Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance

Toward a Common Language and Taxonomy of Poverty Tourism


UPDATE: An updated graphic with new notes has been posted at Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.o


Poverty Tourism has lately been the subject of renewed blogger chatter and debate. It seems a perennial issue that gets a paroxysm of attention each time a major media outlet runs a story on it. The latest series of posts was set off by a recent NYT op-ed by Kennedy Odede, a Kenyan who had some personal experience and harsh words for what he called Slumdog Tourism. The tone has ranged from reflective to outright shrill.

A decent assemblage of some relevant blogs and articles was posted a couple days ago at Good Intentions Are Not Enough. Especially thoughtful is the Dilemmas post from Lindsay Morgan at Dispatches. Especially interesting is the exchange (criticismdefensepartial apology) between William Easterly at Aid Watch and the Director of a group that operates a Millennium Village Tour in Rwanda.

As I read through these and other posts, it became apparent that many bloggers were talking past each other and using wildly different working definitions of what poverty tourism (or development tourism) is. This makes it hard to have a coherent debate. I’m not the first to notice this; some older posts from Tales From the Hood made a brief attempt at a taxonomic approach noting, “We need some common language for talking about this subject. … We need to be able to make sense of things.” So, I began creating a compendium of names used across the posts – some openly disparaging like “poverty porn”, others more benign like “community tours.” While “Poverty Tourism” or “Development Tourism” is like a family name in biological taxonomy, the dozen or so other terms are sub-varieties like distinct genus or species.

Consider this comment by Chris Blattman in Slum tourism, easy target, harder solution:

I don’t think there is anything good to be said about the worst of the slum tour, but that’s not to say development tourism can’t be respectful or beneficial.

He’s saying that while slum tours are bad, not all development tourism is bad. Implied is that the former is subsumed by the later – a genus within a family. What follows then is my proposed taxonomy of the Poverty Tourism family along with some examples of comments that frame the discussion for each type. I hope this helps us have more linguistic clarity around the fault lines and confluence in our ongoing discussion of poverty tourism.

Type 1: Slum Tours. aka – poverty safaris, ghetto tours, poverty porn, & disaster tours.

When bloggers use these terms, it is generally to derogate poverty tourism. (See Disaster Tourism). Implied by these terms is a dehumanizing voyeuristic approach to travel in poor communities, where the poor are objectified and treated like a zoo exhibit. The tourist remains far removed from their reality as she passes through on a gratuitous visit taking pictures of colorful, exotic, and fascinatingly miserable people, limiting her understanding of them to what the tour guide tells her, and blurring individual lives into a medley of abstract smudges of poverty. It seems the worst of these are those that are organized by for-profit (even if socially-conscious) tourism operators.

Alanna Shaikh at Blood and Milk writes an unusually beautiful and vulnerable reflection related to this:

…poverty makes for great photography. Poverty has texture. … In other words, a good synonym for picturesque is desperate. Aesthetics are seductive. … That can lead you all sorts of terrible places; it can lead you to mistake tragedy for authenticity. It can make you think there is some value to authenticity when people are starving. It can lead you to take gorgeous pictures of the countryside without ever realizing that you are documenting a quiet horror.

Kennedy Odede, who grew up in Kibera, one of the largest slums outside of Nairobe, writes this in Slumdog Tourism:

Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.

Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.

But is there anything good about this type of poverty tourism? Chris Blattman writes in an older post on Development Tourism that “Its only virtue, perhaps, is that it is not disguised as a helping hand.” (Thus distinguishing it from other species like voluntourism.) Several bloggers go further, proposing specific changes in attitude and behavior that mitigate the worst dehumanizing effects of slum tours. Nilima Achwal at next billion offers 6 things to look for to make such tours more sensitive to and empowering for the local communities in A New Brand of Poverty Tourism. And, in an otherwise shrill post On poverty tourism: my two African cents at Project Diaspora, the writer admonishes:

“You really want change? Put down the camera, walk up to anyone in that slum, get to know them. Have some tea and crumpets, maybe a chapati slice or two.”

The implication is that there is perhaps a principled, relational approach to slum tourism that preserves human dignity. I particularly like the image of sharing tea, since staying for tea is this blog’s metaphor for a principled, relationship-driven approach to accompaniment and community development. The problem, however, is that while it could be possible for an individual to approach a slum or a community in crisis in this relational, slow way, it is hard to imagine an organized tour managing to pull off anything short of our worst fears.

