Debate on 'poorism' misses the point

BANE OR BOON? Workers in Nairobi's Korogocho slum create clothes and accessories for Ethical Fashion Africa, a not-for-profit group. "Poorism" - the business of taking wealthy tourists off the beaten track to see how the destitute of the world live - is a market niche that has grown a great deal in the past 10 years, and not just in Africa.


    Oct 31, 2014

    Debate on 'poorism' misses the point

    ONE of the thriving sectors of the tourism industry in Kenya is also one that no government would want to put on brochures inviting visitors to the country.

    For a small fee, companies operated by entrepreneurs like young rapper Henry Ohanga offer guided walks through Kibera, a sprawling slum in the heart of the capital. Tourists get to see up close the mountains of garbage and dense rows of low-slung wattle-and-mud houses that have made that township one of the most notorious urban settlements on the continent.

    Mr Ohanga is an investor in "poorism" - the business of taking well-off tourists off the beaten track to see how the destitute of the world live. It is a market niche that has grown a great deal in the past 10 years, and not just in Africa.

    Visitors to Brazil can join guided walks through Rio's toughest favelas; tourists in India get to see how Delhi's street children spend their nights; and in Johannesburg, for a fee, a visitor can explore the inner reaches of Soweto, home to thousands of struggling mine workers and their families.

    Poorism's critics are many. Not least among them are the inhabitants of these hard-bitten urban enclaves.

    Lillian Wambua - who ekes out a living selling mandazi, a local doughnut-like delicacy, from a tiny shack in Kibera - detests having her young son photographed by tourists.

    But she says she dares not raise her voice because visitors are often accompanied by local toughs working as guards for the tour companies. "I feel bad when people come from other countries to see how poor we are," she told the Daily Nation recently.

    But Mr Ohanga, who himself rose from one of the city's toughest neighbourhoods to become a popular rapper, offers a staunch defence of his tours. "We don't take people to Kibera to show how poor the residents are," he told me.

    "We want them to see the other side of the slum. When they go, they realise that locals are clean, hard-working, normal people who simply lack good job openings. As a result of these tours, many projects have been launched to improve their livelihoods."

    Both critics and defenders of poorism make fair arguments, but in many ways this debate is beside the point. Kenya isn't a poor country, it's the economic powerhouse of the Horn of Africa, with a gross domestic product of US$55.2 billion (S$70.6 billion) last year, classified by the World Bank as a middle-income nation.

    But its national wealth is very poorly distributed and the political elites who determine national priorities have never made better housing standards a priority.

    Still, the Kenyan government has taken steps to make its urban slums a bit less distressing. Last month, hundreds of young people from the National Youth Service - a government programme that offers high-school graduates vocational training - were dispatched to Kibera to unclog drains, build communal toilets and set up a waste-disposal system.

    Laudable though that may be, the effort scratches only the surface of the real problem - a yawning gap between rich and poor. The top 10 per cent of the richest households in the country control 40 per cent of the country's income.

    To address such problems, East African countries with good political and trade ties - such as Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda - should pool resources to invest in the sort of major infrastructure projects - port expansion, efficient transport links - that attracted investors to Asia. Some efforts have been made in this direction, but clearly not enough.

    Every year, tens of thousands pour into the cities to find work. Everywhere in Kibera, there are signs of the bustling economic activity that prompted The Economist to declare that Kibera "may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet", with peddlers selling everything from bananas to phone credit cards and water.

    This enterprising bent has inspired people like Mr Ohanga, who says his business is helping others climb out of poverty. "I try to impress upon visitors to start projects here and promote existing ones," he told me.

    It's a worthy enough effort, but it would not be necessary if the government promoted more policies designed to make "poorism" a thing of the past, instead of a growing concern.