I’m sure this topic has been explored and written about extensively, and I’m keen to find other views on the ethical dimensions of this field. I was recently pitched a business idea by a young woman who was keen to take the staff of private sector companies to developing countries to volunteer in orphanages.
This was going to be a self-funded private enterprise with all profits going to her and her business partner. Her motivations seemed honourable in the sense that she wanted to make a difference in the lives of children in Cambodia. This was a business proposition though, and she had done her homework on the potential size of the market. From her pitch, her business interests came ahead of the interests of the communities she sought to serve.
From what I had understood, she had been to Cambodia but didn’t have a background in international development. I am not suggesting that experience in international development is the best way to understand how ‘doing good’ in other countries work – I do know of other individuals and organisations who have taken a great deal of time and care to learn about Cambodia and build relationships there. I do wonder however if she appreciated or understood the cultural, social, economic and political dimensions of working in the ‘developing’ world.
There is also the dimension of volunteering itself. While at first glance it my feel warm and fuzzy to volunteer and be surrounded by such generous and appreciative children, there is the question of: who are you actually serving?
While I have personally not traveled to Cambodia, I have heard numerous reports of the rise of orphanages to care for children. This rise has largely been fueled by westerners coming in to set these up, with all funding coming from offshore. By some accounts there are cases of families being encouraged to place their children in orphanages even though they are able to care for them, so as to fuel the demand from offshore volunteers and philanthropy. There is also the economic impact of traveling volunteers in taking away jobs from locals who would otherwise be able to work in these jobs.
As the world becomes smaller, there is and will continue to be a rise in people interested in traveling to other countries. The motivations of travelers will vary from wanting luxury experiences, to adventure, to cultural consumption through to genuine cultural learning. Is one type of international travel more ethical than another? What are the ethical dimensions of each type of travel?
I have heard numerous cases of people traveling to sites showcased in Lonely Planet travel guides, only to find the environment around those locations decimated by the volume of unconscious travelers. While this environmental impact cannot be placed solely on the Lonely Planet, it does highlight an unintended consequence of what their product and a responsibility to adjust their strategy to address this.
The ethical dimensions of international development and international tourism are huge, and often out-of-sight out-of-mind. Whether funding is coming from government aid programs or individual donors, the general public has little idea of how that money is being managed or deployed, or even how to make an assessment as to what constitutes an ethical program or investment.
These ethical dilemmas are perhaps more stark in private enterprise than for NGO’s. While NGO’s operating in the developing world vary considerably, there are greater legal and public expectations on reporting and transparency of operational practice and how money is spent. While Board governance of NGO’s can vary in terms of experience, knowledge and commitment, NGO’s are obligated (in Australia at least) to have independent directors who oversee the leadership and operation of the organisation. These independent checks or transparency requirements do not exist for private enterprise.
I am interested in hearing other views or challenges around the ethical dimensions of international travel and international development. This is not such a lonely planet anymore; and the connections between our actions and consequences are only going to become more evident.