Poverty tourism versus positive, educational travel across cultural and economic divides

Written by on July 6, 2012 in Learning and Volunteering, Notes By The Way with 7 Comments

I appreciate this graphic via Staying For Tea, but it’s important to understand the context. The original intent was to show that a variety of programs and activities get lumped together, fairly or unfairly, under the negative label of poverty tourism.

Now poverty tourism is a horrible term, and I want nothing to do with it. “Poverty” as a destination is reductive and degrading of people, as if people in poverty, or who happen to own homes in slums, were all the same–or poor in every aspect of their lives. “Tourism” implies a consumer experience that can be bought and sold. “Poverty tourism” suggests we can turn the plight of people in need into an experience travelers can (comfortably and passively) purchase.  In practice, poverty tourism often means groups of people who consider themselves wealthy and enlightened traipsing through communities they consider poor and taking pictures of everything in sight.

ALL of the activities above, even when they’re sincerely enacted, may include poverty tourism in its worst forms, but they don’t all have to turn out that way.  I think some of the activities could be moved to a new chart under a new umbrella, such as: Opportunities for positive, educational travel across cultural and economic divides.

We have been bringing groups from Japan to Cambodia for four years in a way that fits under “Educational Travel” on the graphic above. From the start we emphasized learning first and described our programs as cultural exchange and service learning. I’m sorry to say that despite good intentions we’ve often crossed the poverty tourism line. We’ve learned and made adjustments along the way, and now we’re working on structural changes that we hope will tip the balance for good.

Here are some things we’re thinking about as we reconfigure:

1. Who has the power and initiative?

It’s so easy to talk about empowering others without actually handing over power and initiative. It’s much more convenient to do all the planning ourselves and then get locals to help make our plans work. I won’t go into all the reasons why this type of thinking is foolish and harmful. As for ourselves, I think we have to restructure our program if we really want to change. Putting power and initiative in the hands of our local partners means we have to go to them in advance and submit significant parts of our program to their disposal. (Those words in italics are challenging; it’s tempting just to forget them.)

2. How do we value relationships when the faces are always changing?

We have a strong value for relationships, but we bring groups from Japan for just ten days at a time. Even our interns come for short stays. How can we say that we value relationships? Our answer has always been that I have long term relationships with our local partners. I wonder if we need to cultivate more long term relationships with both Cambodians and Japanese (e.g., actively seeking capable long term interns).

On another note, many of the group members want to have relationships with Cambodians despite only being here for nine days. That’s great, but it can lead in some unhealthy directions. Transferring power and initiative into local hands (#1 above) should help by giving the Japanese a clearer sense of their place as visitors and learners. We’re also working on stricter policies about how Japanese (and our staff) relate with Cambodians, especially with children and across genders. I’m postmodern; I hate rules! But experience is teaching me that we need to have these policies and communicate them clearly.

3. What are our goals in Cambodia and for the Japanese participants?

We want to encourage our Cambodian partners and their visions to make a difference in Cambodia, and we want to encourage Japanese to make a difference starting from Japan, where they can be most effective.

Here in Cambodia, in terms of structure, it means not attempting to work without without local partners who can take the lead. We have a long way to go, but we have relationships to be hopeful about.

We’ve always understood that most of our Japanese participants would better take their lessons from Cambodia and apply them in Japan. They might have a voice in how Japanese use their wealth and power in the world, and they might do something about the deep rooted forms of hidden poverty and injustice in Japan. I’m excited to think about what our past participants might do in Japan, especially acting together. But as a person who loves living cross-culturally, I haven’t really embraced this goal. I haven’t thought practically about how we can help the Japanese process their lessons and apply them in Japan, nor have I built this goal into the structure of our program yet.

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About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • Well stated and important description of the context for this graphic. Your desire to snip off a chunk of the graph and relabel it under a new umbrella is essentially why I created the graph in the first place. The conflation of potentially healthy and positive interactions across cultures and socio-economic barriers with other exploitative and demeaning interactions under the catch-all term ‘poverty tourism’ not only debases the whole conversation, but prejudices people against these possibilities. I appreciate the questions that you are asking of your program and wish more people thought reflectively and critically as you are doing.

  • Thanks for commenting, Aaron. I spent a long time on your blog and added it to my reader. It’s always good to find people thinking through the same challenges. We have also contacted another group in Cambodia that does service learning tours (founded by the blogger behind http://www.lessonsilearned.org) to see what we can learn from their structure and experience.

  • Betty Sue

    Helpful distinctions, and I appreciated your thoughtful questions to help guide groups considering short-term travel/ministry.

  • Betty Sue

    These guys may be attempting to do similar things through their “transformational travel” and internships: http://www.beyondborders.net/GetInvolved/VisitHaiti.aspx
    Might be interesting for you to interact and think together.

  • I like the expression “transformational travel.” I’ll check it out now. We’ll be heading your way in 2013 and hope to see you.

  • Betty Sue

    I’m living in Washington state now, but sometimes get down to Pasadena. Hope to see you when you are here