6 Reasons We Don't Do Poverty Tourism

by Caren McNelly McCormack, President & Co-founder, The Kilgoris Project

June marks the start of the busy travel season for The Kilgoris Project and many other NGOs like us. It’s the time we get to show friends, donors and supporters the work on the ground. It’s our chance to connect our Western donor and volunteer base to our work in Kenya.


Sadly the setup of these trips varies widely among organizations. Some groups travel to work, encourage, teach or live among a local group. Others just skim the surface of a charity’s activities. It’s the worst of these trips that spawned the term “poverty tourism”.

Picture tourists in air-conditioned vans gliding through slums snapping photos but never stopping to breathe the smoky air or venture into a soiled latrine . Or imagine a single mother trotted into a hotel conference room to share her story of being given a new home while not being offered the coffee and pastries her audience enjoys.

It’s these slick travel experiences that miss the mark of what international aid travel can do. Following are a few explanations for why we strive to give our travelers and in-country partners a different kind of interaction.

Poverty Tourism:

  1. Demeans those we serve. How can we say we genuinely care for the people who receive our services if we don’t consider them worthy of a regular conversation? When we don’t give our beneficiaries a genuine voice, we agree with their oppressors that they are somehow less than the rest of us.
  2. Weakens our local staff and boards. There’s a parallel here to the first point. When we believe in the capabilities of our in-country partners, we deem them worthy of face-to-face interaction with anyone. We are proud to introduce them to visitors. We don’t need to craft or manage experiences.
  3. Minimizes discomfort. It’s ok to be uncomfortable, especially if this discomfort is just normal life for most of the people on this planet. We live in a world filled with poverty, injustice, oppression and need. This should make us uncomfortable, because the child in all of us knows that it really isn’t fair. We only build our compassion by acknowledging this and experiencing it for ourselves. There’s something to the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
  4. Masks reality. I’ve heard travelers come away from a scripted experience with one of two thoughts. These people are poor and sad. Or these people are poor, but happy. Both get the first part right; neither hits the truth. The lives of the world’s poor are not different than our own. They are complex. They have high and lows, good days and bad days. They have best friends, embarrassing uncles, family baggage, funny anecdotes and inside jokes. When we don’t really connect with people, we miss the intricacies of real life.
  5. Negates reciprocity. Contrived adventures don’t leave room for the travelers to get more than they give. We grow when we meet different groups of people and experience different culture. Drinking chai in the small hut of a new friend challenges us to rethink who and how we welcome people into our own homes. Sitting for an hour with women beading under a tree makes us question our prioritization of time and friendship.
  6. Squashes hope. This might be the biggest mistake of all. Covering or sanitizing reality squashes hope. It’s when our visitors really connect to the nitty, gritty lives of the people we serve that they get excited about their own role in the process. “You mean I can send someone to school this year,” realizes a 14 year old. “I can pass on my experience to help these women,” realizes a small business owner. When travelers leave with hope, they come home and get the rest of us a little more involved in making the world better.

So what does The Kilgoris Project hope to do by taking travelers to the other side of the globe? Simply this, we want to build relationships. Many people argue that international aid travel is a waste of money. It is a waste of money if travelers merely skim the surface, if nothing genuine results from the process. But if real people build real relationships, then the experience is priceless. That is The Kilgoris Project’s goal for this summer and beyond.