Monday, June 29, 2009

Easterlyisms... poverty tourism

Bill Easterly had a casual blog post about a serious subject, poverty tourism. In his post, he lampooned some effort by the Millennium Village movement to extract more money out of frequent visitors. Now, I could see myself, at some conference in Rwanda, thinking it might be interesting to go visit a Millenium Village, because after all, according to the website, they "are proving that by fighting poverty at the village level through community-led development, rural Africa can achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and escape from the poverty trap." So it would be interesting to see. And why not have the MV charge me for that visit, instead of making it a freebie. After all, if I'm taking up project participant time while they explain their latest crop technology, why not earn something on the side? Is there really something wrong with this?

In Burkina Faso, all the guidebooks point visitors to the village of Tiebele, near the Ghana border, where women paint fantastic geometric designs on the houses. It is pretty clear, when you visit the village, that the steady stream of tourists means houses are painted more often and better, and that plenty of people make decent livelihoods through the tourism. I grew up in Puerto Rico, a tourist destination par excellence, and remember vividly the government's efforts to educate the population about what is in everyone's collective self-interest: Smile at the tourists! Is it such a big deal? Safeway famously does it in the U.S.; heck, my "customers" (the students at the university) get the treatment all the time. We want you to be happy so you give us your money.

But Easterly has a big problem with this- he thinks its sick. He's really worried about "patronizing attitudes towards Africans." As if a book (his) called "The White Man's Burden" wasn't a patronizing attempt to separate readers' from their money. Or have you noticed the paperback cover of "The Elusive Quest for Growth"? An old-time compass and map, patronizingly reinforcing the illusion that "explorers" read about darkest Africa... and the Amazon jungle too... Cast first stone, etc.

Easterly concludes, "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." But he's so hopelessly misrepresenting the MV or other development projects, which are usually 99% local (with a couple expatriate directors or experts or low-level volunteers or grad students etc.) At FAVL, for instance, 95% of the work on the ground in the libraries and camps is done by locals. And they, like in MV, are the ones explaining to visitors what is going on, and making sure visitors understand the purposes of the libraries and how they work. How can it be dehumaizing for a village resident who works for FAVL (or MV) to be explaining to an outsider what the project is doing in terms of reading or farming or whatever. What exactly does Easterly think is dehumanizing? Does he think a village resident is "dehumanized" when he or she sees a bunch of rich people step out of an air-conditioned bus and point at a goat sitting in a tree and take pictures?

To answer my own rhetorical question, an anecdote; When I lived in a little village in Sudan for a year back in the 1980s, one day a "development worker" came by to promote bee-keeping. He was a wild guy, with a big long beard. The NGO called a meeting, and everyone in the village came and sat around. Everyone politely listened. Afterwards, not a single person grumbled about wasting an hour. They all completely dismissed the bee-keeping as pie in the sky. But that weird khuwaja (westerner) with the BEARD... he was HILARIOUS. He was talked about for weeks. So where was the dehumanization?

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