SERIES Understanding and Avoiding Poverty Tourism: Part I

This post is part one of a three-part series on poverty tourism and how to avoid exploitation during your time abroad. Check back next week for more on how to be conscious about your impact on communities in the developing world.

SERIES Understanding and Avoiding Poverty Tourism Part IIf you have been following some of our recent posts, you have read tips for traveling, packing, and managing your culture shock while in, and when returning from, the developing world. Another important consideration for your travels is the concept of poverty tourism. Ask yourself: how can I travel to impoverished areas of the world while also not exploiting the people I meet and see?

Poverty tourism can take many forms. Here are a few common examples:

  • Photographs or videos of impoverished people or communities
  • Unwelcome or obtrusive presence in a community or a home
  • Displaying a bold and proud “helping and saving” mentality

A 2010 New York Times article by Kennedy Odede–raised in a Kenyan slum and now the executive of a social services organization–speaks to the difficult balance travelers encounter when they are exposed to poverty. His first-hand experiences of the negative impacts of poverty tourism are captured in the following quote:

“Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really ‘seen’ something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family, and my community right where we were before.”

For citizens of a developed country and society, our experiences with poverty can be–especially at first–shocking, surreal, and even compelling. But with some attention to our attitudes, mentalities, and self-awareness, we might find ourselves getting caught up in the complexity and shocking nature of poverty.

Why is it a natural response for us to pick up a camera and take pictures of a malnourished child outside her house? How strange would you find it to see someone were to walk or drive down your street and take pictures of the kids in your own neighborhood? How would you react if a group of people came, unwelcomed, into your home or yard?

Even for volunteers and service-oriented visitors, poverty tourism is something we should be conscious of during our travels. You should ask yourself:

  • How can I keep my trip focused on my good intentions?
  • How can I respect the people, communities, and places I encounter?
  • How would this make me feel?

As this series continues, we hope that you will further your understanding of what it means to serve with humility, openness, and respect.

photo credit: spdl_n1 via photopin cc

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