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.

I want to share an anecdote from the UN conference I mentioned earlier. We sat eating breakfast in the glitzy restaurant of the five-star hotel that was playing host to the conference (another blog in itself). Eggs benedict for me; pancakes with fresh berries and cream for her. She was a seasoned development professional and had been working on sanitation issues for over a decade. She was chattering to me excitedly about the ‘slum visit’ she was going on that afternoon – she had never actually been to a ‘slum’. Unease gripped my stomach as I fixed my face into a passive smile. The thick black espresso I was drinking was making my heart pound. Or maybe that was the anger that seemed to be building somewhere deep inside. So what do you think – is it ok for a development professional to have never experienced the places where their programmes and policies play out? Is a ‘slum tour’ an appropriate way of seeing such places? Was this woman a minority or could this be the status quo?

On returning from her trip to the slum she was full of praise; ‘such a vibrant sense of community’, ‘the children are just so adorable’, ‘everything there is just so colourful’. She was disappointed that she wasn’t allowed to take photographs though. I once again fixed my face into a passive smile.


2 thoughts on “Should ‘development professionals’ partake in poverty tourism?

  1. Interesting post. I suppose whether or not ‘development professionals’ have lived and worked directly with the communities where their programmes and policies play out depends in part upon their career path – i.e. how they entered the ‘development’ field – and the level at which they are operating – i.e. big multilateral agency? I imagine that there must be a significant proportion of ‘development professionals’ – perhaps particularly the older generation who started out climbing the career ladder when it was maybe a little harder to journey abroad – who lack this experience.

    (But then even when people do claim to have overseas experience what does this really mean? I’ve been working for a small NGO in south east Madagascar for almost a year now but for the most part my job involves meeting with local staff in our town office – I do get out to the communities with which we work but probably only about once or twice a month.)

    I think it’s important for ‘development professionals’ to get exposure to on-the-ground realities especially if they are remotely based, e.g. in HQ offices in their home countries, so that they are sensitive to local needs and perhaps more humble in their approach to planning projects. I’m not sure whether a ‘slum tour’ is an appropriate way of achieving this though. During this day visit did participants even have a chance to speak to community members or did they just gain a rather superficial impression of the place?

    I reckon structured immersions consisting of several days living and working with host families in poor communities promoting participatory learning and critical self-reflection, for example as explained here by the IDS – and as facilitated here by ActionAid for agencies including DFID –, would be more effective and constructive. According to one of the IDS publications as part of their initiative, the World Bank even has a “Grass Roots Immersion Programme” (GRIP) for its senior managers that aims to instil an appreciation of the importance of listening, a recognition of poor people’s problem-solving skills, an understanding of the potential for disconnections between national policies and poverty reduction, etc. Sounds pretty good!

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