Luxurious Indulgences Can Solve the Problems of Indigenous Populations


Magazine article

The Maldives as it is known worldwide is glaringly different to the Maldives (Dhivehi Raaje) experienced by its islanders. To outsiders it is known for its islands with untouched white beaches, crowned by coconut palms, giving holiday makers the perfect place to detach themselves from the fast-paced life into a dream, surrounded by the serene sounds of splashing waves of the crystal clear blue waters. What the tourists do not see is that Maldivians also battle with high levels of child abuse, domestic violence, drug use and gang related violence. Yet the tourism industry has proved that it can be a solution to at least some of those problems.

Tourism in the Maldives began in 1978, started by two Maldivian entrepreneurs in association with an Italian investor, and today there are 98 island resorts. The tourism industry is a key contributor to government finance and the boom in this sector has helped raise GDP per capita from US$ 837 in 1988 to US$ 3,934 in 2011. But the gap between the rich and poor, urban and rural has widened and women have borne the brunt of social problems.

Despite the Maldives matriarchal past and powerful women rulers, women have come increasingly economically marginalised, taking up a child-rearing role with males as the main breadwinners. This is not just an economic problem. For example, on average 100 cases of domestic violence perpetrated on women are reported to authorities in the Maldives every year, yet research shows that women are more likely to leave abusive relationships if they are financially independent. Economic empowerment, economic self-sufficiency and financial literacy are vital for women’s wellbeing.

The government of the Maldives had tried to address these problems in the past, working with the UN in initiatives to boost women’s livelihoods through micro-credit schemes. Yet these initiatives were unsuccessful because they failed to address the underlying problems of women’s lack of financial literacy and lack of access to the tourism sector as a market for their goods.

In 2010, when I was Deputy Minister for Health and Family, we tried again. But this time we brought together the UN, other parts of government (the Ministry of Tourism Arts and Culture and the Ministry of Economic Development) and, crucially, the tourism industry itself. The overarching aim of our initiative was to strengthen the relationship between the island communities and the tourist resorts, to establish demand for local products and services produced by women.

We chose the Maldives Northern Province as the focus of the project because it is the location of two of the most important historical sites in the archipelago. One is the former residence of the local hero Mohamed Thakurufaanu, who fought and defeated the Portuguese invaders in 1573. The second is the Mosque on the island of Matheerah that continues to be used to bless new fishing boats and safaris before they set sail for the first time. Our hope was that rejuvenating historical knowledge and introducing cultural tourism would not only create business opportunities but also stimulate interest among the inhabitants to reconnect with the historical identity of the region.

Under the auspices of the project we brought together the Five Star resorts that operate in the Northern Province, (namely Waldorf Astoria Beach House, Cinnamon Island, Zitahli Resorts and Spa, Island Hideaway and Hilton Maldives Irufushi Resort and Spa) and local women leaders from government, business and NGOs. Many business ideas were presented by the local representatives ranging from local products made from coconut palms for spa products, provision of vegetables, poultry and eggs, tailoring services, and excursions that involved cultural shows or tours to heritage sites.

While these seemed feasible businesses, through the dialogue with the resorts we found that there were many challenges before the women could tap into these markets. The island communities, for example, lacked market information: knowledge about quality and the type of products and services, packing and transport to the resorts.

The solution came from collaboration between the community, the resorts and government. The resorts provided guidance and training on quality standardisation and the government created a supply and demand list to indicate the products and services that the resorts demand and what the locals can provide. Moreover, to improve interaction between the communities and the resorts it was agreed that there would be an appointed focal point from each community and each resort opening more opportunities for new business ventures. As a result, several resorts expressed commitment to forging new partnerships with local communities and strengthen the existing partnerships.

This project incorporated aspects of philanthropy and capitalism, as the initiative attempted to shift the dependence on donor money by using a small amount of grant funds to create opportunities and build self-sustaining systems. Moreover, this initiative brought the resorts out of the “social responsibility” charity mind-set to tackle the root causes, not the symptoms, of some of the Maldives social problems. 

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  • Philanthropy Advice
  • Promoting philanthropy