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Response from tourism operator to “Should starving people be tourist attractions”

Dear William,

While it is generally a pleasure to get to know you, the circumstances are rather sad. I thank you, nevertheless, for inviting me personally to respond to your blog. I’m the Director of the Eos Visions network that got under fire here and – and I’m happy to admit it – the author of the brochure that you and several of your commentators criticize to a point that verges on insult.

I read Ms. Wade’s article closely (and will post a response there as well). As a fellow entrepreneur, I can certainly understand her personal problem with the way she was apparently approached by an MVP representative. In fact, our tourism project is doing exactly the opposite – responding to a market demand as I will explain below and just as she does business herself. On top of that – especially as the part-time academic that I also am – I can also understand her general feelings about the MVP approach as a whole (I’ll get back to this point later because it is also relevant to your own blog). I also have my doubts about the general sustainability, even though “having doubts” does not necessarily mean “being ready to judge”. Where Ms. Wade goes totally wrong, however, is the jumping to conclusions when it comes to our tourism project and the related brochure. Josh Ruxin has already pointed out in his response above that Ms. Wade was totally misguided and misinformed, and used her personal grudge against the MVP to maliciously attack our tourism project and, thereby, our work as a whole.

And, unfortunately, I believe that your blog has taken this even further. Have you ever thought about the reasons why our brochure might display the rules that it displays? Have you ever even tried to understand what the entire tourism project is all about? Well, my first reaction to your blog was total disbelief and rising anger. By now I’m actually grateful for this opportunity to explain our concepts (and the results!) to an audience that – as several of the commentators have pointed out – is certainly not the audience we intended for the brochure. And I can already say at this point: I’d like to officially invite you (and everybody else who was happily throwing criticism around without ever having been on the tour or having talked to those involved) to join one of our tours in the future. You’d be surprised! We even talk about general MVP critics like yourself and their arguments on our tour…

But please allow me to provide a bit more information, adding on what Josh has already written above. When I first visited Mayange, the site of Rwanda’s Millennium Village, in 2006, it was a totally desperate area. Among the many obvious problems, one stood out for me, the young social entrepreneur: There was not a single shop to be seen anywhere in the entire area. I was not able to buy anything. The mentality of the community members was entirely relying on hand-outs. My Rwandan (!) partners were equally astonished, and we vowed that we would try to play our role as a private sector company to contribute to a mentality change and allow the community members to help themselves. I then got to know Josh who invited our Rwandan team to get involved and to work with the community members so that they could essentially shape an experience that was, after all, in growing demand. Why? Well, a lot of people (both supporters and critics alike) wanted to learn more about the MVP and its concepts – if only to understand if they really make sense or not. This demand came to Josh and his team, and they basically took a variety of people to the Village, without any real structure and without any coherent way of allowing the community members to participate, to shape the visit and (!) to benefit from it! It was rather clear from the outset that our company as such did not seek any material benefits out of this work – but we were more than happy to become involved because we are a social enterprise and because similar projects are part and parcel of our daily (social) activities. Hence, there was a market (people interested in learning about the MVP approach) and there was a community that was in strong need of an experienced partner in order to help them structure the visits and benefit from them.

Over the course of various months, our Rwandan team facilitated a process of founding a tourism cooperative that now has over 200 members and is entirely managed and run by the community members themselves. We signed MOUs with the cooperative and with the local authorities who vowed to provide their support. We worked with the cooperative members, trained them on a variety of issues (general introductions, presentation skills, guiding skills, language skills, hospitality and customer care, hygiene, environmental management and so on) and also asked them to discuss in participatory ways what we should pass on to the visitors in terms of do’s and don’ts. Well, the rules that Ms. Wade, you and some of your commentators are finding so appalling are actually a result of this. The community members found it important to discourage any kind of hand-outs because they knew that they would only encourage more begging and would never achieve the desired mentality change towards more entrepreneurship. They found it equally important to hint to the general cultural issue that it is contrary to local traditions everywhere in Rwanda (and specifically in this region because of the recurrent incidences of malnutrition) to eat or drink in public. You will certainly agree that we – and our clients – should respect the local culture and especially the express wishes of the community. You will hopefully admit that claiming that we do not look at Rwandans living in the MV as “individuals who possess rights and human dignity” BECAUSE of these rules, is outrageous. It would certainly have been better to inform yourself before attacking us and our reputation…

