A ratty pair of sneakers. A pair of bare feet covered in dirt. A cardboard sign with crude Sharpie lettering. A shaking, outstretched hand. A shopping cart full of empty Gatorade bottles and Coke cans. A pile of scraps – metal to be sold, food to be salvaged, cloth to be used as a makeshift bed. A face hidden beneath an unshaven beard. A few ribs poking out beneath young skin. A dark, much-too-big jacket to protect against the chill of the city. A once-bright, now-threadbare cloth tied around the waist. A pair of eyes devoid of light. A smile devoid of joy.
These are the sights we see on our streets, in nonprofit pamphlets, at Metro stations, in movies like Slumdog Millionaire and The Pursuit of Happyness, in ads for UNICEF and Save the Children. We see these signs of poverty everywhere, but more often than not, that is all we do: See. Look. Witness. Few of us have known the pain of hunger that has lasted for weeks or have had only a cold, wet sidewalk to rest our heads upon instead of a pillow. Few of us do more than volunteer occasionally at soup kitchens or donate an extra dollar at the cash register to support this or that foundation. But for those who practice global citizenship, meaning seeing the world’s issues as one’s own, it is different. Global citizenship involves constantly and actively venturing out of one’s comfort zone to make an impact that will not act as a mere Band-Aid for global issues, but will evolve into a solution. This can be difficult to attain and some seek it by embarking on poverty tours, which entail exploring Brazilian favelas, South African townships, Indian slums, and other underdeveloped areas. These poverty tours are meant to make a change, whether in perception, action, or mindset. Although poverty tourism intends to fully enlighten individuals through exposure to vastly different realities and standards of living, its promotion of observation rather than active amelioration ultimately fails to foster global citizenship.
From the outside, poverty tours may look noble, inspirational, and even humanitarian. However, a closer look at these tourism agencies’ intentions reveal that tours do little to inspire a greater sense of responsibility. Onlookers characterize these arduous trips in underdeveloped areas as brave and selfless in comparison to the standard cushy stays at luxury resorts. As stated by Manfred Rolfes, a professor at the University of Potsdam in Germany, the aim of poverty tourism agencies is to focus not on poverty itself, but to uncover a reality, “The so-called slum, favela or township tours do not focus on visiting sordidness and poverty. […] [Poverty] is implicitly marketed as supposed attraction, presented as reality or authenticity, and it is even tried to be concealed” (422). Poverty tourism proponents might argue that the desire to present ‘reality’ is virtuous because these tours give insight into peoples’ cultures, history, and livelihood which can lead to a broader world perspective. However, this focus on observing reality rather than engaging in service causes agencies and tourists alike to view poverty simply as scenery for the main attraction, not as a pressing world issue. These intentions, however innocuous, cause tourists to view themselves as uninvolved spectators rather than powerful agents of change. Thus, these ‘reality’ oriented agencies create a chasm of apathy between tourists and residents, rendering responsibility and involvement optional.
In exposing ‘reality’ to tourists, tourism agencies aim to change these areas’ reputations for the better. However, their influence over tourist perceptions allows them to degrade residents and narrow tourists’ perspectives. In an interview with Travel Weekly, Christopher Way, founder of a poverty tourism agency, discusses his take on Dharavi, India’s largest slum, “There are obvious problems which exist, but there is a real sense of community, and people get on with their lives. […] I’m sure that a lot of them are genuinely happy. It’s not a place where you will see people sitting about feeling sorry for themselves.” Way’s positive observations seem well-intentioned and paint Dharavi as a place full of ‘genuinely happy’ and hard-working individuals. Nevertheless, they contrast greatly with Dharavi’s reality which is portrayed in a piece for Smithsonian Magazine where writer John Lancaster recounts his own trip to the slum, calling it a “vision of urban hell”. Lancaster claims that the residents rely on a measly profit from 10,000 unregulated factories for sustenance and are without any semblance of a waste management system as they lack more than one toilet for every 1,440 people. Evidently, Way’s positive outlook is a very different take on the slum and therefore his tours take on this same distorted perspective. By portraying these destitute areas as thriving and somehow immune to poverty’s ill effects, tourism agencies further separate tourists from residents’ tangible suffering. Tourist industries do more than just spur a sense of indifference, they portray residents as creatures to be observed rather than individuals in need of care and assistance.
