How are we doing in the run up to the post 2015 world?
On Tuesday I attended an event to discuss what will happen when the date for completion of the Millennium Development Goals expires. This week the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, co-chaired by the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron is meeting to discuss the new global framework of development and in particular the role of private business.
So how does Moving Mountains and Adventure Alternative, two tiny players on the stage, stand up to the assessment of how progressive developmental aid should be carried out?
At the event we met Michael Anderson, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on the Post-2015 Framework, who commented that in developing the new goals we must stay focused on the fact that a vibrant private sector is the exit strategy from aid.
Funnily enough I have always thought that Adventure Alternative should play its role as a partner to development, mainly because our ‘products’ are mostly based in developing countries and it seems only right that the onus for upholding equitable employment standards should be on me. The spoils of tourism can and should be ploughed back into the destination rather than on expensive UK overheads, and that has been a principle of mine ever since I started AA in 1991.
NGOs are beefing up their private sector teams, to engage with businesses and implement “inclusive” business models. Funnily enough that’s what Moving Mountains has been doing for a long time. I have always felt that if the charity can provide the capital investment for improving infrastructure (like we have done in the Nepalese villages for many years now) then the company can provide revenue and a route to market through tourism.
For example all of our youth trips, gap trips and international development trips contribute financially to communities where previously there was no market, while at the same time promoting the long term development aims of the charity. Our medical camps in Nepal bring important medical aid, but they also bring visitors to the villages, which in turn promotes jobs and income.
The fact is that development happens because people have access to economic opportunities and greater choice. The exit strategy from aid is a vibrant domestic and international private sector – one that will create the vast number of jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities needed (two things prioritised by poor people themselves). That is exactly what I have tried to establish in Adventure Alternative.
For example, Kevin Onyango is our book keeper in the Nairobi office, but he came from a very poor background in the town slums around Muthurwa where I started the work of MM. Having put him through school and college, he then got a job with the company. But most importantly his son Cliff will never suffer the same privation that he did, and I am fortunate to see that cyclical effect of combined aid and economic opportunity in the new generation.
Ang Chhongba Sherpa is my oldest friend in Nepal, a one-time porter who now helps to manage AA Nepal and MM Nepal. His own self-determination took him to school but with the opportunity offered by the charity and the company he was able to put all his children into school. Now his family lives in America and his sons Norbu and Sonam study business and engineering at college, and his daughter Tashi studies medicine.
To my mind this is poverty eradication and sustainable development on a small scale, but reflects the global agenda of the post 2015 discussions.
As a businessman I see my role as teaching and promoting good business practises within the AA family of companies – an equitable gender environment, transparent trading and accounting, fair employment contracts and accountable supply chains to name a few. I can achieve this by investing in communications, staff training and development, and an ethical approach to the product itself. We don’t plant thousands of trees in Sarawak for nothing; the sense of responsibility for causing damage from flights has to be borne by all of us in the tourism sector.
Around the world the conversation has moved beyond “do no harm” and “doing good”, to companies “doing good by doing good business”. The post 2015 development goals need to be underpinned by a clear recognition of the role of the private sector in driving long-term development, and therefore the factors that are needed to help it grow.
In the tourism sector there is a cynicism and boredom with words like ‘sustainable tourism’, a fatigue borne of over-exposure to confusing semantics and underwhelming action. For many people, it’s still about using low energy light bulbs. I sit on the sustainable tourism committee at the Association of Independent Tour Operators and our biggest problem is that the majority of the membership think that sustainable tourism is not an integral feature of the association.
‘Sustainable tourism’ is out of step with how far the general business and development discussion has come. We have moved onto the question of “how”, while many people are still at the “why?” stage. The cutting edge of global developmental policy is already onto granular issues, but many people are still navel-gazing on whether it’s something they want to do. And the “Why” is vital because people generally follow a vision and a cause, and at the moment sustainable tourism has no visionary to take it forwards.
I am very happy that in its own small way Adventure Alternative and Moving Mountains reflects a joint business model that is progressive and accountable; it requires a dynamic approach to business management, especially nowadays in the current climate. Flexibility, adaptability and knowledge of online technology and marketing is a big part of my ‘toolkit’.
But when I look at Kevin Onyango and Ang Chhongba and how far they have come, and how far their children will go, I know it is all worthwhile. I keep in mind the essential vision of the company which is this:
We believe in combining good business sense with concern for the social inequities we have created on this planet, and we do this by providing authentic holidays and amazing adventures to far flung corners of the world.