11 May 2011

The Guardian Does Poverty Tourism

Poverty tourism takes center stage at The Guardian Travel section (subheading 'ethical holidays'). The focus is square upon NGOs who, according to the report, are increasingly more likely provide tour opportunities for donors.
"We try to make this affordable for as many people as possible while covering our costs," he adds. The trip, excluding flights, cost $1,600 (£980) a head. "We don't demand anything in return. But we make our money in donations when people get back home." Some donors increase their donations from three figures to five figures, while others become loyal fundraisers for life.

Those who went on the Ethiopia trip said they had an "awesome", inspiring time and learned a lot. The children were "like sponges", said one mother, absorbing the reality of a world where children laugh and take care of each other despite having flies crawling on their faces and no shoes.

"The children were very dirty, very happy and excited and very welcoming. I played with a little girl who was really cute and super smart," says Ghislaine, who is eager to go back.

The group is aware that critics may accuse them of poverty tourism – paying to look at the poor to assuage their guilt. But most of those who travelled to Ethiopia talk of something more positive.

"We live in a little bubble – we are comfortable, we have nice houses, food on our plates, clean water," says Susan Sercu, 39, who took her 12-year-old daughter Giuliana on the trip. "What this does is give us more of a global perspective. It's a chance to expose our children to what happens in the rest of the world. We want our children to be empathetic and informed...

Last year, for the first time, the US branch of Plan International turned to a specialist travel agency to organise a group donor trip to Ghana. Elevate Destinations says that its "donor tourism" business is growing fast – it is organising trips to three more countries this year for Plan USA donors alone.

Many though, and particularly those focused on emergency relief, are scathing of the idea of an aid agency regularly taking larger groups of visitors to see its work. Two years ago MSF Switzerland instituted a policy of taking donors to the field two at a time. But, says communications chief Laurent Sauveur, "we are a far cry from any concept of humanitarian tourism. We are not acting as a tour agency."
The article does quite a good job of showing the issue, describing how the trips work, and exposing some of the criticisms and ethical concerns related with the trip. I continue to believe that immersion trips, if done well, can be an effective way to expose people to global poverty without stripping the locals of their dignity. The fact is that supply and demand both exist, so an argument over if they should or should not take place misses the opportunity to make them better.

For an NGO, having donors see their projects is an excellent way of building connections with long term donors who can then tell other people of their experience. Couple that with strong education and information while on the trip and a more informed global citizen has been created. Not everyone can afford such trips, but some will go and there is an opportunity to use the time to make the world of a few people just a bit bigger or even burst their "little bubble."