Ethics and Poverty Tours

By Selinger, Evan | Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Poverty Tours


Selinger, Evan, Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly


A new word has entered into travel discourse: "poorism." "Poorism" refers to organized tours that bring predominantly middle and upper class people to impoverished regions. Programs exist in Brazil (South America), Soweto (Africa), Mumbai (India), Rotterdam (Netherlands), and New York (United States). According to a recent Newsweek article, the poorism market already is "booming." Poorism attracts attention because advocates characterize it as a moral enterprise, a form of conscientious consumerism. But poorism is at best a morally complex endeavor.

The Poorism Debate: Advocates

Just as advocates of ecotourism associate nature-based tourism with environmental education and environmental justice, so too do champions of poorism associate their endeavor with education (raising awareness of global suffering) and justice (providing needed funds to destitute regions either by direct transfers to the poor themselves or by targeted spending within the impoverished areas visited).

The Newsweek article focuses on trips taken by Kevin Outterson, a law professor at Boston University. Outterson offers the following observations on the consciousness-raising potential of poorism, as well as its capacity to promote service learning and beneficent volunteerism: "We live in a world of both poverty and abundance.Many universities encourage foreign study programs as part of a globalized curriculum. But it is possible to visit middle-income countries like Brazil and Mexico without actually encountering poverty, other than chance encounters on the streets. I took my students into Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro because the residents of Rocinha make the tourist experience of Rio possible.... Rocinha residents are the workers, cooks, maids, street sweepers, waiters, store clerks and street vendors who serve Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana. To understand how Brazil works, you need to experience more than one perspective, especially if you can do that with the permission of the community. My students have generally been impressed with many aspects of Rocinha, especially how the community has self-organized in response to government neglect."

Generalized further, advocates who adopt Outterson's outlook insist that poorism should be an obligation that all tourists accept. Mainstream tourism ostensibly idealizes geographies and further insulates people fromawareness of the extent of existing inequality. Poorism can provide a needed glimpse into the underbelly of geopolitics. Dramatically put, then, if the slogan "We should never forget" captures an appropriate attitude concerning the immorality of turning a blind eye toward the barbarism that occurred during the Holocaust, then the slogan "We should not avoid" seems to capture an appropriate attitude toward activities such as poorism that reveal large-scale degradation that the privileged may be complicit in by virtue of their ignorance of human rights violations.

Timothy Engstrom, co-editor of a recent book on theories and practices of imaging, offers the following insight into the problem of ignorance applied to his own experience touring a favela. Engstrom remarks that in order to appreciate why some poverty tours can affect participants in powerful ways, it's useful to consider how visual technologies and cultural habits of sight shape what we perceive or consider worth perceiving in the first place, and to consider how these technologies and cultural practices mediate the "presence of the real" when experienced.

In this context, Engstrom focuses on the disparity between experiencing a favela first-hand and learning about the damage done to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. In the latter case, typical Western media presentations framed the disaster as a catastrophe by favoring a grand scale of presentation through sweeping images, including panoramic helicopter shots of flooding taken at a distance, and the billboard politics of stranded residents holding up signs requesting assistance. …

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