Slumdog Millionaire and Poverty Tourism

Last weekend I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Have you heard of it? If you haven’t by now, you surely will soon. Just this week it was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture. (By the way, in case you were wondering, I think it should win Best Picture.)

Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal Malik, an orphan from the Mumbai slum who gets a chance to compete on India’s version of TV’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (For those of you who are worried about a spoiler, don’t be. In the opening scene you find out that he makes it to the final question.)

Of course he is accused of cheating, as everyone assumes there is no way that someone from the slum could know the answers to so many trivia questions. The movie shows Jamal’s life in a series of flashbacks based on the game show questions, and explains how he knew the answer to each question.

It’s a fascinating concept for a movie. Thought-provoking, funny and often heart-wrenching, it is superbly executed.

Anyway, going into the movie, I had a rough idea of what it was about: a young man from the slums of India. Based on that, I figured that there would be a certain amount of poverty-related imagery. What I didn’t expect, though, was how deeply I was affected by the slum scenes.

Scenes of Jamal’s life reveal abuse, prostitution, drugs, violence … all the circumstances that typically characterize a life in poverty. Though it was a necessary part of the story and none of it was gratuitous, at times it was difficult to watch.

I found myself wondering what others in the theater were thinking. Was this the first time that some people in the theater have seen poverty like that? Did they realize they were seeing reality or did they think it was “Hollywood-ized”? Were they as profoundly affected as I was?

Then today a friend sent me this article about slum tours in India. Apparently the success of the movie has led to an increased interest in the “slum tourism” business in India. People see the movie and then want to see the “real thing.” The article contrasts the movie to the real-life slum tour:

While the show offers Jamal a route out of the gutter, the tour makes a beeline for the squalor from which his real-life equivalents strive to escape: the excursion’s “highlights” include a stop at a stall of six toilets that serves 16,000 people and a stroll alongside a river so black and septic that it oozes rather than flows.

I mean, really?? Ridiculously overcrowded toilet facilities are an “attraction”? I have a hard time accepting that people actually pay to see that.

For those of you who’ve been around here a while, you might remember our previous discussion about poverty tourism. This article showed me how conflicted I still am about this idea.

On the one hand, I think these poverty tourists are despicable for engaging in this overt exploitation of other people’s suffering. On the other hand, they are getting a close-up, powerful (and hopefully life-changing) view of poverty that few get the chance to experience.

So here is a question for you to ponder …

In the case of poverty tourism, does the end justify the means?

In other words, is it worth exploiting the poor in their helpless, and often hopeless, situation if it ultimately changes someone’s heart towards the poor?

I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this one.

27 Comments |Add a comment

  1. DDS December 27, 2014

    Perhaps another potential danger is that of being desensitized rather than sensitized. If exposure is *too* comfortable, I suspect I could have an unexpressed sense that I’d seen poverty and it wasn’t *that* bad — not a logical train of thought, but probably a natural outcome of psychological conditioning. If exposure is *too* uncomfortable, it could be overwhelming to the point of paralyzing. So feeling perpetually conflicted in wrestling with these issues might be a good thing, because walking a fine line merits close attention.

  2. Dwight March 30, 2009

    Mike…Your Philippine trip…
    I would suggest taking a lot of clothes for your self or expect to pay at the hotel for them to be washed. It is hot and humid and I mean humid!!!!! Your companions on the trip will be thankful!
    I would give your sponsored child an umbrella maybe some extra ones for family and friends. It rains a lot in the fall…and a sowing kit. I found a store in Manila’s mall of Asia that sold basketballs. I think I played 5 dollars. If you can find someone at church with an instant camera; one that takes the picture and develops them in a minute or two….the kids loved this… you could take pictures at the project and leave them behind for this kids. The Philippine children are very friendly and when you give them something small they will love it. I went to the dollar store and picked up some balloons and other small items to bring. They learn English is school starting in 1st grade so many of the kids will understand you when you speak. Bringing small thinks will help you interact with them. Because many people speak English as a second language it is a very different experience compared to other countries. Fhilipino’s really like Americans and they are very friendly expect to have a really really fun time.

    If you’re single I would be very careful how you interact with the nationals. Unlike other countries English is widely spoken. And the idea of marrying an American is very appealing to many single women inside and outside of the church. It is not a place you want to flirt with the women. A single guy in our group had women literally asking him to marry them. No joke… With that said the Filipino women in the church seamed very Godly and nice. We live a very blessed life in America. I have heard it said that American is the only country that poor people are fat. 40% of Filipino’s do not have adequate food everyday.

