Gawking or Giving
Yesterday I stumbled upon this article by CNN about so called ‘Poverty tours’ in slum communities of India. I spent two months volunteering in Mumbai, India back in 2007, so I found the article fascinating. You can read the article for details, but the author essentially was describing and evaluating these tours and reflecting on the tour he went on with Salaam Baalak in New Dehli, India. The tour was led by a former ‘street boy’ who had been helped by the non profit organization and now led tours through his old community.
The idea of a ‘Poverty Tour’ makes me uncomfortable. I work hard to advocate for the exploited and adhere to the belief that we are all equal, no one is better than anyone else. I have spent years writing, reflecting, praying and working to overcome my own prejudices. Our country is wonderful, but we have instilled the concept in our citizens that we are somehow better than everyone else in the world. Even on a micro level, more powerful races and groups act as if they are more valuable as people than groups with less power. Its a sad part of the human condition. So at first glance, poverty tours seem to perpetuate that belief. It reduces whole groups of people to zoo animals. Wealthy Westerners with resources and time spend a day walking through deplorable conditions, wearing their shiny tennis shoes and designer sunglasses. The full attire of some of the participants of such poverty tours probably costs more than what many of the people in the slums make in one years time. It seems tacky and extremely disconcerting for the families who live in these communities. They already live in fear of exploitation due to the caste system and other social ills of their country, so to also deal with gawking from perfect strangers seems to rub salt on an open wound of low self worth.
Many of these ‘slum tours’ likely have nothing but financial motivation from conducting these tours. They pay no respect towards the residents of these communities. However, what this Salaam Baalak organization is striving to do seems quite noble. They provide income and rehabilitation for children who were previously living on the streets. Street kids in India are subject to great exploitation, from labor trafficking to prostitution. Life for these children is extremely dangerous, and this organization is attempting an innovative approach to providing income for these kids. Their website describes the tour as a way for you and I to hear about the stories of the guides and to experience life through their eyes. It seems like something that I would enjoy, to be quite honest. I have met and grown to love street kids in several countries and have advocated on their behalf. But no story I could tell you would compare to hearing it straight from that child. Empathy is frequently evokes through the senses, not just through a story told by a third party.
I often grow frustrated with my own excess and materialism. I also grow frustrated at the complacency I see in the church and in our society as a whole. I can be quoted on numerous occasions saying “Well I’d like to take that person and drop them off in the middle of Mankurd Slum in India, let them see what it feels like to be forgotten by the world and to suffer”. That comment is usually met by agreeing nods. As I read the news article, I heard myself saying that. How is my comment any different than what this organization is trying to accomplish? They are trying to raise awareness about social issues through the five senses. They may be able to reach large groups of people who come to India for tourism purposes and provide them opportunities to use their future trips for good and volunteerism. If one tourist devotes a day to a walking tour through a low income area of India and they leave inspired to make a difference, was it worth it? Or is it not worth the social stigma that residents of these communities face when they see outsiders touring their neighborhood? Could these residents feel violated and uncomfortable upon seeing tourists in their community? Would it hurt the overall community more than it would help? Is there a way to execute such a program with the support of a community and with holistic, beneficial results to all involved parties? I’m not sure if I’ve found an answer to this question. It has raised questions in my mind regarding short term missions, which I will talk about in another post at a later date.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts as I explore this issue.