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Response to MV tourism operator on “Should starving people be tourist attractions?”

Dear Michael (or Dr. Grosspietsch, whichever you prefer):

Thanks for taking the time to respond, which is very admirable in itself (I am still waiting a week later to hear from the US Army Lieutenant General William Caldwell IV on the Army’s approach to development.)

I have also read the comments on both my post and yours on Aid Watch, and I have read the post of Donald Ndahiro, the local director of the Rwandan Millennium Village (MV), on Huffington Post that responded to the Magatte Wade post that began the controversy (I will of course let Ms. Wade speak for herself in response to Mr. Ndahiro).

I have considered your letter and these other responses carefully, and I am open to the possibility that I was wrong.

In the end, however, I don’t find your responses or others have really addressed my central concern from the earlier post. I agree with commentators like geckonomist: “I simply can’t find in his text any other tourism attraction than : extremely poor people.” I continue to believe that the whole idea of tourists going to see poor people simply because they are poor — or to see the interventions targeted at these poor because they are poor — is degrading. It perpetrates the patronizing view that the poor are some faceless mass of helpless victims which the MV is rescuing, which is part of the flawed philosophy of the MV itself.

Respecting the individuality, humanity, and dignity of every person, no matter how poor, is a sacred and fundamental cause. I believe our debate has generated so much discussion because of the importance of this cause.

As another commentator suggested, let’s apply the Golden Rule: if I was poor and still in my birthplace of West Virginia, would I want tourists coming by to see how poor I was and how some project was rescuing me from my miseries? If I was sitting at the bedside of my child with a life-threatening illness, would I want a tour group coming through to see how the heroic doctors were saving my child? No thank you.

As Moussa Blimpo (an NYU Econ Ph.D. student whom I respect a lot and who posted on this blog a very relevant article on Self-Esteem in Africa) said in his comment: “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.” (Yes, I am selectively quoting commentators who agreed with me, not to get any extra credit from having a few in agreement, but because they put my concerns better than I can put them myself.)

You say criticism of the rules (“don’t give them candy”) is unwarranted because it be worse if these rules were broken. You are missing the point — if it is necessary to announce such rules, then there was a problem with offensive behavior by tourists already, which I believe is inherent in the nature of poverty tourism.

You and Mr. Ndahiro also offer the defense that this tourism project is “community-driven.” I have heard this kind of term abused way too often in aid discussions (as have some of the commentators) and would need a lot more detail about who is involved in the tourism project and who is not, who is for and who is against, how and whether all the villagers subject to tourist view had given their consent, and what alternative choices the villagers had.

You also mention that there was a problem with excess visitors to the MV before your project came along. I agree with you that the “poverty tourism” problem began with the MV itself, and you are not to blame for this.

I am sorry for the pain that my criticism evokes in you and your well-meaning partners. I get a lot of harsh criticism also, including from some of the commentators on these posts, and I try to learn from it. Criticism is a necessary feature of a society of free and equal individuals, to hold everyone accountable for their actions, and to correct mistakes. I salute your good intentions, but I sincerely believe your Millennium Village tourism project is a mistake.

Best regards, Bill

PS Sorry for the delay in responding, I was caught up with some intense activity in the non-blogging part of my job (not involving Argentina, the Appalachian Trail, or South Carolina).

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24 Comments

  1. E. Aguirre wrote:

    Bill – give it a rest! The Millennium Villages project has been successful in Rwanda, and people are interested in understanding what specific interventions have contributed to that success. Its a good thing for people to come and see what it takes to construct a storage facility for grain, or a proper receptacle for rainwater harvesting, for example. The community wants to CELEBRATE and publicize their success so that it may be replicated elsewhere. This is laudable, and should be continued. Let a dead horse die – you’re wrong.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  2. Name Withheld wrote:

    I have been a guest on one of these tours of the MV in Rwanda. While Mr. Easterly may be convinced Dr. Grosspietsch and partners are well-meaning, I can’t say that I feel the same way. I felt they were more interested in popularizing poverty a la the rock stars and celebrities who have been mentioned so often in these discussions. I also felt very much that they had a sense that they knew better what was good for business and industry, especially the tourism industry, than the local Rwandan government officials.