Type 2: Voluntourism. aka – volunteer vacations, service tourism

Voluntourism is essentially a vacation with a few volunteer activities peppered in. People who sign up for these volunteer vacations sometimes do so out of a desire to touch something more authentic and gritty than the standard cruise ship fare. In other words, the home base in terms of purpose is still tourism. Others, sign up out of a real desire to do something good in the world, but they don’t know where to begin and decide to rely on the professionals to provide not only the logistics, but also the development thinking for them. In this case, the home base is service. Given this duality of purpose, it is not surprising that two very different sort of providers have stepped in to meet the growing demand: for-profit tourist operators and volunteer-sending development NGOs. While the NGOs have mostly just rebranded existing volunteer opportunities as voluntourism, the tourist operators are creating something new, something that looks and smells a lot like a development organization, but is actually customer-centric rather than community-centric, something that aims to generate private profit rather than common good.

But, either way, the poverty tourist is given the opportunity to “do something” immediately about what they are seeing and experiencing during their poverty tour.  In some ways, I think this can be a less honest approach, as often as not the volunteer activities provide superficial and marginal benefit to the community, while assuaging the conscience of the tourist by making them believe they’ve actually done something meaningful. I think I’d rather the tourist observe, struggle with their desire to do something right then and there, discuss, reflect, and then go home to figure out what the experience means for them and how they can be part of something bigger than themselves that is helping make a lasting change.

I tried to give a fair treatment of the subject in my post: The Future of Voluntourism, while raising the necessary red flags. Two other resources are: Voluntourism Gal, a blog dedicated solely to the topic, and VolunTourism.org, which continues to be relevant as one of the first signficant organizations dedicated to voluntourism by name. (I should note that not all voluntourism is associated with poverty-allevation – e.g. there are also many environmentally- and culturally- focused voluntours.)

Type 3: Exposure Trips. aka – vision trips, immersions, & donor tours.

A vision trip with my donors to an MFI in rural Bolivia

A vision trip with my donors to an MFI in rural Bolivia

Taking a step toward acceptable practice is the Exposure Trip. The difference between this and a slum tour is two-fold: who goes and with what purpose. Exposure trips are taken by those who have at least an interest connection with development activities taking place in the visited community. Often the visitor is a committed or potential donor, sometimes a Board member of an NGO, sometimes a staff member whose job isn’t field-facing (i.e. someone who works in a pro-poor organization, but whose tasks don’t bring that person into actual contact with the intended beneficiaries of his labour.) The purpose of these trips is for someone with an actual connection or interest in ongoing activities in the community to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of what is actually happening there by seeing it first-hand. Some reasonable unease with exposure trips centers around them being used to justify what are in fact gratuitous visits (i.e. slum tours).

Tales From the Hood writes in Development Tourism: thinking out loud…:

I don’t really want it to be my job. But we need a way to meaningfully and appropriately expose our work to our third audience: ordinary people in our home countries. I’m not saying development tourism is the answer. But it’s one possibility.

Obviously it all has to be structured and handled in a way that does not objectify and demean beneficiaries, and that will necessarily mean that some projects in some places never ever ever get visited as part of development tourism. But again, I have personally seen enough instances where project beneficiaries were very happy – positively stoked, in fact – to receive as visitors “ordinary citizens”…

Saundra Schimmelpfennig at Good Intentions Are Not Enough asks, When is it appropriate for a donor to visit an aid recipient?

Donors do need to have a greater understanding of what does and does not work in aid as well as common problems associated with aid. Properly structured visits can help them become better donors. However, it is important that donor visitations are done is such a way that it puts the needs of aid recipient over the needs of the donor. Care should be taken so that the visit does not objectify aid recipients and ensures that the recipients concerns are heard.

Saundra goes on to suggest 10 very constructive guidelines to help ensure that donor visits focus on education (of the donor), not titillation.

There’s also been some good discussion around Ravi Kanbur’s recent paper “Poverty Professionals and Poverty” that was quoted at some length in Owen Barder’s blog Owen Abroad. Dr. Kanbur suggests that development professions engage in immersions every year or so to get a reality check and reset their focus on the core mission: “serving and helping poor people to work their way, sustainably, out of poverty.” Again, there is some unease about these becoming a way to justify slum tourism, but I think it is reasonable to hope for a net positive affect from connecting those whose work or support is related to the development activities taking place in a community with the community members.

