Poverty tourism: harming the people you want to help

Imagine that you work for an organisation that provides activities and services for disabled young people in the UK. It’s a weekday morning and your staff team are, as always, extremely busy ensuring that every child present is receiving the individual attention and support that they require. Two adults arrive unannounced at the reception desk. You do not know these people. None of the children that are attending today know these people. They ask to be given access to the project because they are desperate to see, interact with and help the vulnerable young people that your organisation supports. They casually mention that they might be interested in supporting your organisation in some unspecified way. Both have large cameras hung around their necks.  

What would you do?

Everyone would agree that in this situation the right course of action, i.e. that which prioritises and refuses to put at risk the welfare of the children involved, would be to politely turn these people away. Yet, if we place this very same situation in the context of European tourists visiting projects in the developing world, people’s expectations and opinions are often very different. Why?

It is natural that people who take an interest in international development projects want to see the people that they attempt to help. It is true that a visit to a project working to support a cause that you care about can be extremely rewarding; rewarding that is, for you, the visitor. People who want to visit projects such as our own undoubtedly have a genuine interest in the work and are well-intentioned in the vast majority of cases. What must be guarded against is the unintended negative impacts of the frequent involvement of such enthusiastic casual visitors. 

A negative consequence that can result from frequent foreign visitors to a project in Africa that aims to support the inclusion of disabled young people, is how this can affect the local perception of the project and its aims. Disability Africa fully recognises that the work we carry out involves an intervention in communities which are not our own and the promotion of ideas that challenge a traditional consensus of opinion regarding impairment. Given the stigma that can surround disability, it can be a major step in itself for parents to have the confidence to engage with Disability Africa projects and allow their disabled children to come out of isolation and benefit from the programmes we provide. Clearly such a decision to tentatively engage, can in no way be assumed to equate to the granting of permission for total strangers from another country, however well-intentioned they might believe themselves to be, to visit, interact with and take photographs of their children. Such parental permission may not be forthcoming, and in any case, it really is not our place to ask for it. 

Members of the wider community may also be suspicious of the true motives of our projects; rumours can circulate, indeed they have. When negative beliefs about disability are so well entrenched, some individuals simply cannot understand why any organisation would want to start a project to help disabled children. They might conclude that our projects aim to exploit their community and make money. We place an enormous value on winning the full support of the local community; mobilising such support is the only way that we can build inclusive communities, and improve outcomes for disabled young people in a way that can be sustained. The regular presence of foreign visitors will only increase the rumours and suspicions, and as such is incompatible with our approach.

This warped expectation, that as a European one will be welcome to spend a day ‘visiting’ and ‘helping out’ at a project in Africa, arguably develops from a notion of ‘charity’ that is in itself flawed. Traditional thinking around charitable giving and charitable work creates the people it purports to help as objects of pity. The donor (or visitor in this case) is powerful, informed and generous whilst the ‘beneficiary’ is weak, ignorant and grateful. When no attention is given to partnership, empowerment and consultation, this model, however well intentioned, can do more harm than it does good. This way of thinking about charity and the notions of dependency, weakness and patronisation that it creates are particularly acute in relationships between the developed and the developing world, the so-called ‘rich North’ and the ‘poor South’. Too often, Europeans subconsciously maintain a post-colonial feeling of engrained superiority; a deeply patronising and unequal power relationship characterised by a desire to save Africa from itself. Maybe, it is this subconscious mentality that convinces people that they will be welcome to visit projects working with vulnerable people in Africa, who they expect to be grateful. Definitely though, wave after wave of visiting tourists, thinking that they are helping and feeling good about themselves, can only serve to reinforce this regressively unequal relationship rather than overcome it. 

This model, perpetuated by such ‘poverty tourism’, is also particularly damaging, when applied to projects aiming to promote social inclusion of groups of people that are marginalised and discriminated against. Disabled people the world over suffer from stigma; their rights are unrecognised and they are excluded. Where they do experience inclusion it is often tokenistic or as objects of curiosity and pity. The views of non-disabled people are the biggest barrier to disabled people being included as valid, viable members of their communities. To allow frequent one-off foreign visitors to our programmes would further isolate an already seriously disenfranchised and unappreciated group. It could effectively turn projects that aim to encourage communities to respect and value disabled people into ‘zoos’ in which disabled young people are institutionalised and gawped at with pity and curiosity – this is the opposite of inclusion.  We know that an approach that is built on partnership, empowerment and consultation is the only way to build communities in which inclusion for disabled people can become the norm. Allowing the frequent involvement of casual visitors is incompatible with this approach as it reinforces a view of charity which runs counter to the ideals of inclusion. 

Even worse than this traditional patronising view of charity is the accompanying idea that people may be entitled to visit projects in return for having made, or promising to potentially make, a donation. To make such a connection between a visit and a donation is to expose one’s self as an unashamed and unapologetic poverty tourist. Such an arrangement would literally treat access to the vulnerable people that our projects support as a commodity to be sold, and local people who harbour suspicions that their community is being exploited to make money would, frankly, have a point. 

To allow our projects to become poverty tourism attractions would reinforce the models of charity, unequal relationships and double standards that we reject and deplore. We are truly grateful for the genuine interest and desire to help that our work generates, but in the pursuit of our vision, we must always implement actions that are consistent with our aims, and prevent actions that could compromise them. 

If you want to help us, there are many ways you can; share our message, fundraise for us, make a donation – the list goes on. By doing so you can have a real impact on disadvantaged young lives, without risking any of these unintended negative effects.