The rights and responsibilities of digital nomadism

Digital nomadism, it’s a pretty dreamy existence. Travel the world, doing the work you love, when you want to do it. Meet amazing people, share ideas across disciplines and create things that have never been thought of before. If only we could all have this life.

‘You can!’ I hear other digital nomads cry, and to a degree they are right. I can, but not everyone can.

Why is that?
Well looking at my life, I was lucky enough to be born in Australia to well educated parents. I would never have called us rich, but then we as humans have a tendency to compare ourselves to those who we perceive to be better off than we are. It’s a pretty normal bias to experience however it gives you a somewhat warped view of the world. The truth is that the vast majority of people on this planet will not have the chance to experience this ‘digital nomad’ life. Perhaps in the future it will be an opportunity afforded to all, but we’ve got a long way to go as human beings before we get there.

You’re saying I should feel bad for having more than others?
No, I don’t believe you should pass up an opportunity just because someone else’s circumstances don’t allow them to. But the privileges that I have had in my life such as being born in a wealthy country, having access to education, and gaining information based skills that allow me to work remotely — these have all been made possible through the history of relationships and wars between different nations. I may have been lucky to be born in Australia, but it isn’t luck that has made Australia the ‘lucky country’. The colonial powers of the world have systematically stolen the wealth of the Global South.

My public education and public healthcare, my parents and grandparents educations, these were paid for with the profits from resources stolen from other countries. Even to this day Australia continues to force their Indigenous populations from the few lands that hadn’t previously been taken, or we spy on countries like East Timor to give our team an unfair advantage so we can take their oil and gas. Australia is my home country, but we are not alone in this mass systemic theft. A crime that has the greatest impact on those who are already the most vulnerable.

I’m not a bad person, and I can’t change what’s happened, so now what?
I’ve met so many excellent people in my time on this planet, most are trying to add value to the world and be paid a reasonable wage for doing so. I think you most likely fit into this category. If the handful of people who were doing the most evil on the planet stopped, I think we’d go a long way to fixing a lot of the problems we face, but that doesn’t mean we as normal people are powerless. Here are 6 things you can do to support the people in the country you are working from right now.

1. Pay tax

If you are working in a country you should follow their laws. If you have a moral opposition to some law, then maybe you need to ask yourself if this is the country for you. If you just don’t like paying taxes because ‘you worked hard for it’, then maybe we need to look at what taxes are about. As in your country of origin you will not get a say in how this money is spent, and some of it will probably end up in the pockets of politicians or their friends. On the flip side, it pays for things you use like the roads you drive on, as well as infrastructure to provide basic human rights to that countries population like education and healthcare.

If you are only in a country for a short time then it’s probably not viable to navigate different tax codes every few weeks, which is where tips 2–6 come in. Maybe in the future governments will realise that not everything can be resolved with a big tax stick and will establish systems that allow for the flexibility required by the ever growing information economy.

2. Donate money to local reputable charities

If you can’t pay taxes, you could work out your own personal ‘tax rate’, based on your country of origin, the country you are in, or a random number generator if you want to. Take 20% of your completely untaxed income and donate it to a reputable local charity. Please don’t place additional reporting requirements and restrictions on your donation, consider it like tax where you don’t get a say in what it’s spent on and you don’t even get to know where it went. So much time at non-profits is wasted catering to the multitude of short-term donors each with their own desires and opinions. Pick a good organisation, trust them, and let them focus on their core business — helping people.

3. Volunteer your time

If you have skills that you’re paid well for, chances are a local charity could really use them. Volunteering your professional skills can be more valuable than donating money (but donating money can pay local wages and keep an organisation running). As with your donation you should be helping the organisation to achieve their goals, not sweeping in and telling them what they should be doing with little to no understand of the history and context of their work. Also if you couldn’t get paid for doing the work in your country of origin, you probably shouldn’t be doing it as a volunteer, chances are you are taking up more of their time than you’re contributing. If you aren’t sure checkout on of the many guides on ethical volunteering.

4. Buy quality locally produced goods

One of peoples favourite ways to support local economies is to go shopping and that’s totally legit, but there’s a difference between a cocktail and a piece of hand crafted jewellery. There is probably more money from your cocktail flowing back to the alcohol companies than is going into the local economy. The bar itself is possibly even owned by one of your fellow expats. Quality locally produced goods on the other hand are not just injecting more money into the local economy with the people who need it most, it is also placing value on the skills used to produce them.

5. Don’t bargain people down for fun

The ‘how low can I get them game’ is only fun for one person — you. I’m not saying pay ridiculous prices for mass produced crap, but if it’s something you want, pay a reasonable price for it. Just because you can get a shirt for cheaper at the stall next door, doesn’t mean you should. Think of what that $1 or 10 cents means to you, now think of what that same amount means to the other person. For you it’s probably a fraction of your next drink. For the other person it can mean the ability to buy enough food for the whole family, or being able to afford a doctor when they get sick.

6. Pay people a decent wage

Yes the minimum wage in countries like Indonesia is very cheap by Western standards, does that mean you should pay the lowest amount possible? Again what is that time or money worth to you, and what is that worth to the other person? If you hate cleaning, or could just have more fun doing your creative work and getting paid a premium price for it, then pay a decent wage to the person who lets you escape those terrible and boring chores. They’re doing you a favour too, thank them for it and pay them appropriately for it.

So what’s your point?

Living the digital nomad life is pretty awesome but escaping your own country doesn’t mean there are no strings attached. Being a global citizen you have rights, but attached to those rights are responsibilities — if not legal responsibilities, at least moral responsibilities. I’m excited about the continually evolving ways that we can work and create value in this world. I want to keep exploring and enjoying life but I don’t want that to come at the expense of our humanity.

Ubud, Bali - Our current home.