What Does Poverty Look Like? Part 2 – Poverty Tours

I read an article the other day about this new thing called “Poverty Tourism” which was inspired by this article about poverty tours in India. Poverty tourism is exactly what it sounds like: people from ‘developed’ countries take tours of slums in ‘developing’ countries; some involve walking through the areas while others take place from tour busses.  The main arguments in favor of poverty tourism are that the money from tourists goes back into the community thereby helping them to fund services like health care and education; and that the tourists are so transformed by the ability to witness poverty first-hand that they are likely to return home and do good.

If you know me, you probably know that I wrote my MA thesis about volunteer tourism so I feel strongly about this type of thing.  So here are my thoughts about poverty tourism:

  • Poverty tours don’t lend themselves to increased compassion.  How different is looking at poor people through a bus window from watching a world vision infomercial on TV? We see images of poverty all the time, through media and in our own communities. I would argue that any increased awareness and desire to do good that comes from these tours is short lived.  You can’t expect to gain some deep insight into another person’s life in a few hours and the novelty of the experience is bound to wear off.
  • Just because the tour is run by a local and not a foreigner does not mean the money is going back into the community.  When I was doing my MA research I worked with a community organization that provided free healthcare to people in rural Guatemala.  The organization relied on a community leader to help spread the word to community members, until they learned that the community leader had been charging people to access the free clinic services.   You can’t assume that just because someone lives in a community that he/she has their neighbours best interests in mind.  People will do what they feel is necessary to survive.
  • In the cases where poverty tours do give money back to the community, why should poor people have to be put on display and have their privacy invaded in order to receive money for schools, health care etc.? Especially when the rest of us are afforded these luxuries basic human rights without being treated like attractions in a zoo? If you really want to give money, then do it without requiring something in return.

I feel like these arguments are things people use to justify exploiting others to satisfy a personal curiosity.  If it’s run by a local person, if the money goes back into the community, then it’s ok.

I thought about all of the things that make me angry about poverty tours, and then I remembered something that made me feel like a complete hypocrite.  A few weeks ago my roommate was invited to visit a project that the organization she works for supports in one of Accra’s slums.  She came home and told me about the experience which left her feeling shaken, and invited me to come along the next time.  My immediate reaction was yes! I want to go and see this side of Accra that is generally hidden.  I’m a naturally curious person and I want to experience the beautiful and easy parts of living in Ghana, but also the parts that are not so easy.

But is that any different from a poverty tour?  I console myself with the knowledge that my presence in this community would be the result of an invitation and not reliant on paying to gain access.  That the visit wouldn’t occur in a vacuum where I show up and take some pictures from a distance then leave, but contribute to the larger experience of living in Ghana. That I have an understanding that people are generally not tourist attractions and treat everyone I meet anywhere accordingly.  Still, I’m not entirely convinced that my motivations are all that different from someone who would want to take a poverty tour.

My main issue with poverty tours is that they do nothing to increase compassion or a real understanding of the tour subjects lives but both rely on, and perpetuate the cycle of pity.  They uphold this image of “the other” for us t gawk at and feel sorry for; stressing the differences instead of the similarities between human experiences.  Maybe I would feel better about the tours if they included educating tourists about how their (our) privileged lives are directly connected to the suffering of others.

I would still like to take that visit to the slum with my roommate though, am I a hypocrite? Is there a difference?

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