    I spent five years of my life caught up in supporting more aid to Africa and following every development issue and signing petitions. After much reading and visiting countries and learning on my own, I have come to the conclusion that thinkers like Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo have the right idea. This patronizing, ineffectual approach to Africa – which has a stranglehold on the debate in the United States and most of Europe – is well-represented by the MV tourism project. How I wish it were different.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink
  3. Sceptical Secondo wrote:

    Was that it? It can’t be.

    I personally believe the pornography metaphor to be way out of line – some of your pro-commentators even went as far as paedophilia prostitution! I don’t think we, the Westerners, has anything to put on anyone if it comes to making money in a perverted way. Professional sports, entertainment media and giant corporate business come to mind.

    As far as I got it, no dying children or any of that sort were on display. In fact, it sounded like villagers shoving of something they were proud of. Reminds me a bit of what happens to visiting missions from donor agencies … with a slightly different cash flow that is. How is working in an factory normatively better?

    Further as Manuel puts it, guiding visiting ‘poverty tourists’ seems to be the better option to real local alternatives. Last time I checked, the Rwandan market wasn’t flooded with venture capital eager to join the solar panel assembly business.

    Like I said in my previous post: let’s cross one river at a time. Profit is created, initiative is rewarded, who knows what will happen next.

    I have this feeling that people disgusted by this form of tourism must live a troubled life. In this world of ours, there’s certainly a lot of other things that should turn your stomachs … to say the least.

    Finally, you don’t see the EOS director addressing your main concern. Well, I actually kind of do but I’m missing your response to his key issue that this is no zoo tour….

    Sincerely

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  4. Jim wrote:

    You could at least admit that you got some key facts wrong on this. As for your argument:

    “I simply can’t find in his text any other tourism attraction than : extremely poor people.”

    That doesn’t make any sense. There are any number of extremely poor villages in Sub-Saharan Africa, so any tourists who only want to see poverty could go to any of them – in fact they may even avoid Mayange since it seems to be doing much better at the moment and is therefore less attractive if poverty is your thing. Obviously it’s the fact that Mayange is doing much better now with the help of the MVP that has got people interested. I know you don’t like the MVP idea, but that doesn’t make anyone who’s interested in learning more about it some sort of vulture, and it doesn’t make the local people who take part in the tours a bunch of dupes.

    “It perpetrates the patronizing view that the poor are some faceless mass of helpless victims”

    So you keep saying, but that starts to look somewhat silly when the tours are run by a co-operative entirely managed and run by the community members themselves, who are earning money out of it and do not appear to be forced into anything against their will. In other words, you’re completely ignoring the actions of the very people you’re claiming to be protecting, and implying that their own preferences are basically irrelevant as you know better from your vantage point in New York. How’s that for patronising? You say you want to hear more details about the tours, but what kind of evidence would change your mind? It really looks like anything to do with Jeffrey Sachs (who you seemed to think was closely involved) automatically gets labeled as destructive.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  5. anon wrote:

    I have been on this tour too– not as a tourist, but b/c I have had to as part of a diplomatic visit. I find it made me extremely uncomfortable. These are people’s lives and it is so profoundly weird to be there to look at them and how they live. What am I supposed to say “ah, yes. Now I understand that you have a family with real needs and are proud of your successes when you have them. Amazing!” As if I can’t comprehend what sustainable change actually means to people in need if I don’t see someone poor standing there looking poor, or someone now less poor explaining what they are proud of. I’m human, and I don’t need to disrupt someone’s life to understand that they are too.

    Although, in full disclosure, I feel this way about death tourism too. Visiting the sights of massacres or genocides seems to dishonor the gravity of man’s inhumanity to man — and yet I hear people plan these sites into their tours as well. Yes, it is important to remember and understand, but when does remembering become morbid curiousity? I am not sure what made me cry more after a required visit to Auschwitz — the graphic reminder of how cruel humanity can be on a systematic scale, or the people who said “it makes you grateful for what you have, doesn’t it?” If you need to see a concentration camp to feel better about what you have, then I don’t think I want to know you.

