Note: A commentary published in the New York Times on Aug. 11, 2010, written by Kennedy Odede, challenged the practice of humanitarians visiting impoverished regions of the world. Odede charged that “slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from.” Fr. Don Vettese, founder and president of International Samaritan, issued the following response to Odede’s commentary.
I read the commentary, “Slumdog Tourism,” by Kennedy Odede, with a sense that he might benefit from a slightly broader view of how people learn. As the founder and president of International Samaritan, an organization which serves garbage dump populations and also conducts service trips for hundreds of people annually, I have found “tourism” to not only be effective in increasing the awareness and sensitivity of the visitor to the plights of the poor, but also as a catalyst to service and substantial financial support. We send prospective donors on tours of areas where we have projects under way, not only to witness the living conditions we are trying to improve, but also to learn what can be accomplished when individuals and larger organizations (governments and not-for-profits) partner to improve the lives of the severely poor.
I also deplore a voyeuristic tourism that exploits the plight of the poor, rather than improve on it. But there is no greater teacher than experience. Our “tourists,” as Mr. Odede may call them, have donated tens of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of service as a result of their service. We can point to nurseries, schools, medical centers, homes, micro-loans, food programs that came as a direct result of the “tourist” experience. Do all of the visitors donate funds? Absolutely not. Do some of them walk away with their photos? Yes.
I suggest that Mr. Odede ask the recipients of the hundreds of homes, the thousands of students educated at our schools, the parents who are able to leave their infants and children in our safe and clean nurseries, and the tens of thousands of others who have been helped by our “tourists” if “they” think the fact that on occasion someone was in any way offended outweighs the good that has come from the visitors? International Samaritan has professional research measuring the objective impact of our presence, and there is no question that the good accomplished far outweighs any unintended consequences of our presence. We have also discovered through sound research that some of the “tourists” deepen their understanding of the complexities involved in severe poverty, and in more community service and financial contributions as a result.
It was only when I witnessed the horrible indignity and squalor of the Guatemala City garbage dump that I felt compelled to establish our humanitarian organization. Thousands of others have shared that experience and made a profound difference in the lives of the people we serve, and it came about because hearts were touched through direct contact. I suggest Mr. Odede re-focus his own lens and try to see the obvious and profound good that often results from direct contact with severely poor people.
Father Don Vettese, S.J.