Development tourism, revisited

One of the benefits (and hazards) of blogging is that it hones the mind and argument. Fast. By virtue of pointed and intelligent comments.

Two days ago I criticized, with some pointedness, the so-called development tourist. The ensuing debate was a pleasure to read. I won’t say that my mind has been completely changed, but rather that my argument (and target) is more refined.

I’d not like my last word to be one that condemns a well-intentioned someone, who heads down the right path, for not doing enough. That is the takeaway among some commenters and from friends I respect very much, and after some thinking, that’s not my intention. I, like anyone, would be thrilled to see people do more, but I won’t condemn them for not doing so.

Several people pointed out, rightly I think, that Westerners who spend even two weeks on a development project can give back, just not right away. Later it life, these people may give more time, thought, and money to important causes and decisions as a result. That is excellent, and important.

In that case, however, perhaps we should call these trips what they are: thoughtful and caring, but experiential, not charitable.

I think what makes me uncomfortable is the tendency (for some) to frame or advertise short visits and contributions as a way to give back, or (worse still) to ‘save’ someone else. Making a difference takes months, years, and perhaps a lifetime. Saving, I would argue, is an impossible and ultimately harmful aim.

This difference is not simply semantic. It is the difference between going somewhere with the intention to learn and understand, and going somewhere to act and help. A different attitude leads to a very different set of experiences, actions, and consequences.

Further, whether such travel is for good or ill is perhaps a determination made only in retrospect–based on what you do and how you act differently afterwards. And perhaps that ought to be how any contribution is weighed.

People will still undoubtedly take a different position. But as I mentioned before, I am more than happy to have any cynicism and prejudice steadily eroded by the flow of good argument.

8 thoughts on “Development tourism, revisited

  1. I think your line, “thoughtful and caring, but experiential, not charitable” nails it. Development tourism seems a bit like the “Red” campaign and similar efforts. There’s a charitable element, but ultimately the individual derives at least as much (if not more) benefit from the experience/purchase than they provide. And it feels a little, I want to say, diluted?

    Sure these activities can spark additional charitable acts, but they may well be one-off efforts to do “good” while simultaneously getting something tangible for one’s self. Neither development tourism nor “Red” are things to be criticized, but let’s not call them something they’re not.

  2. I wonder if you are not too cynical but rather not cynical enough. The assumption here is that people who spend lots of time in poor countries are doing good, are making a positive difference. I don’t know if that’s the case. The empirical impacts of aid work continue to elude me. I hope that some good comes of them, and I hope that some good will come of my work, but I don’t know if it will: I don’t even know the odds. And I’m not sure if people who spend five years in a poor village are in fact doing more good than people who spend two weeks.

    I agree that development tourists aren’t benefitting locals (besides basic market transactions, which I think do have value): it’s a consumption good. But if people from rich countries want to understand a little bit more about people from poor countries, and they pay someone relatively poor (a slum tourism guide, who may not live in the slum but is a poor-country entrepreneuer), I don’t see any ethical problem.

    I think there may be more danger in the long-term development workers being overconfident of the efficacy of their efforts. The two-week Habitat volunteers may think they’re doing good, but they probably don’t think they’re doing much good; I’m not sure if that’s true for the lifers.

  3. On the slum tourism, I should say that I don’t see an ethical problem insofar as people are respectful, just like I think it’s fine for Hollywood tourists to drive by a celebrity’s house but not to make a nuisance.

    Unfortunately, I imagine many slum tourists and celebrity tourists do make a nuisance of themselves.

  4. I think you’re exactly right. “Making a difference takes months, years, and perhaps a lifetime. Saving, I would argue, is an impossible and ultimately harmful aim.”

    The effect of the experience can really only be measured in retrospect, and there are a whole range of reasons why people might not follow through with more generous and committed responses. For example, they might feel overwhelmed and self-protective after exposure to poverty, or they might have had their prejudices reinforced rather than challenged…

    But, on the whole, if these visits are understood to be experiential exposure visits (rather than charitable action trips), and if people are well-briefed to take an appropriately humble/listening/learning stance, then I think there’s no learning quite like it.

  5. Several people pointed out, rightly I think, that Westerners who spend even two weeks on a development project can give back, just not right away. Later it life, these people may give more time, thought, and money to important causes and decisions as a result. That is excellent, and important.

    It may be excellent and important, but that’s quite a tenuous argument. Anybody who is interested enough to be a development tourist in the first place is usually possessed of the social conscience that would lead them to support those important causes in any case.

    It also seems to be an extremely weak justification for the opportunity costs of sending expatriates to do work that could be done by national staff. Those opportunity costs are accompanied by the perpetuation of the stereotype that the recipients of this largesse are incapable of helping themselves, when of course we know that in general they are (just not in the ways that “we” want them to be).

  6. I think what makes me uncomfortable is the tendency (for some) to frame or advertise short visits and contributions as a way to give back, or (worse still) to ‘save’ someone else. Making a difference takes months, years, and perhaps a lifetime. Saving, I would argue, is an impossible and ultimately harmful aim.

    This difference is not simply semantic. It is the difference between going somewhere with the intention to learn and understand, and going somewhere to act and help.

    There’s a reason rich people are asked to pay to volunteer: your help is not needed. Rich people, however, benefit from development tourism a lot. (says I)

    Just seeing how the other 5/6 lives will reduce the amount of ignorance, arrogance, and hedonic treadmill for the rest of an average rich person’s life.

    The “save the blackies” impulse comes from a noble (double-entendre!) place and will naturally disappear if someone sees how not far their wealth or week of work will go when it’s spread out to a couple hundred or thousand people.

    Do you know any rich people who have not had their point of view completely improved by development tourism?