    I’m rambling. But these are related. Maybe some people don’t get that “the poor” are just people until they go to see. Maybe some people go to see and still never get it.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  6. TGGP wrote:

    If I were poor and tourism meant economic assistance, you bet I’d be in favor of it. Tourism’s a better industry to work in than mining to boot.

    Seeing poor people because they are poor might be degrading, but I think wanting to see interventions is different. We view such things as good and they give us warm fuzzy feelings (unlike poor people, which is why panhandling is discouraged and homeless people encouraged to leave by many local governments).

    Finally, dignity seems a rather flimsy reason to object to something that could help disadvantaged people. The same argument is used for minimum wages or trade restrictions against sweatshops. I’m with Pinker on the stupidity of dignity.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  7. The logic in some of the comments seems to be inconsistant and short-sighted. I think all of us would object to prostitution and children being used for sexual perversion. However these industries generate billions of dollars. Just because there is a market for something that generates money for the participants doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

    What is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular.

    One of the things that I have learned in my travels thoughout Africa has been that many rural villagers are resigned to the interference in their lives by “outsiders” that have good intentions. They have learned to tell people what they want to hear. This is the same mentality that Christian missionaries brought to Africa. The locals got tired of the babbling about Jesus Christ and finally claimed to convert to Christianity. I say this as a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ.

    This is why fundamentalist evangelical preachers have been preying on people in Africa for several years. It makes me sick. Many underprivileged rural peasants are desperate for a better life for their families. Why would they object to the promises or projects of someone who claims to have their best interests in mind?

    I have been able to have sincere and honest conversations with many Africans who benefit from charities and NGOs. Behind closed doors they refer to many of them as vultures and vampires because they feast upon the blood of their people. However they are smart enough to stay quiet and to not bite the hand that feeds them.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  8. JonathanL wrote:

    I think Tyler Cowen puts it best in his explanation why he put Detroit as one of the top 5 places to travel in the US.

    “Maybe Chicago should replace Detroit but the latter has greater shock value and isn’t that half of what travel is about?”

    From: http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/02/how-to-travel-in-the-us/comments/page/2/

    Posted June 26, 2009 at 1:20 am | Permalink
  9. Manuel wrote:

    Dear prof. Easterly, I am glad to find that you are graciously conceding that maybe you were wrong. I think you hit the spot asking for more detail on how exactly this project is “community-driven”. I think that, even if you were misguided in this particular case, your general point is right. E.g. we find too easy to talk about a community of poor people that will be “for” or “against” a particular project in general. Of course, in reality some of them will be for, some of them against, and many others will not be clear about that. And how this results in decision-taking is what really matters. Regarding the rest, I do not know about West Virginia, but in the developed world you only have to take a look to reality TV to see individuals selling their miseries. And, by the way, there is a pornography industry in the developed world. Should we ask the authorities to forcibly close it? If all this has to do with patronizing poor people, I do not think it is a particularly clear example of it. Instead, to me it shows how complex are the questions involved, It is a warn against facile generalizations and should lead us to the habit of asking for more and better information.

    Posted June 26, 2009 at 6:28 am | Permalink
  10. geckonomist wrote:

    Oh, it is supposed to be tourism about the success of a project??

    Well, success against what exactly?

    Against a village that was not showered with millions of dollars and lots of bureaucrat attention?

    That’s easy to win, isn’t it.

    Or success against an Asian town that achieved a 60% rise in real per capita income in the last 5-8 years, but never heard of the MV and couldn’t care less?

    If you were a mercedes-benz dealer, where would you rush to?

    Posted June 26, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink
  11. MIGO wrote:

    I was anxiously awaiting Bill’s robust response to Micheal. Unfortunately, he has said nothing really convincing. Bill’s posting was motivated more by Jeffrey’s involvement in MVP, than his concern for the plight or dignity of the poor Rwandans. I believe he spends a good part of his day tracking Jeffrey’s doings around the globe. We should abstain from criticising something we do not know very well. I do greatly appreciate his postings, but he got it all wrong this time around.