And since you and, even stronger, one of the commentators mentioned that the results are merely good intentions (our “self-proclaimed” 70% profit sharing etc), I’m happy to share the full statistics with you and to show that our little contribution has been well documented and is actually rather significant – contrary to what especially the commentator seems to believe. Over the first 18 months of the project, there were 488 visitors taking a tour of the MV, organized, run and guided by the community members (!!!), with our own guide facilitating the visit and providing additional introductions and information. The experience did expressly NOT include “viewing” the life of the villagers or anything related to poverty or the like. Visitors don’t enter homes, and there are absolutely no “voyeuristic” elements involved anywhere. On the contrary, community members take the visitors to various interventions sites where they explain MVP interventions through their own eyes, how the situation used to be before the MVP arrived, what the MVP taught them and how the situation has changed since them. The “tourism product” (if you allow me to use this term) therefore becomes the set of interventions through the local eyes – nothing else, not “poverty porn”, no “zoo” and so on. Back to the figures: The 488 visitors paid an average of just below USD 67, a total of USD 33,085. Roughly USD 17,540 were spent on various costs related to the tour, so that a profit remained of roughly USD 15,545. Of this, the community received no less than USD 12,328 or 79.3% (i.e. even more than our promised 70%). I don’t know what you think about this, but I believe that over USD 12,000 in 18 months earned through entrepreneurial ventures by a local community that previously did not even have a shop to sell anything is a huge success!! On top of this comes another significant amount for the sale of handicrafts and food items. How was the money disseminated? Well, again we merely facilitated the decision making of the community. They decided that those villagers who are actively involved in presenting and guiding some of the interventions should receive individual remuneration for their service. Groups involved in the activities are paid as groups. Additionally, the community has installed funds for education, health care and general community development (the latter being used e.g. for the construction of homes for the most vulnerable members of the community). Everything is completely accounted for and I could give you exact figures broken down into all these various dissemination mechanisms. Equally importantly, we can see a huge amount of positive immaterial impacts. These include, among many others, the desired mentality change towards more entrepreneurship, stronger local ownership of the entire MVP approach, cultural benefits through a revitalization of arts, crafts, dance and music, and even reconciliation and peace building on a small level.

I truly hope, William, that you are now able to acknowledge that you based your judgment on false conceptions and missing information about our work. You will have noted that I did not attempt to protect or justify the MVP as a whole. As mentioned in the beginning, we have as many doubts as you have. But we still believe that the concept deserves a chance and that it has to prove itself right or wrong. The tourism project has nothing to do with Jeffrey Sachs and his team – they merely invited us to work with the MV community and provided some support (we especially worked with their own community mobilizers). Beyond this, the MVP concepts are not important to us and we ensure that the visitors receive an unbiased view that even talks about criticism from the likes of you. The tour is truly educational and informative – and it provides wonderful opportunities for the local community. I do hope that also the very critical commentators will have found a different perspective on what they call “poverty tourism” or even “poverty porn”. Our project is anything but an excursion to the zoo. And calling us “condescending” is a real insult if you really understand our concepts and philosophies.

Let me finish once again by inviting you to visit the project with us. Who knows, you might even learn something yourself about the MVP approach. Apart from that, I strongly encourage you to keep in touch and to do more research on tourism related to development. I may add that I gained my PhD looking at the question how we can “maximize the poverty-reducing impacts of tourism in Rwanda”. Much of our current work under the Eos Visions umbrella relates to this. I’d be more than happy to interact more frequently with you on related matters. I also plan to publish our experiences and related statistics in the future in academic journals.

Kind regards,

Michael

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22 Comments

  1. Jim wrote:

    Michael should be applauded for such a gracious and informative response. Also, I suppose it’s nice that this blog gives such prominent right of reply, but wouldn’t it be even nicer for a respected academic to do some proper research before steaming straight in and insulting people? Accusing this company of ‘dehumanizing’ Rwandans by treating them as ‘exhibits’ was unfair and offensive, and I can’t help wondering if this would have happened without the connection to Jeff Sachs.

