Slum tourism: good or bad?

ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP A number of tour operators have begun leading curious tourists into some of the world’s most famous slums: Soweto township, slums in Kenya, Brazil’s favelas, and the “homes” of India’s street children. The jury’s still out on whether the tours are perverse invasions of privacy or eye-opening experiences that will prompt action on ...

604175_favela_05.jpg
604175_favela_05.jpg

ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP

A number of tour operators have begun leading curious tourists into some of the world's most famous slums: Soweto township, slums in Kenya, Brazil's favelas, and the "homes" of India's street children. The jury's still out on whether the tours are perverse invasions of privacy or eye-opening experiences that will prompt action on the poverty agenda.

The best-known slums of all, Rio de Janeiro's sprawling favelas, are even enticing permanent gringo residents. This isn't so surprising, given that favela residents are a lot more middle-class than most Brazilians care to admit—about 15 percent according to the 1991 census. And this proportion is rising, due to a lack of affordable housing. The vibrancy of life in the favelas is felt more strongly outside Brazil than within it, thanks to cultural exports like samba music and the movie City of God. Gentrification of the favelas is almost certain to help poor residents, as gringos support local restaurants and help upgrade infrastructure.

ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP

A number of tour operators have begun leading curious tourists into some of the world’s most famous slums: Soweto township, slums in Kenya, Brazil’s favelas, and the “homes” of India’s street children. The jury’s still out on whether the tours are perverse invasions of privacy or eye-opening experiences that will prompt action on the poverty agenda.

The best-known slums of all, Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling favelas, are even enticing permanent gringo residents. This isn’t so surprising, given that favela residents are a lot more middle-class than most Brazilians care to admit—about 15 percent according to the 1991 census. And this proportion is rising, due to a lack of affordable housing. The vibrancy of life in the favelas is felt more strongly outside Brazil than within it, thanks to cultural exports like samba music and the movie City of God. Gentrification of the favelas is almost certain to help poor residents, as gringos support local restaurants and help upgrade infrastructure.

In traditional development circles, pro-poor tourism is about helping the poor market goods and services to foreigners, not marketing their own misery to the rich. My take: There’s room for tour operators who respect the poor and help the rest of us better understand their lifestyles. Who better to lead favela tours than favela residents? As I wrote last week, there are plenty of positive things happening in the slums that we would do well to understand. After all, the first step to helping the poor is to ask them what kind of help they want.

Christine Bowers is a consultant at the World Bank Group and the godmother of the Private Sector Development Blog. Writers from the PSDBlog will be contributing a weekly series of posts for Passport entitled “Fighting Poverty With Markets.”

For more on life in the favelas, Janice Perlman’s work is a great place to start. Also, check out this blog on squatter cities.

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