Should starving people be tourist attractions?

Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade on the Huffington Post touched a raw nerve about condescension towards Africans. She noted that a tourism operator was marketing one of Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Villages (MVs) as a vacation destination and quoted from the brochure “Please do not give anything to the villagers — no sweets.”

I decided to look more into the MV tourism project, not to pile on, but because I believe patronizing attitudes towards Africans is a BIG issue in aid. The web site gives this introduction:

The Millennium Village Tour is a unique experience that introduces the … poverty traps in south-eastern Rwanda and the successful intervention package of the UN Millennium Villages Project.

I agree with Wade that it is dehumanizing that the villagers are just exhibits for tourists teaching them about abstractions like “poverty traps,” and are also to be used as propaganda for the MVs’ “successful intervention.”

The brochure that bothered Wade really is cringe-inducing, including also this line:

Please do not eat in drink in public. Many people in Bugesera Distract are still suffering from malnutrition…

If the MV is so successful, why are people still starving? Instead of worrying about hiding their food, why don’t the tourists pitch in on some MV project that helps the starving get food and nutritional supplements?

The tourism company offering the Rwanda MV tour is called EOS Visions and is headed by some German professionals. They have country subsidiaries, and it was the Rwanda one (staffed by Rwandans) that offered the MV tour. There are some benefits for the villagers as the company advertises 70 percent profit sharing with the local community. Obviously, there were some good intentions here. It’s never easy to negotiate encounters between very rich and very poor people, and some might think that these quotes from a tourist project are a minor issue.

The real problem is that patronizing attitudes towards the African beneficiaries of the MVs follow naturally from the ideas that inspire the MVs – that the poor are helpless victims and it is up to foreigners with superior expertise and funds to rescue them. Condescension towards Africans is both offensive AND a sign of a counterproductive approach to development.

Try looking at the poor Rwandans living in the MV not as anonymous and interchangeable exhibits for a “poverty trap,” but as individuals who possess rights and human dignity just like us. Then we maybe we will understand that the most impressive, knowledgeable, and motivated soldiers in the war on poverty are usually poor individuals themselves.

Originally published at Aid Watch and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

2 Responses to "Should starving people be tourist attractions?"

  1. Rwandan   June 22, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    people in Rwanda are starving just because of Kagame Regime who is trying to praise westerners and at the same time killing his people and people of Congo (DRC). He is a criminal and needs to be arrested. The majority of rwandan people live in fear and poverty. Please Help for more info see HRW repports

  2. akouvi   June 26, 2009 at 9:00 am

    thanks for a great synopsis of the situation. i think we mean well but it is so difficult to get far away enough from our own culture to facilitate and/or protect the self-empowerment and self-sustainability of those in other cultures. i wonder if there IS an answer?