Poverty alleviation requires serious rethinking

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/4 17:58:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The tour guide stopped the minivan in front of a hut in the middle of nowhere. He gestured us to get off the van when he opened the door of the hut. "Welcome to my home," he said. Inside the structure that seemed to be built entirely with bamboo, tree branches and dried hay, there was nothing but what seemed to be a bamboo bed covered with a grass mat. I wasn't even sure whether it was a bamboo bed because it was so dim inside that you couldn't see things clearly. I have seen better slums than this shack. While we were going back to the van, the tour guide even got a bucket of water from a faucet in the yard and irrigated what seemed to be nothing much more than weeds in the front of the hut.

This was the second day of our trip in Siem Reap, Cambodia. And this "extra bonus" was offered to us after we went to a waterfall and a temple with a reclining Buddha in a hilly area with this tour guide, including lunch at a restaurant he took us to.

The tour guide announced this special visit on the way back. "Sir, I am going to take you to my home. A big home with a big yard where you can see the stars," he addressed this directly to the person he thought most likely to be interested - my husband who happened to be the only person among the eight-person tour group to have a Western face.

This was clearly a trick to gain sympathy from tourists in an attempt to get bigger tips. I was surprised by the way he presented the narrative. He could have made it more believable by pretending that he had to stop at his home to pick up something important and we were only invited to visit by chance. But perhaps the unpolished plot had worked well in the past.

Behavior like this is quite common in Cambodia. At a floating village, there appeared to be poverty among the dilapidated wooden houses perched on the tops of stands made of bamboo and tree branches needed to survive the rainy season. A donation box was placed at a prominent spot in the village for tourists to give money to the "education fund" for the local children. And some vendors pushed tourists to buy pencils and notebooks at ridiculously high prices as gifts for the local children.

But my tour guide, a fresh college graduate, told me the villagers make as much money from fishing as people working in the city, say, as a tour guide. And the education fund would go into the pockets of "community leaders" rather than the kids.

It's not only Cambodia of course. People in many poor countries where tourism is a major part of the economy know how to make some extra bucks by seeking sympathy.

Earlier this year when I travelled in Costa Rica, the tour guide told our group of 11 people made up mainly of Americans that he had never been out of the country because he couldn't afford the air fare. This alone prompted at least a few people to voluntarily double his tip from the listed rate in the brochure his company handed to us.

While the tour guide may have never been abroad, a quick calculation suggested this wasn't an issue of affordability - based on the official tip rate and his workload; he can make at least $300 per week from tips alone.

To be sure, these countries are poor. And these people have much lower incomes than most of the tourists. And in many poor countries, people who are struggling to survive tend to turn to selling anything available to them to make money. If poverty can be sold, why not? What's interesting is the conformity of the stories around the world.

Poverty has diverse appearances and its effects on people vary from place to place. But when it comes to selling it to tourists, some stories always work better than others.

For example, it's easier to solicit donations to send poor children to school than to raise money to pay for the dowry for poor young men so they don't have to share a wife with their brothers any more. The former fits with most people's expectations of poverty - and ways to help alleviate it and the latter is too uncomfortable a subject for many people to contemplate. Poor people know this very well.

When I told my Chinese friends about the tricks of the tourist trade, they say these are only for Westerners, and Chinese are not likely to take the bait.

It may be true. Before Chinese tourists started to travel around the world, tourists in poor countries were mainly Westerners, for whom these tricks were designed. But it won't be a surprise if a narrative or two has been created to catch the unwary Chinese person, especially given the growing population of Chinese tourists. After all, people who have never lived in poverty can never really understand poverty. But we all like to think of ways to help reduce poverty.

On an individual level, this may not be a big problem. No matter where we choose to donate our own money, the positive or negative effects are all limited. But when it comes to the anti-poverty policies and programs, the consequences can be serious.

All these years, everyone from the US to the World Bank has been criticized for the effectiveness of their anti-poverty programs. This is mainly because the programs were designed not to satisfy the real needs of the poor but the needs the rich think the poor should have.

Now, as China is picking up some of the responsibility to make the world better, this may be a good lesson to keep in mind.

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com


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