Poverty Aesthetics

Poverty Aesthetics, or the aestheticization of poverty, is another fatal problem resulting from consuming the local culture. Young westerners seek to volunteer in exotic regions in order to gain new experiences and to look for authenticity. Since most volunteers are from the more modern and industrialised countries something new means to them discovering poverty.

Without any preparation and without having the knowledge of a global context, the confrontation of extreme poverty makes volunteers feel uncomfortable and affected. Hence, there is an inner conflict within the volunteer. To overcome their inner conflict, international volunteers usually aesthetisise the poverty and the simple lifestyle as authentic and cultural. International volunteers regard poverty as purity during materialistic times of consumption helping people to achieve the quest of happiness. Volunteers see the locals’ lack of material prosperity as a means for being more happy and more thankful for the little things.

“Yet, when volunteer tourists confront poverty, they often become uncomfortable
and seek ways to negotiate personal anxieties regarding the inequality of the encounter
by aestheticizing the host community members’ poverty as authentic and cultural.”

Mostafanezhad 2013: “Politics of aesthetics in volunteer tourism”.
Annals of Tourism Research 43: 156.

“Studies by Lepp (2008), Simpson (2004), Raymond and Hall (2008), and Ver Beek (2006)
all found that volunteers commonly remark on how happy locals appear despite their lack of
material wealth. […] However, Simpson (2004), Raymond and Hall (2008) and Ver Beek (2006)
all voice concern that volunteers’ ‘poor-but-happy’ (Simpson, 2004, p. 688) remarks may indicate
a rationalisation of poverty as a struggle that locals accept.

Guttentag 2009: “The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism”
International Journal of Tourism Research 11: 546.

Therefore, the danger of poverty aesthetics lies in the romanticisation of poverty. The “poor-but-happy” remarks are well-known among volunteers and tourists justifying the system of total inequality instead of questioning it. They do not see or do not want to see the locals’ poverty as problem. Volunteers see poverty and misery in those countries as natural, for which locals should be happy for. Because for volunteers poverty symbolises a non-commercialised, natural and beautiful world.

“A result of this association is the depoliticization of poverty, where questions of
why or how people became ‘poor’ are overshadowed by the aesthetic pleasure of
the experience”.

Mostafanezhad 2013: “Politics of aesthetics in volunteer tourism”.
Annals of Tourism Research 43: 156.

Since volunteers and tourists regard poverty and misery as natural in developing countries, they put poverty and misery on a level with authenticity. For them authenticity in developing countries symbolises “the traditional” lifestyle and the lack of material prosperity. Therefore, volunteers seek to work in poor facilities to make them feel useful.

“In order to feel involved in ‘real’ volunteer work, volunteers need to be present
at the ‘really’ poor projects serving the most marginalized where they feel they
can truly make a difference”.

Vodopivec and Jaffe 2011: “Save the world in one week”.
European Journal of Development Research 23: 120.

Poverty aesthetics and the search for authenticity harbour the danger of staging poverty. In order to make the volunteer feel good and useful, the facilities and the country are presented mainly with focus on poverty.

Especially when young and inexperienced volunteers are not aware of the downsides of voluntourism, the danger is large. Unfortunately, many volunteers do not care about it. They only care about improving their CV and gaining adventurous experiences through their volunteering program.

Go back to the main page: The Danger Of Voluntourism,
or check our List Of Literature And Articles for more illuminating facts.