The road to hell is paved with what again?
posted by swerdloff at 9:45 AM on June 10, 2003

$10.000 is a good wage here in chile, and we're "second world". so they seem to be overestimating the amount of money necessary to live somewhere for a year (even with flights).

i can't help thinking they'd be better giving all the money to oxfam, or similar. but then i guess people wouldn't get a holiday where everyone is nice to you because you're the gringo with the big money prize...

[don't want to be too harsh - i've probably cycled through places where my bike was worth more than anyone had earnt that year and am glad no-one decided to do a little wealth redistribution when i was there - but then i wasn't a self-branded ambassador of anything...]

oooh spell checking is broken?!
posted by andrew cooke at 9:45 AM on June 10, 2003

Hippie Missionaries? Gonna convert them to the cult of Jerry?
posted by nyxxxx at 9:45 AM on June 10, 2003

Apologies for the wet blanket, but I think this sounds quite flaky. To start with, sending folks out there without any experience of where they're going or the social/political/economic context, and hoping they'll just find a 'worthy cause,' is begging for trouble. Second, there's professional 'guides' in many parts of the world who've had years of experience of taking advantage of just such folks (I know, I've seen it).

Anyway, $10,000 for a 3 months to a year's backpacking seems like quite a lot to me. Sounds like a paid vacation for do-gooders to me. This I've also seen, with the first folks to get a paid vacation being those who 'organise' and 'administer' their projects. Maybe applicants could raise their own expenses, and raise awareness amongst their friends/family/colleagues; it would stop all the freeloaders joining in. Then the whole 20 grand goes towards the project.

On preview: What all the other folks have said, too.
posted by carter at 9:50 AM on June 10, 2003

This idea is so wrong and stupid in so many ways I can't find words to express.
posted by stbalbach at 9:51 AM on June 10, 2003

I don't know. A few other posters have found words.

jonmc's comment was about what I thought of it (but I did not want to prejudice the thread).
posted by Karmakaze at 9:56 AM on June 10, 2003

Each ambassadorship will be funded with $20,000 . . . My intention is to build Backpack Nation to the point where it is deploying 100 ambassadors every single day . . .

$15,441 down, $729,984,559 to go.
posted by mikrophon at 9:58 AM on June 10, 2003

. . . for the first year.
posted by mikrophon at 9:59 AM on June 10, 2003

I did not want to prejudice the thread
the thread is an abstraction and cannot be prejudiced.
posted by quonsar at 10:06 AM on June 10, 2003

I've always thought Geekcorps looks interesting, but have no idea of how it works in practice ... does anybody else know about this?
posted by carter at 10:07 AM on June 10, 2003

Why do the travellers have to be from the "developed nations"? Why is so much money devoted to travel expenses? I'm chilean and could travel for 3 months in South America for like $2000.
God, this whole "project" is so patronizing and self-serving it makes me gag.
posted by signal at 10:29 AM on June 10, 2003

Gee, with $10,000, you could pay for 25 women to have repairs of their obstetric fistulas (fistulae?) at the Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia.

I doubt the women would be decrying the pig-dog imperialist backpacker who showed up with the cash to completely change their lives.

Then again, without taking the backpacking trip, you could pay for another 25 women to get fixed up too.
posted by beth at 10:32 AM on June 10, 2003

Most of the world needs help of the sort we gave Iraq. Most people's problems in this world are caused by politics, not situation, and can't be fixed by any amount of money because the money will be stolen by those in power and used to keep the downtrodden downtrodden.
posted by PigAlien at 10:38 AM on June 10, 2003

I think the problem is that the traveller's services are undervalued. You get what you pay for. I, personally, would be willing to undertake such a world tour for, say, $100,000, at the end of which I would have a detailed list of suggestions as to where money could usefully be spent. Plus a nice tan.
posted by languagehat at 10:40 AM on June 10, 2003

As one who has spent the better part of the last ten years travelling and studying abroad I think I can attest to the fact that sending backpacking hippies on a 'quest of good' is a recipe for derision from everyone right wing conservatives to starving indigenous residents.

Spare us all...
posted by tgrundke at 10:54 AM on June 10, 2003

More importantly, this program, in its basic premis, already exists on a million different levels, ranging from The Peace Corp to Rotary International.
posted by tgrundke at 10:58 AM on June 10, 2003

All the problems may be true and accurate and blaring, but who here wouldn't want a year of all expenses paid travel in developing world at the end of which you get to give the most deserving person/family/group more money than they could raise in a lifetime? You don't have to be a "hippie" to want to be an ambassador and you don't have to tell anyone that there is a potential payoff at the end. Does anyone remember that old show "The Millionaire" from the B&W days of TV, where the guy who's secretly a millionaire finds the deserving people and at the end reveals his true identity and gives them a big cash reward. How sad that now we live in the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" world where greed and selfishness have replaced selfless ideals (yeah, I know they may have never really existed except in fantasy, but that's a whole other thread).
posted by Pollomacho at 11:14 AM on June 10, 2003

Most of the world needs help of the sort we gave Iraq.