    This is a video on you tube from the slums. This Baptist church in the Philippines runs an independent program to help the kids and families that live in the garbage dump.

  3. Mike Stephens March 29, 2009

    Kees thanks for that picture!!! It took me awhile to “see” it. I was thinking what is that red cirle of water around the dalmation and I was like oh it’s the life ring!!! Kees I agree that that picture sums up what the sponsorship experience is like!!! I experience it on a daily basis!!! The fruits of that “rescue” are not always evident right away but as the years go by I know it becomes obvious. Thanks again for sharing!!!

  4. Mike Stephens March 29, 2009


    Dwight you asked the same question I asked so I will answer it!!!

    “The question I would have for compassion is why do they do tours? Why not mission trips to help the poor/ our sponsored children’s church and community?”

    Dwight I agree with you. I have only been on one sponsor tour to Nicaragua. I am going on another one to the Philippines this June!!! My thought was this: I could still visit my sponsor child and do some crazy hard work on the same trip!!! My answer Dwight is they may in the future. But I think the reason is because it is difficult and people do not know what to expect!!! Too many variables and uncertainties is my take on it. I really do not know the answer why. It may be b/c they simply want the focus to be on fellowship and meeting the kids. I mean instead of doing a week of building you visit 3-5 projects to meet more kids. However I know I we go to the project and do some serious work whether it be painting building etc. I agree why not build something useful while the kids watch and we can interact on our water breaks!!! I asked the same question as you!!! I do not know the answer. I made a few guesses and speculations but I really do not know. I think the reason is more people that go on tours need to request “We want to WORK!!!” Once that happens I believe more work will be included in the Sponsor Tours. Dwight I would love to go to the Philippines after this sponsor tour with you and anyone else and build something, mix cement, paint, dig a lot!!! Talk about hard work digging is not easy. I greatly enjoy the tours and am thankful they have them. IT is a different experience than I have been used to in the past in terms of doing manual work like re-roofing a church or mixing cement and pouring the foundation for an orphanage/school back in high school in the Dominican Republic, but my focus is to get to see the kids I am sponsoring and supporting!!! I can easily see how we could add work and the visit and not miss a beat, and even visit projects while we work but that is not for me to decide. I am thankful they even have the tours!!! Let me know what you think Dwight!!! I have never been to the Philippines and my first trip will be this June on the Sponsor Tour. I would love to hear more about your experience what you thought etc. or just other advice you have for me. Things I should do, not do, or bring for the kids etc. this is my email. I think at the end of the day Dwight to answer my question and yours which are exactly the same is because the way the sponsor tour is set up we get to maximize time at the projects and with the kids. I agree that we could do work at many different projects and visit but by just visiting and interacting more relationship is built as opposed to trading that to do more work. While at one of the projects in Nicaragua we helped serve the kids their meal for that day so that was a special ineraction that looking back is better than painting a building or digging a hole for the foundation of a building. That is the best way I can explain to myself why we don’t necessarily have a work oriented trip. But Dwight if it was up to me I would integrate work!!! Some SERIOUS work!!! Like the kind that knocks you out at the end of the day like you were having surgery!!! Dwight I know we could easily organize something like this where we build a boat or a house or whatever for our sponsored kid’s family. This was my idea Dwight: Get some sponsors or just some people that want to go and and travel to meet and encourage the families and kids we sponsor as a group and do something for them. Like build a shed, purchase and build for them their own water well so they always have water. I don’t know what the project could or would be, but I don’t doubt if we showed up with 20 or so willing amigos saying “Magandang umaga po and we would like to help you in any way we can over the next week they would certainly tell us how we could help them with what they needed!!!” I realize we would need to pre-plan with Compassion and co-ordinating where we would be going etc. but it is very doable. The reason I say it is very doable is because the lady that cuts my hair here in Colorado said it only cost her $60 to fly from Manila to Zamboanga where she is from so travelling to each person’s sponsored child’s location would not be hard fiscally. But if we had 20 sponsors and going to 20 different sponsor children’s places it might be a little difficult to help that many doing a work project for each!!! I was thinking if we had 20 people and maybe 5-11 sponsors would could possibly manage to do that. Let me know what you think. My main purpose for going was to simply just to get to see the 3 boys I sponsor in the Philippines. Next trip I would like to visit their projects and meet more of their families, but I am thanful just to have gotten this far with this first visit this June on the Sponsor Tour!!! Anyone who wants to email me feel free and if you would like me to take a gift to the Philippines to leave with your sponsor child I will and leave will leave it at the country office. I did that for a fellow advocate in Nicargua and already have 1 taker so far on for the Philippines!!! I will be packing very light so I will have a ton of room!!! I had an AMAZING youth pastor when we went to the Dominican Republic who packed at 2-3 a.m. the day our plane left for the trip to the Dominican Republic and all he packed was a zip up bowling ball bag that looked like a shoe shine kit and had I think an undershirt and some socks. He wore a pair of clothes I believe and borrowed everything else!!! I didn’t even know until I saw his little bag!!! Well I am so thankful to have gotten to meet my sponsor child in Nicaragua and am thankful God let me pay for the Philippines Sponsor Tour!!! B/c I promised the boys I sponsor I would visit this June!!! So I am glad I didn’t make myself out to be a lier!!!

