Poverty as a tourism attraction: Can travel to a developing country really make a difference?

"This is where it all starts," says Colin Murray, pointing at a couple of pigs snuffling around in a rusty old pen.

As far as beginnings go, it's not the most auspicious. We're in a slum just outside of Nairobi, gathered in a dusty garden behind a galvanised iron shack. The pigs look pretty average, but I soon learn that they're both the realisation of a grand idea for Colin, and a vision of the future for the women who now call them their own.

I'd met an Australian family who were travelling around the country donating money to schools, skipping from town to town in… a helicopter.

Those four women, in whose garden we're standing, are known as "the grandmothers", smiling, friendly people who up until a few months ago had been in serious trouble. All were scraping by far below the poverty line. All had been charged with the care of several young grandchildren after their own offspring had died. They were at breaking point.

And then along came Colin, the director of the charity One Horizon, and his pigs. One Horizon saved them. Rich white tourists saved them.

I'd have to say, I came into today as a skeptic. I'm all for charity, and I'm all for development work in poor countries. What I'm skeptical of is when that development is presented as tourism.

One Horizon, like so many charitable organisations in developing countries, provides a tourism experience. For a considerable sum of money, foreign travellers can serve food at an underfunded school, or go to a market and buy pigs, or help cook at a soup kitchen.

To me there seems something strange about poverty as a tourism attraction. There are so many misguided white saviours out there, people with the best intentions who want to "fix" disadvantage with a few giveaway pencils and a photo with the kids.

You see it everywhere. Just a few days ago, in another part of Kenya, I'd met an Australian family who were travelling around the country donating money to schools, skipping from town to town in… a helicopter. A helicopter. That's probably more than $10,000 they were wasting on their own vanity rather than just donating it all.

And these questionable blends of tourism and good intentions can be found the world over. There are orphanages in Cambodia that are run as businesses, where parents send their kids so they can get expensive presents from tourists. There are schools that are built and torn down and built again in Central America so paying tourists have something to do.


So I turned up in Nairobi today to spend time on the One Horizon projects feeling uncomfortable about the voyeurism of voluntourism. I arrived at Silberbeck school in the poor suburb of Kikuya and felt even more awkward when I saw the kids who'd lined up to sing me a song of welcome as I stepped out of the car like some wannabe star.

I'm nobody's white saviour. I didn't come to Africa to fix it. But today I'm learning, quickly, that it doesn't have to be like that.

One Horizon is a modest operation that provides one meal a day to malnourished children at 23 Kenyan schools. It has also helped those kids' carers, usually their grandmothers, along a pathway to survival, setting them up with pig farms that will pay to feed and clothe the family.

And the experience of meeting those kids and their grandmothers is surprisingly natural. It's fun. It's not long before I've started taking photos of those children at Silberbeck because it dawns on me that they genuinely want to have their photo taken. I joined in the welcome song with the grandmothers because they really were enjoying themselves.

I'm even discovering that the pay-to-volunteer system that seemed so awkward to me is essential. These kids don't need footballs or pencils. They need food. Their grandmothers don't need clothes or help building a house. They need to break the cycle of poverty.

You can only do these things with money. And if that requires rich tourists to turn up and save the world for a few hours, where's the harm?

The truth is that it doesn't matter why you're here. It doesn't matter if you think you're saving the world or you just want a photo with a local kid to post on Facebook. What matters is that you put some money into a cause like One Horizon; that you purchase pigs and feed kids and maybe break the cycle of poverty for a few families in a Nairobi slum.

"The grandmothers always say to me," Colin says, "that they're surprised that people care."

And they do care. They do make some sort of difference. And this is where it all starts.

The writer travelled to Kenya as a guest of the Classic Safari Company. For more on One Horizon, go to onehorizon.net

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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