Monthly Archives: December 2011

Poverty Tourism

(This article first appeared on June 30, 2010. I thought it was interesting enough to warrant a “rerun” and hope you will agree.)

A friend from Minneapolis gave us the name of a former parish priest, Father George, who left his pulpit in Minnesota to work with the Missionaries of Charity in Nairobi, a worldwide organization established by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa.  Its volunteers, both lay and clergy, are committed to helping the neediest members of society—lepers, AIDS sufferers, street children, the homeless. Soon after our arrival in Kenya for a three-month working vacation, we contacted Father George who invited us to join him as he made the rounds of Kibera, a place utterly unimaginable to anyone who has not traveled outside the first world.

Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi and the second largest in Africa. It covers only one square mile but is home to one million people, a population density greater than that of Mumbai, the most densely populated city in the world. Dilapidated dwellings sit cheek-to-jowl and rise atop mounds of rotting garbage and human waste. Due to the absence of sewers and drains these residences flood during the rainy season and must be completely rebuilt every year. Although Kibera is geographically within the city of Nairobi, it is not really part of it as the police refuse to enter, and it has no access to basic city services such as water, sanitation, and electricity.

We spent the day in Kibera with Father George, distributing food and medical supplies, participating in last rites for the dying, drinking tea, and talking with residents. It was a disturbing but highly enlightening experience. The dominant emotions in Kibera are not anger and despair but determination and persistence. Residents go to Herculean efforts—for example, walking two hours each way to low paying jobs in the central city—to improve their lot and provide for their children. Hearing these stories made me embarrassed by my emotional reaction to our simple apartment with its lumpy mattresses and bare light bulbs. It also made my wife and me mindful of why these working vacations were becoming such an important part of our lives–when you work in a country you not only have a wonderful time but also a culturally and personally enriching experience.

View of the Slums of Kibera

One word of caution, though. Our visit was by invitation of someone living and working in Kibera. He wanted us to experience conditions in the slums, bring that knowledge back to the United States, and share it with students and faculty at my school, which I did.   At the time of our visit my wife and I were among a tiny handful of Western visitors to spend time in those squalid streets. The situation today is completely different because of a new form of niche travel called poverty tourism available from agencies, large and small, around the world.  These companies provide comfortable, safe, and fully narrated bus tours of not only Kibera but the slums of Calcutta, townships of South Africa, shantytowns of Mexico City, and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. In the last few years slum visits have become a popular form of day tripping as travelers grow bored of a standard tourist menu heavy on museums, beaches, galleries, and boutiques.

Proponents of these tours cite the educational experience of learning about conditions in the slums. They claim they are providing desperately needed jobs for bus drivers and tour guides as well as creating opportunities for residents to sell locally made handicrafts. They also believe the embarrassment of tourists witnessing horrific living conditions just a few miles from their own luxury accommodations will pressure local politicians into cleaning up these horrific neighborhoods.  However, opponents argue it is simply a way for unscrupulous travel agents to make money off the humiliation and desperation of others, and there is precious little education to be gained snapping photos of shantytowns from a bus window.  An editorial in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest newspaper, castigated movie stars, well-heeled businessmen, and other dignitaries for their fascination with slums like Kibera, perhaps fueled by the popularity of the movie The Constant Gardener in which the neighborhood played a starring role.

It is quite possible that a future working vacation will take you and your family to impoverished  or developing nations, much like this trip to Kenya as well as our later stays in Nepal, Borneo,  and Mongolia. Poverty tourism is a moral issue you need to think about and resolve in your mind as you mull over proffered visits to urban slums, charity hospitals, leper colonies, and other places of poverty, pain, and despair. Of course there is no universal answer to this dilemma, and you will need to decide each case individually based on the goals of the visit, the benefits it brings to residents, and whether you and your family will learn and grow from this intensely emotional experience.

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The Clues Are All Around You

The most frequent question I get from blog readers is “OK, I’m convinced of the professional and cultural benefits of short-term working vacations, but where do I find them? How do I locate opportunities to live and work overseas?”   I can’t provide a short answer to that question; indeed, a hundred pages of my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime, is devoted to answering that one query in great detail.

However, there is one technique that is easy to describe–be sensitive to the many opportunities appearing in print and electronic media, on television and radio, or discussed with friends and colleagues over a cup of coffee.  In Chapter 3 of my book I write “Every newspaper article, TV show, radio program, and professional interaction has the potential to turn into a working vacation. A magazine story about a new university in Africa could, with the appropriate inquiries, lead to an invitation to work with local faculty.  A TV feature about a primary care clinic in Southeast Asia could be a clarion call to health professionals in pediatrics, epidemiology, or tropical medicine, and that exchange teacher from South America could be the source of a future invitation to visit his or her home country. Whenever you read or hear about an overseas opportunity that is relevant to your field initiate a phone or e-mail conversation to determine if there is any way for you and your family to take advantage of it.”

Simply put, I am saying keep your “working vacation radar” attuned to the clues that are all around you.  And they are there.  For example, on 12/6/2011 (only two days ago) the Science section of the New York Times ran a feature article entitled “Vast and Fertile Ground in Africa for Science to Take Root.”  The story tells of a new computer science/engineering center being established at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.  This new institute, one of the best in East Africa, is growing rapidly and initiating research in areas ranging from wireless communications to artificial intelligence.  It has acquired initial funding from Microsoft and Google and attracted some excellent faculty such as Dr. John Quinn, a researcher with a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, one of the best computing schools in Europe.

Photograph of Makerere University on Facebook

For most Times readers this will simply be a “feel good” story about the work of some visionary scholars and the creation of a high-quality educational institution in a region with precious few of them.  But for professionals in computer science, computer engineering, management information systems, and telecommunications this article could turn into an opportunity to spend a few months (or more) in a fascinating region of the world doing some good work, living in a new and different culture, and having the adventure of a life time.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Makerere University will hire you as a paid, short-term member of the faculty.  However, the cost of an email inquiry–including resume, classes you could teach, talks you could present, and references–is $0.00, so there is absolutely no risk in giving it your best shot.  If they respond “No” nothing has been lost, and you can settle back and wait until the next working vacation clue appears, unexpected and unannounced.  But if things happily turn in your favor, as they have for my wife and me 14 times in the last 30 years, then you (and spouse and children) will have a transformative cultural, social, and professional experience like no other.  And, best of all, it will be on the other guy’s dime.