Guilt is like pity . . . more on the poverty tourism debate

“Guilt is like pity, it stops you from seeing people as they actually are, as normal human beings. What we wanted to do is say: ‘What you’re seeing is poverty, you’re not actually seeing people. People are the same all over the world, whether they have a penis gourd on or a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain.’”

– Robert Finlayson, Volunteering for International Development from Australia, quoted in Taipei Times: Slum tours provide hard dose of reality.

. . . Entering Jakarta’s Galur slum, Poluan takes his tour group through deepening circles of privation. At the outer edge, tourists drink Fanta in the stifling heat of the home of Rumidja, a pint-sized, 69-year-old grandmother who lives cramped alongside 14 other people. She poses excitedly with the foreigners and complains of pains and lost sleep, and worries about how to pay for her granddaughter’s education. She shows off photos of herself as a much fatter teenager.

It is this contact with the everyday, rather than unmitigated suffering, that impresses Australian Martin Roach, a 39-year-old who makes his living in share trading and poker tournaments: “Many of the things she’s worrying about are the same as us.”

But moving deeper into the slum, . . . By the time the group reaches the train tracks where Sana has her weekly conflict with the city, the mood darkens. Upset by what they see, some in the group kick off an impassioned debate with Poluan [tour operator], arguing for the right to give money to anyone they come across in the slum.

“You can pass the other stuff as okay, it’s reduced from our lifestyle [but] they’re happy. The people on the railway lines, that’s not okay,” Larry Stringer, 54, said.

It may be unsettling at times, but coming face to face with the reality of poverty is an important step in getting rich Westerners to see the poor as equals, says Robert Finlayson.

A critique of poverty tourism says,

“If you come with money then it’s a complete language of money. It doesn’t develop the understanding [among the poor] that they are powerful, that they can help themselves.”

Apart from the whole debate about poverty tourism, I know a similar debate is conducted among micro-finance groups here. Should we bring in outside capital to help get projects started, or should we limit the investments to what can be generated locally? Why can’t we do both? Why not reward some proven initiative with outside capital investment to boost capacity?

My guess is that it probably depends on a number of variables including, how the individuals and community respond to outside capital. If it boosts their entrepreneurial capacity, great! If it fosters dependency and complacency . . . it’s better to do nothing.

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2 thoughts on “Guilt is like pity . . . more on the poverty tourism debate

  1. Simon says:

    I don’t know what to believe anymore.

    • Ben says:

      You’ve been here long enough to know. . . some times. . . other times . . . depends . . . meanwhile, lets all pontificate about it ;-).

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