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Travels &Beyond: An Interview with Brand Ambassador James Currie

I have had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with James Curries and chatting about the relationships between rural communities, sustainable tourism, and conservation. James, an ex-game ranger at Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa and former Managing Director of & Beyond Foundation, is currently based in Florida as & Beyond's Brand Ambassador. Armed with a Bachelor's degree in African Languages and a Masters degree in Sustainable Environmental Management, this avid birder now handles the company's key trade relationships in the United States. His job is to raise awareness of the brand by participating in various consumer and trade events across the country.

& Beyond (formerly Conservation Corporation Africa) is a luxury safari operator with 46 lodges and camps across Africa and India. Many of their lodges are regular recipients of prestigious international travel and conservation awards. & Beyond Foundation is a separate non-profit organization, although it engages directly with the safari company to provide financial support for projects in the community.
andbeyond masai
James explains that healthcare, education, and income generation are community-identified priorities for & Beyond. The Foundation, in close partnership with the safari company, is providing financial investments of approximately US $1 Million for this fiscal year 2010 (July 2009-June 2010) in the areas of:

  • School infrastructure (classrooms/teacher accommodation/ablutions/fencing etc…)
  • Career guidance
  • Small business training
  • Small business infrastructure
  • Information, Communication Technology (ICT) centre
  • Orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) care & support centres
  • Enviroloos (enviro-friendly ablutions)
  • School media centres
  • Water infrastructure
  • School boarding houses
  • School equipment
  • Special Needs School
  • Doctors and nurses accommodation
  • Maternity ward
  • School computer centres
  • School libraries
  • Bursary Programme (CLEF)
  • School environmental education (Conservation Lessons)
  • Development Practice
Click here to learn about specific communities benefitting from their work.

Jen: How do you find donors to work with the Foundation's cause?
James: Our donor base comes from a variety of sources but by far the most important source is & Beyond itself who provide the Foundation with annual financial support to carry out our administration functions so that a significantly high percentage of donor funds are allocated directly to projects. & Beyond also serves as the catalyst for showcasing the Foundation’s incredible work to our guests. At most of our lodges a guest can embark on a free community trip to witness the work of local community champions and the Foundation in our surrounding communities. This is not a contrived “come see the natives dance” event but rather an insight into the courage of local champions that have made fantastic inroads in the areas of education, health and income generation in these impoverished areas. Other sources of donor funds include overseas and local foundations, local and international corporations and a handful of long-standing individual supporters. But the common thread is that the majority of our donors have come through a visit to one of our lodges. So wildlife and happy guests are the most important catalysts for meaningful community development and the Foundation allows guests to leave a legacy in Africa and make a real difference. Both guests, who become givers, and independent funders donate safe in the knowledge that the process is driven by local community champions who are supported by a not-for-profit with a long record of outstanding community development achievements.

Jen: When there is a conflict between what the donor wishes to give vs. what is really needed by the community, how do you reconcile this?
James: We see ourselves as a facilitator of funds rather than an implementation agent. Through the Project Champions, the communities themselves are the implementation agents. We facilitate the relationship between the communities and the donor. We are a conduit through which this relationship can take place effectively. A very simplified example would be as follows: A donor provides funds for the building of a classroom. The donor expectations are that this is completed in 3 months, the community places more value on consultation and process and in the final analysis the inclusive, participatory process can take up to 9 months. It’s our job to facilitate the full support and buy-in of both interest groups. Donor expectations are managed by our full-time Donor Relationship Officer and, on the whole, donors understand/come to understand the legitimate reasons for time-lags as the real key is that the entire process is community-driven and that community needs are carefully evaluated and taken care of. Many donors want to assist communities according to THEIR perceptions of what a community needs rather than the true needs prioritized by the community itself. If donors are giving for the right reasons, this is a simple matter – if not, the “education of the donor process” can cause some headaches as with everything, the proof is in the pudding - without doubt the single most significant underlying cause for failed “white elephant” projects in the developing world is donor-led or donor-driven development. A classic example is the common desire for donors to send product to Africa’s rural communities – shoes, books, used computers etc. A donor might see school children without shoes and be driven to send boxes of shoes to Africa because the donor cannot imagine children going to school without shoes. But shoes may not be the priority need of the community. In fact many African children, whether impoverished or otherwise, prefer to run around barefoot! So donors need to be made acutely aware of differences in cultural perceptions. Sadly this is not to say that a community would turn down such an offer. Quite the contrary happens (human beings in poverty are naturally seeking “rescuers” as a survival mechanism but there is a big difference between asking “Do you want this?” and “What do you need?” Other problems with donor-driven product is that there are often unforeseen costs involved in getting product through customs, delays, shipping costs and the fact that what happens to next year’s intake of kids that might not have the luxury of receiving shoes. Bottom line is…it’s not sustainable. So we reconcile this by going back to the donor with a list of community-identified needs (that have emerged following the consultations) that will fit the donor’s budget and interest. So while we will not take donor funds to import shoes, we will try redirect the donor to supporting a worthy community-identified project in the priority areas of health, education or income generation.

Jen: What sets & Beyond apart from other lodge operators and owners who claim that they work in favour of conservationism and community development?
James: There is a lot of great work being done to further the aims of conservation and community development in Africa and I salute any operator or lodge owner that is doing meaningful work in these fields. I think the main difference with us is that we like to place more emphasis on actually doing the work rather than talking the talk. Everybody is trying to jump on the Green (conservation) and brown (ComDev) band-wagons but how much of this is genuinely for the benefit of people, wildlife and the environment? So often the talk is about, “We employ so many people from the local community” or “Please assist us in conserving water by placing your towel on your bed” but these are really cost-saving initiatives that have been washed green or brown. Where is the real and selfless benefit to communities and wildlife? The passion for communities and conservation needs to be something that is at the forefront of your mind every morning when you wake up. People do not last long working for & Beyond unless they embrace these core commitments and are willing to do what it takes to make a difference. So we are immensely proud of the strides we have taken to expand green frontiers, engage with meaningfully with local communities through & Beyond Foundation and conserve wildlife. And we will continue to devote our energy into doing our work, rather than talking the talk and there remains much work to be done.
andbeyond giraffe
& Beyond lodges and camps are world-renowned for their commitment to delighting guests, empowering the community, and sustaining responsible travel. Each Chris Browne-designed lodge is famed for a particular wildlife species, a spectacular natural setting, and the most special people who take extraordinary pride in their work at the camps. For example, & Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve is the best place on the planet to view cheetah and rhino; & Beyond Kirkman’s Camp in the Sabi Sand is renowned for its leopard sightings; & Beyond Lake Manyara Tree Lodge in Tanzania for tree-climbing lions; & Beyond Mnemba Island off Zanzibar for turtles; & Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge for the very best view of Ngorongoro Crater; and & Beyond Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp for the spectacle of the migration.

As an intrepid traveller, how would you like your safari to be? I hope every traveller who cares about sustainable tourism asks this question when they book their next trip. After all, as the African proverb goes, "the Earth is not a gift from our parents but a loan from our children."
andbeyond cheetah
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*photo credits &Beyond

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Travels &Beyond: An Interview with Brand Ambassador James Currie + trip