The Sensitive Slum Experience

SUV and poverty in Chittagong, Bangladesh
Peregrine and I are escorted into the slum by the employees of a world-renowned nonprofit. As we pull up in their SUV, the staff emphasizes that this is a “sensitive” area. They affect the word “sensitive” with an oddly ominous tone.

The team had been working there for two years, and the project had a little more than a year to go before its preset closure date.

Though I had been in dozens of slums and even was forced to travel to one in an SUV before, this time I feel something is off. It is like one of those movies where the unprepared Westerners show up in a place they don’t belong. (When we were describing this to our friends, one of them suggested, “Like Mogadishu?” Yeah, like that.)

The head staffer (who was a national, but not a local) and a local field staffer lead us into the community. They tell us that it is a “ragpickers” settlement.1 The simple tarp-and-bamboo homes are filled with bags of trash. The collected trash is being sorted with precision – at one point we walk across hundreds of plastic bags with identical brand markings; later we step over hundreds of identical water bottles.

Seconds after entering we are swamped by a roar. “Roar” is not an exaggeration – there is no other way to describe the intensity of the simultaneous sound. I turn around to face what I’m afraid might be a mob riot, wondering whether we are responsible and how difficult it will be to extract ourselves. Fifty, then a hundred, then a hundred and fifty men pour out from the narrow connecting alleyways, all speaking at once.

But a brief look alleviates my safety concerns, for on the men’s faces is not anger but rather an intense, excited curiosity. Peregrine, bless her heart, engages with the dozen or so people closest to her, unaware that the crowd now stretches as far as we can see in most directions. (She later explained her impression of the background roar as “I thought they were cheering a cricket game.” :P)

I start talking in broken language with a couple of the guys clutched onto me, while exchanging looks with the NGO staff to try to get a feel for whether we’ve done anything wrong to elicit this response. They look more nervous than we are. The field staffer assures me that it’s okay to keep talking to people. The office staffer remarks, “See, we said this is a sensitive area.”

So that’s what that means.

I try to act cool and keep engaging, wanting to make sure they know that I’m not new to this kind of area. But I am new to this kind of area. So I explain to the staffers – “I have been to many slums, and I’ve never had…this…happen.”

The staffer replies, “They do the same thing when I come, every time, and I am not a foreigner! Sometimes we fear for the safety of foreigners when they come here, but nothing has happened yet.”

Oh, good to know.

After a bit more conversation and zero diminishing of the crowd, the staff decide that it might be better if we make our way to their local office. We walk through a few alleyways. Everyone follows. Literally everyone, a crowd now approaching two hundred people moves as one organism, three-and-four abreast through the narrow alleys. At the end of an alley we find the office door padlocked, and no one has the key. Every space is filled as far back as we can see, all the faces looking at us.

Though we are unable to get inside, a local volunteer who assists the NGO has joined us, and she shares the story of her life with us. She was educated in the capital and speaks some English. Her husband is a ragpicker, but she dreams of one day visiting America.

I ask the field staff if there is anyone in the community who is not a ragpicker. He says no – the men, the women, the children, they all do the same work. I ask, “Say there is a youth, and he wants to take a job, such as driving a rickshaw. Would that happen or…”

The field staff interrupts, “No, that would not happen. They are all ragpickers.”

This NGO is to trying to reduce children’s labor. One aspect of their work is training youths for higher-paying employment in exchange for them allowing their younger brothers and sisters to stop working and start attending school. They say that the project is not making headway here.

After close to an hour of conversation with the staff, we depart. No one in the crowd has left during that time. We exit the slum by a different route, and about halfway back to the SUV the community in general loses interest and turns around. Only a few kids continue to follow. A rock hits me in the calf, not thrown with much force. I ignore it. We get into the SUV, and I think, “That’s not going to work out as a potential move-in destination.”

And my next thought was, “Why did they even take us here?”

As I said, it was a world-renowned charity. I’ve read multiple books by their highest-level management that were theoretically brilliant. They pay well enough to get the best people. And yet…they botched our trip.

Why did they choose to take us into a community where they knew the presence of foreigners created such a disruption? Why did they drive up in an SUV when it highlighted the distinctions between them and the residents? What were they even aiming for us to get out of our experience, when they knew our hope was to move into a slum yet they chose to show us one which looked like an impossible place for foreigners to live?

And most essentially, why did it appear that they hadn’t taken into consideration the benefits or harms to the community by being “shown off” to these foreigners? Did the impact on them matter at all in the decision-making?

For decades there have been conscientious practitioners who have realized that doing “good” is hard, that many well-intentioned endeavors result in more harm than benefit. Those conscientious practitioners have tried to spread their learnings as they could, but only recently has the message gone mainstream.2 In recent years, books like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity have blown open a conversation about the mistakes we make when we try to come from above and help people without really understanding what the people were are trying to help need. But even as these conversations have increased, the majority of practitioners remain unaware of the dialogue, or unable to incorporate it into their practice.

From time to time I’m going to write stories of “charity gone wrong.” This is a chance to add my two cents to the conversation by pointing out ways in which well-intentioned people can miss the mark when trying to help others. Hopefully these little case studies will provide positive object lessons which will help others to do things well.

The lesson from this experience? Everyone you serve alongside is a valuable, self-determining person made in the image of God. They don’t exist to be shown off to whatever guests happen to come by. Visits by outsiders should go forward only if they are carefully planned and mutual. Steps should be taken to reduce relational distance between the rich and the poor, as there is already enough distance there without driving home the disparity. And if you’re unsure whether you can handle the visit well…then just don’t. It isn’t their duty to be put on display.


[1] “Ragpickers” is the colloquial term for those persons, usually children, who make a living by picking trash up off the street and collecting it together for recyclers. 

[2] Two authors who are consistently on-point regarding these issues are are Craig Greenfield of Alongsiders International and Tom Murphy of A View From the Cave

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