Type 4: Study Abroad. aka – service-learning, cultural exchange & student research

Like exposure trips, study abroad has as its purpose and intentional focus on learning. Obviously, a lot of study abroad trips have nothing to do with poverty tourism. (e.g. a semester in France) But, with the increasing interest in international development, more and more study abroad programs, service-learning programs, and student research is bringing students into poor communities with the intention of learning about them, about poverty, and about anti-poverty projects. The potential for these trips to result in the same pernicious outcomes of the worst of poverty tourism is real.

Chris Blattman takes a rather negative view here:

Yesterday I mourned the extractive and self-serving quality of many student research trips. For me, two-week development adventures fall clearly in the tourism category as well. Is there an argument for these trips actually helping? If so, is the benefit even close to the best use of the thousands of dollars it took to get that person out there?

But these trips also have a potentially rosier upside. Students presumably go with an open mind and an attitude to ask questions and learn. And, if done right, they can even build on a longer-term institutional/community relationship that supports longer-term development activities. One example of this is the Comprehensive (Intercultural Servant) Leadership Program at Gonzaga University lead by Josh Armstrong that has a study abroad component designed collaboratively with community members in Zambezi, Zambia. The community recognizes itself as the host and teacher of the students, while at the same time as beneficiary of student assistance with ongoing activities. By returning each year, a relationship of trust and feedback can be developed between the community and the university.

Beyond the question of what benefits are immediately provided to the host community, study abroad holds out wider potential to shape future global citizens with greater sensitivity to and understanding of global issues like poverty, cultural sustainability, and environmental vulnerability.

Type 5: Short-term Volunteer Trips. aka – church mission trips, missionary safaris

Each year hundreds, if not thousands of short-term volunteers go to all corners of the earth to dig trenches, paint churches, construct latrines, maybe play a game of soccer, and perhaps share their version of the gospel. Each year dozens, if not scores of bloggers aim derision, destain, and disgust at them. It’s an easy group to pick on because they are so green, go with such upside notions of what they doing, and are so clearly the unsuspecting beneficiaries of the whole endeavor.

Maurice at Mostly Maurice offers his critique by way of a definition of a development tourist:

An intern or short-term employee on a contract of up to 1 year, who wants to “experience the developing world” and “help out”, and who will afterwards leave the country, leave Africa and/or even leave development aid work altogether.

Tales From the Hood flat out condems the idea from a Do-No-Harm perspective:

I do not think that it is a good idea for untrained, unpaid foreigners to be sent to work in another country as part of a development or relief program. …if the motivation is an honest and informed desire to offer the very best programming to beneficiaries in the most efficient manner possible, it is all but impossible to justify international volunteers.

Some argue against volunteers from an economic view comparing the cost of exporting unskilled labor from the USA or Germany against the cost of hiring a local. The value of the “free” volunteer doesn’t come close to offsetting the cost of planning, hosting, and managing him, let alone his airfare, room and board. But I think this misses at least half the point of international volunteerism. Of course, the material or project benefit could have been purchased for less than the plane ticket, but the personal and relational benefit of mutual transformation for both the host community and volunteer…well that’s harder to place a dollar value on. And this doesn’t consider any long-term committments to justice and pro-poor policies that begin with exposure and leads to understanding through relationships. Even Tales From the Hood acknowledges:

I got my start as a volunteer. … That initial year as an English teacher in Bangkok changed my life on multiple levels. It exposed me to life outside of North America. It opened a world of possibility. And it led to formal employment with an INGO.

I got my start as an MCC volunteer. Saundra at Good Intentions Are Not Enough got her start as a volunteer. In fact, most people that I know who care deeply about international issues of justice, human rights, environmental and cultural sustainability, fair trade, etc. got that way because of some international volunteer experience that rocked their world. The Jesuits at JVC have a great saying regarding the life-long effects of volunteer service: “Ruined for Life.” This is a big part of the philosophy behind The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, for which I serve as a Board member.

The value proposition is changed lives, not just of the visited, but of the visitor, and this is a worthy value proposition.  That said, s-t volunteerism would be less nauseating to the professional development/aid worker if this value proposition was explicitly acknowledged by the visitor (in the place of say a Christ complex) and downright virtuous if made explicit by all parties: the volunteer, the sending organization, and the host community.

