Poverty Tourism, Poverty Elitism, and Grace

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
India - Kids - 092photo © 2008 McKay Savage | more info (via: Wylio)

When Matthew Paul Turner invited me to be part of World Vision’s Bolivia team this summer, the first thought that went through my mind was, Bolivia’s in South America, right? The second thought that went through my mind was, Why on earth would they need bloggers? What can we possibly do to help? 

I was concerned because every blogger knows that posts about poverty, justice, and giving tend to result in notoriously low stats—not because people don’t care about poverty, but because it’s hard to say anything new or interesting about it.  Furthermore, NGO-sponsored blog tours often produce posts that, as Karimentioned in a comment last week, can  be painfully predictable—you know, “the way that the bloggers are overwhelmed and then uplifted and then come home and, you know, can’t go to Wal-Mart without crying,” that sort of thing.  I wasn’t sure I knew how to write about this trip in a creative way that would inspire readers to action. 

“People don’t have opinions about poverty,” I told Dan, as I mulled over the trip. “A post about child sponsorship isn’t going to be followed by hundreds of comments and thousands of shares because no one’s going to argue against it. Opinion is the air that a blog breathes, and the only opinion people have about poverty is that it should be eliminated.”

Boy was I wrong about that. 

Just a few weeks later, the blogosphere erupted into a heated debate, complete with thousands of comments and shares, about poverty. Well, not about poverty directly, but about how we, the “privileged,” should respond to it. 

Poverty Tourism 

It all started with an article in The Guardian that examined NGO-sponsored blogging trips from a somewhat critical perspective, questioning the effectiveness of writers “being flown to dirt-poor regions to solemnly observe the impoverished in their natural habitats before returning home with an interesting infection and an exalted sense of enlightenment.” The reporter labeled such trips “poverty tourism” and specifically mentioned a recent trip taken by Heather Armstrong, a wildly popular blogger who travelled to Bangladesh with Every Mother Counts, an organization that addresses maternal mortality. 

Well this did not go over well with Heather Armstrong, who took to her blog and twitter account to defend her trip. Her post was followed by hundreds more, from bloggers and aid workers and missionaries alike, including some of our favorites—Nish WeisethElizabeth EstherRage Against the Minivan, and Jamie The Very Worst Missionary

I am thankful for the Guardian piece and for the debate that followed it because I believe that poverty tourism is indeed a problem. Churches are notorious for perpetrating it, usually with expensive weeklong missions trips that often inconvenience indigenous missionaries more than help them. We’ve all known…(or perhaps been)… the high school kid who returns from a week in South America with a camera full of photos, a suitcase full of souvenirs, and a heart full of “first-world guilt.”

In these scenarios, the countries visited are presented as one-dimensionally impoverished, its citizens cast as helpless innocents, and middle-class Americans portrayed as the only saviors who can help. 

What I liked about the Guardian article was that it included some practical solutions for how bloggers can avoid poverty tourism. This, along with additional resources available to churches and individuals alike, can help those who find themselves experiencing poverty for the first time do so in a way that honors the people and places they encounter. 

The truth of the matter is, many long-term missionaries, aid workers, and world-changers were inspired by short trips that changed their perspective forever. The right response to poverty tourism is to educate and reform, not to discourage people from experiencing poverty and reporting on what they learn. 

Poverty Elitism

On other side of the coin we have another phenomenon that is just as destructive as poverty tourism. I call it poverty elitism, and it showed up more than a few times in the tone of the Guardian piece and in subsequent blog posts and comments on this topic. 

All you need to become a poverty elitist is a little more experience with poverty than the people in your immediate vicinity. So, if you’ve spent six months in an orphanage in Romania and your friend has spent one week painting walls in Thailand, you can take advantage of that and  wax eloquent on your poverty expertise while mocking your friend’s pathetic attempt at social justice via “tweets from Thailand.” But if someone in the room has spent 10 years working in refugee camps in Sudan, well then that person trumps you both. If he is a poverty elitist, he will promptly bemoan your pathetic foray into poverty tourism, causally reference all the times he had to carry water for three miles like the women of Darfur, and top it all off with a dismissive comment about Bono. 

Poverty elitism is just as exploitive as poverty tourism, for it turns the poor into feathers in our caps and once again presents them as the helpless victims of well-meaning do-gooders. 

My concern with poverty elitism is that if we belittle people for caring about poverty, if we make them feel small when they attempt to do something about it (albeit clumsily at times), then there’s a chance they will stop. If we’re serious about ending extreme poverty for good, then this is an all-hands-on-deck situation in which we can’t afford to be snobs.   Yes, there will be poverty tourist. Yes, there will tacky t-shrits. Yes, there will be celebrities. Yes, there will be tweets.  But this is one scenario in which we cannot allow the “I-thought-it-was-cool-before-everyone-else-thought-it-was cool” phenomenon to get the better of us. 

Let’s face it. None of us who have the time and the resources to argue about this online truly understand what it’s like to suffer extreme poverty.  

This is not to say that all opinions are equal. It’s important that we learn from those who have extensive experience dealing with government and non-government agencies, and it is absolutely vital that we learn from those who are actually facing the challenges of poverty themselves. The right response to poverty elitism is not to turn around and dismiss those with valuable experience, but rather to cut one another a little slack as we try and figure this out together. 


So I decided to go to Bolivia. I decided to go because I was asked by a reputable organization, because the people at World Vision seem to think I can help, and because I’ll be able to work stories from my trip into my next book.  I don’t feel a need to defend that decision any further. 

As I consider how to proceed, I am fortunate to have as inspiration my sister, Amanda. 

Amanda went on two-week trip to India when she was in college. She went with a group from school, the sort of trip that some might label “poverty tourism." But Amanda really connected with the people and the organizations there, and so she returned a few years later for a six-month stay….and then returned again for two subsequent visits. It seems that the friends she made among the indigenous missionaries and the poor they serve simply can’t get enough of her. They love her like a daughter, beg her to return, even called her on her wedding day.

When I visited Amanda in Hyderabad back in 2006, I had my “poverty tourist” moments—being shocked by the slums, throwing up all the time, taking an absurd amount of photographs, crying like a baby when the rickshaw driver ripped us off—but Amanda never looked down her nose at me or chided my efforts, even though a few weeks before she had held a dying little girl in her arms and a few weeks later she would severely burn her leg on a motorbike.  

Amanda could have one-upped me. The missionaries could have one-upped Amanda. And the leprosy patients could have one-upped us all. But that never happened. Instead there was a sense that we shared a common brokenness and a common grace, and that there is no place for judgment or pity among friends. 

What I love about the ministry of Jesus is that he identified the poor as blessed and the rich as needy… and then he went and ministered to them both. Poverty tourists need only look to the beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26) to be reminded that the poor are not one-dimensional victims in need of our help. Poverty elitists need only look to the story of the expensive perfume (Mathew 26:6-13) to be reminded that our Lord is more impressed with genuine love than effectiveness.  

We cannot buy the lie that there are those who need and those who supply when the frightening and beautiful reality is that we desperately need one another. 

That’s what I love about the Kingdom: 

For the poor, there is food. 

For the rich, there is joy. 

For all of us, there is grace. 


So what's your take on this whole "poverty tourism" debate? Have ever been a poverty tourist or a poverty elitist?

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