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.
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.