Chris Blattman again:

I’m more comfortable with development tourism if it is explicitly that: if students and Westerners are going with an eye to learning rather than saving; if they recognize that they are receiving a service from others more than they are giving of themselves.

Type 6: Community Tours

This is perhaps the most benign and potentially empowering type of poverty tourism because it is the community that manages it. They are involved in the design of the tourism project, sometimes even initiating it. They control who comes, how many come, and what messages they hear. In terms of economic benefit, a typical slum tour may generate some employment in the communities and the tourists may end up donating money to an aid or development organization working with them, but there really isn’t any empowerment or agency happening. With community tourism, on the other hand, the communities control the message – they retell their own story rather than let the tour guides decide how to treat it. And as the hosts, they can also have more say in how the profits are shared and used. For a thorough and very positive (if self-interested) take on community tourism, read Is Community Tourism a Good Thing? at Grassroots Journeys.

Tourism Concern provides a good 10-point checklist of “shoulds” for community tourism in What is Community Tourism? Among the obvious shoulds (be run with involvement and consent of community, give a fair share of profits back, etc.), they say that community tourism should have mechanisms to help communities cope with the impact of western tourists, brief tourists before the trip on appropriate behavior, not make local people perform inappropriate ceremonies, and leave communities alone if they don’t want tourism.

The Millennium Villages tour in Rwanda that was much debated between William Easterly and Michael Grosspietsch seems to be in this category. Dr. Grosspietsch’s response to the initial critique defends the project in part by pointing out the role of the community is designing and controlling the tours.  World Vision report also recently aired an interview with Josh Ruxin, the founder and director of the MV project in Rwanda, who discusses the importance of community involvement.

Some, however, will still find the whole idea of tourism in poor communities degrading, regardless of community involvement. William Easterly is one of these:

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.

A little help here?

So there it is – one of the longest blogs ever posted with over 25 links and a dozen quotes. I already feel a little ridiculous for having written it, but it’s at least ordered my own thinking about the poverty tourism debate. I hope it meets a need for others as well by providing a common linguistic platform for the discussion to move forward on. If you think I’ve gotten something wrong or missed an important distinction, I absolutely welcome your feedback.

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45 Comments on “Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance”

  1. August 18, 2010 at 12:11 am #

    Helpful typology. Please also see my recent take on the debate, exposing my own hypocrisy and attempting to prepare me for engagement as a “seasoned professional” with folks starting out. http://www.how-matters.org/2010/08/13/our-most-important-job/

    Quote: “A great article by writer J.B. MacKinnon last year entitled, “The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism” grounds me. He wrote, ‘First, nothing is likely to stop the increase in person-to-person contact between people of the richer nations and people of the poorer. Second, there is much to be gained on both sides from this exchange. Third, those gains will be made through a series of small, personal, humbling errors.’”

  2. August 18, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    Thanks for sharing this with me. I appreciate you taking the time to hash it all out. I have to voice come disagreement with:

    An intern or short-term employee on a contract of up to 1 year, who wants to “experience the developing world” and “help out”, and who will afterwards leave the country, leave Africa and/or even leave development aid work altogether.

    The impact that a year plus experience had on many people is, to me, largely linked to the fact that time spent in a single location provided the opportunity to more literally ‘stay for tea.’ A lot will depend on how the individual views the time there and so on, but I wonder if it falls under poverty tourism (admittedly I did a one year experience doing accounting for a clinic, so I see how it has literally ruined me for life).
    How about starting with Development Experience (or something much better) and divide it into volunteering and tourism. Voluntourism would be the hybrid of the two. There are certainly shared aspects, but things like immersion trips and slum tours differ greatly from study abroad and mission trips. Maybe even a third would be made for education that would be where immersion trips and study abroad would fall.
    I love what you have started. It would be great to have discussions that focus on specific ideas and programs that then allow for more precise criticisms and praise.

    *edited to correct formatting error in the first version.

    • August 18, 2010 at 12:05 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Tom, and thanks for picking up the conversation at your blog A View from The Cave, which I recommend all my readers take a look at.