While agree with the rest of your comment, I couldn't disagree more with this sentence. I won't pollute this thread with more Iraqfilter, but I'd support the ludicrous Backpack Nation before I supported helping "of the sort we gave Iraq."
posted by letitrain at 11:20 AM on June 10, 2003

Most of the world needs help of the sort we gave Iraq.

Bombing the shit out of them, then taking their natural resources for our own, and installing a foreign military government for two years?
posted by gramcracker at 11:20 AM on June 10, 2003

What are you talking about? We liberated the oppressed Iraqi people!
posted by PigAlien at 11:48 AM on June 10, 2003

Somebody should liberate MeFi from people trying to turn EVERY thread into a BushiraqsuvscorporateevilreligiousrightFilter rant not that we can't discuss that stuff in its place, but last I checked this was about Backpack Nation and not about Iraq or American foreign policy.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:00 PM on June 10, 2003

"Bombing the shit out of them, then taking their natural resources for our own, and installing a foreign military government for two years?"

We bombed the sh*t out of the Iraqi army and Saddam Hussein's infrastructure. Unfortunately some civilians were killed in the process, but there were fewer civilians killed by our bombing than Saddam Hussein would have killed in a few week's time. A foreign military government that is benevolent is far better than the indigenous military government of Saddam Hussein.

As for the stealing of resources, I will not defend that.

For the record, I was opposed to the war on Saddam Hussein as waged unilaterally by the US. My opposition to the war, however, was based on practicalities, world politics and the role of America.

Despite my oposition to the war in Iraq, I still believe its true that someone needed to liberate the Iraqi people and most of the rest of the world needs to be liberated.
posted by PigAlien at 12:00 PM on June 10, 2003

Hi Pollomacho,

I would like to argue that my post was on-topic. The topic was international aid given by way of 'backpacking ambassadors'. My position was that international aid given by backpacking ambassadors would not help most of the world because most of the world is suffering from political oppression which won't be cured with direct international aid.

Iraq was just a convenient recent example.
posted by PigAlien at 12:04 PM on June 10, 2003

I've spent a fair amount of time in the 3rd world, and there's nothing more irritating than do-good'er backpackers expounding on the plight of "poor indigenous people" while at the same time complaining that there are no "good places" left that are untouched by, you guessed it, backpackers.

I used to hold the same opinion, looking under every rock and climbing every tree to find the El Dorado of backpacking -- an untouched tribe with no concept of Westerners, unsullied by our terrible, materialistic ways. Then I actually found people that fit this description, and you know what? Their lives are shitty, short, and difficult, and they'd give anything to have it like us. While us 1st world'ers complain about pollution and deforestation, these people are thinking, "Screw the environment, I just want my kids fed and some medicine if I get sick." I don't blame them.

The other thing that backpackers complain about is tour groups and packaged all-inclusive trips that parade wealthy westerners from hotel to local market and back in air-conditioned comfort. The irony is, I'll bet these people have less of an effect on the local economy than the backpackers do. After all, "travellers" tend to stay in local areas (for the "authenticity" and because they're cheap), driving up prices for the locals, while their less adventurous brethren stay in nice hotels that offer little chance for intermingling. If the backpackers really wanted to keep things from changing, they'd be better off in a tour bus than a rickshaw.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:06 PM on June 10, 2003

There's a lot of good charitable things that you could donate to, the problem is most people don't know about them. Beth's Ethiopian Fistula hospital is an excellent example. I had never heard of them. I doubt most people had. While I'd love a one year paid vacation (well, sorta paid, I'd be out a lot more than $10,000 dollars if I took a year off) I think a far better service would be a charity broker. Somebody who, for free, can tell you how to donate some amount of cash to a charity that meets your personal criteria.
posted by substrate at 12:09 PM on June 10, 2003

Carter, I can fill you in a bit about the Geekcorps model and the thinking behind it - I founded the organization about three years ago and still spend about half my time on the project.