    Everyone’s dignity is very important. An Africa will not however value his dignity same as Prof Easterly will value his. Dignity perhaps, like beauty, depends on the eye of the beholder. Trying to value others dignity sounds like patronising.

    Posted June 26, 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  12. Chops wrote:

    Bill,

    I think you’ve managed to inadvertently flip sides on this issue. Assuming that the tour operator was being honest with us and that I understood him correctly, the Rwandans in question have chosen to live in the MV and have chosen to create this tourism project.

    You or I may think it’s dehumanizing or the wrong way to help Africans, but that puts us on the opposite side from the very Africans in question. The attractiveness of the worldview behind Aid Watch is that it extends the generous assumption of rationality to the poor. In this case, you’ve accidentally ended up hectoring some poor Rwandans who have found a business model that brings in money! That’s not like you, Bill.

    Now, we may object to locally grown business on other grounds. Prostitution tourism, by all accounts, is lucrative in Amsterdam. You can condemn that (I do) as immoral and fundamentally degrading, but these critiques are independent of wealth. This tourism project might be degrading, but like Amsterdam prostitutes, it appears the village residents are willing recipients of the proceeds.

    You do good work, Bill – step away from the ledge before you fall into prescriptiveness.

    Posted June 26, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  13. Joe Wyman wrote:

    I wanted to comment about the idea that “if I was poor and still in my birthplace of West Virginia, would I want tourists coming by to see how poor I was and how some project was rescuing me from my miseries? If I was sitting at the bedside of my child with a life-threatening illness, would I want a tour group coming through to see how the heroic doctors were saving my child? No thank you.” My answer to the first part is hell yes if it creates jobs and brings money into my area. In fact bringing tourists into poor rural areas in the United States is often a development strategy. I wouldn’t want them coming into my house, but visitors are not allowed into houses according to the man that responded. Also, about the presence of rules meaning there is a need for the rules, that is hardly the fault of this project. When I have visited churches, temples, and historic sites any where in the world there have been rules of behavior. If the people in this community have decided in a democractic process that they want this, than frankly it is none of our business.

    Posted June 27, 2009 at 6:51 am | Permalink
  14. Punditus Maximus wrote:

    You know what’s really degrading? Being poor. Dying of preventable illness. Not eating enough. Not getting any serious education. Never traveling.

    If they’ve lasted this long, these are some pretty tough people, and they know what their time and lives are worth in terms of material reward. Their lives are hard, and we should respect their strength.

    Posted June 27, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  15. XXX wrote:

    Bill, you seem to be sharper critizising people than admitting mistakes …

    Posted June 28, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  16. The above statement applies to 99% of people on this planet. Wasn’t your statement ironically a criticism of Bill? There will always be criticisms. What we need are solutions and action! Whether or not we agree with Bill or not, he is stimulating debate and discussion that will hopefully lead positive change. In my opinion, Bill is not telling people WHAT to think, he is simply asking people TO think.

    Posted June 28, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  17. kim dionne wrote:

    But what if the tourism wasn’t just to see the success but to see the failure of the MVP? I remember Michael’s reply saying that this was an open question.

    After interacting with a lot of wide-eyed undergrads eager to save the world via the Millennium Villages Project, I’d think their money would be well spent seeing what exactly the MVP does before plunging in head first.

    There’s a demand to see poor people in Africa. Though I’m not a fan of this kind of voyeurism, shutting down such tours would most certainly not put an end to it… and, given Michael’s response, I think they’re doing a much better job than most would in their industry.

    Posted June 28, 2009 at 11:13 pm | Permalink
  18. The topic of tourism and travel in Africa will be the subject of a three day convention in Toronto.