      I agree with your disagreement on the definition I quoted. In fact, the whole premise of my volunteer work as a Board member of The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship is premised on this not being the case. “Ruined for Life” is much more in tune with my experience. That said, the ruination really happens only if you are able to do some good reflecting on the meaning of the experience and can integrate it into your life story in such as way as to influence your future path – and this doesn’t always happen. Some volunteers returned ruined, but in a really negative way: they’ve had this transformative experience, but they can’t make it fit back into the daily (largely unchanged) world of the families, friends, churches, and schools they return to. So they end up a bit shipwrecked and don’t really know where to go or what to do. These are the returned volunteers with Masters degrees working at Starbucks 4 years after returning from a year in Zambia. Another common reaction to volunteer experiences is that they get compartmentalized. 5 years later they look back with nostalgia at the person they were and think, “that was a great experience back when I was naive and idealistic, but now I’m back in the ‘real’ world…” So, I think the quote can be accurate for a lot of volunteers that don’t get a good re-entry or don’t know how to process and integrate the experience.

      As to your suggestions to the taxonomy, I think they are good. Let’s hear what other feedback we get and maybe in a week or so I’ll post version 2.0.

      Thanks again.

  3. August 18, 2010 at 12:10 pm #

    Thank you for this post. I struggle with the lessons you are listing above with PEPY Tours in Cambodia. Here are some details of our own struggle what “responsible tourism” means: http://lessonsilearned.org/2010/02/traveling-responsibly-%E2%80%93-learning-trips-over-giving-trips/

    I believe in the part above, when quoting “Tales from the Hood” – about needing people to learn about development issues and development work…. but it is indeed a slippery slope. This quote by Julius Nyerere resonates with me, “Take every penny you have set aside in aid for Tanzania and spend it in the UK explaining to people the facts and causes of poverty.”

    We have to find a way for people to learn that their good intentions are doing harm: to learn that there are empty schools with people’s names on them, because the donors wanted to “put their name on something good”. That the orphanages they visit as they drive to see the Angkor temples are often fake – with kids who have been bought or rented, for the purpose of getting you to give your money to some corrupt person keeping kids looking just poor enough for you to support and not question his ethics. That the kid on the street you just gave a dollar to has to give it to the woman around the corner as she has rented him from his parents and you just helped her save up to rent more kids. People need to LEARN before they can help, because helping first, can clearly be no help at all. The balance of trying to pry them away from the church building trip (when they collected donations to cover even their own flight, to “help people”) to open their eyes to the decisions they are making while staying away from the negative impacts of poverty voyeurism above is tricky. Maybe the first step is just telling them to put down the cameras: http://lessonsilearned.org/2010/04/reasons-to-photo-fast/

    From “pet the orphan” tourism to church missions, as Saundra points out, good intentions are not enough. And I’m grateful that you and all of the bloggers quoted above are trying to spread that message. We’re planning on making a video series to highlight some of these issues, so please be in touch if you want to be involved.

    • August 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm #


      I’m sorry I’m just now approving this comment, my spam filter hadn’t let it through and I only check the spam box every week or so. I appreciate your comment and the thoughtful work you are doing. I especially like the whole lessons I learned approach. I just posted some thoughts on aid elitism and one of the things I said we should be doing more of is providing these sorts of guidelines and honest, humble stories of things we’ve learned along the way and mistakes we’ve made (and we should be doing a lot less finger pointing and criticizing unless truly warranted, and even then with humility and grace.) Again, thanks for the thoughtful comment and addition to this dialogue. I hope to put up poverty tourism taxonomy 2.0 in the next couple of days. I may need to use “pet the orphan tours” – it sort of elicits a nervous laugh to say it out loud though, doesn’t it?

  4. August 18, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Thanks for the typology. As you illustrate there are many variations here on a theme, some seem pretty indefensible while others have at least some potential merits. In evaluating such issues I tend to fall back on a single principle: is the visitor genuine in their interest, and are those being visited genuinely happy for them to come? An honest interaction of cultures and life experiences can rarely be a bad thing, even if nothing much (in terms of development outcomes) comes of it. Unfortunately commercialism tends to depersonalise such interactions, robbing them of their integrity.

    I leave you with one thought: we have commercialised much of our culture in the West, and seem happy with it. Indeed such commercialisation of culture is sometimes seen as part of the solution to saving dying traditions. The key is that the performers in such offerings are the major beneficiaries of the ticket-buying transaction. How many forms of poverty tourism can claim that?

    • August 18, 2010 at 12:32 pm #


      Holy expletive! I can’t believe I hadn’t seen your blog before just now. Really, really good stuff. Not only the content, but the writing, which I probably overvalue in blogging. Thanks for doing what you do, anonymity and all.