    Posted June 23, 2009 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  2. kim dionne wrote:

    I would be curious to hear the blogger’s reflection on this response.

    Posted June 23, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  3. francis wrote:

    Wow, just one comment against 29 on the previous blog. I think we ought to lower our egos and at least apologize for some of our erroneous and deleterious judgments.

    Posted June 23, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Jay wrote:

    Francis,

    I’m tempted to agree with you, but at the same time I do await Bill’s response, which I hope is in the works.

    Posted June 23, 2009 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  5. Andrew wrote:

    C’mon Bill. Ball is now in your court.

    Posted June 23, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  6. monokle wrote:

    The seething anger in this letter is percolating between the lines. The author fixates on the revenue sharing while ignoring the main crux of his critics’ argument namely: Impoverished communities are being exploited (with generous revenue sharing) to allay western guilt. Exploited how? By creating an incentive structure to keep these communities impoverished. If these villages were doing well then essentially there would be nothing to see and no tours to be had.

    All of this betrays a deep cynicism regarding poverty. But worse it condescends to Rwandans, and Africans in general by propagating the idea that they are to be pitied for their poverty.

    Thank you Mr. Easterly for clearly lining out the issues in so doing beginning to dismantle the pernicious sentiment that Africans are to be pitied, gawked at, and ultimately written off as a people unable to help ourselves

    Posted June 23, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  7. Michael Bernier (unrelated to the blog guest author above) wrote:

    Monokle:

    To argue that getting out of poverty would push them back into poverty is a Collier-style poverty trap.

    If they began to do well (and we assume tourists wouldn’t want to see a successful MV, a terrible assumption in my opinion) then they’d be doing well and the tours could phase out without a problem.

    The author above was describing his work empowering Rwandans, but you seem to ignore this and just repeat previous attacks about condescension. If anything, the tour operators used an Easterly-esque piecemeal model, letting them design huge swaths of the program.

    Perhaps the program will have the effect of making people in the MV feel like fish in an aquarium–follow up work should try to ascertain whether this is the case. But we shouldn’t assume it will be the case, and we shouldn’t assume we know that the benefit they’ll receive will not outweigh this cost. Clearly, the Rwandans in the program believe the benefit is worth their voluntary inclusion in the program.

    Posted June 23, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Permalink
  8. amstravels wrote:

    I think the important part is planning for future self-determination, i.e. how next steps are taken, how does the MV community move from having tours in their community to saying: “no, thanks, now we’ve generated significant income from showing tourists around our place, there’s nothing to see here” to having sufficient capacity to step into the next entrepreneurial space, and step away from the tour operators. I imagine this would be a potential source of conflict within the community and I would hope that groups like Eos would both start facilitating that discussion, and respect the community’s decision when the community decides its time to move on.

    Posted June 23, 2009 at 10:18 pm | Permalink
  9. Yi wrote:

    Appreciate that Easterly posted the response from Michael.

    To amstravels,

    Self-determination is not a bad idea and i think it has already been part of the mentality of the indigenous people, at least some if Michael’s response was right. But I don’t think your example that “say no to the tourists” because of “making enough money” sounds right; local cultures and traditions have their charms always fascinating foreign people.

    The core of their program is to, through the local people’s self-involving, spread out the idea that they are owner of their lives, and they could better their lives through working and thinking.

    Posted June 23, 2009 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  10. geckonomist wrote:

    The idea that there are people founding a travel operator in Rwanda, and that they are making a profit, I can only support.

    Whether they find themselves “social” or not, I don’t care.

    But no matter how often this tourism PhD repeats that this particular trip has nothing to do with “poverty tourism” , it is still exactly that. I simply can’t find in his text any other tourism attraction than : extremely poor people.

    And I am disgusted that 488 rich guys spent hard cash to look at them.

    Of course these people are happy about the project, it’s not that they had any alternative.

