'Poverty Porn': Education Or Exploitation? Slumdog Millionaire was a big winner at the 81st Academy Awards. But the film has been criticized for being filled with cliches and stereotypes about India, and for its graphic images of the horrors of life in the slums.
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'Poverty Porn': Education Or Exploitation?

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'Poverty Porn': Education Or Exploitation?

'Poverty Porn': Education Or Exploitation?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. "Slumdog Millionaire" won lot of acclaim on its way to the Academy Awards, where it won eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director for Danny Boyle. But there is also a building wave of criticism that includes the charge that the movie's graphic depiction of slum life in Mumbai amounts to poverty porn - that scenes of children being crippled and blinded to make them effective beggars, portrayals of prostitution, torture and crime manipulate the emotions of the better-off viewers and transform squalor into feel-good.

If you didn't grow up poor, how did you learn about poverty - from books, movies and TV? Have you gone on a so-called slum tour to a garbage dump in Mexico, a favela in Rio de Janeiro or on a bus trip to a impoverished township in South Africa? Our phone number 800-989-8255, email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the second in a series of conversations with economists and business leaders on the crisis, how bad can it get? But first, poverty porn, and we begin with Priya Rajsekar. She's a freelance writer born in India, who now lives in Ireland and joins us from the studios of RTE Irish radio in Dublin. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. PRIYA RAJSEKAR (Freelance Writer): Good afternoon, Neal, and thank you for having me on the show.

CONAN: And you know about the slums of Mumbai firsthand. You lived in that city, but…

Ms. RAJSEKAR: Oh yes. I traveled by train through them every single day for five years.

CONAN: And, I wonder, as you sat in a theater there in Ireland watching "Slumdog Millionaire," how would you describe the reaction of people seeing that slum for the first time?

Ms. RAJSEKAR: Yeah, that's a thing. That's the main point that I'm trying to make here because it's such a stereotypical image of what people would expect slums to be. But, you know, there is a lot of pride and dignity there in those slums, which are not represented in the movie, and that's the biggest, you know, disappointment that I had.

CONAN: Was it inaccurate portrayal, do you think?

Ms. RAJSEKAR: It was an incomplete portrayal. I wouldn't say it's inaccurate. Like, for instance, if a child closes her eyes or he switched off the lights, he might think it's night time. It's a truth for him, but is it the whole truth? And is it the absolute truth? Now, that's the question.

CONAN: Well, an absolute truth is a lot to ask of any movie.

Ms. RAJSEKAR: Definitely, yes.

CONAN: I wonder, would you regard "Slumdog Millionaire" as poverty porn?

Ms. RAJSEKAR: In some sense, yes. If I can put it this way, I think it's a very, very clever exploitation of an opportunity, a need in the slum dweller's life because, you know, pride and dignity are defining qualities of humanity and unless there's a dire need, no person is going to compromise their dignity. And in the movie it's not a cast of actors that has played the slum dwellers. It's the slum dwellers themselves.

And a for a few thousand or even less dollars, you know, they agree to do what they did, and they agreed to become what the director wanted them to become. And if you saw them on the red carpet a few months later - and just terribly difficult to juxtapose the real live children that we saw on the red carpet with their screen portrayals - they were not westernized or schooled, but they still had a dignity about them that befitting of a celebrity. Now, that spirit was far more uplifting and credible to me than the one that I saw in the movie.

CONAN: But don't you think when people see a movie like "Slumdog Millionaire" it can teach them about a side of life, about a place they're not familiar with and probably would never otherwise see?

Ms. RAJSEKAR: I don't think that Danny Boyle intended to educate his audience. He was there making a commercial movie and it was a very, very clever execution, a very cleverly executed collaboration of commerce and art. I don't think there was any intention to educate the audience there. I definitely don't believe that.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Chitra Divakaruni is a novelist and professor in the creative writing program at the University of Houston. She joins us today from the studios of member station KUHF in Houston, Texas. Nice to have you with us.

Professor CHITRA DIVAKARUNI (Creative Writing, University Of Houston): Hi, nice to be here.

CONAN: And do you regard "Slumdog Millionaire" as poverty porn?

Prof. DIVAKARUNI: No. I have a slightly different take on that. The first thing I want to point is that the nature of art itself is somewhat voyeuristic, isn't it? Because it invites us into the bedrooms, and bathrooms and the dark recesses of the individual heart. And paradoxically, that is its power, which leads to empathy and, ultimately, we hope, to social change. And I do believe that Slumdog does that. I don't think it's poverty porn because the protagonists are treated with respect and affection.

