Return to the poverty safari

Kennedy Odede, who grew up in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, reflects on poverty tourism in the New York Times:

I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.

On the educational value of these trips:

To be fair, many foreigners come to the slums wanting to understand poverty, and they leave with what they believe is a better grasp of our desperately poor conditions. The expectation, among the visitors and the tour organizers, is that the experience may lead the tourists to action once they get home.

But it’s just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough.

A few months ago Ravi Kanbur wrote an interesting paper suggesting that development workers should have to go on routine ‘exposure’ trips, where they spend a few days staying in a rural village to get a better perspective on poverty. Several others thought this would be a good idea, but I remain concerned that this would be nothing more than a glorified poverty safari, akin to earning a merit badge in the Boy Scouts.

The very first post on this blog was on poverty safaris. What do you think of them?

Hat tip to Aid Watch for the link.

9 thoughts on “Return to the poverty safari

  1. MJ

    August 11, 2010 at 11:49am

    Poverty safaris / immersions are presumably all about understanding the lives of the poor who we presume to help. However, understanding can come in many ways. One excellent way is to spend longer than the standard 2-3 years in any one posting, so you really get to know a place, its people and their problems. In rural areas at least, life is highly seasonal, so a short visit of a few days only is never going to capture the range of challenges a poor farmer faces. Development aid always comes with an element of neo-imperialist condescension. My guess is that if a poverty safari translates into serious long term assistance for a community then they’ll probably be quite happy. Otherwise your original analogy of a visit to the zoo seems pretty apt.

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    August 11, 2010 at 12:40pm

    I don’t think you need to have a particular understanding or empathy for the individual challenges of poor people for every job in development. What these impulses feed is the need to help individuals. Much of development work is about this, and that’s important and praise-worthy – and yeah, it helps to know about individual struggles then.

    But a lot of development work is also about structural problems – things like macroeconomic issues, and health systems analysis. You don’t need to know about the individual symptoms of a malaria sufferer in order to be able to work with the Government or other institutions to set up a rational system of resource allocation to ensure that all diseases get some treatment budget.

    I used to make this analogy: a doctor wandering around the villages of some poverty stricken country might learn a million things about how people suffer and may help a 1000 or so people a year. A faceless bureaucrat that helps set up a health system (a hospital and road network or whatever) that enables any given doctor to see the maximum amount of people is just as important. Development requires both, and you don’t need to be in tune with the suffering of the ordinary man to be good at the latter.

    I don’t feel like I need to go see a hungry desperate person to know that being hungry and desperate sucks, or to know that ensuring that aid projects don’t duplicate functions and instead maximise their coverage is better than letting them spread unmanaged. For that reason I wouldn’t go on a poverty safari.

    But like MI, I think 2-3 years in a place isn’t that long (though it does depend on the place sometimes) and it’s important not to isolate yourself – to be curious, to meet people and to talk to people to learn.

    Ultimately, I guess what I mean is that you need to learn about where you work. Riding a 4×4 down through Kawale and snapping photos of orphans won’t teach you much. But making friends with people who work there and can tell you how things work and help or make things worse in that area – that’s important.

  3. Andy S

    August 11, 2010 at 12:55pm

    There’s no reason why professional “immersion” needs to be as poorly (or exploitatively) managed as some of the tourist operations out there.

    And, to be honest, even if it was, I’d still think it was a good idea. For so many expat staff (particularly the ones wielding genuine power e.g. DFID, UN) life in a poor country is defined by 4x4s, walled compounds, AC and a salary that allows you to live like a queen/king. A few days “immersion”, even if the experience is shallow and unrepresentative, is infinitely preferable to none at all.

  4. MJ

    August 11, 2010 at 1:58pm

    I think both Ranil and Andy have good points. Structure is important, but the view from the bottom is that a lot of people working at the higher level blithely assume that what gets discussed in a meeting happens, when actually it often doesn’t, or not how they imagined. Getting some of these over-privileged expats out of their gleaming white land cruisers would definitely be a good thing. You don’t need to understand poverty in order to build roads, but if you’re working in child nutrition, say, then do you definitely do need a good idea of the motivations of your intended beneficiaries if you actually want to accomplish some good. But all this understanding won’t do you much good unless you are also able to manage an aid programme effectively.

  5. Ranil Dissanayake

    August 12, 2010 at 10:33am

    MI – absolutely. I don’t disagree with you – some jobs require that. As I said, it’s about learning – and with all kinds of learning you select what is relevant to you.

    Andy – I don’t see your logic. The fact that someone lives in a bubble doesn’t necessarily mean he’s bad at his/her job (and all expat aid workers except maybe Peace Corps workers live in a bubble to some extent – I mean the size of the houses we live in (the fact that we live in *houses*!, salaries).

  6. Andy S

    August 13, 2010 at 11:47am

    True, living in a bubble does not *necessarily* make a person bad at their job. However, I would argue that the vast majority of field positions (and all programme positions) benefit from a basic understanding of the host society and a regular engagement with the general public, as a minimum. If this can be gained through self-driven learning that is specifically relevant to the position, as you argue, that’s great – it would be my preferred option too.

    However, I think this approach assumes a degree of motivation and inquisitiveness that simply does not exist among many expat staff, especially those with large benefits packages. Therefore, I think occasional “immersion” courses, built into organisational HR policies, are a positive idea. Logical?

  7. Ranil Dissanayake

    August 13, 2010 at 12:08pm

    Andy, I’m not sure you’re correct about expat staff – I mean, lots of the people who have large benefits packages, as you put it, also have worked in developing countries for a very long time. Most of them have spent a lot of time among the poor etc. And yes, maybe the heads of delegation etc. don’t spend enough time milling about in the slums, but I’d argue they rarely need to for the kind of work they do – and in any case, at one point they will have been the underpaid intern/whatever who does do that kind of thing.

    I don’t disagree that people should know about the places they are, but they don’t need to go on a poverty safari, and certainly I disagree it’s got anything to do with seniority. Even among the interns and things in Malawi, how pathetic was the uptake of Chichewa? Almost no-body took lessons on a regular basis, and very few could say much more than ‘muli bwanji’, ‘osdandaula’ and ‘kachasu’.

  8. Andy S

    August 13, 2010 at 3:34pm

    I get the feeling that we’re re-treading old ground! Think the discussion here is fairly comprehensive:

    My position is simply that the gap between aid workers, both junior and senior (me included), and their intended beneficiaries is too large. Certainly, there are positions whose holders do not require community contact to be effective. But I would suggest that *most* aid workers would benefit from being occasionally reminded, even if only in a very shallow way, of what life is like for the public they intend to serve. As the discussion on Owen’s blog indicates, there are plenty of ways to do this in a way that prevents the experience from becoming a “poverty safari.”

  9. Aaron Ausland

    August 18, 2010 at 2:58am

    Matt and commenters,

    This is one of a spate of blog posts on the subject of poverty tourism that seems to have revived as a topic of debate since the NYT op-ed. After carefully reading through as many as I could find, it became apparent that both bloggers and commenters were talking past each other and using wildly different definitions and terms related to poverty tourism. This makes it hard to have a coherent discussion. So, I have proposed a taxonomy of Poverty Tourism terms along with examples of comments that frame the discussion for each type in “Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance.” (I linked to this blog post as one example.) I hope this helps us have more linguistic clarity around the fault lines and confluence in our ongoing discussion of poverty tourism. The following link is to the blog post at :

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