by Katie Palmer
Recently I partnered with a colleague from OneChild, a children’s rights organization, to travel throughout Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand for several weeks to investigate prevalent social issues affecting children and youth in the region. Such issues include child sex tourism, absolute poverty, largely inaccessible primary and elementary education, and health problems arising from large populations inhabiting informal housing districts. In order to gain the most from our exposure trip, we partnered alongside a number of hosting organizations.
One similarity among the varied hosting organizations was the implementation of “advocacy tours.” Geared towards both foreign tourists and wealthier local citizens, advocacy tours (sometimes referred to as “poverty tours” or “poverty tourism”) provide opportunities for participants to understand a variety of social and economic issues common in the Global South.
While my purpose is not to argue that the NGOs or companies that implement advocacy tours uphold purely capitalist intentions, it is important to think critically about how such tours fall short of promoting sustainable development practices. First, however, I would like to describe the contributions that advocacy tours have the potential to make.
Advocacy tours can play important roles in stimulating local job creation, generating funds to help marginalized populations, and drawing attention to pertinent social issues.
In terms of job creation, NGOs and the tourism companies require human personnel to carry out the research and development components of the tours. Advocacy tours require the services of drivers, tour guides, and translators. Indirectly, advocacy tours have the potential to create the demand for products for tourists to buy, such as handicrafts and jewelry, created and sold by resourceful local entrepreneurs.
By local standards, advocacy tours are rather expensive. Riverkids, a non-profit organization in Phnom Penh, Cambodia charges each participant 80 USD for a full-day tour. Revenue from the tours, including the ones implemented by Riverkids, not only support local job creation, but also channel into projects established to support the marginalized individuals who are put on display during the tours. These projects include vocational training and education programs and rehabilitation centers. For example, the Brazilian company Favela Tours regularly donates money to Para Ti, a non-profit organization that helps socioeconomically disadvantaged children and youth who live in the favelas (“slums”) of Rio de Janeiro.
In addition to revenue coming in from the sales of advocacy walks, participants often also donate directly to the hosting NGO. Florence Chea, Volunteer and Project Manager of Riverkids Cambodia, tells me, “While we don’t have a percentile breakdown of how much money comes from donor participants, I can tell you that more than a third of those who join our advocacy tours do provide Riverkids with additional financial support. This money really helps us carry out our important work to help empower child labourers by enabling them to attend school programs.”Advocacy tours also provide innumerable teachable moments. The participants of the tours gain insight (although perhaps superficial) into some of the social and economic issues that the majority of the world’s population experiences on a daily basis.
Vancouverite Jessica Flerver tells me, “I traveled to Mumbai in 2011 with a group of friends just for a fun cultural experience. One afternoon we decided to participate in a tour of the shantytowns. We just thought it would be cool. We didn’t expect that it would be so incredibly eye opening. I had never witnessed poverty like that before. It was so heart-wrenching that my friends and I decided to deviate from our pre-planned itinerary and volunteer at an orphanage for a few days.”
Urban traveler Indrawan Prabaharyaka also shares how advocacy tours provide opportunities to debunk some of the prevailing myths of slum life, “It [advocacy tours] eases the spatial association of slum as a crime spot. It is the chance of affluent citizens to feel the warmth of the slum.”
Despite the potential merits of advocacy tours, there are three main shortcomings that demand attention. It is because of these shortcomings that I had originally decided back in 2010 against participating in the advocacy tours organized by NGOs in Southeast Asia.
At the macro level, advocacy tours do not challenge the structural inequalities that force children and youth to prematurely drop out of school and engage in potentially dangerous income generating activities, such as waste picking and sex tourism. In fact, advocacy tours can create systems of dependency, whereby some locals come to economically rely on the benevolent NGOs that operate such tours as well as on the good-doing tourists who participate in the tours.
Geographer Hilary Ferguson argues, “Ideally, tourists should avoid giving monetary handouts to the impoverished children who occupy tourist-laden spaces. As heartbreaking as it is to see youngsters milling around desperately begging tourists for a few coins, those who do give street children money oftentimes unintentionally end up supporting systems of exploitation. For example, their parents may send them out begging to supplement household income, having them miss school to do so...If you do feel the need to provide the children with some token, as I often do, make it useful to them – a pencil or pen. Be educated in your kindness, so that it helps rather than harms.”
At the institutional level, advocacy tours can reinforce problematic and exploitative power relations. Who gives NGOs and companies the right to sell tours that turn real, complex spaces into living museums for travelers? It is important to understand advocacy tours in relation to the nuanced and ongoing histories of colonialism. Such tours can transform poverty and child exploitation into tourist spectacles; and in that process, hierarchies of power differences are not challenged, but rather are maintained.
At the individual level, the issue of consent often is not attended to in a thoughtful, well-supported manner. Some tourists from the Global North feel entitled to engage in poverty tourism and automatically assume that their participation is what the locals need to escape poverty. David Fennell, an expert on ethical tourism, writes, “Maybe you give 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 percent of the profit back to the community, but you’ve now commodified these people, you’ve turned them into a product in the service of an industry. I’m not sure that’s ethical… We feel we have the right to go anywhere we want on the planet…If you put your money down, you have a right to go."
This line of entitled thinking is dangerous because it does not accommodate critical questions regarding informed consent and collaboration.
Finally, advocacy tours reinforce the troublesome shift to privatized development. There is an increasing overreliance on private citizens, mostly those coming from wealthier countries, to provide financial aid to support international development projects. This is problematic largely because privatized development gives a small fraction of persons, who are largely detached from the issues facing the majority of the world’s population, the power to decide the flows of monetary aid.
While a mix of altruism and curiosity propel both privileged tourists and locals to sign up for advocacy tours, do the shortcomings of advocacy tours seemingly outweigh the benefits? Should ethically conscious tourists engage in advocacy tours? There is no easy or single answer by any means. Each individual must choose what he or she deems appropriate in context-specific situations.
As an attempt to ensure that as tourists we do not consume the real living spaces in the Global South for merely voyeuristic pleasures, I have developed a brief list of best practices.
First, evaluate why you want to participate in the advocacy tour. Keep your motives in check. Is it realistic to expect that this tour will change your life? Are there other ways to understand the local community that do not necessarily turn people into objects to be consumed by the privileged tourist? If not, be sure to reflect on what you are learning throughout the duration of the tour. Marcelo Armstrong of Favela Tours also advises tourists to restrict their use of photography, particularly in the residents’ houses, as one way to demonstrate respect for the locals.
Second, develop ways to give back to the local community. Can you give your time to the hosting organization for a couple of days or weeks during your trip abroad? Alternatively, could you provide financial support to the NGO? How can you support the initiatives of the hosting organization throughout the year once you are back in your own neighbourhood?
And third, brainstorm how you can raise awareness in your home community about what you learned while on the advocacy tour. Can you give a presentation to a local Rotary International chapter in your hometown? Will you share what you have learned with friends, family members, and colleagues?
By following these guidelines, hopefully we can minimize the shortcomings of advocacy tours, maximize the teachable moments, and provide needed financial support to NGOs.
Katie Palmer was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. She recently earned a graduate degree in Geography from the University of Toronto. She earned her bachelor's degree in geography and gender studies also from the University of Toronto. In her spare time, she volunteered at ECPAT-Philippines - an anti-trafficking NGO that provides rehabilitation and residential services to girl survivors of trafficking and forced prostitution.