Traveling with kids to countries with high levels of poverty raises a host of questions. How can we make a positive impact in the places we visit? How should we talk about racial and economic inequalities to our kids? This is a subject close to my heart. I’m a mom of a curious 2-year-old, an immigrant, and a professor studying international development.
Ground yourself in respect, not generosity
My number one rule is simple. Treat everyone as an equal. In discussions about this topic, people talk a lot generosity and kindness. Being kind and generous is great. But, if we don’t first anchor ourselves in respect and equality, these values might lead us to perpetuate stereotypes and positions of privilege.
For example, poverty or slum tourism. Globally, there are a number of companies that offer tours of slums, favelas and other places of poverty. Cape Town, Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro all have vibrant slum tourism industries. These tours might seem like a great idea to expose your kids to economic inequalities. But, are they respectful? Do they start from a place of equality? If you were in a situation of poverty, would you want people coming into your home to stare? To take pictures of your kids?
These types of tours actually have a long history. In the late nineteenth century, ‘slumming’ was a popular leisurely activity amongst the upper-classes in London. (More recently, the industry had a big uptake after the release of the motion pictures Cidade de Deus/City of God and Slumdog Millionaire.) Poverty tourism can promote what academics like to call ‘othering’. They teach us that people that live in these contexts are different. This can perpetuate inequalities and stereotypes instead of stopping them. Also, the money from these commercial ventures often doesn’t actually make it into the hands of the poor.
Don’t inflate your power to do good (or assume you can’t make things worse)
It is also important not to assume that your visit will magically make people’s lives better. This both inflates your actual power, and overlooks the very real possibility that you could cause harm. While tourism is often good for local economies, it is not a magic bullet for development. In some cases, it might actually be harmful. Tourism, for example, can increase income equalities. It can push the poor out of urban centers. And, it can have devastating impacts on the environment.
This is also true for ‘voluntourism’ programs that offer you or your kids a chance to ‘help’ in a low-income setting. Before embarking on such a program, do your research. There can be a real dark-side to voluntourism. Such programs can also contribute to a ‘white savior complex’. This a term coined by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole to describe ‘big emotional experiences that validate privilege’. Young people are taught that they can ‘save’ people, even if these people didn’t ask to be saved. At the same time, the structural causes of poverty are totally ignored. As an educator, I’m not opposed to voluntourism per se. But, we should to be honest about its main purpose: to expose privileged kids (and adults) to hardship.
Finally, language matters. The term ‘third-world’ is both outdated and offensive. Its historical roots go back to the Cold War period. The ‘first world’ was the United States and its allies. The ‘second world’ was the Soviet Union and its allies. (Wait, hold up, there is a ‘second’ world!?) The third world was non-aligned and neutral countries. Today these categories are meaningless. The term ‘third-world’ is also offensive because it implies that there is more than one world. Remember that concept of ‘othering’ I talked about before? This applies here as well. The term also overlooks the huge inequalities that exist in ‘rich’ countries like the United States.
Be present and don’t avoid talking about economic inequality
What can we do to avoid these traps and truly engage in the countries that we visit with our kids? Perhaps the best thing is just to be present. See all that a community has to offer and don’t be afraid to get out of tourist areas. You don’t need a guide to walk into a slum or low-income neighborhood. Instead of taking pictures, talk to the people you meet. Buy a treat from a street vendor. Kids are awesome at breaking the ice.
When talking to your kids about their experiences traveling, don’t avoid the elephant in the room. Address economic disparities head-on. If we truly want to do something about growing economic inequality, we cannot ignore it. Inequality is not something we can wish away by pretending it doesn’t exist.
Finally, be mindful that a desire to help doesn’t mean you are actually helping. Do your research about the companies you engage with and the sites that you visit. Don’t assume that your presence and money is always helpful. Always start with respect and equality.
Interested in other ways you can teach your kids to be mindful while traveling? Check out our article on How to be Eco-Friendly on Your Next Family Trip!