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.

Poverty Safari

Keep a safe distance

Keep a safe distance

Through Aid Watch I stumbled upon this excellent article in the Huffington post by Senegalese businesswoman Magatte Wade. She tackles the implicit condescension in ventures like Jeffrey Sach’s Millennium Village project, slyly comparing it to “polite” racism she experienced in France. The main subject of her wrath is a cultural enrichment tour group organised by New Dawn Associates, a group of academics who take foreigners on guided tours around the Millennium Village. Wade fishes out some slightly perturbing recommendations made in the NDA brochure, including:

Please do not give anything to the villagers – no sweets, cookies, empty water bottles, pens or even money.

and

Please do not eat or drink in public. Many people in the Bugesera District are still suffering from malnutrition, and the public consumption of food or drinks is against the culture of the area.

Firstly, as Easterly points out: if this is one of the holy Millenium Villages, why are people still starving? Secondly, do these statements sound familiar? (Please do not feed the animals). The whole venture smacks deeply of a new, dasterdly form of poverty porn: the poverty safari! You too, from the safety of your 4×4, can get to experience the overwhelming poverty of the Rwandan people, only to escape back to your hotel in the evening.

Easterly is unsurprisingly outraged. This sounds like another case of good intentions gone awry. However, is this truly a case of a bunch of Western academics viewing Africans as cardboard cutouts? An actual visit to the NDA website reveals that most of the staff and the entire top management are actually African. Does this lend this venture any more cred? I really don’t know.

The Wade article from which all this sprung is quite a good read and can be found here.

UPDATE: Hmm, the NDA website seems to have inverted since I first looked at it. The top staff are now all white foreigners. The head is Dr. Michael Grosspietsch, who has responded to Bill Easterly here.