Summertime Imperialism: Meet sex-trafficking victims and other sad folk

Last September I wrote about so-called Reality Tours to meet victims of sex trafficking. Now it’s August and several people have written me from Bangkok about the tour taking place there this past week. I remember when I first heard about Global Exchange educational tours, while visiting a little storefront in San Francisco in 1989. I have a memory of puzzling over the brochure amidst shelves and tables piled with ethnic jewellery and objects from Other Cultures. The shop on 24th Street is still there, according to a contemporary description:

Global Exchange offers fair trade crafts produced in over 40 countries. Proceeds go toward improving lives in these villages. They have a vast selection of unique items from all over the world. This is a great place to pick up a gift for the person who is hard to shop for.

Gift-buying and helping projects wrapped together: One can see how the founders leapt to the idea of taking people on tours. Global Exchange says We are an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Easily said. A list of current tours includes Caring for Cuba’s Cats and New Journey of a Lifetime to India with Vandana Shiva. Sound harmless?

I had doubts back then and still do, but those in favour argue the tours are a way for folks who know something is wrong with what they read in the media to see the truth. That’s in theory; the question is how easy is it to provide the truth with anything called a tour? Who decides where to go, what the focus of tours will be and which natives will provide entertainment? Is the idea that all middle-class people have to do is arrive in a poor country and set their eyes upon poverty and suffering in order to experience enlightenment? It’s a short jump from that lack of politics to becoming an Expert who knows What To Do about other people’s lives. Imperialist projects to interfere follow quickly.

Although individual tourists may learn good things from conscientious tour guides, a tour is a holiday, a vacation, whether you set out to see the temples of Bangkok or the bargirls or the trafficking victims. You take a tour for your own benefit and pleasure, even if your pleasure consists in feeling angry and sorry and guilty about what your own government does to people in poorer countries. You go to look at exotic others, and you can’t help drawing conclusions about whole cultures based on what you see – just as tourists and business travellers do. If you happen to talk with someone not on the tour agenda – on a bus, in a bar – then you probably feel chuffed that you saw real people and experienced authentic culture. This is all relatively harmless unless you happen to add this experience to your CV, claiming temples, bar girls or sex trafficking are subjects you are expert in.

The tour to Bangkok is entitled Thailand: Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking: Delegation? Delegates are meant to be official or elected representatives. I shudder to think who people on the tour believe they are representing. Why not call themselves what they are – tourists? Those who think themselves sexually liberal may sneer at Christian tourism – aka missions – but there is not so much difference from the point of view of the objects of their solidarity and pity.

My analysis is not purely theoretical. A couple of decades ago, I happened to be working on the Mexico-US border, in a project whose main task was to provide legal advice to migrants who’d crossed the border illegally and wanted to make a claim for asylum in the US. (Yes, another kind of helping). Lots of people wanted to but few could provide the kind of evidence required by immigration authorities. While stories were checked and papers processed, asylum-seekers had to hang around in halfway-houses found for them by the project.

On one occasion, I was at the enormous garbage dump in Matamoros, where hundreds of people live amidst rubbish of all kinds, picking and carting bits to sell outside.  A group of Reality Tourists came up to some children to ask them questions. The children, accustomed to flies crawling over their faces, did not move to brush them off. The tourists, horrified by the flies landing on their own eyes, faced an excruciating dilemma: They wanted to express interest in and respect for the garbage-dwellers at the same time they wanted to run away screaming. But if they ran away, what would it say about the humanity they were fleeing?