    But if they had had the choice between:

    - guiding rich guys around in their misery

    - a solarwold plant assembling solar panels;

    - an adidas factory making clothes;

    - Starbucks paying 25% more for top quality rwandan coffee;

    I am sure the rich guys could go and hang

    Posted June 24, 2009 at 4:44 am | Permalink
  11. Avam wrote:

    Bill, I agree with some of the posters above that a response would be nice. I am extremely skeptical about MV’s – but the author of the tourism project seems to be looking at piecemeal solutions and local involvement. I also think that while the notice (no food etc) comes across as highly patronizing at first glance – if in fact, it is what the local member committee wanted to write, then it is valid. Regardless of how it may appear to others not living or involved in the community. Surely what you and Moyo are trying (among other issues) to highlight in your books is the importance of not being so overly PC that western engagement becomes, in essence, another form of neocolonialism whereby any interaction is played out as ‘saving the world’ (TM) or with the ‘white man’s burden’ in mind.

    fyi – from the Eos site…(seems to me that the author has a solid background and understanding of the issues re tourism/poverty/rwanda) – “Dr. Michael Grosspietsch, PhD (Director General)

    Michael, a German national, has gained expertise in the areas of responsible tourism, development economics and sustainable development through 7 years of professional experience, diverse academic studies and travels to more than 55 countries. He is the mastermind behind the strategies and visions of the entire Eos Visions network of social enterprises that now spreads across 6 east and southern African countries, and he leads the various research & development and marketing & sales teams. His university background is in Law (Münster, Paris), International Relations (Toulouse), Responsible Tourism Management (London) and Pro-poor Tourism (Münster), and his Ph.D. thesis dealt with maximizing tourism’s contribution to poverty reduction in Rwanda.”

    Posted June 24, 2009 at 5:47 am | Permalink
  12. Diane wrote:

    I find the premise of this business to be de-humanizing and short-sited, regardless of the business skills and cash infusion Eos Visions shares with the local community. I would be just as uncomfortable with a tour company coming to visit our village projects in South Sudan I helped start. Most organizations working in South Sudan have stopped using even short-term volunteers because the effort it takes to educate outsiders to basic realities makes the liability outweigh the benefit.

    I recently saw the documentary ‘Tapologo’ about an AIDS/HIV program in South Africa. Such movies can bring the issues to large numbers of individuals without being so disruptive to the local population.

    See http://www.hrw.org/iff for the Human Rights Watch film festival happening this week in NYC. Many of these films will be on Television in the US and shown at other film festivals around the world.

    Posted June 24, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  13. Jessica wrote:

    I think this has been a really constructive conversation, but personally I can’t help but agree with “geckonomist” and Diane, who point out the de-humanizing aspect of such an endeavor. And I truly don’t think having Rwandans involved is an automatic protection of the people living in the MDV. I don’t doubt that, like most development projects, there were good intentions and good people behind the vision, but in the end, I can’t help but see it as anything more than a zoo of sorts. And the company’s clients should be the most ashamed for spending their money on an “educational vacation” that treats people like objects to be judged and gawked at. There are more *appropriate* ways of educating oneself on poverty and better ways of pumping money into the local economy. Just because there is a market demand there doesn’t mean it should be exploited.

    Posted June 24, 2009 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  14. SS wrote:

    How about solidarity tours, no profits, labor and cultural exchanges, we can learn what a truly family and people based society is like recalling some of our ancestral values, learn about living with nature and the Africans could learn about modernity from us! It would take truly socialist values to implement something like this, starting with respect for other people.

    SS

    Posted June 24, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  15. Moussa wrote:

    This post does not answer the prime question from the earlier post.

    If you had a market for pornography (yes, the actual) in the MDV with the consent of the local, would you have set up a porn tour? I guess, no, and the reason is a similar reason your critics are raising.

    Regarding the villagers’ involvement, I have seen many instances of this situation where in fact the villagers are guided to choose what is planned for them. A friend of mine was joking a few days ago about that regarding the CDDP (Community driven Development Projects) that he is working on with the WB.

    Posted June 24, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  16. This is typical of the “poverty porn” that is perpetuated by well-meaning individuals and organizations that disregard the dignity of people.

    por·nog·ra·phy(n): the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.

    How do we know if there is truely a market being served or if the market is being created to satisfy the supply.

