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 or drink in public. Many people in Bugesera District 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.