CONAN: And you've also written that there is a long literary and cinematic, for that matter, history of, well, better-off writers writing about people who live in terrible conditions, I guess talking back all the way to Charles Dickens.

Prof. DIVAKARUNI: That's right. And here Danny Boyle is following that same picaresque tradition for heroes who are in a really difficult situation, and they are smart, they're savvy, they make the best of their circumstances, they outsmart the villains and they emerge, ultimately, not as slumdogs, but as top dogs.

CONAN: Priya Rajsekar, couldn't the same criticism you made be made about, well, Oliver Twist growing up with Fagan and asking for more, please?

Ms. RAJSEKAR: I'm not sure about that comparison, but what - the point I would like to make here is that, you know, if he wanted to show the spirit of the slum dwellers, did he have to cover them in human waste to do that? There are so many real stories of bravery out there. You might find a boy of seven being the sole supporter of his family of five.

Or a woman, a single mother may be having two full-time jobs and, yet, raising her three children and having a smile on their face at the same time. Now, those are the kind of real life story that you could have there. You do not have to, you know, strip a slum dweller of his dignity to just bring out human spirit and teach - give the world a moral science lesson.

CONAN: But isn't there a difference, though, between a documentary film in which you might be able to tell the stories? And a book of - he took a fiction book and made a movie out of it.

Ms. RAJSEKAR: I'm not an expert on films, but I'm looking at this movie as an Indian and as someone who can empathize with someone in the slums. If you visit these slums, you know, I have visited a couple of times, and you'll find that the first thing they do is they rush to get you a chair, maybe from a neighbor, or to go down to the shop down the road and get you a cup of tea because, you know, we all have our dignity and pride.

And if the world's best cinematographer were to go to Danny Boyle and say, can I have a candid camera on your house and record all your private and messy moments and show it to the world? Would he say yes for - just to be cinematic? And, you know, from a point of view of art, I doubt it. I really doubt it.

Prof. DIVAKARUNI: Well, if I could add something. I wanted to go back to Neal's point that the movie doesn't show the whole truth, and art is not - that's not the purpose of art. I think it wants to show a slice of the truth, but to show it powerfully and accurately. And I think this movie has done that.

One of the things I do is I'm on the Houston board for an NGO called Pratham. And Pratham has been working for 14 years in many slums in India - including the Dharavi slums - and almost everything, every terrible thing we saw in the movie I have heard stories of equal or worse.

So yes, on one hand, there is the dignity. But on the other hand, we can't say that these terrible things don't happen. And I want to say that unless we show them, where is the hope for change?

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. We're talking about the issue of poverty porn, raised most recently in the case of "Slumdog Millionaire," of course after it wins the Academy Award for Best Picture. But it's been raised about other films of the recent past.

Well, here's some pretty good ones: The TV program, "The Wire," which of course took place in Baltimore, "The Harder They Come," which focused on Jamaica, "The Joy Luck Club" about China, and "City of God" about the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Those are examples of what some other people cite as poverty porn. 800-989-8255, email us, talk@npr.org. Marshall(ph) is with us. Marshall calling from Pocatello, Idaho.

MARSHALL (Caller): Hi, Neal. Great to be on the show. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call.

MARSHALL: I just had a comment. I lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil for about two years, right next to favelas, and it was just such an awesome experience. I grew up lower middle class here in the United States. But still, that is such a much greater lifestyle than so many people around the world have. I would be considered very rich by the world's standards.

And I think that any type of exposure that the industrialized world has to something like that is incredibly important because we who have the resources -how are people like that supposed to be able to drag themselves out unless, you know, people that have resources in industrialized nations are exposed to things like that?

So, whether it's completely accurate or not is, you know, up for discussion, but I think any type of exposure that we can get like that is only educational to us - as long as, you know, we're willing to educate ourselves concerning that fact.

CONAN: You had experience first-hand. Have you seen a film that displayed that kind of exposure convincingly to you?

MARSHALL: No, I really haven't. And I've been trying to get to "Slumdog Millionaire," I really have. I very much want to see it. School is taking my attention at the time, though. But I think that, you know, I've known people that, you know, in my similar situation that have also experienced that, as well, and it's just so important that we understand things like that and understand them correctly.