    MEDIA RELEASE

    April 27, 2009

    OUR MISSION IS TO PROMOTE THE CONTINENT OF AFRICA TO THE CANADIAN AND AMERICAN MARKET

    Toronto, ON – The African Travel & Real Estate Expo will take place at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto, Canada on September 1 – 3, 2009 from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm each day. The Expo will feature exhibitors promoting travel, tourism and real estate products from Africa.

    The three day expo expects over 100 exhibitors and 5,000 visitors. Exhibitors will include members from travel and tourism, real estate, government and corporate sectors. “The purpose of the show is to promote tourism and real estate in Africa by bringing together African-based businesses and tourism officials with Canadian and American consumers. Africa, to a large extent, has bucked the global slowdown and has shown growth in travel, branding opportunities and investment” says Patience Chirisa, event organizer and president of African Travel and Real Estate Expo.

    Sponsors for the show include South African Airways, Fedex and CTV and many others. The Expo will effectively market to consumers by offering complimentary seminars on African travel and real estate products. A cocktail evening is planned for exhibitors, media and government officials on the first night of the expo to promote networking opportunities. Admission to the expo is free and numerous prizes will be awarded including 2 round-trip tickets to South Africa.

    Please visit our site: http://www.africantravelexpo.com

    For further information, please contact:

    Michael Kirkpatrick

    African Travel Expo

    Manager, Marketing and Communication

    972-965-8251

    michael@africantravelexpo.com

    http://www.africantravelexpo.com

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 12:20 am | Permalink
  19. Cecile wrote:

    Hi

    In my view, people who are defending the poor here are practicing the patronization than the people they are accusing to do so… How dare them thinking on poor’s behalf, describing how if feels like being visited by RICH when you are POOR…something that has never happened to them? They built their arguments on “ifs” and some work they did in aids agencies, short travel experience in Africa, research papers etc. They are in their rich world, barely know how it feels like watching your child dying of malaria or hunger, have no idea how it feels fleeing your own home, being hunted, owning a small piece of land that doesn’t help you feed your family…because it has never happened to them and will never. But they stand up there and discuss and fight among themselves about who is right or wrong regarding extreme poverty reduction, if not eradication fight. And some of them choose to represent the poor and brand conclusions like “poverty tourism” in Africa-those who spend money to visit villages are motivated by a pornographic desire to gape at human suffering-de-humanizing aspect of such an endeavor and so on. When somebody like Donald Ndahiro gives his point of view, they still find ways to formulate their arguments, and when Michael Grosspietsch gives tangible results of his work, they still go on and on.

    What amazes me here in all this in the way rich people, intellectuals and who ever fall in the category of the quoted “better or ideal” look at the diversity of the world’s challenges!

    If I come to my point quickly, I would say that I am a village girl, who got to know how life is like in urban area, and I know a lot of people like me, who would like their children to visit if not spend their holidays, in the villages they came from in order to learn that life is not always easy for everybody in this world, of course they would learn more things like milking a cow, collecting water from a river, carrying heavy stuff on their head, making mats with papyrus (I wish my grand mum was still alive), cooking in clay pots, gathering fire woods, banana beer brewing…and nobody would blame me, because I feel like it is a duty. However, I would have no right to influence their conclusion, back to town. What I don’t get in Easterly/Wade’s points and many commentators, is if the mistakes in the tours that I guide, as a New Dawn Associates employee, and as a Rwandan, are that I am taking people who have no roots in Mayange, are from a different continent, or don’t share the same values as the people they are visiting… I simply don’t get it. I even tend to agree with somebody who said that maybe the mistake here is going there as tourist, because people will quote you as a voyeur, and that the best is going there as an adventurer! After treating visitors (whose motivation of visiting the village they don’t know!) as voyeurs, they treat people who are being visited as animals “zoos”. In my view I can’t imagine worse dehumanization and I can’t believe people can preach extremism this openly: Michael Kirkpatrick “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” Why do some people spend more time talking about how different they can be instead of look at each other as citizens of the world! Black and White, Poor and Rich…

