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Should charity begin on Instagram?

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As a certified B-Corp and a travel company operating in South America for well over a decade, we’ve teamed up with a couple of colleagues to call out a cheeky trend in greenwashing that has only intensified during the pandemic. Before you ask: Yes, we have been guilty of it too.

Hard truths

It goes without saying that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the tourism industry. Poorer countries and smaller suppliers have been hardest hit. In South America, most guides, drivers, hotel staff and porters work as independent contractors, so tour operators, hotels and DMCs (destination management companies) whose business has dried up have not been legally obliged to pay them. For indirect beneficiaries of tourism such as restaurateurs and curio sellers, the situation is even more tenuous.

Most humanistic operators have tried to provide financial support to the people they work with regularly, but there has been precious little government intervention and both resources and what seems fair varies greatly among companies. Especially when revenues are down 90% or more. According to a study published in Lancet in July 2021, 99,000 Peruvian children have lost a parent (about one in 80 children) due to COVID-19: the highest per capita rate in the world. This Guardian explores the “hidden pandemic” of these COVID-19 orphans, many of whom live in urban slums.

Observations of a trend towards greenwashing

Our company was founded in Lima, Peru by a small group of affluent immigrants (relatively speaking) from North America, who have since established more mundane and deep roots in the country. Nick Stanziano, our CEO, has called Lima home for more than a decade, and has become enmeshed in the country’s tourism industry. From the boardrooms of the capital city to the operational trenches of Cusco and the brave new world of rural community tourism projects across the country.

Against this context, he has noted with interest what appears to be a marked increase in the number of firms crowing about their charitable endeavors in mostly rural communities with coincidentally spectacular landscapes. “Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “Any charitable donation is better than none and all travel companies do owe it to the rural communities we visit to support them through COVID-19.”

But Stanziano is just as concerned about their everyday urban workforce. He questions, “What about the reservation agent/mother struggling to pay for groceries while covering the company emergency line? We’re not seeing anything in companies’ communications that depicts the impact of the pandemic on working-class life in Lima.” The sad truth is that this kind of imagery is “just not as useful for marketing vacations to Peru, as providing a sack of food to someone in traditional garb near Machu Picchu.”


Full disclosure: Our company has been as guilty as the rest. In our early years as a business, we often indulged in public demonstrations of solidarity with the economically disadvantaged in our rural supply chain, placing our brand front and center as saviors rather than collaborators. “But over time, the exotic thrill of a new country, a new company, and a new team, became commonplace. It felt awkward posting every time we helped with a sack of rice or planted a tree with those who are now friends and longtime business partners. Even today, our communication about how we engage with rural Peruvian communities can drift into more colonial paradigms, where affluent westerners help the native cultures of the poor south,” says Stanziano. It’s something, he adds, that will continually be important to self-reflect on in our future as we grow internationally, because many at the core of our future business will likely not have such intimate exposure to the poor south as our founding team has had in Peru.

When it comes to Instagram-giving, Australian-born Nick Macciocca who runs Agora Brazil, a small DMC based in Rio de Janeiro, has noted a similar trend in Brazil. And what really irks him is that in some cases the companies making the biggest splash about their charitable endeavors are those that force their suppliers not to impose annual inflationary increases (inflation averages 4% per annum in Brazil). “Some of our clients [all tour operators] are happy to absorb increases, others force us to go 50-50, and a few point-blank refuse,” says Macciocca. “In these cases, we’re left with no choice but to squeeze our suppliers, at least a little.”

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Favela Cantagalo looking back towards Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro. (Photo: Nick Macciocca)

Why is urban poverty overlooked?

Macciocca has also noticed that countries tend to give to communities featuring rural settings and indigenous people – the more attractive (on both counts) the better. This despite the fact that urban poverty is at least as big a problem as rural poverty in Latin America. The United Nations Human Settlements Program, for example, has found that 33% of Peru’s urban population lives in slums.

Matt Kinch the General Manager at MEDLIFE, a US-based NGO which seeks to improve access to healthcare in both rural and urban communities in Peru and elsewhere explains that “food security can be less of an issue in rural communities where you can still farm and fish.” To make matters worse, many of the people living in urban slums are political or economic refugees who also have to contend with issues such as domestic abuse, single parent households, and substance abuse. As most of the people who live in these areas are part of the informal economy, COVID-19 has further compounded their problems. Despite all of this, says Kinch, “it is still much harder to find funding for urban projects than rural ones.”

An inconvenient truth

“The level of poverty on the doorstep in Lima is an inconvenient truth,” says Kinch. “Before COVID-19, new Venezuelan immigrants were pouring in every day. If you go to the top of those hills, you can see Miraflores [the wealthy part of Lima] as a dot in the distance, but you are totally surrounded by poverty."