    I Peter 5:7 “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for YOU!!!”

    ([email protected])

  5. Sri February 23, 2009

    As being a Indian living in US past 10 yrs and being coming from a middle class family myself I’ve seen slum kids and there lives first hand in my life for 22 yrs and when I heard about this movie and all about it I was more excited about it as I always wanted some one to make a documentary on the reality of slums in India and how children are exploited by all means for someone’s greed and corruption. I sponsor a child from India who comes from a poor family where they lived in one of the slums in big cities of India. I would think this slum tourism are fine but I would be more happy if the same people who saw the reality of life in slums and all the hardships those poor people and there kids are going through do something for them. I would one day in my life want to see India or any nation without slums and I would pray endlessly for that day to cause and help as much I can financially. This is a massive work to be undertaken and it comes with lots of hurdles and encountering many issues related to corruption and greedy politicians in some parts of the world. In the end I am so excited Slumdog won so many Oscars and there is some jubilant celebration in India even many in slums even don’t know what Oscar’s mean. Happy for all those kids…you all rock!!!

  6. Vicki Small February 4, 2009

    P.S. Have I mentioned that I left a big chunk of my heart in DR, in October? In two prior visits, a piece of me had stayed behind, but a much bigger piece is hanging around, down there, now. I do pray that I’ll be able to go back, sometime.

  7. Vicki Small February 4, 2009

    Kees, how cool! At the table where they were handing out our Mis Valores in October, Kleber told me they plan to include art in the next one; then he added that he’d like to include music, so I said, “You bet! Then you could throw in a DVD!”

    First, he laughed, then his expression changed to total delight, and he said he liked that idea, and I’d get the first copy! I’m not going to hold him to that last part, but I would love to have it.

  8. Kees Boer February 4, 2009

    Hi, Vicki,

    That was from last year’s Mis Valores. It wasn’t included in the book. Kleber was telling my dad and I about the picture and then he sent it to me.


  9. Vicki Small February 4, 2009

    Kees, thanks for the picture! Is that from a newer Mis Valores than the one we were given at the conference? I also recognize the three men in the photo–Kleber, of course; David…whose last name I don’t remember, and the man with the girl, but I’ve lost his name, too. (I know I laid my mind down somewhere around here!)

  10. Kees Boer February 4, 2009

    Kind of along this line. I got an interesting picture in today. A Compassion child in the Dominican Republic made the following drawing. When she was asked what the drawing was about, she said that the dog in the middle of the river was a Dalmatian dog, who was drowning. The brown dog was a streetdog, who rescued the rich Dalmatian dog. The picture symbolizes the poor, who rescue the rich. In many ways, I feel that if the rich truly get to know a “poor” person, who has trusted Christ as Saviour, it will end up being an enriching experience for the “rich.” Because true riches are in Christ.

    If you click on the link, you’ll see the picture and the girl, who drew the picture.



  11. Vicki Small February 2, 2009

    I’m with Michael: A personal encounter with someone living in such poverty would have the better chance to change someone’s mindset and heart toward the poor. Without the personal encounter, some would gawk and stare, as though the people they saw were not fully human–from there, it’s only a baby-step to “They don’t have a soul.”

  12. konnie.teo February 2, 2009

    I second your opinion on this matter. Personally I have a child that suffers from ADD, and this aspect of child development has left me puzzled on the options that I can take up. Sometimes I am just at my wit’s end.

  13. Becky February 2, 2009

    Amy, I think what you said at the end of your comment is right on.

    “The people that live in these places want relationships, not American tourists.”

  14. Suja February 2, 2009

    The idea of “slum tourism” is perhaps born out of the entrepreneurial need of a few to make hay while the sun shines. Remember a similar theme by Bombay`s Tiffin-carriers when Prince Charles talked them up

  15. Keven February 1, 2009

    I can’t imagine that this would be a hot ticket for the mainstream traveler. I think it may attract people who have a heart for the poor but find it hard to believe people live in conditions that dire.

