Tourism, a Tool for Sustainable Development
By Gail L. Moaney
Counterpart International: A Pioneer in the use of Communications and Sustainable Tourism in the Battle Against Poverty, whose mission is to give "people a voice in their own future through smart partnerships, options and access to tools for sustained social, economic and environmental development."
Counterpart International began 41 years ago when three friends, Maurice "Red" Silverstein, President of MGM International; his wife, Betty Bryant Silverstein, Englishborn leading lady in Australia's first internationally acclaimed film, "Forty Thousand Horsemen," and Stanley Hosie, an Australian Marist missionary priest, came together to help Pacific Island societies devastated as a result of World War II bombings.
Originally named The Foundation of the People of the South Pacific (FSP), Counterpart's gross budget now exceeds $120 million and in 2005 delivered more than $800 million worth of humanitarian relief assistance around the globe. Mr. Lelei LeLaulu, President and Chief Executive Officer of Counterpart International, shares his thoughts with Gail Moaney, EVP Ruder-Finn Travel & Economic Development.
Q: Counterpart International seems to do things differently from other non-governmental organizations; why is your view different from that of others in your community?
LeLaulu: We grew out of the South Pacific essentially listening to people define their needs. We then went out to find what they needed to build themselves a life of dignity, which is why we consider ourselves an "access organization." I do not believe that there is such a thing as poverty all I see is a lack of access to credit. I do not recognize ignorance I see a lack of access to information. I do not recognize disability we now have the means to give all people at the margins of society access to technologies, which allow them to lead lives with choices and with dignity.
For example, one of our earliest programs in the Pacific was with lepers who were physically and figuratively far off at the margins of island societies. We gave them access to the tools they needed in order to bring themselves into the center of society by teaching them how to build boats.
As anyone who has lived on an island can attest, a boat builder is definitely one of the most revered members of an island community. In the tiny Pacific kingdom of Tonga, we gave micro-loans actually, they were so small they could be more like nanocredit to teach blind people how to farm pigs. And as anyone who has lived on a Pacific Island can tell you, pork is the most expensive and ceremonially desirable of meat, and for someone without the blessing of sight, noisy pigs are easy to find and contain. So this is what we have done since giving people access to what they really need for a life of dignity.
Q: Why should we be interested in assisting countries when we have so many problems to deal with here at home?
LeLaulu: First of all, American citizens think international assistance is a very good thing. All surveys indicate that the vast majority of Americans would like to see this country assist less fortunate nations on our planet.
Apart from this deeply felt sense of philanthropy, assisting poorer countries is very much in the best interest of this country. Very crudely, international development means we are raising standards of living of people in faraway places to the point where they are rich enough to buy American goods and services.
We help wipe out disease in developing countries because airplanes can transport deadly diseases into the heart of America in hours. We help people become aware of their rights and help them make their communities more secure so insecurity is not exported to our shores. But basically, Americans insist we help the less fortunate countries simply because it is the right thing to do.
Q: Given the importance of international assistance, why then is so much of the foreign aid budget given to non-governmental organizations? Shouldn't these important tasks be carried out purely by the United States government?
LeLaulu: American non-governmental organizations have a distinctive feel for development. No other country has the width, depth, or breadth of capacity in its civil society organizations. We are the ones who live with communities and can explain to people in the developing world what the wider development agenda means.
Furthermore, American charities and nonprofit organizations provide more cash for development than the United States government provides in aid. Americans are the most generous people on the planet, and this is reflected in the tens of billions of dollars given to charities in this country.
As I said, civil society development is in the DNA of American non-governmental organizations. In fact, if you think of it, 1776 was not so much a classic revolution as it was a rising of civil society organizations in defiance of an oppressive colonizer. It was the communities and civil society organizations which provided militia to fight the colonizers, because there was no strong, centralized government. This being so much a part of the character of American NGOs makes them far more effective in the construction of strong societies fueled by dynamic economies which of course are the essentials of functioning democracies. In fact it could be said that the building of democracies is far too important to be left to government officials.
We are fortunate that the United States Agency for International Development recognizes the key inputs of non-governmental organizations in building open societies in the poorer nations of the world.
Q: Yes, but who elected you and the non-governmental sector to do the things you do?
LeLaulu: You have to remember that millions of Americans voluntarily give their hardearned cash to non-governmental organizations in this country. People who complain about mandatory payment of taxes are happily sending checks off to the nonprofits whose aims they support. Many of these nonprofits of course are dedicated to helping the poorer countries of the world. Americans and private companies voluntarily giving of their own money to non-governmental organizations is a pretty firm mandate.
Q: You at Counterpart International seem to be engaging in activities not normally associated with charities and non-governmental organizations. For example, why are you involved in tourism? Tourism is leisure for those who can well afford it. Surely, tourism is a frivolity compared to what you should be doing, so shouldn't you be concentrating on poverty rather than on expensive vacations for the rich?
LeLaulu: As an international development organization, we at Counterpart International consider sustainable tourism to be one of the most potent tools in the fight against poverty. Tourism is now the world's largest industry and growing by over 10% a year. We are convinced that we can harness part of this huge industry to create wealth in parts of the world that have few or no other possibilities for income generation.
Sustainable tourism is tourism that improves the destination in terms of health, culture, education, wealth, and ecological preservation. Parts of the developing world completely untouched by development with the advent of tourism become desirable destinations because they have been so untouched, because they were ignored.
