Toward a Common Language and Taxonomy of Poverty Tourism
UPDATE: An updated graphic with new notes has been posted at Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.o
Poverty Tourism has lately been the subject of renewed blogger chatter and debate. It seems a perennial issue that gets a paroxysm of attention each time a major media outlet runs a story on it. The latest series of posts was set off by a recent NYT op-ed by Kennedy Odede, a Kenyan who had some personal experience and harsh words for what he called Slumdog Tourism. The tone has ranged from reflective to outright shrill.
A decent assemblage of some relevant blogs and articles was posted a couple days ago at Good Intentions Are Not Enough. Especially thoughtful is the Dilemmas post from Lindsay Morgan at Dispatches. Especially interesting is the exchange (criticism, defense, partial apology) between William Easterly at Aid Watch and the Director of a group that operates a Millennium Village Tour in Rwanda.
As I read through these and other posts, it became apparent that many bloggers were talking past each other and using wildly different working definitions of what poverty tourism (or development tourism) is. This makes it hard to have a coherent debate. I’m not the first to notice this; some older posts from Tales From the Hood made a brief attempt at a taxonomic approach noting, “We need some common language for talking about this subject. … We need to be able to make sense of things.” So, I began creating a compendium of names used across the posts – some openly disparaging like “poverty porn”, others more benign like “community tours.” While “Poverty Tourism” or “Development Tourism” is like a family name in biological taxonomy, the dozen or so other terms are sub-varieties like distinct genus or species.
Consider this comment by Chris Blattman in Slum tourism, easy target, harder solution:
I don’t think there is anything good to be said about the worst of the slum tour, but that’s not to say development tourism can’t be respectful or beneficial.
He’s saying that while slum tours are bad, not all development tourism is bad. Implied is that the former is subsumed by the later – a genus within a family. What follows then is my proposed taxonomy of the Poverty Tourism family along with some examples of comments that frame the discussion for each type. I hope this helps us have more linguistic clarity around the fault lines and confluence in our ongoing discussion of poverty tourism.
Type 1: Slum Tours. aka – poverty safaris, ghetto tours, poverty porn, & disaster tours.
When bloggers use these terms, it is generally to derogate poverty tourism. (See Disaster Tourism). Implied by these terms is a dehumanizing voyeuristic approach to travel in poor communities, where the poor are objectified and treated like a zoo exhibit. The tourist remains far removed from their reality as she passes through on a gratuitous visit taking pictures of colorful, exotic, and fascinatingly miserable people, limiting her understanding of them to what the tour guide tells her, and blurring individual lives into a medley of abstract smudges of poverty. It seems the worst of these are those that are organized by for-profit (even if socially-conscious) tourism operators.
Alanna Shaikh at Blood and Milk writes an unusually beautiful and vulnerable reflection related to this:
…poverty makes for great photography. Poverty has texture. … In other words, a good synonym for picturesque is desperate. Aesthetics are seductive. … That can lead you all sorts of terrible places; it can lead you to mistake tragedy for authenticity. It can make you think there is some value to authenticity when people are starving. It can lead you to take gorgeous pictures of the countryside without ever realizing that you are documenting a quiet horror.
Kennedy Odede, who grew up in Kibera, one of the largest slums outside of Nairobe, writes this in Slumdog Tourism:
Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.
Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.
But is there anything good about this type of poverty tourism? Chris Blattman writes in an older post on Development Tourism that “Its only virtue, perhaps, is that it is not disguised as a helping hand.” (Thus distinguishing it from other species like voluntourism.) Several bloggers go further, proposing specific changes in attitude and behavior that mitigate the worst dehumanizing effects of slum tours. Nilima Achwal at next billion offers 6 things to look for to make such tours more sensitive to and empowering for the local communities in A New Brand of Poverty Tourism. And, in an otherwise shrill post On poverty tourism: my two African cents at Project Diaspora, the writer admonishes:
“You really want change? Put down the camera, walk up to anyone in that slum, get to know them. Have some tea and crumpets, maybe a chapati slice or two.”
The implication is that there is perhaps a principled, relational approach to slum tourism that preserves human dignity. I particularly like the image of sharing tea, since staying for tea is this blog’s metaphor for a principled, relationship-driven approach to accompaniment and community development. The problem, however, is that while it could be possible for an individual to approach a slum or a community in crisis in this relational, slow way, it is hard to imagine an organized tour managing to pull off anything short of our worst fears.
Type 2: Voluntourism. aka – volunteer vacations, service tourism
Voluntourism is essentially a vacation with a few volunteer activities peppered in. People who sign up for these volunteer vacations sometimes do so out of a desire to touch something more authentic and gritty than the standard cruise ship fare. In other words, the home base in terms of purpose is still tourism. Others, sign up out of a real desire to do something good in the world, but they don’t know where to begin and decide to rely on the professionals to provide not only the logistics, but also the development thinking for them. In this case, the home base is service. Given this duality of purpose, it is not surprising that two very different sort of providers have stepped in to meet the growing demand: for-profit tourist operators and volunteer-sending development NGOs. While the NGOs have mostly just rebranded existing volunteer opportunities as voluntourism, the tourist operators are creating something new, something that looks and smells a lot like a development organization, but is actually customer-centric rather than community-centric, something that aims to generate private profit rather than common good.