As far as the film, I very much want to see "City of God." I've yet to get to that one, but I also want to see "Slumdog Millionaire" quite a bit, too.

CONAN: It might be easier to find "Slumdog" at the local Cineplex. Thanks for the call, Marshall.

MARSHALL: Thank you.

CONAN: What about his point, Priya Rajsekar, that any exposure is a good idea just to give people a picture of the very different lives that so many people lead?

Ms. RAJSEKAR: I don't think - like I said, you know, at the very beginning, I'm not making an attempt to criticize the way the movie was made. It's a masterpiece, no question about it. I'm just trying to say that it has exploited people who have been in such dire need that they've compromised their own dignity just so that the world can learn from it.

Now, we're using them as guinea pigs, kind of. You know, they are the heroes and heroines of this movie. They gave the movie its soul, and what do they get in return? They've been called dogs. So need I say any more?

CONAN: Isn't that a name that they sort of give themselves?

Ms. RAJSEKAR: I don't think so. I've heard people from the slums on Indian television contradicting that and wanting to know how they got called dogs in the first place.

CONAN: Let's get another caller up, Greg(ph) from San Jose in California.

GREG (Caller): Yes, hi. I want to bring up a point that I don't think it's an either-or on the dignity spectrum. I work for a microfinance company, Opportunity International, and we deal - we see the poor every day who have great dignity, but as…

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

One of your callers makes - that's tremendous dignity in the simplest things. But the poor do suffer indignities, and I think the movie tried to bring out -in extreme - to show both sides of that within the same individuals. And you know, with a little bit of luck and some really hard work, the poor do work their way out with a lot of ingenuity and creativity. And of course, organizations - microfinance organizations like ours and others - try to help that happen.

CONAN: All right, Greg. Thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

GREG: Yeah.

CONAN: And Priya Rajsekar, I wanted to thank you so much for your time today.

Ms. RAJSEKAR: Thank you very much, Neal. Nice talking to you all.

CONAN: Priya Rajsekar is a freelance writer, born in India, wrote a piece about "Slumdog Millionaire," which she believed was to some degree exploitative, for the Irish Times and joined us today from the studios of RTE Irish Radio in Dublin.

When we come back, we're going to be talking not just about the depictions of slums and squalor in movies and books and television programs but also slum tours that some have taken.

Former NPR correspondent Eric Weiner will join us. If you've been on one of those tours, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Poverty porn is hardly a new term. Over the years, it's been lobbed at ad campaigns for humanitarian groups, at books and television programs and at many of the paid tours that offer travelers a close-up view of life in slums. We'll talk more about that in just a moment.

If you did not grow up poor, how did you learn about poverty? Have you gone on a so-called slum tour - to a garbage dump in Mexico, a favela in Rio or a bus trip to an impoverished township in South Africa?

800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Chitra Divakaruni, who teaches writing at the University of Houston's creative writing program and wrote an op-ed titled, "Is Slumdog Racist Poverty Porn?" for the Los Angeles Times. There's a link to that piece at npr.org/talk. And let's bring Eric Weiner into the conversation.

Eric Weiner you may remember as a former colleague her at NPR, and he wrote a story about slum tours for the New York Times. He's also the author of "The Geography of Bliss," and he joins us today from our bureau in New York. Hey, Eric.

Mr. ERIC WEINER (Author, "The Geography of Bliss"): Hi, Neal. Good to be back with you.

CONAN: Nice to have you back on the program. And when you were reporting the story, what did people tell you was the reason they wanted to go to places like garbage dumps in Mexico or favelas in Rio de Janeiro?

Mr. WEINER: I think in a word, curiosity. These were travelers who usually have seen a bit of the world, and you know - let's take Mumbai, for example, you know, in India. You land at the airport there, and you know, as - just about when the plane's just about to touch down, you can see the slum, the Dharavi slum, right off of your wingtips there.

And I talked to a lot of people who said that they were curious what is going on there because that was usually the last they would see of the slum. They would then take a taxi to their, you know, five-star or four-star hotel. So they wanted to find out what life was like inside these slums.

CONAN: And is that - it is handled in different ways.

Mr. WEINER: Right.

CONAN: You describe, for example, a situation where in Mexico, people are brought out to a church, and they're asked to help. And they're not charged anything, but they're told something of the way people live their lives. And they're asked to help them, and they experience something that sounds pretty real.