Though proponents of poverty tourism may argue that tours significantly benefit the area’s economy and residents’ well-being, tour operators promote a harmful attitude in which consent and human dignity are nonexistent. Attempts to justify poverty tourism portray it as a humanitarian project, claiming that agencies donate portions of their profit to the local community and encourage tourists to support residents’ small businesses (Lancaster). Poverty tourism is not without its merits, but these few tangible benefits do little to justify the practice of turning homes and workplaces into destinations to be invaded and photographed. In contrast, poverty tour agency founder Christopher Way claims that this right to privacy is not much of a right at all, “The people here have very little privacy anyway, so it’s not as if we are invading this private lifestyle. They are used to seeing people.” Regardless of how harmless Way believes these tours to be, poverty tourism encourages people to engage in zoo-like observation of people and their livelihoods. In Lancaster’s article, a moderator on the English-speaking Indian news channel Times Now is quoted saying, “You are treating humans like animals”. Tourism agencies hold a monopoly over people’s perceptions and in their quest to construct a ‘reality’ their borderline-voyeuristic tours violate privacy and justify exploitation. Tourism agencies turn these individuals into objects designed to entertain tourists and by doing this normalize the degradation of humans and their fundamental rights.
Tourists themselves believe that by simply donating spare change to purchase resident-made goods they can be cast into the role of a savior. This ultimately leaves tourists with a sense of self-righteous indulgence and pity rather than inherent motivation and understanding. In Travel Weekly, writer Michelle Baran states that tourists can purchase crafts from the locals or donate directly to schools and medical facilities. Though tourists are encouraged to conduct acts of goodwill, their motivation to serve the community is only present in the fleeting moments in which they witness people of “lesser” status. Since the purpose of their tour is to witness rather than serve, the act of giving is seen as simply part of the experience. Later in her article, Baran interviews Bruce Poon Tip, CEO of a ‘voluntourism’ company, who states, “When you’re volunteering, you’re being of assistance, giving back to the community. When you’re taking a tour, there’s something kind of odd about it, looking at disadvantaged people for your own entertainment.” Rather than viewing a single purchase of a resident-made good or donation to a school as an obligation that must be fulfilled to improve the world’s issues, tourists see these actions as items to be checked off a personal bucket list. Thus, tourists’ view of generosity as an experience rather than a necessity fails to fulfill a main requirement of global citizenship, to use their privilege to make a positive impact.
Though their motives may be selfish, it can still be argued that tourists’ interactions with residents result in hope, economic progress, and valuable connections with individuals of different backgrounds. However, since the residents and tourists are placed into the role of beneficiaries and benefactors, poverty tourism distorts the meaning of positive human interaction. Kevin Whyte, Evan Selinger, and Kevin Outterson, who are professors at Michigan State University, the University of Rochester, and the University of Boston argue that “even mutually beneficial transactions between tourists and residents in poverty tourism always run a risk of being exploitative” (337). Poverty tours aim to provide benefit in two ways. Both through observation and experience for the tourists and through donations for the residents. However, despite the claim that these transactions are ‘mutually beneficial’, the truth is that they are no more than exactly that, transactions. These exchanges do little to truly engage all individuals and inspire the sense of responsibility required by global citizenship. In fact, this obfuscation of the meaning of human interaction creates a standard of injustice: Whyte, Selinger, and Outterson go on to state, “A tour may be exploitative if residents’ general ability to adapt to or benefit from the tourism activities is less than would be the case were they not living in poverty and subject to tourist activities” (343). Residents are seen as part of an ‘experience’, and thus, they become reduced to receptacles for tourists’ guilt over their privilege. Similarly, because residents are given little clarification as to tourists’ backgrounds and motivations, they fail to see tourists as more than means to achieve financial gain. By degrading human interaction, poverty tourism deepens the separation between residents and tourists, which pushes global citizenship fully out of reach.