    On a different note, I would like to encourage constructive criticism. I love my job, I feel proud of my country and would like to show to the whole world, not only Mayange, but also every corner of my Thousand Hills beloved country. And what some commentators don’t know is that, in my experience as a tour guide, the people who are being visited are learning a lot about their visitors, and I would say, if we forget about the fact that these visitors are rich and the visited are poor, intercultural exchange is being celebrated! You need to have been on more than one of our excursions to understand that. Not long than a month ago I took an American family to Nyamirambo, and the beginning of the “learning from and about each other” started right during the introduction, when the ladies heard that the “family” was made of a divorced man, who had been dating a divorced women for 14 years, was traveling with a soon 21 years women’s daughter! The Nyamirambo ladies had questions about how can you date for such a long time, and are not married yet? Why did you divorce? What was more difficult for you? How do single mothers differ from divorced women etc!

    Where is the Disney land, the poverty porn etc represented here?

    I would end my own “maybe ready to be criticized comment” by saying what I think that we should rather do: Don’t assume anything, just learn to know others better and together, see what can be done instead of criticizing people who are doing something, maybe little, but still something.

    Posted July 1, 2009 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  20. Daniela Papi wrote:

    When reading the first 25 pages of White Man’s Burden a few years ago I felt like Easterly was putting into words the exact problems I had seen working in development in Cambodia. In our tours at PEPY, we often have half of the travelers read this section detailing his planner/searcher mentality (with the other half of the group reading from Sachs and then discussing the differences). In those discussions, like in the above post, I tend to agree with Easterly often, but not 100%. Why? Because it’s not black and white – it’s complicated – and I think that some arguments from both camps completely disregard the majority of projects which are in the grey area.

    For example, this statement “if I was poor and still in my birthplace of West Virginia, would I want tourists coming by to see how poor I was and how some project was rescuing me from my miseries?” assumes that “rich people” being in an area where “poor people” are is bad. Period. It also assumes that people who are working to improve their lives in different ways still consider themselves “in misery” and wouldn’t want others to learn about the work they are doing.

    There is an organization in Cambodia called CRDT which I really respect. It was started by young Cambodians a number of years ago, is still completely locally run, and implores a variety of “applicable rural technologies” (bio-digesters, improved fish-pond designs for better water gathering/retention, mushroom growing, etc). These technologies are being taught from peers to peers and have improved livelihoods. Their “tours” to see the projects are led by and designed by the communities and allow community members to teach about the technologies they are using, the successes they have seen, and the lessons they have learned.

    One of our Cambodian staff members wanted to learn about how to make a cleaner incinerator for his village, so we connected him to the CRDT tour. He, a Cambodian, learned skills from a Cambodian, which had been taught to him from other Cambodian NGO workers. Bill, what do you think about that scenario? Is that wrong? Are our ideas that the MDV tours are wrong because the people touring are rich and white? Are our ideas that the MDV tours are wrong because the people teaching the skills and driving the whole MDV project to begin with are rich and white?

    I have my own issues with certain aspects of the MDV that I have been exposed to, and I certainly agree that the majority of development tourism, “poverty” tourism, and voluntourism breeds colonialist attitudes, but I certainly don’t think that we should put up walls and keep the rich people in their camps and only allow the poor people to travel around, seeing what they don’t have, and not visa versa. If done properly, it can be empowering for those in the poor camp to show that perhaps they aren’t as “poor” as others might think and to be the teachers in the relationship. On my visit, I too learned more about how to make a better incinerator, and we are now using them in our projects as well.

    We had people up in arms when we proposed bringing some students/teachers to the US to a camp they had been invited to. “How will the poor people survive returning home to their poor villages once they have seen the wealth of the US?” were some reactions. So, we westerners can travel and deal with our share of culture shock when we return home to our opulent and over-using societies, but “poor” people can’t deal with such transitions?

    In my opinion, it’s not implicitly bad to have the rich and poor mix. It can lead to very negative impacts on both sides, if it is not designed properly. Rather than discussing if this is right or wrong, let’s talk about how we can design these facilitated interactions better so that both sides can learn, share, and improve the greater global society.