But, either way, the poverty tourist is given the opportunity to “do something” immediately about what they are seeing and experiencing during their poverty tour. In some ways, I think this can be a less honest approach, as often as not the volunteer activities provide superficial and marginal benefit to the community, while assuaging the conscience of the tourist by making them believe they’ve actually done something meaningful. I think I’d rather the tourist observe, struggle with their desire to do something right then and there, discuss, reflect, and then go home to figure out what the experience means for them and how they can be part of something bigger than themselves that is helping make a lasting change.
I tried to give a fair treatment of the subject in my post: The Future of Voluntourism, while raising the necessary red flags. Two other resources are: Voluntourism Gal, a blog dedicated solely to the topic, and VolunTourism.org, which continues to be relevant as one of the first signficant organizations dedicated to voluntourism by name. (I should note that not all voluntourism is associated with poverty-allevation – e.g. there are also many environmentally- and culturally- focused voluntours.)
Type 3: Exposure Trips. aka – vision trips, immersions, & donor tours.
Taking a step toward acceptable practice is the Exposure Trip. The difference between this and a slum tour is two-fold: who goes and with what purpose. Exposure trips are taken by those who have at least an interest connection with development activities taking place in the visited community. Often the visitor is a committed or potential donor, sometimes a Board member of an NGO, sometimes a staff member whose job isn’t field-facing (i.e. someone who works in a pro-poor organization, but whose tasks don’t bring that person into actual contact with the intended beneficiaries of his labour.) The purpose of these trips is for someone with an actual connection or interest in ongoing activities in the community to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of what is actually happening there by seeing it first-hand. Some reasonable unease with exposure trips centers around them being used to justify what are in fact gratuitous visits (i.e. slum tours).
Tales From the Hood writes in Development Tourism: thinking out loud…:
I don’t really want it to be my job. But we need a way to meaningfully and appropriately expose our work to our third audience: ordinary people in our home countries. I’m not saying development tourism is the answer. But it’s one possibility.
Obviously it all has to be structured and handled in a way that does not objectify and demean beneficiaries, and that will necessarily mean that some projects in some places never ever ever get visited as part of development tourism. But again, I have personally seen enough instances where project beneficiaries were very happy – positively stoked, in fact – to receive as visitors “ordinary citizens”…
Saundra Schimmelpfennig at Good Intentions Are Not Enough asks, When is it appropriate for a donor to visit an aid recipient?
Donors do need to have a greater understanding of what does and does not work in aid as well as common problems associated with aid. Properly structured visits can help them become better donors. However, it is important that donor visitations are done is such a way that it puts the needs of aid recipient over the needs of the donor. Care should be taken so that the visit does not objectify aid recipients and ensures that the recipients concerns are heard.
Saundra goes on to suggest 10 very constructive guidelines to help ensure that donor visits focus on education (of the donor), not titillation.
There’s also been some good discussion around Ravi Kanbur’s recent paper “Poverty Professionals and Poverty” that was quoted at some length in Owen Barder’s blog Owen Abroad. Dr. Kanbur suggests that development professions engage in immersions every year or so to get a reality check and reset their focus on the core mission: “serving and helping poor people to work their way, sustainably, out of poverty.” Again, there is some unease about these becoming a way to justify slum tourism, but I think it is reasonable to hope for a net positive affect from connecting those whose work or support is related to the development activities taking place in a community with the community members.
Type 4: Study Abroad. aka – service-learning, cultural exchange & student research
Like exposure trips, study abroad has as its purpose and intentional focus on learning. Obviously, a lot of study abroad trips have nothing to do with poverty tourism. (e.g. a semester in France) But, with the increasing interest in international development, more and more study abroad programs, service-learning programs, and student research is bringing students into poor communities with the intention of learning about them, about poverty, and about anti-poverty projects. The potential for these trips to result in the same pernicious outcomes of the worst of poverty tourism is real.
Chris Blattman takes a rather negative view here:
Yesterday I mourned the extractive and self-serving quality of many student research trips. For me, two-week development adventures fall clearly in the tourism category as well. Is there an argument for these trips actually helping? If so, is the benefit even close to the best use of the thousands of dollars it took to get that person out there?
But these trips also have a potentially rosier upside. Students presumably go with an open mind and an attitude to ask questions and learn. And, if done right, they can even build on a longer-term institutional/community relationship that supports longer-term development activities. One example of this is the Comprehensive (Intercultural Servant) Leadership Program at Gonzaga University lead by Josh Armstrong that has a study abroad component designed collaboratively with community members in Zambezi, Zambia. The community recognizes itself as the host and teacher of the students, while at the same time as beneficiary of student assistance with ongoing activities. By returning each year, a relationship of trust and feedback can be developed between the community and the university.
Beyond the question of what benefits are immediately provided to the host community, study abroad holds out wider potential to shape future global citizens with greater sensitivity to and understanding of global issues like poverty, cultural sustainability, and environmental vulnerability.
