Disaster Tourism and Haiti
Posted on February 1, 2010 at 11:43 am
This is an edited and updated repost of a June 2009 post.
As director of D-TRAC I was often asked to orient heads of aid organizations and donors on the tsunami recovery efforts. As part of this there was usually a request to visit temporary camps and villages to see things in person. I was always torn as to the right thing to do. Was it more important for that person to see the situation on the ground, or was it more important for people who have just lost their homes and loved ones to be able to care for their children and rebuild their lives without having strangers walking through their village looking at them.
What is interesting and educational to you may be intrusive and demoralizing to them
Recently, a reader argued that the donor’s needs for understanding and education are just as important as the needs of the aid recipients. I would disagree with that. I strongly believe that the needs of the aid recipients should be paramount, with the needs of the donor accommodated only when and as appropriate. What is interesting and educational to the donor may be intrusive and demoralizing to the people they are trying to help.
Feeling like an animal at a zoo
Perhaps I am hyper-aware of this issue because of my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand in the late 90′s. I was one of the few westerners in my province and many people had never seen a westerner close up. As a result of this I was regularly stared at in the market place with parents pointing me out to their children saying “farang, farang” (westerner). When I sat on my front porch at night cars would slow down as they drove by. When I visited national parks or monuments I had total strangers surround me and pose for a picture with the foreigner, monks video tape me, and entire families stare at me as I swam. All of this made me feel like an animal in a zoo rather than a real person. How then, must aid recipients feel with foreigners walking through their neighborhoods or temporary camps, staring at them, writing notes about them on a clipboard, taking pictures of them, and talking about them.
In addition to being stared at, many Thais wanted to use me as an educational tool for their families or students. Although my job was to train teachers on environmental education techniques, most principals just wanted me to visit their school so the children could see and hear real westerner. There were far too many times when I had to stand in front of a classroom, or an entire school, while the principal pointed out my straight nose, blue eyes, and “gold” hair to the students. This was usually followed by having me speak in English, to the amusement and astonishment of the students.
Seeing people as more than just disaster victims
None of this had anything to do with my skills, my experience, or my job responsibilities, but it had to be endured to get the support I needed to get the job done. How often do aid recipients feel as though they are not respected for their knowledge and abilities, but instead have to endure being viewed as an educational experience or cultural exchange by the myriad of people attracted to a disaster. I chose to become a Peace Corps volunteer and knew that this was a price I paid for that experience. For them it must be worse because they did not choose to become disaster victims, instead it was thrust upon them.
How would you want people to act in your own neighborhood?
Imagine having just lost all of your possessions, your job, and members of your family. How would you feel about the stream of people walking through your neighborhood? There would likely be foreign and national aid organization staff, researchers, TV and newspaper staff, photographers from corporations and aid organizations seeking pictures of you or your children for their fundraising campaigns, dignitaries garnering a little PR, donors wanting to understand the situation or check up on aid organizations, volunteers looking to be helpful and to have a cultural experience, and plain old tourists wanting to see the impact of the disaster. Which of these people would you feel were appropriate and which would you feel were intrusive. How would you want them to behave?
Assessment fatigue in Haiti
By all accounts the Haitians are sick to death of being assessed and – for goodness sake – photographed. And who can blame them? If I had a dollar for every white dude I’ve seen walking around with a photogs vest and big camera shooting pictures of rubble or people bathing, I could totally have a much nicer motorcycle than the one I have now. (One photographer to fellow photographers: guys, how about asking people before photographing or videoing them. How would you like an endless stream of foreigners poking a lens in your face in front of the rubble of your house fordays on end? A little common courtesy?)
In a skype conversation with J., he told me that Haitians were starting to throw rocks or yell at intrusive photographers or yet ANOTHER group of people coming into their area to assess the situation.
Before becoming a disaster tourist ask yourself these questions:
- Is visiting this site crucial to your decision making, or will it just satisfy personal curiosity?
- Is visiting temporary camps and newly built villages necessary, or would visiting destroyed areas provide you with the information or photo ops you are seeking?
- Is there another way to get the information you need or is it possible to partner with other organizations to decrease the number of people entering each area?
- If you must go into the village, how would you want a person of equal standing to act when walking through your own neighborhood, near your children, or watching you in the unemployment or food pantry line?
- Would you want a stranger taking a photo of you in the same circumstances?
- If you want or need to speak with disaster victims, then under what circumstances would you feel it was appropriate for someone of equal standing to take up your time with questions? How would you want them to handle their conversation with you and what follow up would you expect?
Good aid puts the needs of the aid recipients before the needs of the donor
As in all cases, it is crucial to evaluate an aid activity not from the standpoint of what is good for you as a donor, but from the standpoint of what would be good for you as an aid recipient. Understanding that there is a need to gather information and explain the situation, how would you want others to act if you were an unwitting part of disaster tourism?
Millenium Village Project, Part II – The Philanthropic Family
Development Tourism, Thinking out Loud – Tales From The Hood
A protest against orphanage tourism – Lessons I Learned blog
“Poverty Tours Travel a Fine Line” - Christian Science Monitor
“Should Starving People be Tourist Attractions?” – Aid Watch
Slum tourism – from CNN.com
Giving tourists a look at gang culture – LA Times