Mr. WEINER: Right, and there's a spectrum here. And I think the critics of slum tourism - or poorism, as it's sometimes called - I mean, their argument is that this is voyeurism. In fact, I think a lot of the arguments sort of echo the discussion previously about poverty porn.

I mean, it basically comes down to do you believe that exposure to poverty is good or bad? And the people who think these tours are wonderful, or good at least, or worthwhile, say: Look, people are seeing what happens in the slums. They're taking a tour for an hour or two. Some of the money is going to trickle back into the slums. They might feel inspired afterwards to write a check to an NGO or even to volunteer.

On the other side, you have the critics who call this voyeurism - that you know, you don't need to walk around a slum, snapping photos in some cases, to know that there's poverty there. You know, you can stay in your home and write a check and help people that way.

CONAN: But how would you find out about it?

Mr. WEINER: Well, we know there's poverty, right? I mean, we know it's there, but we don't know exactly what it looks like. And, you know - I've been thinking about this a lot - and I feel that it really comes down to how it's done. I mean, is it done with dignity and respect? Are the groups small, or is this sort of a big tour bus that's sort of barreling through the slums? And do any of the profits really make their way back into the slums?

Now there's a group in Mumbai called Reality Tours and Travel. It actually predates "Slumdog Millionaire" by a few years, but I understand that their business is up at least 25 percent, as you can imagine. And they claim that 80 percent of their profits go back into the slums.

Now the catch here is they, as of last year when I spoke with them, they have not earned any profits. And the British co-owner of this tour company was, sort of, called out by the Indian media about this. And he said you have a point, and so he went out of his way to start a community center. He teaches English, and even chess, in the slums.

And, you know, I think there is some benefit, if it's done right, if it's done with dignity because, I mean, all tourism travel is, to some extent, voyeurism, right?

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. WEINER: I mean, we're getting out there. We're seeing things. As journalists, you know, you've been there. What's the difference between a journalist with a microphone and a camera or 10 tourists walking through a slum?

The British owner of Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai - they don't allow photos anymore. They did at first, but he said there were some complaints from some of the people living in the slum: You know, why are they taking pictures? What are they going to do? There was some grumbling about oh, they're going to sell the photos for money back home in America. So they stopped that. So, they are sensitive to some of those complaints.

CONAN: Well, I wonder, Chitra Divakaruni, anybody who's lived in New York or Washington, D.C. or London or any place there's a lot of tourists - you feel like you're a native. And you see the busloads of tourists come around, can feel slightly resentful at times because they get in the way. You also realize they're the lifeblood of your city, but nevertheless, that's a mild resentment. You could see that, in some circumstances, it could turn to anger if it's mishandled.

Prof. DIVAKARUNI: Yes, certainly. I think - I agree with Eric - I think how it's done makes a great deal of difference. And that takes me again back to the movie because I think how it was done was fine, and the results can be very positive.

And again just from the movie, I think, you know, one of the really interesting things that happened with the "Slumdog" kids - the kids who acted from the slums in the movie - after the movie, Danny Boyle said that okay, I'm going to buy you some flats. I'm going to buy you flats, one flat each for each family.

And then the Maharishi Housing Development Authority came in and said no, we'll give them the flats. And in some ways, it was this tourism through the medium of film that alerted even the people living there to that problem.

So I think sometimes the slum tourism might make people who are in authority over there say, oh, so many people are going to come and look, maybe we should begin changing conditions.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Wendy(ph), Wendy with us from Berkeley, California.

WENDY (Caller): Hi. I've actually just come back from living in Rio de Janeiro for a year, and I accidentally became a slum tour guide for Lenny Kravitz and his entourage.

CONAN: Accidentally?

WENDY: Accidentally. My dissertation research involves interacting with community organizations. And I was at one of them, when, all of a sudden, the residence association got a call and said you'll never believe who's coming to the favela. It's Lenny Kravitz.

CONAN: And how was that handled? How did it go?

WENDY: It was very interesting. I'm actually working on an article right now about the experience. But what I'd like to address is just the role of photography in the slum tours.

The reason I got involved was because within the entourage of 12 that came to the favela, I was the only one who spoke both English and Portuguese. So I was the only person who could interpret for the residents who were there, to let them know hey, Lenny Kravitz would like to take a picture of you. And the reaction of the residents to - and I've seen many other favela tours, and I can say that the reaction of the residents is very mixed.