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Miraflores would be a mere dot in the distance here, if it weren't for the smog. (Photo: MEDLIFE)

Because the problem is so huge, it can be difficult to know where to start. Kinch too struggles with this: “Often it’s about breaking it down to just one thing,” he says. “If you try to tackle it all at once you’ll become disillusioned.” Especially in urban slums where you don’t have a nice mountain or jungle in the background. Kinch gives the example of MEDLIFE’s staircase construction projects, which have greatly improved the standard of living in some of Lima’s poorest communities. The video is a fantastic illustration of how “some bags of concrete and a few days of work” can transform lives:

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Not all slums are created equal

The slums in Lima are at least an hour from downtown (depending on traffic), so very few tourists ever visit. But it’s a different story in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where tours of the spectacularly situated favelas glamourized in films like City of God are a very popular activity. Or at least they used to be, explains Macciocca. After an incident in 2017 when a Spanish tourist driving with an unlicensed tour guide was killed after running a police roadblock, many embassies issued travel advisories to their citizens. The US Department of State was categorical: “Do not travel to informal housing developments (commonly referred to in Brazil as favelas, vilas, comunidades, and/or conglomerados), even on a guided tour.”

While Macciocca does understand governments’ urge to protect their citizens (this Chicago Tribune gives some good background), he has also seen the other side. “We were doing 4,500 favela tours a year, and we’re not a big company,” he explains. “That’s now gone down to zero. It was a real pity, as the tours we’d chosen really did gave back to the community. The guides lived in the area, and they took them to a local bakery, a childcare center for single parents who worked in the city…”

The response from tour operators, Macciocca says, varied hugely. Some forgot about the people in the favelas the moment the tours stopped, while others attempted to help out with jobs or money for a while. The only company which is still involved in the community is, he notes, also the one which accepts inflationary increases without question.

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Rocinha, Brazil's largest favela, with the wealthy  neighbourhood of Sao Conrado in the background. (Photo: Nick Macciocca)

What can travel companies do better?

Everyone we spoke to acknowledged that community tourism projects – in the Andes, the Amazon, or the favelas of Rio – can never be the whole solution. Not least because places with snowcapped peaks or glittering ocean views will always fare better than muddy urban slums where it is hard, in Kinch’s words, “to find the hope.”

Another great way for travel companies in South America (or elsewhere for that matter) to take a small bite out of the lumbering elephant, which is urban poverty, is by focusing on people within their supply chains. You’d be surprised how many folks – even those with relatively stable employment – are struggling to escape the poverty cycle, and this number has increased significantly since the pandemic. Once again, a basket of groceries might not be the best way of addressing the issue. Things like medical insurance and professional development can all be far more valuable in the long term.

“At SA Expeditions, we see so much progress in tourism still to be made with just treating the entire supply chain with humanity, we’ve never conceptualized the idea of business as a force for good as having to do with charity. Instead, it’s about building a business model that considers the externalities of our profit-generating activities, and is accountable for taking care of everything and everyone our economic activity touches. In fact, we might argue that charity doesn’t belong in the realm of for-profit businesses at all, and better left to the experts in the non-profit realm,” says Stanziano.

While Kinch agrees with this sentiment, he also acknowledges that some companies are structured in such a way that charitable giving is a line item in their budget. In this case, he believes that partnering with NGOs like MEDLIFE, Fundación Paraguaya, or Fundación Irradia and/or government agencies is probably the best way for companies to tackle urban poverty. There is a tendency among Peruvian companies, Kinch says, to try to handle their own charitable initiatives. While this is often done with the best intentions, it can end up being a bit haphazard. Food drops, for example, look good on Instagram but they aren’t always the most effective way of bringing about real change to poor communities.

“We work with these communities on an ongoing basis,” says Kinch. “We have a medical center, an education center. We help them to build staircases and retention walls and we help people to get land title… their ticket out of poverty.” And even if feeding people is what’s required, NGOs are better equipped to do it at scale. Case in point MEDLIFE which, since the start of the pandemic, has provided one million meals to urban Peruvians who would otherwise have been battling hunger.

potatoes - Dottie Day

(Photo: Dottie Day)

What can travelers do?

The first step is recognizing that even the shortest of vacations generate strong social and economic reverberations – your trip, including the companies and hotels you hire, has the power to positively and tangibly impact “small fries” in the hospitality industry. And while scrolling through Instagram is a great way to visualize your personal travel experience, social media is rarely the place to ascertain a company’s humanistic supply chain practices. In our experience, companies that care about their supply chain tend to exude an entirely different ethos than those geared toward clickbait and “like”-mongering.

Instead of falling prey to social feeds, start by asking simple and direct questions to whomever you’re working with about the treatment of their people in urban settings. The western world for decades has been familiar with human exploitation in the apparel industry, but are you sure that your reservation agent isn’t being pressured because of the pandemic to work 70-hour weeks at a dismal salary that’s been cut in half?

Our suggestion is to dig a little deeper and ask some thoughtful questions of your tour company, to further the mission of using travel as a force for good and attempting to benefit everyone and everything impacted by your trip.

Photo credit for header: Leks Quintero on Unsplash.

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