    There are places in Bangkok that are created to meet the demand of horny old perverted men that want to have sex with little girls. Does meeting the demand make it justified? The sex trade certainly pumps millions of dollars into the Thai economy. There are ethical and moral issues that also must be taken into account. I am not implying that the MVP is unethical or immoral. There are complicated issues that are involved here.

    I would like to know what the exit strategy is for this particular organization to hand over control and management to the local community. For this project to be about empowerment and grassroots sustainability there must be willingness for the non-Africans to walk away from the project at some point.

    In my job as a consultant in corporate America my attitude was that my job was to eliminate my job. That is the same mission and vision that organizations like this need to have to be truely effective.

    Posted June 24, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  17. francis wrote:

    To Geckonomist and Diane

    It seems to me that similar activities are carried by study abroad programs in westerner universities. But implied from some of the bloggers’ opinions, it seems like when “poverty tourism” is rather administered by a tourism company it becomes disgusting and de-humanizing.

    Posted June 24, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  18. Stephen Jones wrote:

    Let’s look at the figures. The 488 tourists have contributed a grand total of just over $12,000 to the dozens of locals working in the village, that’s around $25 each.

    How much did the holiday cost them? At a conservative estimate $2,000 though more likely to be more. So there’s a million dollars spent to give $12,000 to a village.

    Posted June 24, 2009 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  19. JK wrote:

    Dear Micheal,

    Thanks indeed for informative response. I personally think it is good to try different market approaches to start/spur local developments. Of course, not all market principles might suit local institutions, norms, and traditions. Maybe some kind of synthesises must be cautiously analysed and in discussion with local participation applied. Haven’t we for a quite long time now argueing that aid is bad we need market driven development in African poverty striken communities? I think we souldn’t get rid of or discourage people to dis-act. We should suggest ways of improvement if we can but not stop people from their efforts to help. Some of you might be saying mere $25 each but have you been able to do that? How much have you contributed and from that how much of that contribution you can be sure that reached the really needy? some of us might recommend to watch documentaries on HIV/AIDS in NYC cinemas as awareness. Don’t you think you as a developed nation and we as developing or at least little better of than Africa nations already know enough about the causes or scale of problems in Africa? I think we do. But we have been less courages to act…try something and maybe fail.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 12:55 am | Permalink
  20. Jeff wrote:

    The main take away from this blog in general seems to be this:

    1) for the sake of your reputation and the world, steer your career clear of anything other than making money for yourself.

    2) especially if you’re famous, be selfish. If you care about problems like poverty, keep your mouth shut.

    3) only about 5 people in the world know anything about development and aid. Everyone else trying to do something is borderline evil.

    4) If you think you’re part of the solution, you’re really part of the problem.

    5)private sector take heed: doing a little to help is usually worse than doing nothing at all.

    6) misguided good intentions should be dealt with harshly, with righteous indignation, rather than nudged toward more effective paths.

    How bout at some point looking at the good intentions of this blog with an eye to whether it’s really helping “aid benefit the poor,” or “just asking.”

    Anyway, I’m taking my tourist dollars to Vegas, baby, to be on the safe side.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 3:46 am | Permalink
  21. Sceptical Secondo wrote:

    @ several:

    I hear an awful lot of planners’ thinking.

    Let’s cross one river at a time, eh???!!!

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink
  22. Manuel wrote:

    Thanks, prof. Easterly, for posting this extremely interesting response. While we wait for your rejoinder, I would like to express some disagreement with some of the above comments. Maybe this kind of touristic activity is disgusting per se to our (relatively rich) eyes. Maybe there would be better potential alternatives in a counterfactual world. But, if the information provided by the Eos Director General is accurate, this is a local entrepreneurial initiative, and so we can consider it better than several real alternatives involving aid handouts linked to rich-world patronizing, following the kind of argumentation repeately expressed through this blog. In fact, millions of individuals in the developed Western World earn their survival (more than that, their living) by willingly involving themselves in de-humanizing activities. Reading this post, I do not like this particular initiative very much, but I find that some of the criticisms to it have a certain flavour reminding me of the kind of Sachs-esque worldview prof. Easterly criticises so eagerly.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink