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The Moral Adventurer in a World of Need

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Presented by Carol Bellamy, President and CEO, World Learning at the Adventure Travel World Summit, São Paulo, Brazil – 6 September, 2008

Thank you all. It’s a great pleasure to join you at this wonderful gathering and I want to especially thank Shannon Stowell and Chris Doyle of the ATTA for inviting me to be here today. It’s equally wonderful to meet here in Brazil, which happens to be the home base of several World Learning programs. We run three college study abroad programs in northern Brazil with different themes-in Belém on Amazon resource management and human ecology; in Fortaleza on development and social justice; and in Salvador on public health and community development. And in Rio de Janeiro we offer high school summer abroad programs for “soccer and service” and “music and capoeira”! So, you see, we pretty much have all the bases covered here in Brazil!

It seems both fitting and timely for someone like me, coming out of the international development and education world, to be here sharing and cross-pollinating ideas with all of you from the travel world – and I’m grateful for the opportunity. As the adventure travel trade becomes ever more conscientious and forward-thinking about its environmental and social footprint in the world, and as you join together to be a force for positive change on critical global issues, our worlds are gradually, and happily, converging. Today I’d like to talk about some of those areas of convergence as well as some of the challenges and opportunities we face together in our parallel worlds.

In a sense, the 75-year history of my organization, World Learning, mirrors the current trajectory of responsible tourism. The Experiment in International Living, our founding program, began in 1932 with a simple idea: that people could build friendships across cultures and bridge the differences that separate us. That year, our founder took a group of young Americans to Europe to share meals, stay in homes, learn the language, and return home with a new perspective.

Over the years, as we began to send more young people not only to Europe but to many other parts of the world, many of our students witnessed firsthand the impact of poverty, displacement, and conflict. We realized then that our organization could and should do more to help ease human suffering and build local self-reliance in the communities we encountered. We decided we could not stand idly by as visitors and observers in the face of such need. So we added a “doing” arm to our learning organization and today in addition to the over 50 countries where we have education programs, we work on global development issues in another 20. What we have found over the years is that when people step outside their comfort zones and go out in the world with compassion and a willingness to learn, their eyes are opened to new realities and they are inspired to act. In this way, true change often begins with the most basic encounter or exchange with our fellow humans as we venture far beyond our backyards.

Mark Twain once remarked, in a critique of American isolationism, that “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men (and women) and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I have long subscribed to that view myself, as no doubt do all of you. But respect for the rights of others, compassion for those less fortunate, the desire to give back and make a difference in the world – these are not traits that are acquired or measured simply by the number of stamps in one’s passport. There are many modes and motives for travel, many ways to see the world, and many worlds to see – and all are not by any means equal.

We can see this variation even in the word “adventure,” a word with a long and colorful history that is at the core of what you all do. It’s a term that has meant many things to many people and places over the centuries. Belém, for example, was the first European colony on the Amazon and the launching point for “adventures” into the rainforest in search of gold, rubber, timber and land which had devastating impacts on indigenous communities and fragile ecosystems. Today, very different kinds of adventures leave from the same ports but are focused on protecting the natural wonder of the rainforest and respecting and reinforcing the traditional livelihoods and cultures of those people who make a home there.

Of the variety of definitions of “adventure” in the dictionary, the one I am most drawn to is this one: “to risk, or dare.” The Moral Adventurer, as I’ve labeled this new kind of adventurer, is willing to risk some comfort and predictability; willing to risk struggling with another language, being misunderstood, feeling somewhat out of their element; and willing to learn and to be changed by their experiences in the world. The Moral Adventurer, in turn, is inspired by their experience to make a difference, to dare to be a force for positive change.

In a sense, the Moral Adventurer leaves home as an American, a Brazilian, or a South African and returns a global citizen. At our very best, in our most aspirational state, what we all do – through travel, study abroad, or cultural exchange – is to shape global citizens. We create those bridging encounters that challenge and change people and open up new ways of seeing and being in the world. We can all probably point to our own moments of such transformation. For me, it first took place as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala in the early 1960s. The Peace Corps was, bar none, the most important thing I ever did in my life and it lit a fire in me that has since greatly shaped what I’ve done and who I am. It was those 2 years in Guatemala that transformed me into a global citizen. And there was no turning back.

So what does that concept mean? What does it mean to be a global citizen in these times we live in? And why does it matter?

The first way to answer that question is basic, pragmatic and goes straight to the bottom line. The globalized world we live in and the future we’re looking at demands new skills and competencies to be effective and competitive. Modern technology, communications and transportation have made the world smaller, or “flatter” as Tom Friedman thinks of it. Business knows this well. They know that for the U.S., for example, to stay competitive in a world in which one American job in six (and this ratio is growing) is tied to international trade they need to be able to draw on people with international experience and global skills.
But of course global citizenship is more than just a skillset to be acquired, more than just a means to build a resume or even a career. Global citizenship is a mindset to be embraced, acted upon, and lived and breathed in one’s daily life. Global citizens are people who understand and honor the shared rights, interests and responsibilities of all the world’s people and cultures.

Global citizens are motivated in their mindsets and actions by the core belief that the world’s most pressing problems poverty, hunger, HIV/AIDS, climate change are global in nature and scope and therefore require global mindsets and partnerships to solve. Global citizens are agents of change who are not afraid to step outside their comfort zones and seek to bridge differences.

So what do these global citizens look like? Well look around you. We’ve no doubt got a roomful right here. Now we all get hung up on celebrating the Bonos and Oprahs of the world, who no question do great work and serve as models in their own way. But I’m here to tell you that even people who require a first and last name to be recognized can make a difference!

Practical experience shows us that you don’t have to be famous or uniquely talented or blessed to make a difference. Leadership, compassion and good citizenship are more about making choices than destiny; each person can make a difference in the world by starting small, being compassionate, and staying committed.
In my time with the Peace Corps, UNICEF, and now, World Learning, I’ve enjoyed the good fortune of interacting with lots of young people and watching them in action. Let me tell you, I have gained more from the experience than I have given. I truly believe the hope of the world rests with young people, and the chance to work with them and see them grow – and be a part of their optimism and energy – has given me renewed strength.

The kind of global mindset and entrepreneurial energy the emerging generation of global citizens brings to the challenges our world faces have never been more desperately needed. They represent a breath of fresh air and a beacon of hope in a world struggling with a crisis in global leadership that weighs heavily on all of us.

Given the challenges at hand, what can we all do in our respective work and lives to make a difference? For starters, we’ve learned that leadership cannot take place and the world cannot be brought closer together if we first can’t understand each other.

There’s no way to do that unless you immerse yourself in someone’s world: their language, customs and culture, geography, history and even their folklore. To many of us who’ve made the journey across differences it may sound obvious, but people need to learn to listen, learn to care, learn to be tolerant of other views yet intolerant of human suffering wherever it occurs.

When looking at the grave challenges and needs of today’s world, we must recognize that adventure travel, international education, or global business all have the potential to either be part of the solution or part of the problem. It’s a choice we must consciously make and commit to. Tourism, much like the study abroad industry, can and often has been just another thing we do at the expense of the rest of the world.

At its most uninspired, tourism sends people into the world in a protective bubble of comfort where nothing is risked and little is gained beyond an unhealthy tan and a few extra pounds. At its worst, what we might call the “low road,” tourism can lead to:

  • Environmental damage from rapid and uncontrolled development that threatens the very natural resources that attract tourists;
  • Forcible displacement of indigenous or marginalized communities for tourism profit;
  • Abuse of water rights for golf courses and resorts that leave local communities without basic supplies; For example, an average 18-hole golf course soaks up at least 525,000 gallons of water a day – enough to supply the irrigation needs of 100 Malaysian farmers.
  • Exploitative labor practices, particularly affecting women and children; Around the world, 13 to 19 million young people work in a profession tied to tourism. Children work as barmen, “fast food” employees, domestics, gardeners, laundry workers, souvenir makers and so on.
  • And, the horrific, but growing, sex tourism which turns women and children into commodities to be used and abused: For example, more than one million children are sexually abused by tourists every year within the global child sex tourism industry.

I would add to this list the emerging practice of what’s been called “poorism,” where the suffering of people is exploited and put on display to satisfy the curiosity of tourists. The dignity of the poor is not a commodity to be traded nor, in my view, a reasonable or humane means of addressing global poverty.

At its best, however, “high road” tourism can and is spreading awareness of global issues, shaping global citizens, and serving as a positive force for economic development and social change in communities. I’m impressed and heartened by the efforts of the ATTA, Sustainable Travel International, and other organizations to develop and promote standards for responsible, sustainable tourism that protects environments and respects the rights and needs of local people. Part of this is educating the consumer about making responsible choices, and the partnership of Conservation International, ATTA, and my former colleagues in UNEP (the UN Environmental Programme) to create practical guides to responsible travel is a great example of forging new partnerships for change.

Also notable is the rise of interest and action in the area often referred to as “voluntourism,” some of the best examples of which are represented at this conference.

Of course, there are challenges with merging the goals of tourism with the needs of communities and we should all be mindful of them. Some important principles for success that have been noted elsewhere include:

  • Viewing local communities as partners in development rather than beneficiaries – allow communities to define their needs and desires rather than imposing upon them.
  • Investing in partnership with communities so that travelers, volunteers, and local participants are contributing and benefiting together
  • Ideally, partnering with local organizations already in place that have a history and longevity in the region
  • Committing to a sustained presence or long-term plan; not creating economic dependencies that are unsustainable over the long run

In running study abroad programs in more than 50 countries, World Learning has attempted to operate in local communities according to a guiding ethos of reciprocity, or mutuality. Achieving some sense of mutual benefit across cultural divides and economic disparities is no mean feat and is fraught with difficulties, as our students learn every year. The key to achieving any measure of success, however, is in not determining what this benefit should be for communities, but arriving at an understanding that is mutually acceptable and operable.

I was recently asked to contribute to a book by the news veteran Mike Wallace that collected visions of where we as a society might be 50 years from now. In my essay I envisioned what I called an “Age of the Global Citizen” and my inspiration was from a note sent to me by a student, Sara Franklin, who was on one of our study abroad programs in South Africa. She wrote: “I can say with absolute certainty that I have been permanently altered by what I have seen, the people I have met, and the reflections which have resulted from my time here. My belief that people must band together to fight for one another, that kindness and a commitment to prioritizing those in need, has come to color every conversation I have and every fleeting thought of what I may do with the rest of my life.”

For me, that right there is what it means to be transformed, to see the world through new eyes, to be a moral adventurer. And that is the promise and aspiration of what we can do, as travelers or students, to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Thank you very much.

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Editor’s (ATTA VP Chris Doyle) Note: Carol Bellamy, before presenting this keynote speech to close the ATTA’s first Adventure Travel World Summit outside of North America, tipped her hat to leaders within the global adventure travel community for being ahead of the curve with regard to conducting adventure travel trade business with sights set squarely on advancing social and moral responsibility throughout the entire supply chain. Despite a progressive industry, Bellamy’s delivery – steeped in decades of her own altruistic endeavors – struck a chord among Summit delegates, leaving many inspired…and many with tears of hope falling as she received a well-deserved standing ovation.

Photo Courtesy of: Ana Laura Araya / ATTA

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