Poverty tourism is getting a lot of attention lately. It’s not a new idea; we’ve been seeing slum tours for a decade now. People have a natural desire to see how the other half lives, and these tours make it happen in a safe and easy way. Opinion has always been mixed on where it’s exploitation, a lesson in empathy, or irrelevant.

 A recent article Huffington Post, a truly breathtaking rant from Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade, has brought poverty tours back to prominence and controversy. She thinks that the Millennium Villages Project – an experimental program developed by development economist Jeffery Sachs – is ill-conceived and that the tourism there treats Africans like zoo animals:

 “…American professors spending tens of millions of dollars telling villagers how they should live their lives, so that American tourists can go and watch the new feature at the zoo in which the African natives are doing just as they are told by the American experts — with the careful warning to the tourists not to contaminate the zoo display by feeding the animals…”

 This was followed by several posts on Bill Easterly’s Aid Watch blog, where the tour operator responded to Wade’s criticism. The tour operator pointed out, among other things, that the brochure language that Wade was angry about had been written by inhabitants of the village in question, not by outsiders. That does put a damper on the zoo animals argument.

 Today, the Christian Science Monitor weighed in, with a slightly broader look at poverty tourism as a whole. They quote Josh Ruxin, of the Millennium Villages Project, who argues that having visitors arrive as an organized tour alters the power balance in a positive way. “Tourism shows, ‘This community has value, for which we will be paid.’ It’s a totally different way of thinking…”

My own take: I agree with Josh Ruxin. Shifting modes from gawking guests to paying tourists makes it clear to host communities that they possess things of value. Tourists in poor places are inevitable; well-meaning people want to learn about the lives of the poor, and the less thoughtful just want to gawk. Corralling those visitors into a tour uses their energy in a useful way.

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