Inside the poverty puzzle: a plug for slum tours

imagesA year ago today, I landed in Mumbai, India’s bustling business capital.  I traveled there to spend time with 1298, a for-profit ambulance company that set up operations in response to the city’s lack of emergency care.  That’s right, India’s largest commercial center doesn’t have ambulances.  Mumbai simply lacks the capacity and resources for such a service.  Traveling around the city I could see why.

The “maximum” city, as one writer has dubbed it, *teems* with poverty.  Tin siding, blue tarpaulin and decaying wood dot every vantage point, from posh five star hotels to busy roadsides.  Restless barefoot children swarm stopped cars and tourists to beg for a Chicklet or a rupee.  Homeless men defecate on the street.  Mumbai’s poverty is raw and consuming.  I found it hard to handle.  No surprise then, I turned down an offer to visit Dharavi, the Slumdog Millionaire ghetto, for a “slum tour.”

With all the excitement surrounding poverty alleviation efforts, including microfinance and social entrepreneurship, slum tours have exploded in popularity. This troubles many, including Kenyan native and Echoing Green fellow Kennedy Odede who recently wrote about his aversion in the New York Times.

“Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from.”

I’m not so sure.

I skipped the Dharavi tour because I couldn’t see how a “slum” was any different than the poverty spread throughout Mumbai.  In doing so, I also missed an opportunity, as writer Anand Giridharadas told me, to see promise.  (His The ‘Slumdog’ effect: Afflict the comfortable a must read).  Slum tours take visitors to see life, not desperation.  Yes, life.  Isolated from the markets and services available to mainstream society, many entrepreneurial slum dwellers are bring much needed products and services to their communities.  Poverty is a condition of being without resources and opportunity – not without talent and dignity.

For decades, Westerners only saw the poor through heart-wrenching images of fly-infested children with bloated bellies.  Traveling to the third world amid an East-West divide, civil wars and dictatorial regimes made it impossible for us to actually see or know these children.  And that made it impossible to know or understand their plight.  All we could do was believe that their lives were – not just worse than ours – but blighted.  Hence we helped – out of guilt, not conviction.  We opened our purses and wrote checks.  Then when our regularly scheduled programming resumed we complained that nothing ever changed with “those people.”  They were never real to us.

Today slum tours give depth and humanity to “those people.” These tours show how “those people” are changing their communities – and how we can help them.  Contrary to what Odede believes, it moves some to not only start a dialogue and conversation, but also to mentor and invest in these innovators – just ask the Acumen Fund and Vision Spring.

To be fair, Odede’s concern that slum tours are voyeuristic is valid.  No doubt there are those for whom it is a selfish exercise, a “look at me, I saved the world” pat on the back.  It is improbable, however, that anyone with an ounce of decency could be “entertained” by it.  He is also right that slums won’t go away because of these tours alone.   Yet, they most certainly won’t go away if we stay out of them.

In a globalized world where the gap between rich and poor is only growing larger; where we are self segregating into communities and networks based on similar values and beliefs, slum tours provide a platform to connect and turn poverty away from being a concept into a reality.  In doing so, they also show us that the poor are not helpless.  More importantly, they show the poor that they are not alone.

“Please tell them our story,” a Turkish villager in southeastern Anatolia told me on a visit three years ago.  “Tell them we are poor but not impoverished.  Tell them we are just like you.”  Indeed they are – go see for yourself.

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 5, 2010 at 14:20 | Permalink

    I agree with your outlook completely. I few years ago through the ChildrensChristanFund, I sponsored a child. I requested the poorest child that they had available. I am ashamed to say that if it weren’t for my brother, it would not how dawned on me to undertake doing this. I worked in a hospital and he was on food stamps, however, he had been sending some money to a little boy in Columbia for years. He had never mentioned it. He did what he could, when he could. Anyway, through the letters from this little girl, I learned so much about her life. The beauty of the land that surroundered her, the animals that she had seen, the closeness of her family. It was a humbling experience to say the least. The opportunities were not available there to succeed, but the fire in her families heart was. She lived in Uganda, need I say more.

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