Talking Travel with global development researcher Chris Blattman

Besides being a professor at Yale and an expert on poverty and global development, Chris Blattman is widely-traveled and maintains an insightful and entertaining blog. Recently I asked Chris a couple questions related to the ethics of traveling in the developing world, and what the average person can do to reduce poverty.

1. These days, more and more people are combining vacations with volunteering. They might pay a fee to live with a host family, work in an orphanage or on a farm, and return home feeling quite good about where they’ve been and what they’ve done. But do these “volunteering vacations” really do anything to improve the lives of people in the host countries?

I call it “development tourism” and I’ve had an ongoing debate on its merits with blog readers. Most of all I think we should recognize that the short volunteering vacation probably does more for us than the recipient. Development tourism has value, most of all because it expands a visitor’s appreciation for life in a poor country. But we should not fool ourselves into believing that we can have much “impact” in just a few days or weeks. Neither should we convince ourselves this is the best use of charitable funds; the cost of the travel alone could find better uses. Plus, it’s not as though there is a shortage of semi-skilled labor in poor countries ready to dig wells and build homes (more cheaply too).

I say, let’s call these what they are: experiential vacations– better than splurges in tropical resorts, but not quite impactful. The distance from development tourist to the true do-gooder is not that far, however. To make the leap, I usually recommend four options: go for weeks (or months) rather than days; go with the intent to learn, not to “save” anyone; don’t displace the local private sector with your work; and identify a local community organization and continue to raise money for them when home. Sending children to school is a fine idea. But helping families or community organizations to set up income-generating activities (a small poultry or piggery operation, a grinding mill, a brick-baking outfit) is inexpensive yet can generate a stream of income for years of school fees.

2. What’s your take on the ethics of visiting so-called “rogue” states– places like North Korea, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and the like? Are travelers helping the local populations or are they inadvertently supporting oppressive regimes?

It’s difficult for me to see how one supports an oppressive regime through holiday travel. Tacit approval? Not likely. Generating income for a corrupt government? The amount is probably miniscule, and if anything supports the local private sector and a civil society far more. Should either die, the fates of these countries’ citizens can only get worse. Besides, any miniscule harm seems likely to be countered by the exposure you give citizens to a freedom fry-eating foreigner, and the changed impressions you bring back with you to your own country. What are we to do? Leave these countries to meet only the oil and mining executives, foreign mercenaries, and Coke bottlers?

3. Billions of dollars pour into Sub-Saharan Africa every year, but the problems there seem as intractable as ever. Is this the fault of corrupt governments, profligate NGOs, or is this simply not enough money?

In twenty years, I may write a book on the subject, and it will still be inadequate, despite three decades of soul-searching and study.

I usually like to make three points, however. First, at the height of the industrial revolution in the US and Europe, per capita economic growth was never more than one or two percent per year. For most countries in most of history, development was and is slow business. And Africa has been decolonized for a mere half century. The high-octane growth in China and South Korea are the exceptions, not the rule. If we maintain four or five percent growth in Africa, as many nations have accomplished in the last decade, then incomes will double every 15 or 20 years. That’s not a bad goal.

Two, the difference between a poor country (say, $2000 per head) and a middle income one (say, $12000 per head) is simple: one has a manufacturing sector and one does not. Something like forty percent of Kenya’s GDP comes from the 5 percent of the workforce: those in light and medium industry. That sector is crucial. Most African nations won’t have a self-sustaining education and health system until they build some sort of industrial tax base. What’s needed to get there? Reliable roads and electricity are a start. Reducing the red tape faced by business can help too. But realistically, I believe real wages in Asia will probably have to rise before it becomes profitable to produce in Africa. The faster China and India get rich, the sooner we’ll see a transformation in Africa. In the meantime, preferential trade and tax treatment by the US and Europe for African goods could help foster industry and technology transfer. So could aid directed to developing commodity processing facilities and other programs that take raw material extraction upstream.

Last, stability matters. Roller coaster aid flows, commodity prices, trade privileges, capital investment, and political instability derail growth episodes before gains can be solidified. Thinking less about levels of assistance and more about volatility is not a bad start. Especially when capricious donor countries add to the ups and downs.

In the end, the debate about too much or too little foreign aid is, in my view, still too detached from reality. Most of the people writing about it have never lived in a developing country for more than a few weeks at a time, rarely leave the capital when they do, and almost never talk to businessmen. I am guilty of this myself sometimes.

4. Finally, I always advise travelers that the best way to improve the lives of the world’s poor is to visit them and spend money. Is it as simple as that? Is there anything else for the traveler who’s concerned about poverty to do?

On a two-week trip to a foreign country, it’s best to keep your goals modest. Actually, make that microscopic. Realistically, any good you achieve beyond supporting the tourist industry will be purely accidental. I suppose you could seek resorts and hotels that support rather than emasculate the local workers, but that’s not an easy thing to find out. Try the development tourism tips above. But I always like to encourage people to consider a sea change: dedicate yourself to a year, a decade, or even a lifetime of learning and effort to end poverty. There are few more rewarding ways to live your life.

Be sure to check out Chris’ blog here.