Response to MV tourism operator on “Should starving people be tourist attractions?”

Dear Michael (or Dr. Grosspietsch, whichever you prefer): Thanks for taking the time to respond, which is very admirable in itself (I am still waiting a week later to hear from the US Army Lieutenant General William Caldwell IV on the Army’s approach to development.)

I have also read the comments on both my post and yours on Aid Watch, and I have read the post of Donald Ndahiro, the local director of the Rwandan Millennium Village (MV), on Huffington Post that responded to the Magatte Wade post that began the controversy (I will of course let Ms. Wade speak for herself in response to Mr. Ndahiro).

I have considered your letter and these other responses carefully, and I am open to the possibility that I was wrong.

In the end, however, I don’t find your responses or others have really addressed my central concern from the earlier post. I agree with commentators like geckonomist: “I simply can't find in his text any other tourism attraction than : extremely poor people.” I continue to believe that the whole idea of tourists going to see poor people simply because they are poor -- or to see the interventions targeted at these poor because they are poor -- is degrading. It perpetrates the patronizing view that the poor are some faceless mass of helpless victims which the MV is rescuing, which is part of the flawed philosophy of the MV itself.

Respecting the individuality, humanity, and dignity of every person, no matter how poor, is a sacred and fundamental cause. I believe our debate has generated so much discussion because of the importance of this cause.

As another commentator suggested, let’s apply the Golden Rule: 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? If I was sitting at the bedside of my child with a life-threatening illness, would I want a tour group coming through to see how the heroic doctors were saving my child? No thank you.

As Moussa Blimpo (an NYU Econ Ph.D. student whom I respect a lot and who posted on this blog a very relevant article on Self-Esteem in Africa) said in his comment: “If you had a market for pornography (yes, the actual) in the MDV with the consent of the local, would you have set up a porn tour? I guess, no, and the reason is a similar reason your critics are raising.” (Yes, I am selectively quoting commentators who agreed with me, not to get any extra credit from having a few in agreement, but because they put my concerns better than I can put them myself.)

You say criticism of the rules (“don’t give them candy”) is unwarranted because it be worse if these rules were broken. You are missing the point -- if it is necessary to announce such rules, then there was a problem with offensive behavior by tourists already, which I believe is inherent in the nature of poverty tourism.

You and Mr. Ndahiro also offer the defense that this tourism project is “community-driven.” I have heard this kind of term abused way too often in aid discussions (as have some of the commentators) and would need a lot more detail about who is involved in the tourism project and who is not, who is for and who is against, how and whether all the villagers subject to tourist view had given their consent, and what alternative choices the villagers had.

You also mention that there was a problem with excess visitors to the MV before your project came along. I agree with you that the “poverty tourism” problem began with the MV itself, and you are not to blame for this.

I am sorry for the pain that my criticism evokes in you and your well-meaning partners. I get a lot of harsh criticism also, including from some of the commentators on these posts, and I try to learn from it. Criticism is a necessary feature of a society of free and equal individuals, to hold everyone accountable for their actions, and to correct mistakes. I salute your good intentions, but I sincerely believe your Millennium Village tourism project is a mistake.

Best regards, Bill

PS Sorry for the delay in responding, I was caught up with some intense activity in the non-blogging part of my job (not involving Argentina, the Appalachian Trail, or South Carolina).