June 2015 – We are currently spending time working in the Amazon Rain Forest. It is an indescribable place to live – the intense electrical storms in the evenings, experienced feverously through the bungalow’s netted walls. The calls of nature’s inhabitants indiscriminate of the hour. The soft, electric glow of the fireflies to lull us every night to sleep.
Talking to the staff at the rustic lodge we volunteer for has made us ponder what really is the best way to approach developmental tourism.
Many expats set up businesses abroad with good intentions and dreams of helping the underprivileged.
This lodge is a similar case, where a business has been set up by a foreigner with the intention of bringing funds into an impoverished community. However, it is suggestible that there is a clear contradiction in the mission of this lodge and its current reality.
Let us begin with this simple example. The lodge wanted to rally the village together to make a community vegetable garden where the locals could have sustainable access to vegetables. Sounds great, right? Except that the village refused to help make the garden unless they would be paid for their work with cash, despite the long-term benefit of a large, free and sustainable food source. Perhaps this could be a sign that the owner was not truly aligned with the local’s values.
In another example, the moral challenge climaxes where more local people are employed than the business’s needs ascertain.
Pros: wages are distributed amongst more individuals in the community, creating even access to development opportunities.
Cons: spreading the resources over many individuals means less income per person, which is arguably bad when some suffer from malaria and other common diseases but cannot afford proper treatment…
It is a conflicting situation – if only the necessary number of staff for the lodge’s needs were employed, the business could afford to pay said staff more favourably so that the staff in question could better afford the medicine for their treatment. Theoretically, with healthy and happier staff, the business would have better profits to reinvest into the lodge, attract more tourists, hence creating more wealth generated for the local community. One of the lodge’s guides is dying, another staff member had both malaria and rabies last year and was hospitalised a few days ago as well. But this approach obviously prioritises those who have employment.
It has left us debating the pros and cons of trying to spread funds over many individuals versus using a community project as a business investment for long-term development. Is it better to have short-term social gain by providing many with job stability but low wages and profits, or long-term gain by providing few with the higher wages and meeting living essentials? In this situation, the same amount of wealth is injected into the local community, but with proper staff training, the business could earn higher profits and help a bigger proportion of the community to reach a higher standard.
Thirdly, with the owner physically distant from the business, it is challenging to monitor progress and finances. We were employed partially to track the funds being stolen from the business by the local manager. However, with the owner present, it is difficult to stand by and watch chickens being bludgeoned for the “fun” of it. A defiance of participation in this “tradition” led to village retaliation in the form of a canoe or two being stolen from the lodge (essential belongings when one lives in the Amazon, surrounded by water!).
Finally, the standards of ‘doing business’ are simply different between nations. Greatly unspoken is the unfortunate normality of corruption and bribes in some developing nations. Sometimes this simply means your business suffers for playing legally, while if you don’t, you may be able to do more good but risk your reputation internationally. For some business and NGOs, it can be a hard-line to find.
The challenges of development in local communities by foreign workers are debatable from every angle. They are complicated situations that must be treated with delicacy. What is undeniable, however, is the importance of cultural alignment, respect for local cultures, and a dedication to listening. I personally feel that individuals starting businesses for social gain should set clear boundaries and visions at the start, and have specific goals in how they plan to improve the quality of life and back them by substantial research and local knowledge.
When cultures can synergise to support common goals, everybody benefits.
Please feel free to share your thoughts with me.