Some of them welcome it, and they like the exposure. A few of them recognized Lenny Kravitz and were very excited to see him. Some said well, you can take a picture of my storefront, but I don't want to be in the picture. Some said well, I'll be in the picture but not my face. Some said you can take my picture, but you must pay me a dollar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, there's that entrepreneurial spirit.

WENDY: Yes. And I'd also like to say that I agree with both of your guests in that I think respect and dignity is the key. But the difficult part for the prospective slum tourist is how can you really tell whether or not the tour that you're getting into is actually going to give something back to the community? All of them say they do, but I can tell you from my own experience that that is also varied.

CONAN: Eric?

Mr. WEINER: Well, I mean she's right. They all do say that they put some money back into the slums. In fact, as she mentioned it, slum tourism started in Rio de Janeiro in the favelas about 16, 17 years ago now. A young man named Marcelo Armstrong figured out that he could make money running tours through the favelas, which, of course, right - are in the hills overlooking the Copacabana and the beaches? And he claims he's open to community center, and he's doing good work there.

The question is how much and how much gets back? And, you know, it doesn't have to be in the form of charity. It could be some sort of artist cooperative where you sell - they sell paintings to the tourists. My understanding is that, at first, in Rio de Janeiro there was a lot of begging that went on when these wealthy tourists suddenly entered the favelas. By that, over the years, that has stopped and now there's more selling going on.

And it also, you know, begs the question of whether these tour operators deserve to earn a profit, as well. I mean, they are mostly for-profit businesses. There are few NGOs that are running tourists, but most of these are for-profit companies.

CONAN: Wendy, thanks very much for the phone call.

WENDY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Adalice(ph). I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. I worked for two years among the very poor in rural Brazil. I have found that there is nearly no way to explain to us Americans how the rest of the world lives. The average response is we work hard for everything we have. When you see it, you begin to understand.

And we also have this from Dennis in Whidbey Island in Washington. During a business trip to South Africa in the early 1990s, I saw signs for crossroads and other townships, although, I was intensely curious, I decided to respect the residence and refrained from visiting these areas, since I felt that my presence would both be obvious and invasive. And, Eric, I don't think there's any question that lot of people would feel uncomfortable going on one of these tours.

Mr. WEINER: Yeah. And it's usually, you know, more seasoned travelers. It's not a first-time traveler who's going to head to a favela or to a slum. But I want to raise one point here and that's, you know, I talked to probably dozens of people who've been on these tours and almost to a person, everyone said they were struck by the unexpected joy that they found in the slums.

That's not to say that there weren't difficulties there and there isn't really terrible living conditions by any standard, but almost everyone told me that it was, you know, really better, in some sense, than they expected. Now, maybe this has a lot to do with their expectations of what life is like in a slum that we think of it as sort of misery incarnate.

And, actually, it is - and I've been in the slums in India, certainly, and, you know, it is life. It is urban life writ large and writ very crowded. But there are ups and downs. And there are people who've wired their homes for electricity. And they're watching satellite TV. And they're eating meals. And they're just doing it a lot more publicly than we do and without any of the luxuries, but everyone was struck by this sense of happiness, almost, in some of these slums.

CONAN: And here's an email, I think this one is for Chitra, this from Priya(ph) in Sacramento. I wonder if it would be considered poverty porn if the film did not win awards and was just an obscure art film. I think any movie with that much success would seem exploitative. Is "Slumdog" a victim of its own success in that regard?

Ms. DIVAKARUNI: Well, you know, in my L.A. Times article that's how I started off, by saying success spawns uproar and great success spawns great uproar. So, certainly, that is the case. And I wanted to compare "Slumdog" to an Indian movie that was made in 2007. The name is "Traffic Signal," and the director, Madhur Bhandarkar, shows very similar situations. It's about the poverty. It's about the slums. It's about the organized crime that takes place and the manipulation of people who come into the slums, both slum dwellers and tourists.

And it went on to win a best director award in India, but perhaps because it was an independent film and didn't do so well at the box office, there was hardly any uproar about it. So I think that is a very accurate comment.

CONAN: So, if we just stay to the arthouse, we can stay pure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Chitra Divakaruni, thank you so much for your time today.

Ms. DIVAKARUNI: Thank you. It was a pleasure being here.