The obvious similarity between Geekcorps and Backpack Nation is that we both make it possible for folks from developed nations to go live in developing nations for several months at a time (most of our assignments are 4-6 months.) The main difference is that we recruit and send out geeks with a minimum of five years work experience to work within small IT firms in developing nations. They're sent off to work on specific projects - helping the Rwandan department of justice build a database to track the genocide trials, for one example - and they focus on completing the project while transferring skills to the folks they're working with.

In some cases, we get high-profile geeks to head off on shorter assignments, where they focus on getting national governments to talk with IT companies and work on policy reform together. Uber-geek Andrew McLaughlin (one of the founders of ICANN) is over in Mongolia with us right now leading one of these dialogues - he's posting a journal about his experiences on Slate.

We stole the good parts of our model from skills-based volunteering organizations like Doctors without Borders. I'm not a huge fan of volunteering models that assume that just because you're a well-intentioned first-worlder, you have something to offer folks in a developing nation. Yes, you'll have an ambassadorial role, but you'll be lots better received if you've got crucial skills you can share with the folks you're meeting.

Worse than the unskilled volunteering part of the model, IMHO, is the proposal to throw $10k at a community without a way to monitor how the money's spent or build institutions that distribute the money in equitable ways. There's great models out there for using modest sums of money to transform a community - microlending seems like a great thing to set up with a $10k stipend - but these projects don't organize themselves. Sending the money after the "ambassador" has left seems like a recipe for disaster.

I think it may take Brad Newsham a little work to raise $1 billion a year to pull this off. I've been busting my ass for three years and have raised about $1.5m total. It's harder than it looks... :-)
posted by obruni at 12:19 PM on June 10, 2003

Substrate, on the charity broker thing - try DevelopmentSpace, an attempt to create an "international development eBay" by two very cool former World Bank-ers.
posted by obruni at 12:31 PM on June 10, 2003

Many thanks, obruni. I agree with you, sustainability and skills transfer are two key components, both of which seem to be missing from Backpack Nation. Geekcorps looks like very a thoughtful project. Best of luck with it!
posted by carter at 12:40 PM on June 10, 2003

Very cool, obruni.

Any Peace Corps people here? I was considering doing it back in college, and most of the stories I heard said it took about a year for the people to truly accept you to begin with... only after that could volunteers really start to make any improvements. (And, of course, there's the argument that they're not really improvements, but attempts to indoctrinate third-world nations to American culture and tradition.)
posted by gramcracker at 12:44 PM on June 10, 2003


thanks for the link, also thanks for Geekcorps too, my hat is off to you.
posted by substrate at 12:46 PM on June 10, 2003

But what about the poor souls back in the "developed world" who will have to listen to Mr./Ms. Self-Righteous Returned Hippie Backpacker-Ambassador talk for hours and hours about how the noble Igruawri People of southern Bumblefuckistan have seventeen thousand different words for "sand"?

Who will help them?
posted by Ty Webb at 12:57 PM on June 10, 2003

Funny gramcracker....

I've traveled a fair amount in Africa and South Asia and met a lot of Peace Corps people. They all uniformly said that the bulk of their time was completely uneffective in terms of helping the local population....and any fears of indoctrinating people about American culture were completely overblown...these people watch American movies, drink American soda, and listen to American music Peace Corps or no.

Everyone thought that the best way of looking at Peace Corps was a a US government program that assured there would be a bare-minimum of American's traveling throughout the most retched parts of the developing world every year. And this was essential not to indoctrinate the local's about American culture, but rather to produce a yearly crop of American's who have some understanding, however limited, of the problems of the rest of the world.
posted by pjgulliver at 1:13 PM on June 10, 2003

Actually gram, that's the fiction of the PeaceCorps, you don't really improve much nor do you indoctrinate, the reality is that you GET indoctrinated, and that was Kennedy's secret agenda. While you are supposedly helping these poor, pitiful people, you soon learn that they may be financially non-priveleged, but they are not culturally poor nor to be pitied, rather to be loved and respected and then you return to the US with a love for those people, the ability to speak their language and to understand what they are going through first hand. For example, how is someone supposed to teach carpentry skills and house building to people in Africa? Not only did they invent carpentry, they built the first house and can show you how it was done 10,000 years before America was a rumble in the Colonial loins. Computer, medical and other technical skills may be something new, as maybe teaching English, but most PCV's get more than they give.

would not help most of the world because most of the world is suffering from political oppression which won't be cured with direct international aid.

