Are Slum Tours Ethical?
In the early 19th Century, a South African woman named Saarjite Baartman was paraded around Europe as part of popular and scientific exhibitions.She came to be called the Hottentot Venus, known mostly for her especially large hips and buttocks. At one point, she was displayed in the center of London, naked, in a cage, for passerbys to see. Upon her death, Baartman was dissected and her gentalia examined by researchers in order to understand the "primitive" sexuality of African females. Such theories were often used to justify the continued colonial rule over Africa by the Europeans.
I'm reminded of Baartman upon reading of the phenomenon of slum touring. As this article points out, for between $10-20, tourists can have a guide take them through some of the largest slums in India. These are places with devastating poverty and overcrowding. One of the groups that conducts these tours claims that the point is not to objectify the inhabitants of these slums, but to show the world that these places are sites of industry and production, not just poverty. Part of the proceeds of these tours go to nongovernmental organizations working in these slums.
I wonder if these tours are really designed to be consciousness raising experiences or whether they simply amount to a kind of voyeuristic escapade that is not unlike the crowds in Picadilly coming to stare at Saarjite Baartman. It certainly seems important to become aware of the enormous poverty that affects so many human beings--the 3 billion people that live on less than $2 a day. But can wealthy Americans and Europeans do this without turning "Third World" people into spectacles? In the past, such experiences usually didn't result in more understanding of, or sensitivity to, other cultures--they simply reinforced people's prejudices. Most of the people who went to see Baartman were not inspired to investigate her Khosian culture or ask questions about European colonialism--they went to see how "uncivilized Africans" are different, and probably inferior, than good Englishmen.
Can a slum tour be more than just amusement for the privileged?