    If it does become a lucrative part of the travel industry I can imagine it would become Disney-ized. Like the luaus in Hawaii, historical in nature but highly theatrical. If that happens it would be devastating to the truly poor. People find it easy enough to explain away poverty (i.e they are lazy) this would just give people in developed countries an additional excuse to look the other way. “It’s just for show”, why worry about it.

    Lets hope that Kees is right and that the travel industry will figure out that it is far to risky a business to get into.

  16. Amy February 1, 2009

    For the month of January, I traveled to Cape Town and Namibia with my school. The main emphasis of our trip was to become more global citizens through learning about social justice and through service learning.

    In Cape Town we were going to be helping at a place called Africa Jam, a christian camp, for a week. The head of AJ wanted us to meet some of the kids and see where they lived before camp started. We then arrived at their township in their common way of transportation, visited their shacks and church. We got to hang out with the youth in their community. This I did not feel was touristy. We all learned so much and will never forget this.

    When we traveled to Namibia two week later we were under the direction of a different organization. We visited many different slums, arrived in our big tour vans, and just drove through them. This was an awful experience for all 32 students on the trip. We wanted to meet the people, talk to them, get to know them in their neighborhoods, not site-see where they call home. At this point in the trip we had good friends living in the slums of Cape Town and we could not imagine pulling up in our tour vans and driving through their neighborhoods. They would not come here and want to site-see where we live or take pictures of our homes…why are we any different?

    I believe that there are ways to see the slums of different countries and let it change you but I also believe most people are going about this entirely wrong. The people that live in these places want relationships, not American tourists.

  17. Kees Boer February 1, 2009

    I would think that most people that would go see this might not know what to do or who to trust to really help people. I remember when I visited my friends in Miami right after hurricane Andrew hit there that I went and drove to the badly hit area, because I wanted to see it. I remember taking pictures and seeing some people sleep in tents outside. Those people didn’t want to be in that situation, nor seen in that situation.

    I could see it attracting a bit of people to go see for themselves. Many people stop to see a carwreck and television shows where people are being depicted as trainwrecks are very popular. Who can forget Paris Hilton going to jail?

    At the same time, I would think that it could be a bit of a situation that travel agents might not want to advertise too much. As is even shown in that film Slumdog Millionaire, many of the slums might not be very safe areas for tourists to be walking around in. I could see that many of them might be robbed and there are quite a bit of diseases there. So, I could see the travel industry and travel insurance companies not want to deal with the problem of having to deal with the increased complaints and claims they get. So, if people were to start making this into an industry, maybe they’ll do it where they’ll look at it from a distance or from major highways that sometimes travel through slums.


  18. Dustin February 1, 2009

    I worked in the tourism industry in Alaska for the last four years, and when I heart the words “Poverty Tourism”, the picture that comes to mind is the tourists I interacted with and them going “ooh” and “aah”, except what they’re staring at are people trapped by poverty. I think that is just the picture that comes to my mind based on my line of passed work.

    I think that “Poverty Awareness” is a much easier thing to visualize. The feeling then changes from a vacation to an eye-opening look at a real situation that millions upon millions of people are subjected to.

    I think that these “tours” can provide great help for those suffering from poverty. It can shake people out of their comfortable mindset and aid in the effort to care for the widows and orphans .

  19. Michael January 31, 2009

    When I first went to visit the children I sponsor, I met a young girl at a church in the slums of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. I asked her name, and she said she was Emily. I told her I had a daughter named Emily, and showed her a photo. She said, “Your Emily is beautiful, and I hope God blesses her every day of her life.”

    That little girls changed my outlook of the people living in such conditions.

    My point is, I hope the people who go on these “poverty tours” have some real, meaningful contact, and don’t just gawk from a tour bus.

    The concept of these tours sounds repulsive to me, but God can make beautiful things happen in any situation.

  20. Kees Boer January 31, 2009


    I wonder if it would be a good idea at the end of a sponsor tour to put in a plug to join the advocates network.

    Meeting your child really makes the child come alive to you. Before I meet the children, all I have are the letters and the photographs. Sometimes the child looks quite a bit different than the photograph. I can now picture my children how they walk, talk, smile, etc… Then when I get letters from them, many times, they refer to the time we met. It makes a huge difference.

    BTW, coming back to the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” I thought it was a good film. It’s entertainment, but at the same time, you see the slums and what children in India are going through many times.

    I wouldn’t consider it a family friendly film though. It’s appropriately rated “R,” primarily because of language and thematic material.

    I’ll review the film later in the paper.


