Poverty tourism: why it’s not as ugly as it sounds

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Last week I read The Case Against Sharing, a post on Medium which referred to Airbnb, Lyft and similar services as ‘Big Sharing’. The phrase immediately raised my hackles.

It drips with cynicism, taking something really quite lovely and reducing it to something soulless: a corporate vehicle that only exists to create money. ‘Big Sharing’ sullies the phenomenon of real sharing.

It implies that it’s not so much a phenomenon as a boardroom strategy put together with the sole purpose of commoditising the individual. For me, it illustrates how powerful an ugly term can be and how visceral our reaction to it.

This brought me to another equally ugly term: poverty tourism.

‘Poverty tourism’, ‘slum tourism’ or ‘poorism’ conjure images of privileged kids who, despite their best intentions, do more harm than good – as captured so incisively in this post by former voluntourist Pippa Biddle.

The terms evoke pictures of rich tourists gleefully boarding their 4x4s for a day of gawping at the toothless locals, all in all just a few rungs above that awful photoshoot in Vogue India a few years ago.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think that poverty tourism is all bad. I believe that in most cases it provides understanding, empathy and a sense of perspective seldom gained in the developed world.

I say this because I would be a different person now if I hadn’t spent a month in Bangladesh as a 13 year old. I would be more attached to the things I’ve bought with money, I would spend more time dwelling on my problems and I most likely wouldn’t have quit my job to go backpacking across the Pacific.

I certainly wouldn’t donate to fantastic nonprofits like Watsi as much, nor champion them to other people. I think it’s safe to say that my experience at 13 has helped me a lot and, to a lesser extent, helped others too.

Most people I know who have seen extreme poverty can recall a single moment that drove it all home. For me, it was watching one of the village kids – a kid who I had swum with, played with, laughed with – dig through one of our rubbish bags and fish out two pieces of bread crust.

We fed the local kids whenever we could and from that point on, we also started to bury our sanitary products in the ground so they no longer jostled with the leftovers that would later be retrieved.

Perhaps my experience wasn’t ‘tourism’ per se as I was staying with family in my father’s childhood village, but the lessons I learnt can be learned in many other places by many other people.

I don’t believe that a nuanced experience can be picked up on a jeep tour through Mumbai’s slums or a guided walk through Rio’s favelas, but if you take some real time to interact with locals and to learn about their lives, then ‘poverty tourism’ – as ugly as it sounds – can enrich your life and others’ too.

Personally, meeting people different from me is what I’m looking forward to most. You see, there used to be a time – a very long time in fact – that the only middle class people I interacted with were my teachers at school.

From age 4 to age 18, nearly everyone I talked to was working class. Now, the tables have turned completely. All my friends and nearly everyone I talk to on a daily basis are educated and middle class.

Most of them are highly knowledgeable and deeply interesting, but we all worry about the same things, we feel indignant about the same things and are heartened by the same things.

I want to meet people who live different lives, who will change my perspective and maybe I, theirs. If that means spending time in a slum or a favela, then that’s what I will do. It’s probably going to change me all over again – but that’s the amazing thing about travel.

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