We started out in Oceania 41 years ago as the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific, and it was very difficult to find resources for these islands scattered over millions of square miles of the Pacific Ocean. It was hard and expensive to transport assistance once we did get it to these islands. As a result, we did not help islands as much as we would have liked. However, with the advent of increased leisure time in the richer countries and better transportation, islands became by the far the most desired destination for tourists. So, the very geographical isolation, which had hindered the development of these far-flung islands, suddenly became one of their major attractions for people trying to escape the hustle and bustle of urban existence. So, we had the possibility of using tourism directly to improve the lives of people living on the islands.
In Central America, we are using tourism to preserve and enhance cultural awareness in communities. For example, working in the Maya areas with some enlightened scientists, we have launched what we call "ethical archeology," which aims to help local communities benefit directly from archeological excavations and which ecologically does the least amount of damage to the priceless heritage lying underground.
Archaeologists like Arthur Demarest, Richard Hanson, Ricardo Argurcia, and others understand the importance of minimally uncovering the glories of the past, and even when necessary covering them up again to preserve them for decades more in the expectation that science in the future will be better able to preserve for future generations what they uncover in their digs. And, instead of bringing just North American Ph.D. candidates, these archeologists are increasingly training Mayan women, and some men, Ph.D. candidates. So, by exposing the glories of long-dead Maya civilizations, we are able to help generate wealth for the modern Maya through sustainable tourism development.
Ruder-Finn has an important division dedicated to the tourism industry in recognition of its economic strength. We at Counterpart also have a division concentrating on tourism in its sustainable aspects to ensure that at least some of the benefits of the world's largest and fastest growing industry can be used to help people in the developing world live a life of dignity for themselves and their communities.
Increasingly, leaders of the developing countries are listing tourism development as one of their very highest priorities. We help communities transform themselves into destinations for tourists and try to ensure that maximum benefit from the tourism revenues are retained in these communities. We in the non-governmental sector have to ensure we can respond to the desires of these countries and respond in such a way that we can direct some of the revenues generated by the world's richest industry into the eradication of poverty.
Q: Why should we be developing tourism in Central America rather than working on the many locations in this beautiful country?
LeLaulu: Sustainable tourism development equals security. Giving people access to wealth generation through the sustainable development of tourism builds secure societies. Indeed British tourists, for example, take and leave more money in Central American than the British government gives in aid. Likewise, American tourists inject more cash into these communities than the American government has ever contemplated giving in aid.
Essentially, however, we are making the countries of Central America safe and secure enough to able to allow Mr. and Mrs. America and their 2.3 kids to drive to the region for their vacations in the knowledge that their presence in these communities will directly benefit the people they meet. There are many excellent state organizations developing sustainable tourism in the United States, but we feel a need to work with the people of Central America to ensure they can attract visitors from the north who will not only appreciate their culture and their environment, but also contribute directly to the betterment of the environment and the communities they visit.
We view communication as a key development tool and use it to communicate their prerogatives of sustainable development. This is why our Caribbean Media Exchanges on Sustainable Tourism (CMEx) are so popular with governments, tourism industry, and NGOs. CMEx engages the media, and once the media gets it the rest of society very quickly understands the imperative need for sustainable development. We are now being asked to replicate the formula in the Mediterranean and the Silk Road region of Central Asia.
Q: What is the link between tourism and security?
LeLaulu: Tourism is probably the first real "peace dividend" in any post-conflict area. If you think about it, the first thing that people want to do when there is peace is to cross their border to look at their former adversaries. People equate travel with freedom freedom of choice, freedom of movement, and freedom of thought. It is very much an industry of peace, because you are less inclined to want to bomb somebody if you have been a guest in his or her community.
This is one of the reasons why we at Counterpart International, with our partners the Institute of Hospitality of Brazil, launched the World Tourism Forum for Peace and Sustainable Development. I mean, think about it, the WTO has tourism programs underway in North Korea. There is a ministerial meeting that always takes place in the Middle East, which includes the Arab states and Israel. This is the meeting of tourism ministers, and they meet despite whatever is happening politically or militarily in the region.
Q: How important is Corporate Social Responsibility to the work that you do? Is this trend going to grow?
LeLaulu: Corporate social responsibility is wonderful to behold, especially as more and more corporations embrace the idea of doing good while making good. However, I think we in the nonprofit world have to show CEOs how their direct involvement in development can improve shareholder value.
As any MBA will tell you, a chief executive's major priority is improving shareholder value. We like to tell companies that their involvement with us directly enhances their shareholder value. I like to tell companies this is how Counterpart International can improve the way you do business, because we cannot rely indefinitely on the charity of corporations whose primary responsibility is to shareholders, so we have to help these executives see how their involvement with us can improve their shareholder value. This is the way to build long-term public/private partnerships for development.
Q: Are Americans giving too much to charities?
LeLaulu: Americans who are members of religious organizations are accustomed to giving tithes to their faiths. In some faiths, members are expected to give well over 10% of their net earnings.
As far as everybody else, all I can think of is Ace Greenberg, a giant of Wall Street, who once said he expected all those who worked for him to give at least 4% to philanthropies. Americans are the most generous people on Earth, but I think Americans would contribute even more if they were asked. That is just their nature. Part of our job as American NGOs is to inculcate this type of giving here and in other rich countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. They have a long way to go, but their governments, especially the Nordic ones, tend to give proportionally a lot more than we do. And I never tire of recalling the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie's comment, "You've got to be really stupid to die rich in this country!"
Q: How will you know when you have succeeded in your work?
LeLaulu: I'll know I have succeeded when I have worked my way out of a job and there is no more to be done and no more need for Counterpart International.
Wouldn't that be nice?