Though intentions and actions of poverty tourism agencies and tourists alike may not be intrinsically malicious, the invasive nature of the phenomenon renders poverty tourism inherently exploitative and unethical. Poverty tourism ignores an important component of global citizenship, abandoning one’s comfort zone for the sole purpose of selflessly doing good for others. However, Selinger and Outterson argue that just because poverty tourism is self-indulgent does not render it unethical, “But if [poverty tours] are just images designed for consumption, that does not make them unethical. They are what they are: entertainment for the tourist and perhaps a small dose of culture or education” (25). No matter the intentions, there is no way to dismiss that the nature of poverty tourism forces residents into the role of objects to be observed for the personal gain of tourists with selfish, internal desires. Whether these desires be to broaden their perspectives, experience a new culture, or explore a new area. In another article, Selinger, Outterson, and Whyte contest that “no one should have to face penalties or constraints on their privacy that are caused strictly by their being poor” (343). Poverty tour agencies coax residents to move from a position of apprehension to one of acceptance with the prospect of institutional and financial gain. However, because residents are forced to surrender their privacy out of desperation caused by their lower socio-economic status, the relationship between tour agencies and residents is built upon a foundation of inherent abuse. As stated by Baran in Travel Weekly, “The catch-22 is that if tourists don’t venture into impoverished areas, those areas will not have access to tourism dollars, but as they do tour these areas, opportunities for exploitation present themselves.” Ultimately, the detriment of poverty tourism’s exploitative nature negates tourism agency and tourist motives, no matter how innocent or ‘humanitarian’ and thus, fails to reach global citizenship’s standard of promoting positive change.
There is no shortage of messages encouraging us to change the world. They are hidden in pop song lyrics, in morals of children’s books, and in movie quotes. They are present in a smile from a stranger, a generous tip, a trending movement on Twitter, a door held open, and a text from our mothers. We all wish for world peace and some of us go beyond wishing by donating our belongings to the Salvation Army, volunteering at homeless shelters, or even flying to foreign countries to build homes and install water filters. However, some people turn this kindness and generosity into trends rather than virtues and embark on service trips to pad resumes and college applications or for the sake of a T-shirt or Instagram post. As with poverty tours, some venture to foreign countries believing that simply setting foot in an underdeveloped area will somehow alleviate the plight of the individuals who inhabit it. Poverty tours fuel an industry that feeds off of misfortune, invasion, and degrading humanity. There is hope though and maybe someday, we will do more than paint ourselves as saviors with a donation, tweet, or visit. We will believe that every single one of the world’s problems are on us and on that day, we will attain global citizenship.
Maria “Macey” V. Ibalio is a USC World Bachelor in Business student currently spending her second year abroad in Hong Kong. She is passionate about nonprofits and believes in “everyday philanthropy” – the practice of being intentional and kind in every moment. She calls many places home, but the San Francisco Bay Area is her favorite.
Rolfes, Manfred. “Poverty Tourism: Theoretical Reflections and Empirical Findings regarding an Extraordinary Form of Tourism.” GeoJournal, vol. 75, no. 5, 2010., pp. 421-442. Turen, Richard. “To Hell and Back for $6 and Change.” Travel Weekly, 5 May 2008, www.travelweekly.com/richard-turen/to-hell-and-back-for-6-and-change .
Lancaster, John. “Next Stop, Squalor.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian, Mar. 2007, www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/next-stop-squalor-148390665/?all&no-ist.
Baran, Michelle. “Poorism: The Economics of Exploitation.” Travel Weekly, 5 May 2008, www.travelweekly.com/travel-news/tour-operators/poorism-the-economics-of-exploitatio n.
Whyte, Kyle P., Evan Selinger, and Kevin Outterson. “Poverty Tourism and the Problem of Consent.” Journal of Global Ethics, vol. 7, no. 3, 2011., pp. 337-348.
Selinger, Evan and Kevin Outterson. “The Ethics of Poverty Tourism.” Boston University School of Law Working Paper, No. 09-29, 2009.