bloggers, charities, and the question of poverty tourism

There was some interesting brouhaha on twitter this week from the blogging world.  In case you aren’t completely entrenched in the blogosphere, I’ll break it down: Heather Armstrong, writer of the mother of all blogs Dooce, went on a media trip to Bangladesh along with Christy Turlington, to learn more about what the charity Every Mother Counts is doing.  Cool, right?

Well, the trip received backlash and a public fight played out on twitter.  I covered this whole spat in detail on ShePosts today, including some of the mocking tweets from a certain blogger known for taking jabs at others, and the backlash that ensued.  You can read about it here.

But I think the whole controversy raised some really good questions about poverty tourism, which is something I think about a lot.  Let me say from the onset that I don’t think that Heather’s trip was a case of poverty tourism.  Heather visited with a reputable charity that has many important end goals and models for lasting change, on a trip that she paid for herself.  But more than that, her audience and reach is SO VAST that I have no doubt it will prompt many to take action.  Heather’s “brand” is not social justice, but I think that makes her the perfect person to represent social justice issues.  Heather isn’t a missionary or an NGO rep, but that’s exactly what makes it so compelling.  She’s a normal (albeit internet famous) person, putting herself out there and choosing to give a crap about global concerns.  I think this will inspire others to do the same.

That having been said, I have seen many examples of tragedy tourism.  I find it really bothersome, though it’s also hard to pinpoint what, exactly, separates legitimate story-telling from slum-touring.  No doubt the level of sensitivity and respect given to local people is a huge factor, but I would also say that sustainability and end-goal is pretty important, too.  While it’s an interesting question to ask in terms of bloggers, I think that it’s a question churches need to start asking as well.  After all, short-term mission trips account for millions of dollars spent each year, and I have definitely seen some trips where the end goal is simply “raising awareness” at the home church level.  Is that the best way to spend resources?  Do churches need to raise money for a group of 12 to travel to Africa just to take pictures, run a VBS, and then come back and do a slide show at the home church?  I’m not so sure.  And lest I sound too judgemental, let me disclose that I have definitely been on trips like this . . . trips where we toured orphanages, ran a VBS, and took an obscene amount of photos of ourselves with African/Indian/Haitian kids.  I’m uncomfortable with this now, but I’ve been there.

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(In fact, I think I’m going to leave it at that, because I conversation on short-term missions warrants much more discussion than an aside in a post about bloggers, and I have lots of thoughts that I want to flesh out in a later post.  But this post on the subject is very thought-provoking).

Back to bloggers.  Charitable organizations have to market their work as much as any organization, and celebrity spokespersons are not a new concept.  As more and more companies are turning to bloggers as brand ambassadors, it is no surprise that some NGO’s are partnering in this way as way.   Compassion, World Vision, and the ONE campaign have all used blogger trips to bring attention (and a boost in fundraising) to the work they do.  I’ve been approached about such trips, and I’ve thought a lot about where I stand.  Ultimately, I think that blogger trips can be very successful for charities . . . if done correctly.  When I heard about the controversy surrounding Heather’s trip, I immediately asked Shaun Groves for a quote, because he has been in charge of leading blogger trips with Compassion for several years . . . trips that have yielded thousands of new sponsors in a variety of countries.  This is what he had to say about the return investment of taking blogging teams to countries where Compassion works:

“I have been cautious from the beginning about these blog trips devolving into poverty porn – a titillating high for readers that results in no real change for them or the developing world.  It's up to me as the leader of this initiative at Compassion to keep our bloggers focussed on explaining what Compassion's ministry children is, how it works, and why it is important, and asking their readers to support that ministry carried out by indigenous Christians through local churches in the developing world. These trips exist to support our fellow Christians in the developing world in their efforts to meet the physical and spiritual needs of children in their communities. If these trips elicit sympathy and not support then we've failed to communicate both a clear call to action and the joy and beauty abounding in the developing world.. . .

Compassion has been awarded again for again for its financial integrity. Maintaining that integrity necessitates that every dollar spent be scrutinized, every return on investment measured in terms of benefit to the children Compassion serves. The blog trips I oversee are no different. They are among Compassion International’s most efficient marketing endeavors – if not the most efficient at times. Thousands of children have been sponsored because of the very clear call to action given by the bloggers we’ve partnered with in the past.”

No doubt this model is highly successful in creating life-changing assistance for sponsored children.  But at the same time, I have definitely seen examples of blogging trips where I have cringed.  This was especially true after I returned home from the earthquake in Haiti.  Suddenly, I was seeing both bloggers and pastors flying into the tragedy site with little motivation or plan of action beyond collecting some compelling stories and photos to use on their blog or in a sermon.   There were a couple of high-profile bloggers and pastors that, frankly, enraged me for the way they publicized a trip to Haiti wherein their soul mission was walking around tent camps, asking people to recount tragic stories, taking pictures, and offering no tangible assistance.  Their blogs were rich with sad stories and compelling photos, but to what end?  It seemed especially insensitive given the fact that Haiti was in crisis mode, with many people not even having their basic needs met.

At the same time, I recognize that storytelling is a vital aspect of change.  It’s one of the reasons I love to read the blogs like Sit a Spell and The Livesays and Real Hope For Haiti and The Apparent Project.  They tell the stories of the people . . . but in the midst of that, they are changing lives.  It’s not storytelling for the sake of storytelling.  The purpose is to move people to care, and then move people to action.

What was the difference between tragedy-tourism trips and the trip that Heather Armstrong took, or the trips that Compassion and World Vision take?  To me, it has to do with intent, with action steps, and with aligning with organizations already working on the ground instead of going as a lone agent.  It’s about using the voice and influence of the internet to inspire others to care, and then giving readers the information they need to act.

What do you think?  Where is the line between effective storytelling and tragedy tourism?


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