  5. August 18, 2010 at 1:49 pm #

    In one of your tweets, you asked: which is the worst variety of development tourism.

    On my side of the world, in the Pacific Islands, you sometimes see large groups of 20-30 foreigners—either church groups or service clubs—descend upon a village for two weeks and in that time build a complete classroom block.

    No doubt the classrooms are of benefit, but: being in a large group leaves little scope for meeting the local culture on its own terms, and some of my informants tell me that they find the sight of classrooms built by foreigners in two weeks, when they themselves may have tried for years to raise the money for one, rather demotivating.

    I understand the logic from the visiting group’s point of view: it’s probably the only way they can get away from their own obligations, and do something tangible… but it would be good to look at re-designing this process for the benefit of both sets of stakeholders.

  6. August 19, 2010 at 12:24 am #

    I’m impressed with the effort and research that you put into this topic. There is a lot to digest here. If nothing else, your pretty wide ranging descriptions of the various kinds of travel experiences to developing countries that people participate in just goes to show making sweeping generalizations about these kinds of trips is going to be problematic. There are so many different approaches to travel to developing countries that any criticism that one might level at such trips in general will probably run up against counter examples that don’t really fit into a given stereotype. I think that certain kinds of these trips are fair game for criticism, but there is a lot of good that is to be found out there as well.

  7. August 19, 2010 at 7:05 am #

    Many thanks for the kind shout out early in your post. It’s certainly a fraught topic, and this post is REALLY helpful for clarifying thinking and laying out major views, arguments and sources of opinion and information. Bravo. Especially like what you say about the relational benefits of short-term trips, because you’re right: they are often where long-term commitments to social justice are born, and those commitments can be manifest in myriad ways over a long period of time. I’m honored to appear on your blog roll and will continue to read your blog with interest. –Lindsay at Dispatches

  8. August 22, 2010 at 4:16 pm #

    This site might be useful in examining the questions raised on this page: http://www.slumtourism.net/

    “Slumtourism.net is a website aimed at bringing together and creating an international network of academics and practitioners working on tourism in deprived urban and rural areas.”

  9. August 22, 2010 at 4:33 pm #

    Your thoughtful posting reminded me of a true story of Jane Addams when she was a tourist in her twenties, and two travel experiences which ultimately led her to found Chicago’s famous Hull House settlement. She was part of a “small party of tourists” taken to the East End by a city missionary to witness the Saturday night sale of decaying vegetables and fruits sold to huge masses of ill-clad people. Seeing human hands desperately raised to catch food already unfit to eat, and the wretched living conditions disturbed her profoundly. This led to her visit to Toynbee Hall to observe how concerned British men lived in a settlement house and worked alongside the poor. Using her education and wealth, she returned to America, recruited others, and founded Hull House in an underprivileged area of Chicago. Hull House hosted programs for thousands of immigrants, launched investigations and legislation into sanitation, garbage, education and labor issues and became the start of social work in America. She won the Nobel Peace Prize.

  10. September 2, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    Thanks very much for your thoughts on and articulation of these various approaches. I felt compelled to comment because you specifically mentioned the Gonzaga-in-Zambezi program in which I was a participant in May-June 2009. First let me say that I greatly respect the program and very much appreciate all of Josh’s dedication to Zambezi. We spent the entire spring semester preparing for the trip in a seminar once a week, reading articles (including Staying for Tea), exploring and discussing ideas of accompaniment and solidarity. When we arrived in Zambia, we took a two-day safari, visited Victoria Falls, and briefly stopped in at an orphanage for a few hours before we ever arrived in Zambezi. It was during this brief visit to an orphanage in Livingstone that I experienced such upsetting cognitive dissonance when I was confronted with what we aimed to do on the trip (not give hand-outs, be in solidarity with those we were serving, etc.) and what it seemed we were actually doing (touring poverty). Before, during, and after the trip I struggled to understand the long-term effects of our trip and felt at times as though I was only perpetuating the cycle of inappropriate service trips that I dislike so much. Though the philosophy behind the trip has deeper meaning and intention beyond my three weeks there, it was (and still is at times) difficult to understand if my participation in the trip was appropriate. Since returning, I have been accepted into the Krista Colleague Class of 2010 and really enjoyed discussing these thoughts and feelings with many others at the annual conference. Thanks for the taking the time to explore these different approaches because I often find it difficult to think of them objectively after having participated in some of them. Many of the quotes and descriptions resonate with me and I’m grateful to have to have the chance to further reflect on my experiences and to hopefully serve appropriately in my current program and in the future.

