Should ‘development professionals’ partake in poverty tourism?

A UN-funded global meet. A ‘slum tour’ for 400 development professionals. A feeling of unabating unease. ‘Slum tourism’ hardly needs an introduction; it is practiced around the globe, from townships in South Africa to favelas in Rio; from Kibera in Nairobi to Dharvari in Mumbai. You pay a fee and are taken on a tour to see the kind of poverty you have previously only seen in charity appeal photos. Now though this poverty is right there in front of you in all its tragic, stinking, feverish glory. Birkenstocks totter across uneven ground and handbags are clutched tightly; worlds collide as tourists are ‘sensitised’ to the reality of life for the world’s majority.

This image comes from the recent BBC program 'Famous and Rich in the Slums'No writing on slum tourism is complete without asking – is it crass voyeurism or enlightened travel? I do not want to get embroiled in the many debates that surround such questions here – they have been done to death and a quick Google will bring up a plethora of quality articles on the subject.

I want instead to focus on the dynamics of development professionals partaking in ‘slum tourism’. It is taken as read that exposure to ‘the field’, ‘the ground’, ‘the grassroots’ is crucial if we are to understand the current ‘development’ dynamics at play. I was always under the impression that ‘development professionals’ will, at some point in their career, spend a significant amount of time living and working directly with the communities where their roles play out. How wrong I was.

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Empathy and development in the UK

Following on from the discussion about empathy in A Famine Buffet I’ve also been thinking about empathy in relation to development in the UK.  I campaign on development issues in the UK with a local group of interested and committed people. A lot of our campaigning involves setting up stalls on the local high street, talking to passers-by about the issues we work on and asking them to support our campaigns through signing petitions or letters to their local MPs. Learning the tricks of the trade – how to attract people’s attention, how to engage them and how to get a positive response all within about thirty seconds – is what has got me thinking about empathy. Continue reading