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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A Famine Buffet

A bloated belly in Chad. An emaciated woman in Kolkatta. A skeletal frame in Sudan. Images of hunger are synonymous with poverty and in turn with ‘development’. I recently attended the launch of a global hunger report written by a large bilateral agency. The event was glitzy. The food was lavish. My conscience was in turmoil. The walls were covered in projected images of ‘hunger’ and against this backdrop we quaffed fancy wine, nibbled on canapés and satiated ourselves with an extravagant buffet. Food stuck to the roof of my dry mouth and the wine tasted acrid. I swallowed and made small talk as I imagined a new menu:

An ounce of maizemeal served with a side of integrity

Half a cassava dowsed in a sauce of veracity

A handful of rice accompanied by a clear conscience Continue reading

My job ‘in the field’: a reflection

I live in India. I work in ‘development’. I was lucky; I graduated with a degree in Anthropology and immediately got a job working ‘in the field’. So I packed my bags and headed half way across the world to start a life far removed from my days as a student. I had been to India twice before for months at a time; I knew the country, its idiosyncratic quirks and off beat rhythms; its vibrant colours and potent smells; its sleepy villages and pulsating slums.

And far removed from all the guidebook photos of festivals and saris and yoga and wonders of the world, there is my office on a hill. I travel there everyday and sit at a computer. I write project proposals and grants and evaluations. ‘Development’ lingo says I am ‘working in the field’ and yet I can’t remember the last time I walked through a slum or a village – the places on the margins of Indian society where ‘development’ takes place.

So why do I live in India if the work I do could be done anywhere in the world? Continue reading