Is slum tourism poverty porn?

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Bouncing through pothole after pothole, we reached the end of the road – a smelly waterway filled with grey water and the remnants of plastic packets. Surrounding the river were all the elements you might expect from the context. Women hand-washing clothes in a bucket, snotty children staring out at us from darkened doorways, dogs, everywhere. Most of the people ignored us, but occasionally we were treated to a joyful flash of bright white teeth, a glimpse of the person inside the body.

Dharavi, Khayelitsha, Santa Marta – slum, township, favela.  The scene I experienced could have been in any one of these places and, as tourism statistics indicate, frequently does. Lying either on the outskirts or at the very heart of cities in India, Africa and Brazil respectively, each of these places represents the worst in human living conditions. And yet they frequently pop up on tourist itineraries alongside more traditional attractions like museums, cultural icons and natural attractions.

Poverty sells

The thing is, poverty sells. Coming from a privileged background where sanitation and electricity are taken for granted, it is a real eye-opener to witness people eeking out a living in less savoury urban conditions. So much of an eye-opener that people will pay to see it.

Tourism: valuable income for slum dwellers, or just another form of “poverty porn”

Not surprisingly this approach to tourism has stirred plenty of controversy. Some argue that it provides valuable income for the slum dwellers involved, while others claim it is just another form of “poverty porn”, the sympathy tactic frequently used by media as a catalyst for funding.  As with so many issues related to human rights and social justice it’s difficult to draw a definitive line, but I’d argue that the difference lies in how the operation is executed.

Working with slum-dwellers as people

The pros that spring to mind revolve around direct financial gain and community empowerment. If the approach is one of working with slum-dwellers as people rather than objects, then there is hope. Employing local people from slums as guides for example flips the traditional power balance, with the knowledge provider being the poorer person in the equation. And as long as the tourists’ dollars are going directly into the hands of the host community, meaningful employment, better still a degree of entrepreneurship, provides dignity and a sense of empowerment, two qualities often lacking in poverty-stricken environments.

However, how often does the slum tourism model actually run according to these ideals? And how does one ensure that they do? Because if communities are not benefitting from such tours, then the whole thing turns into something quite ugly.

The pitfalls of patronisation, exploitation and disrespect

Imagine a group of wealthy tourists trailing through your neighbourhood, oohing and ahing at you washing your own car for example, or sweeping the driveway yourself. They take photographs without asking your permission and offer up a benign, maybe apologetic smile when they glimpse the displeasure in your look – or they ignore you completely.

Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, is home to nearly a million people. it is one of the poorest parts of Kenya – a poverty that is attracting western tourists. Watch video

As they walk away you overhear them commenting on how inspiring it is that despite not having the money to get your car valeted on a daily basis, you still find a way to keep it clean. ‘Such resilience!’ they proclaim. And then they turn the corner and are gone.

Poor people probably have little interest in inspiring open-minded and wealthy visitors. They want sanitation, electricity, access to health services and jobs that provide a living wage and dignity.

Patronising, exploitative, disrespectful are all words that spring to mind in such an imaginary situation. Even done in the ‘right’ way there are consequences that don’t necessarily sit well. Touring through a slum you will no doubt be impressed by the resourcefulness of people being able to make something out of nothing. In South Africa a whole design movement is borne out of township dwellers’ use of upcycled materials for wallpaper.

You may also be moved by the smiles you get. However, all of this runs the risk of romanticising poverty and causing you to forget that poor people probably have little interest in inspiring open-minded and wealthy visitors. They want sanitation, electricity, access to health services and jobs that provide a living wage and dignity. Slum tourism has the potential to provide at least some of that but, as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out.

 

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About Author

Hi, I'm Catherine. I was born and raised in South Africa and spent much of my childhood exploring the country's wild places, from the empty West Coast beaches to the vast Karoo and the highveld game reserves. After university I spent two years learning Spanish in South America and I now find myself in London. No matter where I go though, my interest in sustainable development, travel and conservation remain constant. Furthermore, my loyalty to and hope for Africa is as fiery as ever.

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