Type 5: Short-term Volunteer Trips. aka – church mission trips, missionary safaris
Each year hundreds, if not thousands of short-term volunteers go to all corners of the earth to dig trenches, paint churches, construct latrines, maybe play a game of soccer, and perhaps share their version of the gospel. Each year dozens, if not scores of bloggers aim derision, destain, and disgust at them. It’s an easy group to pick on because they are so green, go with such upside notions of what they doing, and are so clearly the unsuspecting beneficiaries of the whole endeavor.
Maurice at Mostly Maurice offers his critique by way of a definition of a development tourist:
An intern or short-term employee on a contract of up to 1 year, who wants to “experience the developing world” and “help out”, and who will afterwards leave the country, leave Africa and/or even leave development aid work altogether.
Tales From the Hood flat out condems the idea from a Do-No-Harm perspective:
I do not think that it is a good idea for untrained, unpaid foreigners to be sent to work in another country as part of a development or relief program. …if the motivation is an honest and informed desire to offer the very best programming to beneficiaries in the most efficient manner possible, it is all but impossible to justify international volunteers.
Some argue against volunteers from an economic view comparing the cost of exporting unskilled labor from the USA or Germany against the cost of hiring a local. The value of the “free” volunteer doesn’t come close to offsetting the cost of planning, hosting, and managing him, let alone his airfare, room and board. But I think this misses at least half the point of international volunteerism. Of course, the material or project benefit could have been purchased for less than the plane ticket, but the personal and relational benefit of mutual transformation for both the host community and volunteer…well that’s harder to place a dollar value on. And this doesn’t consider any long-term committments to justice and pro-poor policies that begin with exposure and leads to understanding through relationships. Even Tales From the Hood acknowledges:
I got my start as a volunteer. … That initial year as an English teacher in Bangkok changed my life on multiple levels. It exposed me to life outside of North America. It opened a world of possibility. And it led to formal employment with an INGO.
I got my start as an MCC volunteer. Saundra at Good Intentions Are Not Enough got her start as a volunteer. In fact, most people that I know who care deeply about international issues of justice, human rights, environmental and cultural sustainability, fair trade, etc. got that way because of some international volunteer experience that rocked their world. The Jesuits at JVC have a great saying regarding the life-long effects of volunteer service: “Ruined for Life.” This is a big part of the philosophy behind The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, for which I serve as a Board member.
The value proposition is changed lives, not just of the visited, but of the visitor, and this is a worthy value proposition. That said, s-t volunteerism would be less nauseating to the professional development/aid worker if this value proposition was explicitly acknowledged by the visitor (in the place of say a Christ complex) and downright virtuous if made explicit by all parties: the volunteer, the sending organization, and the host community.
Chris Blattman again:
I’m more comfortable with development tourism if it is explicitly that: if students and Westerners are going with an eye to learning rather than saving; if they recognize that they are receiving a service from others more than they are giving of themselves.
Type 6: Community Tours
This is perhaps the most benign and potentially empowering type of poverty tourism because it is the community that manages it. They are involved in the design of the tourism project, sometimes even initiating it. They control who comes, how many come, and what messages they hear. In terms of economic benefit, a typical slum tour may generate some employment in the communities and the tourists may end up donating money to an aid or development organization working with them, but there really isn’t any empowerment or agency happening. With community tourism, on the other hand, the communities control the message – they retell their own story rather than let the tour guides decide how to treat it. And as the hosts, they can also have more say in how the profits are shared and used. For a thorough and very positive (if self-interested) take on community tourism, read Is Community Tourism a Good Thing? at Grassroots Journeys.
Tourism Concern provides a good 10-point checklist of “shoulds” for community tourism in What is Community Tourism? Among the obvious shoulds (be run with involvement and consent of community, give a fair share of profits back, etc.), they say that community tourism should have mechanisms to help communities cope with the impact of western tourists, brief tourists before the trip on appropriate behavior, not make local people perform inappropriate ceremonies, and leave communities alone if they don’t want tourism.
The Millennium Villages tour in Rwanda that was much debated between William Easterly and Michael Grosspietsch seems to be in this category. Dr. Grosspietsch’s response to the initial critique defends the project in part by pointing out the role of the community is designing and controlling the tours. World Vision report also recently aired an interview with Josh Ruxin, the founder and director of the MV project in Rwanda, who discusses the importance of community involvement.
Some, however, will still find the whole idea of tourism in poor communities degrading, regardless of community involvement. William Easterly is one of these:
I continue to believe that the whole idea of tourists going to see poor people simply because they are poor — or to see the interventions targeted at these poor because they are poor — is degrading. It perpetrates the patronizing view that the poor are some faceless mass of helpless victims which the MV is rescuing, which is part of the flawed philosophy of the MV itself.
A little help here?
So there it is – one of the longest blogs ever posted with over 25 links and a dozen quotes. I already feel a little ridiculous for having written it, but it’s at least ordered my own thinking about the poverty tourism debate. I hope it meets a need for others as well by providing a common linguistic platform for the discussion to move forward on. If you think I’ve gotten something wrong or missed an important distinction, I absolutely welcome your feedback.