Tuesday, October 02, 2007

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?

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9 Comments:

At 10:59 AM , Anonymous Parisa said...

It's possible to do these tours right here in the U.S. of A., thanks to the federal government's mismanagement of the levees in New Orleans. Tours of the devastated 9th ward, as of this February, could be had for anywhere from $15 to $45.

Some benefit rebuilding efforts, some just go back into the local economy by giving jobs to residents.

The question of what truly raises consciousness and what just capitalizes on existing injustice is one for the ages. I think the tone and content of the tours, as well as the encouragement toward action vs. "pity factor" makes all the difference.

 
At 12:50 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Parisa: I would agree tha the tone makes all the difference. There are all sorts of great reality tour programs in the U.S. Global Exchange does some very good ones.

I worry about the one mentioned in this article, however, which is meant to show that the slum is not a place of total despair, but there is industry and production. This could either dispel myths that poverty is the result of idleness, or it could reinforce ideas that poverty on a global scale can be eliminated if individuals just use a little more initiative and work harder to get themselves out of their situations (in effect, ignoring the idea of structual inequality in the world).

 
At 6:11 PM , Anonymous parisa said...

Ah, but this is where it does get complicated. Having worked in a domestic violence shelter and on the streets of San Francisco, I've seen the very strong liberal social-justice attachment to perpetuating the notion of places and people being despondent and downtrodden in particular circumstances. It complicates things immensely to say that two realities coexist: people are impoverished by structural inequality, and all efforts should go to change it; and people live lives of hope and meaning (and yes, productivity)in the midst of it -- some even more hopeful and meaningful than those lived by people in immense houses with every material advantage.

The fact is that millions of people are exploited daily by our purchasing habits and depletion of natural resources in the West. The description in the article sounds like it at least offers a window into what the homes of the people who provide the goods look like.

Most people who come from the most impoverished parts of impoverished nations do not wish for their homes to have the pitiful image that they get from the projections of rich Westerners. What I read being described in the article are the efforts of folks to show the pride they have in their homes, the work they do, and the ways they make a living and a life.

It still can feed the dynamic you describe, to be sure, but I think it's dangerous to judge too quickly. The New Delhi street children, in particular, sound like they are cleverly capitalizing on the idle curiosity of the rich.

 
At 6:54 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Parisa: Yes, I think you're right about the liberal projection. Cesar Chavez often spoke about avoiding the tendency to "romanticize the poor" as a group that always needs saving. Perhaps the problem is just the age old one of how do we truly recognize the agency, the humanity, of others and not objectify them unnecessarily.

The tours offered by Global Exchange are good because they not only involve the experience of going to poverty stricken areas, but readings and lectures before hand with experts and community leaders. There is also usually time to debrief and talk about the experience. This sounds different than a "safari" like experience, which, unfortunately, the New Dehli street children might be giving.

 
At 7:37 PM , Anonymous parisa said...

I'm concerned most about whose right it is to judge. I'm not sure it's fair to wring hands over what street children in New Delhi do to get by when there is no accountability for, say Coca Cola.

 
At 11:18 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

What Coca Cola does in most places is more obviously unethical. I'm less worried about what kids do to survive than what privileged people do, I suppose. Going on an excursion with a church group or with a non governmental organization is a different thing than being a "tourist", which implies a kind of distance from the experience. As a "tourist", one can visit and then retreat to the safety of one's "home". This might be a problem given the kind of arrogance that certain societies have about their own ways of life--see this in the recent NYT about the majority of Americans believing our culture is superior to others.

 
At 5:46 PM , Blogger Alex said...

I went on a tour of the townships in Capetown recently. But then, I also went to some of the richest areas and looked around there too. The townships had a bigger impact on me - I was able to buy locally made crafts, meet children at a day-care centre and ask questions of our tour guide who grew up there.

The tour was educational, insightful and emotional and not at all voyeuristic. It motivated me to give more time and money to voluntary groups and stop taking my priviledged life for granted.

That said, I've only been on one - there may me many more that are not as well run and whether they are insightful or just plain voyeuristic could be mostly in the eye of the beholder.

 
At 5:37 PM , Anonymous Ronny said...

I organize the realjakartatour, jakartahiddentour, we need comments, opinion, and I will try to translate into English for people friends in my "slum area"

 
At 4:22 AM , Blogger Ron Puyundatu said...

please see Jakarta Hidden Tour
at http://www.realjakarta.blogspot.com

 

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