Does Boycotting a Country Do More Harm than Good?

Boycotting Russia

After travelling to a country, have you received comments from people about why they would never go to that country on the basis of morality?

I’ve received this kind of response after visiting China, Russia, Burma and surprisingly even Norway and Iceland.

I appreciate these comments often come from a good place; boycotting a country is to send a message of nonacceptance and can also be the pressure needed to eliminate injustice. Or so that is the hope. But in reality does it do more harm than good? How does it affect the lives of the local people? And is boycotting hypocritical?


How can boycotting a country often be hypocritical?

The same people who said they wouldn’t go to China due to animal welfare, go to Spain where Running of the Bulls is still celebrated, or the Faroe Islands where hundreds of whales are slaughtered in an event called grindadráp. Even my own country has an abominable link with fox hunting, which although banned in 2005 is in talks of being lifted after the Conservatives woefully reached power again.

The same applies for human rights too. China has appalling human rights, but so does America and most people wouldn’t think twice about going. I was living in China during the 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and as a result I experienced a complete crackdown on internet freedom – days at a time I couldn’t properly log into my email, YouTube was down, and so was Facebook. Access to the internet is a space where the collective conscious can share thoughts, it gives oxygen to people restricted by political policies, it gives power to the people and that’s exactly what China’s government did not, and still does not want.

But for all China’s flaws, America doesn’t fall short behind. This is a country where capital punishment still exists. Time and time again it’s proven that innocent people have been charged for crimes they didn’t commit so how can we have a system that puts people to death when the system is utterly flawed?  This is also a country where the likes of Chelsea Manning, and if they could, Edward Snowdon, are imprisoned. Heroic people who sacrificed their own freedom in order to give us more freedom and protect our right to privacy are treated like criminals of the worst kind.

America is a fundamentally good country. We have good people with good values who want to do the right thing. But the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics ~ Edward Snowden

Here, Snowden highlights a very important message; the government and people holding autocratic power have their own agenda and it does not involve or represent the average Joe. Knowing this, is it fair to boycott a country because you disagree with traditions or beliefs operated within that country when they are often not the views shared by the mass? Are we punishing innocent people instead of working together to bridge cultural understanding and aid change where necessary?

Most of us will probably live in a democratic country, we are privileged to vote for a government which bests reflects our own policies but the likes of Russia, China and Burma do not. If we boycott these countries we are making the people greater victims than they already are. Not only will they suffer economically, but we strip them from the valuable chance to learn from different cultures through interaction.


Boycotting makes victims of innocent people

For years I planned to go to Russia with my twin brother, but after the anti-gay propaganda bill was signed in 2013, and countless cases of violence against homosexuals were brought to our attention he told me he didn’t want to go. He’s gay. I respected his decision. Safety is paramount and if the tables were turned I’m not sure I’d want to go either.

Last year, after thinking about it for a while I decided to go. I found the people to be much warmer than I had expected. I suspect most Russians are repulsed by the warped ideologies of their government but they cannot react through fear of punishment – look at the amount of political prisoners they have… So for that reason alone it’s important to visit these countries to support the locals and the LGBT community, instead of isolating them further by our refusal to enter.

With a government like Russia that denies freedom of speech and sexuality, we receive a really perverse and biased expression of Russia’s social views.  It might look like the majority are homophobic but it’s going to look that way when it’s illegal to show gay propaganda.

However, would I feel any difference towards Russia if the majority were homophobic? No, I wouldn’t. It means we just have to make a greater impact. We can collaborate with the LGBT community, think of more creative, emotive ways that chip away at the conscience of those who have been born into an environment where deep-rooted prejudice exists.

Would we blame a child for showing signs of aggression in the playground if violence within the home is normalcy?


If boycotting isn’t the answer then what is?

I don’t know about you, but many of the greatest lessons I’ve learnt in life usually come from the result of learning through interaction with others. If there were a graph that showed an increase in social progress, I would put money on it correlating with increased multiculturalism.

In opposition are boycotts, which I would argue do not generally make admirable contributions to social progress (I’m not talking about boycotts against companies, that’s a different thing and something I’m usually in favour for). On the contrary, people who are passionate about achieving some moral outcome – less discrimination toward sexual or ethnic minorities – should try and promote this into their everyday lives. For example, employers who want to eradicate racism should hire employees from different ethnic minorities, because that’s how change actually happens. When you’re abroad, question where your money goes. Are you just feeding the fat cats, or is it going into the local economy and filtering its way down? We might love a bargain but at what cost does it come at? Sometimes it’s better to spend more on something like clothes or food if it means it’s sustainable and locally produced.

The idea of trying to find sustainable and active ways to tackle unethical problems within a country is highlighted beautifully in this article by Dale and Franca from Angloitalian titled, 8 Responsible Alternatives to the Tiger Temple in Chiang Mai. Instead of boycotting Thailand for its unethical treatment of animals, they decided to put their travel experiences and proverbial pen to good use by writing a comprehensive guide of other activities within the area. Trust me, when you’re in Chiang Mai you’re bombarded with reps trying to lure you to elephant shows and tiger zoos, so it’s easy to get the impression that there are no alternatives. Without stepping foot in the country, neither Dale nor Franco would have been able to offer their first-hand advice towards improving tourism and promoting activities that work to put a stop to animal cruelty.

If we remove ourselves from societies, which effectively boycotting does, then how can we expect the undesirable behaviour of these countries which abhor us to compassionately change? We are shown time and time again that acceptance happens after coming into contact with our fears. If I can use my own family as an example, my mother’s parents were against her marriage to my father, she was born an Irish Catholic and my father being a Buddhist Chinese at the time was not a man her parents would allow her to date. I don’t want to call them racist but their actions all pointed towards that.

Mixed marriage
My parents on their wedding day in Asia after my mother eloped.

However, after time, my grandparent’s attitude began to change and they eventually embraced my father.

The point I’m making is that the acceptance of my father would not have happened had he not reached out his hand and kept it there until my grandparents were ready to take it. They may have been slow on the uptake but the relationship grew organically and respectfully.

Being personally touched by something can be a huge game changer, and that’s exactly what my hope is when travelling to countries deemed controversial.

We need to show peaceful acts of love and support not coercion. People don’t change overnight.


What are YOUR thoughts on this? Has your opinion changed?

For more insight and personal perspective on this subject, read Should We Avoid Travel to Controversial Countries? By Angloitalian.

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