What would you say if I told you that all of the work that Westerners do in the developing world for less than 6 months amounts to nothing more than poverty tourism?
Is there a small part of you that might agree?
This is a question that we face at ThinkImpact directly, and we are eager to learn more from the social enterprise community about the lines between poverty tourism, slum tourism, volunteer service, experiential learning, and ultimately, for ThinkImpact, social entrepreneurship training in villages at the base of the pyramid.
The rise of travel opportunities to developing countries where people can experience new cultures and feel like they are making a difference in the world is rising – fast. With it the lines between tourism, service and development have been blurred.
I argue that in some cases this is a detriment to the communities the visitors are hoping to serve. On the other hand, if we don’t travel to these distant places, and don’t learn the ways of different communities (especially financially poor ones), how will we ever be effective social entrepreneurs across the globe?
Learning about other cultures and markets – and the subsequent exchange of ideas, is critical for progress, is it not? We need to be talking, experiencing, and learning. At times the community members in poor societies already have answers that we can learn and at other times we bring innovative thinking to the community. A two-way dialogue is essential between the social entrepreneur and the poor.
As one member of a social enterprise working to deliver clean drinking water noted in their NextBillion post: "This led us to our most significant insight: no matter what the product is or how beneficial it is, education and communication are essential. The consumers we interacted with place a strong importance on their own understanding and first-hand knowledge of the product. So companies must realize that awareness and exposure are not enough to persuade skeptical potential customers. The concept of purity – and its relation to accessibility, affordability, availability and even branding – must be smartly positioned and explained."
If we continue to treat people who live at the base of the pyramid as spectacles or work with them at an arms length, we will miss the boat.
  • What can social enterprises that lead individuals to live and work in developing communities do to avoid the potential harms of voluntourism?
  • Are my concerns over stated?
  • What ideas do you have for establishing more effective cross-cultural understanding?
Join Saul Garlick, Executive Director of ThinkImpact, in the conversation.