Is Africa a ‘poverty theme park?’

On Sky TV this evening in the show ‘An Idiot Abroad’, Carl Pilkington is sent off to South Africa to build a tin shack for a ‘poor’ family in order that he should do something to help…….he (supposedly the idiot) asks what difference he really makes by being there?  Volunteer Tourism in Africa continues to grow and as this show signifies it has become mainstream- an experience that any well rounded and successful individual must have in their lifetime.

The question is then- is Africa depicted in the Northern media as little more than a theme park?- not only does it have wonderful wild animals but also some startling deprivation that looks really poignant in the holiday photographs (for those with academic interests- see Patrick Chabal book- ‘The Politics of Suffering and Smiling’).  I wonder if I am being harsh after all my own first experience of Africa was as a paying volunteer and many volunteers/tourists go to Africa with the best of intentions.

The problem is that Volunteer Tourism in founded on inequality- it is predominantly a flow of traffic from North to South.  A vast majority of volunteers do not stay for long enough or have enough skills to be useful to local organisations.  Too often they are a burden to be managed.  We need to be honest about this transaction.  Volunteer tourists (however poor they themselves might feel) are sources of power and wealth in the communities and organisations in which they ‘work’.  This power and wealth can benefit the local economy through providing employment and purchasing goods and services but it can also lead to the creation of spurious baby weighing projects and orphanages, to school walls which are painted by new groups of British teenagers every two months and ex-volunteers rushing home to ‘help’ Africa by setting up their own DIY development projects.

In my seminar on this topic in Bradford this week- I asked if a ‘fair trade’ certification in Volunteer Tourism could make a difference in ensuring a more positive local impact can be derived from this trade.  On reflection I am not so sure.  African voices raised in discussion seemed to suggest that no ‘fair trade’ can cut through the inequality that underpins the Volunteer Tourism phenomenon and I wonder if like other forms of ‘fair trade’ it would simply be a distraction from challenging the deeper roots of inequality in Africa?

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