And this political oppression, where did it come from? Oh, yeah, some European power (US, USSR, UK, France, Germany, etc.) implemented it on these people. Yeah, we're really helpful at "liberating" people from oppression. Just look how well whitey did in Africa, S. America or SE Asia or as you pointed out Iraq when we propped up Saddam in the first damn place. Yeah, I'm sure we'll do much better this time.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:14 PM on June 10, 2003

Pollo, I never said 'someone' ad to be 'whitey'. Someone could be the people themselves. Granted, if it were that easy, they would have done it already... The world isn't ready for a UN army, and it probably wouldn't be capable of liberating the world anyhow. It doesn't get rid of the fact that most of the world's population could use liberating. By the way, we in America could use a little bit of liberating at the moment.
posted by PigAlien at 1:23 PM on June 10, 2003

How about this; we find a guy who works at Burger King or Mickey D's for minimum wage. We tell him we'll give him 10,000 to wander around the country of his choice for a year.

You'd have people lined up around the block.

Of course Backpack Nation doesn't want mildly retarded Tibekia or Billy the redneck from Mississippi to be an ambassador to the world.
posted by nyxxxx at 1:40 PM on June 10, 2003

pj and Pollo--Are those attitudes and ideas true in the third-world nations only, or also more developed places (Eastern Europe/Russian states as one example)?
posted by gramcracker at 1:49 PM on June 10, 2003

I'd say so. Armenians and Russians get plenty of Americanization from the old ubiquitous boob tube. PeaceCorps Volunteers may put more of a real and human face on the Pepsi commercial and Baywatch episode, but the message that accumulating goods and all that other Capitalist jive is not really coming from the 23 year old recent Ohio State grad with the Birkenstocks and the shaggy beard that lives at the end of the block and lives off of $20 a month like the rest of your neighbors.

Oh, by the way P-A, I thought you meant whitey-ization when you said we all needed the "Iraq treatment" not just a regime change.
posted by Pollomacho at 2:35 PM on June 10, 2003

It's good to see that the White Man's Burden is still alive and kicking.
posted by Mick at 2:49 PM on June 10, 2003

$10,000 could also provide one-way airfare to more than a dozen "backpack ambassadors" - except that my organization would first ROB them (to teach them what it's like to be down and out) and then airdrop them into the developing world's worst megaslums.

With no passports, money, or identification.
posted by troutfishing at 8:54 PM on June 10, 2003

I lived in Micronesia, where hundreds of Peace Corp volunteers were stationed. Mostly, they came out to slum it with the natives, and the natives weren't impressed. Today, the only thing left to show for the Peace Corps is marijuana and wealthy, asshole attorneys that dodged the draft and ended up staying forever.

This backpacking idea sounds like a condescending exercise for rich kids to "see the world." Piss on it.
posted by drstrangelove at 7:55 AM on June 11, 2003

You cannot dodge the draft by joining the Peace Corps, not now, not during Vietnam. As for pot and asshole attorneys, that just sounds like a personal problem. Peace Corps Volunteers are paid the average monthly wage of the villagers they live around so "slumming it" would be about right in most places. Peace Corps Micronesia is actually very large and very active and has been since the Micronesians started it and trained the first volunteers in Key West in 1965. There are presently 61 volunteers working in FSM and Palau.

Strange that "rich kids" would need outside funding or would be interested in third world slums.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:01 AM on June 11, 2003


I've known many people who gleefully asserted that they avoided service in Vietnam by joining the Peace Corps. One even went so far as to write it in a book; his name is P.F. Kluge, and is semi-famous for having written the novel behind "Eddie and the Cruisers." You ought to read his interesting book about Micronesia and his experience in the Peace Corps: "Micronesia: The Edge of Paradise."

As for the "personal problems," I guess that unless you've actually lived somewhere like Saipan, you'd never understand what I'm talking about. Marijuana was introduced by Peace Corps volunteers in the 60s, and now it has become a huge problem in the islands. Some islanders even blame the Corps on bringing AIDS out there.

The modern-day Peace Corps volunteers may be a different group of people. I've read plenty about the kids that went out in the 60s, intentionally slumming it, to "live at the level of the natives." Well-intentioned, but it is condenscending, and the locals scoffed at it.

Have you actually lived there?
posted by drstrangelove at 9:36 AM on June 11, 2003

P. F. Kluge is not correct. Civilian government employees have never been immune from the draft as many drafted RPCV's from the Vietnam era will attest.

Most people who join the PeaceCorps neither now nor in the sixties are neither rich nor attorneys, some may have condescending attitudes and drug issues, but you can't keep out all the jackasses in a public organization. PeaceCorps "kids" have always operated under the same principals and logistical organization. "Slumming it" would be an appropriate action when you make the average wage of the locals. I can assure you that when my parents trained and organized the PeaceCorps mission to Micronesia along with a large group of Micronesians, drug use was not tolerated, nor was the mission established to send a group of "rich kids to condescendingly slum it" I would if I had to venture a guess, it would be that AIDS and drugs probably reached Micronesia first not through the PeaceCorps, but rather through tourists and ex-patriots as well as military service personnel.

