Left at the Crossroads: Ogling the poor

Tourism is the largest and one of the fastest growing service industries in the world. Among the new trends in global sightseeing, the most controversial might well be “poverty tourism”.

Tourism is the largest and one of the fastest growing service industries in the world. Among the new trends in global sightseeing, the most controversial might well be “poverty tourism”, a semi-official label for organized tours of Brazilian favelas, South African townships or Indian shantytowns.

The word “slumming” was first registered by the Oxford Dictionary in 1884, coinciding with a rising Victorian preoccupation that mixed philanthropy, social paranoia and voyeuristic titillation. Respectable middle-class Londoners would visit seedy neighborhoods such as Whitechapel or Shoreditch, while wealthy New Yorkers roamed the Bowery and the Lower East Side to see “how the other half lives.” At the turn of the century, though, the practice had already begun to decline. What does its present rebirth say about our societies?

For its advocates, poverty tourism promotes empathy, social awareness and helps the local economy. Its critics retort that it turns destitution into an obscene entertainment, treating the slum dwellers as zoological material. As a Kenyan activist said, “slum tourism is a one-way street: they get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.”

Most companies practicing poverty tourism are perfectly aware of this criticism and have developed well-rehearsed responses in defense of their trade. Many also have a no-photography policy, as does Mumbai’s Reality Tours & Travel, whose operators sell three-hour excursions in Dharavi, purportedly the biggest squatter settlement in Asia. Its British founder, Christopher Wray, was inspired by similar initiatives in Brazil. “We're trying to dispel the myth that people there sit around doing nothing, that they're criminals,” he argues. Dharavi is “a place where people are working hard, struggling to make a living and doing it in an honest way.” Eager to illustrate “the positive side of a slum,” Reality Tours’ owners also use part of the revenues from their tours to fund charitable endeavors.

But what do the slum residents really think? Let’s just ask them, decided Brazilian sociologist Bianca Freire-Medeiros, who investigated Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s biggest and most visited favela. While a majority of middle-class Brazilians are simply appalled by the idea (most visitors are North American and European), 83% of Rocinha residents see tourism in their community as a positive trend. In the individual interviews, though, they tend to qualify their approbation, showing some measure of ambivalence and a diversity of opinion. Tourists are OK, but… they shouldn’t poke their head through our windows; they shouldn’t take pictures of garbage heaps; they shouldn’t be shown the worst streets; they should be shown the worst streets; we’d like to know what they say about us, etc.

Freire-Medeiros justly remarks on the coincidence between the emergence of slum tourism and the international popularity of favela epic City of God (2002) and rags-to-riches Mumbai fantasy Slumdog Millionaire (2008), whose young hero is a Dharavi resident. The release of Slumdog in India was first met with a flurry of controversy. Various activists and slum dwellers’ organizations alleged that the film fueled Western stereotypes about Indian poverty and that its very title was offensive and demeaning.

As a matter of fact, the film was not a huge box office success in India. But the professional critics there were generally enthusiastic, some speaking of a "masterwork directed with astonishing empathy” and of “a great, fun film with a big heart.” The eight Oscars won at the 81st Academy Awards almost swept aside all objections, and the Times of India wrote a paean to “the mother-of-all international recognitions”: “India has never shone like this before, thank you Slumdog Millionaire.”

Not all slum dwellers were dismissive either. The owner of a printing workshop in Dharavi told Time magazine: “I liked the idea that even if you're not educated, like the hero of the film, you can be successful by dint of your common sense and hard work.” “The film only shows what is real,” added a driver in New Delhi. “If it's set in a slum, there's going to be garbage. It's those who are making lots of money who are cribbing about the film showing the dark side of India. Those left behind are loving it because they can empathize with the film's hero.”

Empathy with obscure Dickensian heroes and their daily struggle; humanization of the poor through the display of their rationality and hard work; the cult of “the real”… Not surprisingly, those are the same arguments offered by the advocates of the slum tour industry and by some of its local beneficiaries. One can’t make up his mind whether those noble motives are a rebuke to a world of greed and selfishness, or if they ironically harbor a secret complicity with some of our societies’ most common obsessions – by being symmetrical mirror images of the celebrity culture, the glamour of easy money, the seductive lifestyles of the super-rich, and the fascination for the virtual.

In the end, it is as though the marketing of Rocinha, Dharavi or Soweto as global brands of “favela chic” has fused two deeply entrenched narratives of our civilization into a strange semantic embrace. One is  the Biblical promise that “the last will be the first” and the other is Andy Warhol’s claim that everyone will eventually be famous for 15 minutes.

Left at the Crossroads: Remaking the mob in Latin America


Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.

Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).

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