  21. Becky January 31, 2009

    Hi Dwight-

    In answer to your question about why Compassion does sponsor tours, I believe the main purpose of the tours is to give sponsors the opportunity to connect personally with their sponsored child.

    I can tell you from my own experience that meeting your child face to face changes the sponsorship experience dramatically, both from the sponsors point of view, as well as (I’d assume) from the child’s point of view.

    There is a connection that is made from a face to face visit that can never be made through letter writing.

  22. Juli Jarvis January 31, 2009

    It’s important for the walls to come down between the rich and the poor. We need each other, and that’s why the walls need to come down. We need to be rid of our selfishness, greed and materialism. Sometimes we have to see poverty to realize our own spiritual poverty (as explained so well by Kees above).

  23. Dwight January 31, 2009

    I saw the move last Friday and also found it very difficult to watch; but it was a great movie.
    I have been on 2 sponsor tours to the Philippines. So in some way’s I would consider myself a person that has been on a poverty tour. The group spent 1 day out of 10 day’s with our sponsored children; but we spent most of the time visiting projects and very poor primitive homes. I found most of the people very encouraged that we took the time to visit them…someone cares about me. And many very poor people felt proud of what they had. We might think that’s a little crazy, but what would Donald Trump say about your house or my house? But I feel very blessed at what God has given me. Living in Chicago I see poor people on the streets asking for money all the time. In Manila I also saw many young children on the streets selling flowers for a few cents each. The poor are and have always been exploited by the rich, but we don’t think about it, or know about it. I personally think it’s a good thing that people are taking poverty tours and seeing the real world. Until you see it for yourself it is hard to believe! If you have never been to the housing projects in Chicago or New York… you can not even start to understand the need. If you have never visited the slums of Manila or any other country you don’t even have the possibility of feeling what they feel. As a person who went and saw I can only say it changed my life! I am a better person today because I toured the slums of Manila & Cebu!
    The question I would have for compassion is why do they do tours? Why not mission trips to help the poor/ our sponsored children’s church and community? 🙂

  24. Kees Boer January 30, 2009

    This is a difficult question. One thing that I really appreciate about Compassion is that it will always present the poor with dignity. A clear example are child packets, where the children will look with dignity and not totally run down.

    The whole thing of poverty can be just difficult to deal with. I go shopping at stores like Walmart that are very inexpensive and I buy things for the children there. The products are probably made by really poor people in bad situations, maybe even sweatshops. Should I not shop there, because how the products are made? Or should I continue to shop as frugily as possible, so that I can continue to help children? It’s a difficult question.

    Ultimately, it comes down to why are we helping the poor? I would say that the real poverty isn’t the 6 toilets for 10,000 people. Those are the symptoms. The real poverty is a lack of Christ and so when we help the poor for love for Christ then we are making a difference. Ultimately, someone wealthy in the USA without Christ is much poorer than a little child in a slum in Bolivia that does have Christ.

    I hope that makes sense. It’s a great discussion. Now, I want to go see the film.


  25. Heather January 30, 2009

    I read the article. The guys does put money that he makes from the tours back into the economy there and doesn’t allow pictures. I’m pretty conflicted about this idea too..Huge tour groups looking at the poor? If their hearts are softened or changed or possibly if they use it as a fact finding trip or use it to inspire themselves and others to actually HELP the poor maybe it’d be okay.
    If these people really want to feel and see poverty though why don’t they volunteer with the Mother Teresa Center in Calcutta(or one of the other groups that do this sort of work) and help take care of the sick,dying and lepers? That would be a major wake up call.

  26. Will January 30, 2009

    Poverty Tourism? I don’t suppose I’ve ever really considered the concept, much less the possibility that it could detract from people’s dignity. Much of my experience with poverty outside of the United States has been in Central America, namely Guatemala and to a lesser degree Costa Rica. When I’ve tried to relate what I encountered I’m often unable because these regions rarely receive the media attention that India does. That’s something that makes me wonder how much exposure enables this “tourism.” Still, even if a person travels to one of these regions just to “see” I have a hard time making a call as to whether it’s a good or bad thing. Some see these things because of the media attention and create quite a stir in the kingdom. Still others pass by…

  27. Amber Van Schooneveld January 30, 2009

    Interesting post, Becky! Perhaps it depends on the way the tour is handled. I do think that it would be a good thing for most people to understand the poverty that exists, and seeing it is honestly the best way to make people realize what’s going on in other places and to motivate them to act.

    But I think it necessarily would have to be done in a way that doesn’t create a spectacle of the poor. They are humans created in God’s image and deserve respect and dignity. I would hope any tour would make this the priority.

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