Have you actually talked to PeaceCorps workers in Micronesia or is all your info from rumor and misinformed works of fiction?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:14 PM on June 11, 2003


Perhaps I've only seen the worst of the crop: the ex-Peace Corps people I've known are greedy, selfish assholes. They went on to become attorneys and returned to make a killing through unethical business deals. Those are the 60s-era people. Saipan no longer has Peace Corps stationed there, so I haven't spoken to any of the modern volunteers.

Also, it's not just Kluge- why would so many people lie to me about dodging the draft? Are these people so reprehensible that they'd even stoop so low as to lie about something so appalling?

Finally, pot was smuggled in by Peace Corps volunteers- end of story. Yes, I'm well aware that it wasn't "tolerated," but it happened nonetheless and has left a lasting scar on the islands. Also, what I mean by "slumming" are relatively rich kids who come out to "live like the natives." They couldn't just be there; many locals remember smart-assed, do-gooders kids that patronized their lifestyle. Ask the islanders from that generation, and they'd say these kids were nuts; they wanted air conditioned houses, televisions and washing machines like what these kids had back home. It was the attitude that galled them.
posted by drstrangelove at 12:30 PM on June 11, 2003

Also, pollomacho, have you actually lived there and talked with the people who were actually affected by the Peace Corps? Or does that not matter?
posted by drstrangelove at 12:33 PM on June 11, 2003

Dr. Strangelove,

I have to say, you seem to have an unusually dim view of the organization. While no one here is arguing that Peace Corps is an amazing world changing institution, I think that you are perhaps a bit hard on them.

My impression of former Peace Corps people is that they are people like you and me. Maybe a little more inclined to join NGOs or Public Service, but to say something like they mostly end up as "wealthy asshole attorneys" simply does not fit with any sort of peace corps reality I've ever come across.

As for the pot thing, relax man. It was the sixties. Pot became big in America. If PCVs hadn't brought it military and expats would have. Sure, maybe a higher percentage of PCVs smoke than the normal population, but come on, if Saipan has a drug problem you can hardly blame that on the Peace Corps. Should I blame the Mexican-American population for the US's pot use because they were the first identifiable ethnic group to use the drug in large amounts this century? DOn't be ridiculous.
posted by pjgulliver at 1:16 PM on June 11, 2003

They aren't necessarily lying, they may just be misinformed. civilian government service is not a shelter from compulsory military service in the US, it may be in other nations, however, not the US as is commonly believed. Many, many people of my parents' generation of Volunteers were pulled directly from overseas posts to Vietnam where they fought and many died. Even before Nixon changed the draft rules, PeaceCorps did not even offer a deferment from the draft. My own father's number was short listed while training Volunteers for the first class in Micronesia, he thankfully was not called. As for Micronesians affected by the PeaceCorps directly, yes, my family and I are in close contact with many from those days and one of my good friends here in DC is just back from Pohnpei where he had a warm enough reception that he brought back a beautiful souvenir who doesn't seem to feel condescended at all.

Incidentally the touchy feelie, long haired hippie, pot days of the PeaceCorps were not really the '60's but rather the '70's. During the '60's it was still more of a Kennedy "ask not" do-gooders' organization. The '70's were bad for everyone, especially those with good intentions, but I think the organization is really much closer to PJ's description than a bunch of asshole lawyers. I live in DC, the east coast mecca for RPCV's (Returned PeaceCorps Volunteers), most here (I'd say 75+%) work in NPO's and NGO's for the most part, liberal policy types. My dad is a minister, does a hell of a lot of missionary coordination, my mom's an anthropology professor, you know leftist intelligentsia types. My brother is a pencil neck in the State Department, once again the international development/policy type. The lawyers you speak of seem in my experience to be a fluke.
posted by Pollomacho at 2:39 PM on June 11, 2003

$10.000 is a good wage here in chile, and we're "second world".

Hahahahahaaa "second world". How cute. You obviously don't understand the phrases "First World" and "Third World". Chile is a Third World country -- defined as a country that mostly exports primary products to, and mostly imports manufactured goods from, the first world.
posted by fnord_prefect at 5:48 PM on June 11, 2003

Hmm, that would make Australia a "Third World" country, fnord...
posted by Jimbob at 9:20 PM on June 11, 2003

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