CONAN: Chitra Divakaruni, novelist and poet. Her more recent book is called "The Palace of Illusions." She's a professor of writing at the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program and joined us from member station KUHF in Houston. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get another caller on the line, Amy with us from St. Louis.

AMY (Caller): Hi, I'm calling because our daughter was adopted from China as an infant and when she was three in 2005, my husband and I took her back to China for sightseeing. Really, it was more for us. At three, she wasn't that engaged. But our tour group visited an area called the Hutong area in Beijing, which is a very poor, crowded urban neighborhood. I think they're being knocked down now for high rises.

But our tour group went on a tour and it wasn't really in our control, it was part of the itinerary. But I could not help by being fascinated learning about how those families lived, and I did, however, feel a bit voyeuristic and probably have some guilt feelings about it. Moreso, I was interested, just fascinated in learning about how a real Chinese family, who was clearly poor, live their lives, considering what my daughter's life might've been like.

CONAN: And will you feel that it might be important to bring her back at a time when she might be able to absorb a lot more of it?

AMY: Oh, absolutely. I missed 85 percent of the talk the family gave because I was chasing her around in the courtyard. So my husband did more of the information gathering. But, yes, we'd love to do that when she's older, for sure.

CONAN: Three-year-olds have their own priorities.

Amy: That's right. That's okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's okay. Thank you, Amy.

AMY: Thank…

CONAN: And let's see if we can go now, this is David. David is calling from San Francisco.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

CONAN: …three-year-olds have their own…

David, are you there? David?

DAVID (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Turn your radio down and go ahead, please.

DAVID: Yes. My name is David Chamberland(ph), and I'm an advocate of philanthropic travel, rather than poverty slum tours.

CONAN: What's the difference?

DAVID: Well, the difference is the intent. Our company partners with high impact nongovernmental organizations that are helping local residents get past their daily march for survival. And the whole philanthropic travel experience is built on the intent of connecting at the heart.

CONAN: Connecting at the heart. So you bring people to slums or very poor areas of the world and say, these are people you're helping and here's how to help them?

DAVID: Exactly. So we partner with humanitarian outreach projects, 501(c)(3)s that are operating in any destination in the world, in the developing world, in eastern Kentucky. And the whole intent of the trip is to connect the donor traveler with the host beneficiary. And vet that project, build confidence and trust that any donation that's used will be used in an accountable, transparent and responsible way.

CONAN: Eric?

Mr. WEINER: Yeah, I mean, David is not alone in this actually. There's a whole field called voluntourism. And I'm pretty sure that's what he's talking about.

DAVID: No it isn't.

Mr. WEINER: It's not? What's the difference?

DAVID: The difference is philanthropic travel is a fundraising learning experience. Voluntourism is a service experience.

Mr. WEINER: So you're not - they're not - they're not working on projects?

DAVID: They're not working on projects.

Mr. WEINER: Okay.

CONAN: Well…

DAVID: Donors learning and connecting at the heart and then building a confidence to give to the 501(c)(3).

CONAN: Okay. And, Eric, there are other, as you say, voluntourism where people go and work on (unintelligible).

Mr. WEINER: Yeah. You actually, you pay to work, basically. You pay a fee for your vacation and then you go to wherever, and you're tied up with a local NGO usually, and you work for your three weeks. And what David's talking about, I have not heard of that. That sounds interesting. You're essentially, I guess, trying to decide whether you want to really put some money into a certain area or project.

And you get to see it firsthand and build a relationship. That's interesting, as well. There's a group - a church group in Mazatlan, Mexico, where you don't pay anything to take a tour of the garbage dumps there. However, people were picking through the garbage, looking for something valuable. But you bring the rag pickers food, or fresh water or something like that. And, certainly, a case can be made that that kind of slum tourism is perhaps more worthwhile because you're doing something.

CONAN: And with this email from Al Martinez, my husband and I lived in Mumbai for almost three years. I was not happy with the slum tours. The tour through Dharavi seemed just voyeuristic. Yes, the tours can help, but there are so many legitimate organizations who actually work on a micro enterprise level that can be worked with.

The separation between westerners and Indians is already huge. Even on a tour you don't ever know what really happens there. How strange would it be to have a group of poor Indians travel through your neighborhood taking pictures? And thank you for that. Eric Weiner, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. WEINER: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And when we come back, we're going to be talking about, well, how bad can it be? This is NPR News.

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