In an age of spring breaks and cheap airfare, it seems as though everyone knows someone who has vacationed abroad. Consider the girl on your Instagram feed whose family went to Costa Rica over the summer. She posted photos of herself conquering the death defying zip line, and the fruity drinks the hotel bartender made for her on the beach. What about your classmate that volunteered to build houses in Uganda with his church group? He posted a series of pictures on Facebook documenting the construction, many featuring local Ugandan children that grew attached to him over the course of the week. Both of these scenarios seem harmless on the surface, but there is a serious underlying issue.
This exploitation of poverty online has become pervasive in our everyday lives. The boy volunteering in Uganda never mentioned that he did not know how to build a house, or that the roof collapsed the day he left to go home. Unlike his Facebook followers, his lack of construction experience did not go unnoticed by the Ugandans who had to later repair that house with their own limited savings. In the case of the girl who went to Costa Rica, that girl was me. I never posted about the friendly and charismatic zip line instructor, or about the bartender who recommended delicious local restaurants to my family. These were people working to make ends meet, and I used them to flaunt a lavish lifestyle to my friends at home. I was growing immune to poverty exploitation until I traveled to Ghana and learned about the ramifications of spreading poverty tourism online.
Poverty tourism is a global issue, particularly in developing countries, and its effects were made very apparent during my time in Ghana. Westerners’ ethnocentric tendencies and their desire for exoticism has led developing countries to commodify their culture and poverty in the form of tours and adventurous activities. Recently, poverty tourism has been perpetuated by technology and our generation’s obsession with social media. Social media users interact with international poverty on a daily basis in varying ways and levels of severity without even realizing it, as demonstrated by the scenarios above. However, once in Ghana, I was conditioned to enter every situation with a heightened sense of cultural humility and consider my role in perpetuating poverty tourism.
I arrived at the Mognori Village in Mole on the eleventh day of my month long trip. This was not the first village we visited but it was the only one we were explicitly told was designed for tourists. We were greeted by our guide, a Ghanaian man who worked for a local tour company. Unlike those living inside the village, he wore dark Levi jeans, a Hollister polo shirt and Nike sneakers. As we entered the village, I was struck by how clean it was compared to the past villages we toured. There was not a single water sache in the gutters or river of liquid waste on the ground. He led us to see the shea butter compound where many of the village women worked. It was a small room inside of a mud hut and we were given plastic folding chairs to sit on. Laminated posters with each stage of shea butter production was passed around the room as the guide tried to sell us small tubs of prepackaged shea butter.
Next, the guide seemed to emphasize the stereotypically exotic aspects of the village by purposefully bringing the group to the medicine man. The guide brought out each of his herbs and remedies, and each treatment was more shocking than the one before it. He told us that in the event that someone broke a limb, the same limb would be broken on a chicken and the two would heal together; “if the chicken did not heal then neither would the person.” As he told us this, children had gathered around us and laughed along with his stories. I remember thinking their laughter was the result of his exaggerations as the guide claimed that he was not allowed to touch the medicine man’s ingredients, but he would “make an exception” for our group. As we walked back towards our bus at the end of the tour, I overheard a classmate ask our driver, Anim, what he thought of the village. He confirmed our belief that the medicine man was a cultural figure and that most Ghanaians seek professional medical help when it is needed. It was both surprising and discomforting to see someone confused by the explanation of their own culture.
As more tourists continue to visit Ghana and other developing countries, it makes sense that communities have commodified their culture and poverty in an attempt to reap economic benefits. Poor villages are not in a position to turn away tourists and their willingness to spend money. In addition, just as tourists expect stereotypical experiences in developing countries, those living in poverty have stereotypical expectations of Western tourists. While driving past poor Ghanaians living out of recycled shipping containers, I could see them watching Nickelodeon cartoons on a static television. In fact, I met Ghanaians who wanted to follow me on Instagram and message me on WhatsApp. They have access to the very social media that Westerners use to exploit them. Their poverty has not sheltered them from the rest of the world, especially the United States, as many people tend to think. It is the responsibility of tourists to be respectful and possess some cultural humility, or openness, in these countries in an effort to deter an economic reliance on poverty tourism.
My stance on poverty tourism and cultural exploitation was solidified when I returned home from Ghana. I found that I was irritated by the questions from my friends and family rather than excited to talk about my trip. “Were you the first white person they had ever seen before?” “How did they build those roads?” “Did you feel safe?” Did you feel safe? That last question stuck with me for several weeks as I was still trying to process my experiences and personal growth. I could not help but think that such a question was the result of misconceptions about Africa and the portrayal of African countries online–there was never a moment that I felt unsafe. It was during this personal reflection that I realized changing my interactions on social media could be one small step towards improving the perceptions of poverty and culture developing countries.
My name is Abby Sickles, and I graduated from SUNY Geneseo in December 2020. While at Geneseo, I studied International Relations and Economics. Over the course of my three-and-a-half years at Geneseo, I was involved with the Roosevelt Institute, a student-run think tank, where I served as Policy and Advocacy Coordinator / Co-President. I also interned with the Adopt-a-Business program, and had the opportunity to intern with two U.S. Congressional offices, as well as the Council on Foreign Relations. In May 2019, I studied abroad in Ghana for a month as part of the course, SOCL 378: Global Development in Ghana, with Dr. Joanna Kirk. This Fall (2021), I will be attending The Graduate Institute (IHEID) in Geneva, Switzerland to pursue a Master’s degree in International Development. My interest in international development is a direct result of the time I spent in Ghana, and I am excited to learn more about this area of international affairs. Photo credit: Abby Sickles.