03 July 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Development Tourism – Is it good?

My thoughts are, it’s not black and white – it’s not “all good” or “all bad”. In fact, personally, I find it mostly bad. Yet, it’s an industry I work in and believe in, because I think it CAN be done better.

Added my thoughts to the discussion started by Easterly’s criticism of MDV projects here:

When reading the first 25 pages of White Man’s Burden a few years ago I felt like Easterly was putting into words the exact problems I had seen working in development in Cambodia. In our tours at PEPY, we often have half of the travelers read this section detailing his planner/searcher mentality (with the other half of the group reading from Sachs and then discussing the differences). In those discussions, like in the above post, I tend to agree with Easterly often, but not 100%. Why? Because it’s not black and white – it’s complicated – and I think that some arguments from both camps completely disregard the majority of projects which are in the grey area.
For example, this statement “if I was poor and still in my birthplace of West Virginia, would I want tourists coming by to see how poor I was and how some project was rescuing me from my miseries?” assumes that “rich people” being in an area where “poor people” are is bad. Period. It also assumes that people who are working to improve their lives in different ways still consider themselves “in misery” and wouldn’t want others to learn about the work they are doing.

There is an organization in Cambodia called CRDT which I really respect. It was started by young Cambodians a number of years ago, is still completely locally run, and implores a variety of “applicable rural technologies” (bio-digesters, improved fish-pond designs for better water gathering/retention, mushroom growing, etc). These technologies are being taught from peers to peers and have improved livelihoods. Their “tours” to see the projects are led by and designed by the communities and allow community members to teach about the technologies they are using, the successes they have seen, and the lessons they have learned.

One of our Cambodian staff members wanted to learn about how to make a cleaner incinerator for his village, so we connected him to the CRDT tour. He, a Cambodian, learned skills from a Cambodian, which had been taught to him from other Cambodian NGO workers. Bill, what do you think about that scenario? Is that wrong? Are our ideas that the MDV tours are wrong because the people touring are rich and white? Are our ideas that the MDV tours are wrong because the people teaching the skills and driving the whole MDV project to begin with are rich and white?

I have my own issues with certain aspects of the MDV that I have been exposed to, and I certainly agree that the majority of development tourism, “poverty” tourism, and voluntourism breeds colonialist attitudes, but I certainly don’t think that we should put up walls and keep the rich people in their camps and only allow the poor people to travel around, seeing what they don’t have, and not visa versa. If done properly, it can be empowering for those in the poor camp to show that perhaps they aren’t as “poor” as others might think and to be the teachers in the relationship. On my visit, I too learned more about how to make a better incinerator, and we are now using them in our projects as well.

We had people up in arms when we proposed bringing some students/teachers to the US to a camp they had been invited to. “How will the poor people survive returning home to their poor villages once they have seen the wealth of the US?” were some reactions. So, we westerners can travel and deal with our share of culture shock when we return home to our opulent and over-using societies, but “poor” people can’t deal with such transitions?

In my opinion, it’s not implicitly bad to have the rich and poor mix. It can lead to very negative impacts on both sides, if it is not designed properly. Rather than discussing if this is right or wrong, let’s talk about how we can design these facilitated interactions better so that both sides can learn, share, and improve the greater global society.