US Foreign Assistance and Ecotourism

The United States supports wildlife conservation and the development of ecotourism in foreign countries primarily through monetary aid. Unfortunately, data that dis-aggregates ecotourism revenue from tourism revenue is not routinely collected. Thus, analysts encounter difficulty when attempting to quantify US monetary support of the ecotourism industry.

Nonetheless, ecotourism is a subset of tourism and comprises a percentage of tourism revenue. While this percentage varies from country to country, we can attempt to quantify US monetary support of the ecotourism industry by looking at US foreign assistance statistics that are reported by the Department of State.

In FY 2012, the United States gave $34 billion in aid worldwide, and approximately $1.5 billion of this was allocated to promote economic development. Additionally, of this $34 billion, approximately $7 billion was given to the continent of Africa. While the role of foreign aid in economic development is controversial and has achieved debatable success, if appropriately allocated, foreign aid has the potential to address challenges developing nations encounter in their pursuit of economic growth.

The United States often lacks the expertise to appropriately allocate funds and to promote ecotourism in developing nations. Therefore, primarily through USAID and the Department of State, the US partners with international and local NGOs to achieve specific goals. Through these partnerships with organizations such as the World Bank, African Wildlife Foundation, and other NGOs, the United States attempts to channel a percentage of this aid to developing countries in an effort to develop sustainable ecotourism.

In a number of these developing countries, tourism is a large part of their economy. According to USAID:

Tourists spend more than $200 billion dollars in developing countries every year, placing tourism in the top five export income-earning categories for 83 percent of developing countries. Because of its income and employment-generating potential and other economic multipliers, tourism encourages governments and communities to value and protect the resource base on which tourism depends.

While tourism plays a role in these economies, economic and agricultural growth can negatively affect the sustainability of ecotourism. To mitigate this effect and encourage developing countries to protect their ecosystems and thus preserve the revenue potential of these nations’ eco-tourism industries, the United States has supported numerous ventures in this arena.

Nonetheless, not every aid driven venture produces observable results. While some projects are successful, others encounter challenges that impede the project from encouraging sustainable economic growth while preserving the viability of the ecotourism industry. Below are case studies of recent US foreign aid projects.

Kenya/Tanzania: Anti-poaching Rangers

In an effort to curb poaching of wildlife and promote the viability of the ecotourism industry in Kenya and Tanzania, USAID funded the construction of anti-poaching ranger stations and observation posts along the Kenya, Tanzania border. Nonetheless, the rangers did not receive adequate equipment to conduct effective anti-poaching patrols. According to Big Life Foundation, a NGO with experience in this field:

What was needed were teams of rangers on both sides of the borders, working in close communication, so the rangers in Kenya could radio those on the Tanzanian side, to track and pick up any poachers crossing back over into Tanzania. The few rangers were there were on foot, with no vehicles to effectively patrol and give chase, and without the necessary basic equipment: cameras, GPS’es, and radios. They needed to be mobile, and they needed to be able to communicate.

Upon further investigation, one station of four rangers was discovered to possess a single .22 caliber rifle and 20 gauge shotgun. The limited number and low caliber of these firearms placed the rangers at a significant disadvantage when confronted by poachers equipped with advanced military grade weapons, such as high caliber scoped hunting rifles and automatic Ak-47 rifles.

The ranger’s lack of equipment reveals the challenges NGOs face when determining where to allocate funds and where to prioritize support. Without reliable advice from those at the ground level, USAID and NGOs may overlook and unintentionally underfund ancillary requirements that are paramount to the success of the overall project.

Tanzania: Wildlife Management Areas

In an effort to preserve wildlife, promote ecotourism, and involve local communities, the Tanzanian government, funded by USAID, established Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in 2003. According to USAID:

[WMAs] are community owned and managed conservation areas, in which communities are given ‘user rights’ to benefit from their wildlife resources. The wildlife in the WMA generates income from regulated hunting and/or photographic safaris.

The Tanzanian government collects this revenue through fees and licenses and, according to the WMA construct, shares the revenue with local communities thereby encouraging local support of the WMA and protection of wildlife. Prior to the WMA construct, safari operators would sign contracts directly with local communities and pay the community an agreed upon amount in exchange for use of the land.

During a March 2015 trip to Arusha, Tanzania, I interviewed safari and tour operators, and according to numerous Tanzanian safari company owners and ecotourism representatives in northern Tanzania, the WMA revenue is not being distributed according to the agreement. Under the previous direct contract model, the communities received direct profit from the wildlife, whereas now, they are not benefitting from the WMA construct. Thus, the WMA construct does not incentivize the local communities to protect wildlife habitat, and in some areas this is creating challenges.

According to a 2013 USAID review of the program:

Local governance is fundamental to the delivery of WMAs on all of their social, institutional, and conservation objectives. A major conclusion of this review is that at present the management and governance capacity […] remains low. Major performance deficiencies exist and represent one of the key current threats to existing WMAs.

As revealed, the United States, primarily through USAID and the Department of State supports the sustainment and development of ecotourism in numerous ways. These programs can be classified generally into the following two categories.

  • Economic Growth
    • Establishing infrastructure to support tourism
    • Educating local communities on the role of ecotourism
    • Directing loans to the tourism industry
    • Addressing governance challenges
    • Marketing the tourism industry
    • Training local communities to enhance employability in the tourism industry
  • Conservation and natural resource management
    • Educating local communities on the importance of conservation
    • Addressing governance challenges
    • Funding anti-poaching efforts

Additionally, foreign aid fueled ecotourism projects that do not realize their goals often encounter similar challenges. These challenges include:

  • Local Governance – Projects that provide funding directly to local governments may be subject to corruption and fraud
  • Community involvement – Projects that do not earn local community support can encounter difficulty in long term viability
  • Follow Through – Projects that budget for long term operating and maintenance costs may achieve sustained success
  • Accountability and Evaluation – Projects that demand transparency and accountability may have a higher chance for appropriate allocation of funding
  • Strategic vs Tactical Approach – Projects that address challenges at the appropriate level (community, regional, national government) have a higher probability of success
  • NGO Involvement – Awarding projects to NGOs with proven records and experience in the specific field can improve the project’s chances for success
  • Education – Projects that do not engage the local populace and educate them on the project’s goals and details may not reduce the community’s demand for future, similar projects

Aid donors can mitigate these challenges by properly structuring their grants and collaborating with effective NGOs.

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One comment on “US Foreign Assistance and Ecotourism
  1. “… mitigate this effect and encourage developing countries to protect their ecosystems …” That’s easier said than done, though. The problem is that, unlike a development of five hotels built of concrete on a beach, an ecosystem is not easily “parceled out” into similarly manageable stretches that then are “sustainably” managed forever into the future. Ecosystems depend on “the whole” surrounding them. While this is difficult to discern in most cases, here is an example everyone can understand: probably the biggest and most important ecosystem the world knows (after the much-ravaged oceans) are the rain forests. But a) you cannot really conceive of eco-tourism in rain forests or you further destroy what’s left, nor b) can you do so on a small geographic scale and piecemeal, as is the usual scope of development aid funded projects. So, all told, we are probably talking band-aids once again that will slow but not halt, let alone revers, a process of urbanization and industrialization.

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