    Posted July 2, 2009 at 11:04 pm | Permalink
  21. jina wrote:

    I’m not sure why my comment disappeared, or never made it up, but a few days ago I joined (or tried to) this conversation to share three thoughts, based on a reporting trip I took last February to write for the Christian Science Monitor about the tour at the Rwandan MV.

    Here, in brief redux, are my three thoughts:

    1. We wouldn’t be having this debate if New Dawn didn’t charge people money to visit Mayange. That is to say, if you rented a car, hired a translator, and went to Mayange alone, you wouldn’t be thought of as exploiting the village. In fact, you’d probably be considered a noble traveler, willing to get off the grid and go meet the “real” people and find out how they live. Why does paying money, in exchange for facilitating that same experience, suddenly make it exploitative?

    2. It’s important to distinguish between companies that give back and companies that don’t. That point has been made by ND staff, but it is worth noting that there are several outlets determined to make these experiences happen in ways that, after extensive planning and consulting with locals and premeditation, seem ethical. (Google “poorism” then google “pro-poor tourism” and you’ll get some sense of the debate–and the extent of deliberation some people admirably go to. Not saying they always succeed…)

    3. My first reaction to this very pamphlet was a similar skepticism. Then I went on the tour. This is by no means a come-to-Jesus speech–I didn’t. The tour raised some questions. It answered others. But what is true is that it’s more nuanced than it looks in a conversation based on a pamphlet. So for some thoughts from a disinterested party who had similar questions and–like everyone who is otherwise divided on this issue–concerns about how best to help without exploiting, I humbly recommend my article, only because it’s the one place you can find a disinterested take based on experience with the issue at hand.

    Posted July 3, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  22. Daniela Papi wrote:

    Good to hear from someone who has done the tour, Jina.

    I disagree with you on point 1, though. I do not think the problem goes away if you don’t pay. Actually, PAYING, if the money is going back into the community programs (not to a tour operator or travel agent), is often the most positive part of the visit.

    In Cambodia, where I live and work, I think some of the worst “poorism” is from those who don’t pay and just show up, or in the worst cases, pay a travel company but don’t support the projects or areas they visit.

    There is a garbage dump, the largest in Cambodia, outside of Phnom Penh. We used to work with a program supporting education programs in the area where we would donate $5000+ per year and we would sometimes visit the dump through this program. In 2006 we stopped visiting the area because we realized that, even though we thought we were doing it “the best way possible” (visiting with an NGO we were supporting significantly), it was still poorism and the benefits of the visit were more for the travelers than the community. There was no educational interaction and little “point” to us being there besides for our own interest in the program.

    There are still busloads of people who show up at the dump to take pictures. And there are tour companies where you can pay to have this included in the tour – stop the bus, get out and look at the poverty or perhaps stop and see the NGOs working in the area and move on. Funding the programs working to counter the problem, in my opinion, makes it better, but still not right, and it makes me cringe to think we used to take people there. Paying money to a tour company to see the poor people, makes me cringe too, and so does the idea of “just showing up to look” even if you didn’t pay anyone.

    The difference with this project being debated seems to be, though I don’t know it personally, that the people in the community are doing the teaching. They are “inviting” people (if that is indeed the case) to learn about the work they are doing, so they become the teachers, not the recipients. The yellow flags I have, though I believe it was touched on in one of the posts, are the fees you have to pay and where the “profits” go. What percentage of the money goes back into the program and what becomes “profit”? Even if the profits are minimal, who gets them? Who has the ultimate motivation to make this a success? Who holds the final deciding card in if/how the programs are continued and how they are designed? Those are the types of questions I would want answered when doing this type of tour.

    Posted July 5, 2009 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  23. Steve wrote:

    Sorry if someone asked this earlier, but does the brochure say:

    “Please don’t feed the animals.”

    Posted July 5, 2009 at 10:04 pm | Permalink
  24. I had a great time with this article as I read the topic extensively. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’ll definitely be subscribing to your posts.

    Posted September 10, 2009 at 2:55 am | Permalink
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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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