    • September 2, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

      Liz, thanks for the comment and your reflections. Congratulations in being selected as a Krista Colleague; there will be lots of opportunities to continue working out that cognitive dissonance. I hope that you have shared your thoughts about the orphanage visit with Josh. If not, I encourage you to do so.

  11. September 14, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    Well, that was one of the best blog posts that I have ever read. I recently founded Edge of Seven, a nonprofit based in Delaware, to connect American volunteers with service projects in Nepal, India, Thailand, and Cambodia. I left my career in the educational travel sector a year ago to head to the service travel sector and it’s been an incredibly eye-opening experience.

    In these descriptions, we strive to create an experience falls under community tours. But, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cringe during parts of this blog because they are familiar. I understand the harsh criticisms. I spent five months researching NGOs to partner with before creating Edge of Seven and the most valuable part of that experience was watching and learning.

    We try as hard as we can to create an experience that benefits the community first and the volunteer second. Truly. But it’s extremely difficult to keep that balance at all times. I founded Edge of Seven to support real projects, great projects, but those are tougher to identify than I initially thought. I made a big mistake this summer by supporting an NGO that I hadn’t vetted properly. That being said, now I know and I won’t make the same mistake again. (Many different ones, I’m sure, but not the same.)

    I do firmly believe that Americans need to understand the challenges that face developing countries so that we change. And, you can’t truly understand it until you’ve lived it. But, there is a HUGE responsibility on us as providers to support, rather than dictate. I agree wholeheartedly with Chris Blattman:

    “I’m more comfortable with development tourism if it is explicitly that: if students and Westerners are going with an eye to learning rather than saving; if they recognize that they are receiving a service from others more than they are giving of themselves.”

    Thank you for this blog.

    • September 14, 2010 at 2:24 pm #


      What a kind and thoughtful comment. Congratulations on your work (really nice looking website BTW). Congratulations to Travis, your web designer and also to your photographer Sarah Andrews. I think she may enjoy seeing some of the work of a friend of mine whose photography I use a lot: http://www.donmirra.com.

      I’d be interested in knowing what kind of questions you ask when thinking through the balance between ensuring that the projects benefit the community and that the experience benefits the volunteer. Also, and I know this is totally out of the blue here, but I wonder if your experience with the unvetted NGO would make a good case study. I’m in the process of writing a book, and one of the chapters will address some of the challenges with designing good and balanced short-term volunteer experiences. I hope to end that chapter when a good checklist of the types of questions that should be asked when thinking about designing a s-t experience (from the perspective of an organization like yours) and when thinking about volunteering (obviously from the perspective of a potential volunteer.) I would like to include a case study or two as well to illustrate the potential pitfalls. Let me know what you think, and we can maybe talk offline about this. (a_auslandme.com)

      From your site: “At Edge of Seven, we facilitate the natural partnership between travel and service.” – I think you might be interested in a couple of articles written by Professor James Hunt in The Global Citizen: A Journal for Young Adults Engaging the World Through Service, “Travel and Service in the Formation of Leadership” and “A Passage into Leadership: lessons from John Muir’s Long Walk” (which is not immediately available for download, but I could get a copy for you if you are interested.) I should mention that I am the founding Editor of this journal, so this is not an unbiased recommendation.

      I trust you also saw the update to this post: Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0. There are like 35 comments following that post – it almost got heated, but seems to have resolved nicely.

      Thanks again for your comment and best of luck with Edge of 7.

  12. June 3, 2012 at 9:23 pm #

    Excellent post. I will be linking back to this and referring people to it. Also, I’m teaching a class relating to this topic in the fall and will (with credit!) draw on and build on your typology. Thanks for putting it together.

  13. November 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    Useful post but I see you have not had space to mention that particularly concerning area Orphan Tourism in which the well-intentioned visit and sometimes work in an orphanage to ‘love on’ the inmates as it is thought to prepare them for adoption by somehow encouraging attachment. A particularly cruel form of tourism usually undertaken by well meaning Christians with orphan saving as part of a ministry.

  14. November 18, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:
    Useful post but doesn’t mention that concern of adult adoptees and others -orphan tourism.


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