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

5 thoughts on “Summertime Imperialism: Meet sex-trafficking victims and other sad folk

  1. Kathryn Mathers

    From my book “Travel, Humanitarianism and Becoming American in Africa”:
    A South African humor writer, Barry Ronge took on Global Exchange’s Reality Tours that had been hosted by AfriCultural Tours in a Sunday newspaper column. He described a travel company that offers tourists “close encounters with communities beset by conflict, poverty and repression” (Ronge 1998). In wonder he asked himself:
    Can there be people whose lives are so untroubled, calm and ordered that they feel a need to get away from it all by traveling to some Third World land to experience at first hand what it is like to live in a country impoverished by political oppression, war and sanctions? I was immediately struck by the notion that for reality tourists South Africa is a prime destination. We have more “reality” here than we can reasonably deal with and skilled marketing could give us complete market domination”.
    I did fieldwork with the Global Exchange tours in South Africa and other tourists and it is a definite characteristic of such travel that it makes the traveler an instant “expert” on their return, belying all the optimistic discourse about “global understanding”/”cross cultural communication” and suggesting that less travel would be better for better ‘global relations’.

  2. CassisP

    I actually went on that tour this past summer and we did not meet any “freed slaves” or victims of sex trafficking. we also did not take tours through red light districts and stare at the sex workers like they were zoo animals. (though some people on the tour went off on their own and visited those places it was not on the agenda)
    we were in Thailand for 10 days and we met with the leaders of many Thai and foreign NGOs and learned about the social and economic issues that are problems in Thailand. we learned about Labor rights, and citizenship issues that migrants and Hill tribe people face…

    yes this was a tour. we were not there to volunteer, we did visit a couple villages (but they were accustomed to tourists and more of a sightseeing event) and we also did a little bit of sightseeing. no one on my trip was blind to the fact that we were tourists. and everyone had different ideas of what they expected to see and learn. I personally wanted more hands on, and less tourism. but I also understand that I went on a tour instead volunteering with a specific group and was only there for a week so I wasn’t going to get more hands on then what I got.

    we all understood that what was crammed into those 10 days was a brief overview of Thailand. but it gave each of us connections and a good idea of where to go and what we could do if we wanted to return and actually do something.

    Who decided what organizations we visited? We did. when we registered for the tour we were asked to make suggestions on places and people we were interested in. and they did the Leg work and made the connections for us.

    all in all it was a Very well rounded tour and it catered to everyone in the group in one way or another.. I learned A LOT of things that I would not have been able to read about. and as someone who is interested in working with abolitionist NGO’s in my future I think that being able to meet with those people face to face, and created those connections was extremely beneficial.

    the purpose of this tour was not for people to come and experience “enlightenment” about the horrors of the world.. it is for the people who are already aware and want to find a way they can actively learn more, so that they are able to find a focus and specific ways for them to get involved.

    I understand where you are coming from with reality tours/missions trips can do more harm than good, acting like it is a Disneyland trip where they get to go and feel bad for the poor dirty children… but I think that you are being very close minded about what these trips really are, and the benefits they have.

    1. CassisP

      oh and as for the “worry” that people go on these tours and suddenly think they are experts in this issue you are dead wrong. I would say every person I talked to that was on my tour recognized that they learned a lot, but were almost overwhelmed by how much deeper these issues went. we all developed a HUGE amount of respect for the leaders and volunteers that we met.
      on my tour there were 3 professors of sociology, two students (one researching her doctorate) a few of social workers, a surgeon (who does a lot of volunteer work in Haiti and Nigeria) a couple people who were simply looking for a more in depth learning experience, and me, a plain old art student, the baby of the group.
      I walked away from this tour with an entirely new store of information. I am fully aware that I have only scratched the surface of the human trafficking issue. but without going on this trip I would be even farther behind in knowing, who,where, when and how I might be able to help in the future.

  3. Laura Agustín

    That’s fine. I did not write about this business because I am ‘close-minded’, however. Rather I have close to 20 years of experience listening to people on this subject. And if you read the post carefully you will see that I brought it up again because numerous people IN Thailand had written to me to complain, or mock, or feel invaded by the tour. I know someone who was on your tour as well. So your personal feelings of how benign and good it all was reflect your experience but do not define an entire area of endeavour. I also notice you don’t say anything about the name of the tour: the ‘delegation’ and ‘ending slavery’.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.