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Poverty as Entertainment: Slum Tourism, Entrepreneurs, and Goodwill Ambassadors

A few years ago I was in Sierra Leone, just a week after Angelina Jolie, in her capacity as  Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, had visited. The owner of the Crown Bakery, the cleanest and best place to eat lunch in downtown Freetown, proudly pointed out the chair in which she had sat. Her visit, every minute of which was videotaped, highlighted the poverty and misery of the country’s children, the lack of the most rudimentary health and sanitation services, and the ferocious savagery of the civil war, in which rebels made a habit of cutting off people’s limbs with machetes.

As much as I admire and respect Ms. Jolie’s dedication to bettering the lot of the world’s poorest people, her sojourn caused visible harm to the initiative in which I was engaged, to improve the business environment and attract foreign investment to Sierra Leone. Her televised interview on CNN in 2007, in which she tearfully recounted the “nightmare” of meeting Sierra Leonian amputees, was not the kind of thing that attracts stampedes of potential investors. And make no mistake: it is productive investment far more than humanitarian assistance that will save Sierra Leone and countries like it, if indeed they can be saved.

Over the past day or two the Twitter web site has been, well, atwitter with comments on a Nairobi-based tour operator that appears to have a successful business running bus tours of Kibera, one of Africa’s biggest and most squalid slums, which the company bills as “The World’s Friendliest Slum,” and also “the city of hope.”   The tour, which costs $35, includes visits to an orphanage, a bead factory, and a typical resident’s hovel, and offers face to face encounters with real slum-dwellers (security guards in discreet attendance). According to the web brochure, the experience allows tourists to “see the ways the people of Kibera improve their lives. Become inspired by their resilience and friendliness.”

The comments on Twitter have ranged from puzzled to outraged: “Isn’t there something of an irony about making money by highlighting poverty?” “What in the friggin hell?” “DESPICABLE,” “SHAME SHAME!” “What??”

Kibera Tours may have been the first, but it is not the only company to offer such tours. Victoria Safaris, a larger Kenyan tour company, bills its Kibera slum safaris as “pro poor tourism,” which its website describes as a “new noble idea…a means of creating awareness of the plight of the poor in Kenya with an intention of wiping out the slums in Africa, reducing poverty by engaging the poor [to] participate more effectively in tourism development in Kenya.”

Well, maybe. The main beneficiaries, obviously, are the operators who make a living running the tours. What’s wrong with that? It’s  business. Kibera Slum Tours is owned by two lifelong Kibera residents together with a Dutch woman who has spent a great deal of time in Kenya and provided a lot of the management and marketing know-how.

If, as many people have suggested, slum tours rob the poor of their dignity, one would expect the slum-dwellers to pelt the tour buses with stones rather than greeting them with smiles. So far this hasn’t happened. The tourists no doubt spend a few shillings at the bead factory and buy souvenirs or soft drinks from some of the vendors who congregate at every stop on the tour. None of this will transform Kibera from a slum into a posh neighborhood, but so what?

Adam Smith wrote, “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” He was right. Business people operating in their own self-interest generally contribute far more to the public good than those whose explicit aim is to do good. Bill Gates, even before he got into the charity racket, improved the lives of billions of people around the world far more than, say, Kofi Annan.  The world needs a lot fewer UN Goodwill Ambassadors and a lot more bold and savvy entrepreneurs like the guys who run Kibera Tours.

Disclosure: No Positions