Traveling With a Moral Compass


These are not your usual vacation jaunts, and Medea Benjamin is not your usual tour guide.

An avid human rights investigator and advocate, Benjamin combines conscience and capitalism as she trots around the globe annoying companies like Nike with anti-sweatshop activities, witnessing elections in dicey democracies and opening the eyes of American tourists with a yen for the unusual.

For Benjamin--former hippie and shoestring globe-trotter--work must have adventure, and profit and progress can be intertwined. It’s how she lives and what she stumps for.

As co-director of San Francisco-based Global Exchange, Benjamin takes politically minded pilgrims to places like Chiapas, Mexico, and Cuba, Indonesia and Burkina Faso for summer vacations, autumn excursions, New Year’s Day and the Day of the Dead.


Participants in her Reality Tours venture to Haiti to “explore the influences of the African diaspora in the work of modern-day Haitian artists.”

To Vietnam, to “learn about the political situation and ‘Doi Moi’--the Vietnamese perestroika--through visits to rural and urban communities.”

To Guatemala, for an exploration of “the complexities of development and politics in this conflict-torn country of Central America.”

While Global Exchange is a nonprofit human rights watchdog group, it is largely bankrolled by the very profitable tour business and international craft stores in San Francisco and Berkeley.

“We do a lot of work around socially responsible business,” says Benjamin, 45, who started Global Exchange in 1988 with her husband and another partner.

“The tour business is a business. We built it up to where it’s over $1 million,” she says. “And we have craft stores. We try to do something that in a very small scale is how we’d like to see big business operate.”


Global Exchange occupies a small niche in the growing adventure travel business, in which the intrepid can earn a living helping others risk life and limb. The bulk of the nation’s 9,000 outfitters, for example, tend to have profit margins that verge on the slender 3% to 5%.

“It’s hand to mouth,” says Jerry Mallett, of the Adventure Travel Society. But women and men in the adventure travel business are there “more for the lifestyle than the money.”

Mallett’s Colorado-based organization hosts an annual World Congress that addresses issues such as the impact of travel on indigenous people and how one can make money in such a precarious industry.

Marketing, both he and Benjamin agree, is the key.

“We’re always looking for niches,” Mallett says, “like the Internet or doing joint ventures with outfitters in the Southern Hemisphere, where you can share your client list in the off-season.”

For the adventurous with a technological bent, information about exotic travel can be found on a variety of Web sites. The Adventure Travel Society ( offers net surfers information about travel and a linkup with Mallett’s Adventure Travel Business Magazine.

Global Exchange’s site ( hooks up the political and curious with both Reality Tours and the group’s fair trade stores, which offer such items as Solola woven bags from Guatemala and Mai dolls from Vietnam.

“Buy a basket at Cost Plus or Pier 1, and the peasant artisan receives a tiny fraction of what you pay,” the group’s Web site proclaims. “At the Global Exchange Fair Trade Craft Centers, you know the producer got her or his fair share, around 15% to 30% of the retail price.”

Benjamin has just returned from three weeks in Indonesia, where she led a trip to witness the violence-marred elections and explore labor issues--particularly the use of cheap labor by major American companies.

“I was in a man’s lovely middle-class house,” she recounted. “He’s retiring from a job at Goodyear. He’s very glad he spent his life working for a company like that. He was able to buy a house.”

Other companies, she says, pay workers the bare minimum, force them to put in excessive overtime and “treat them with daily abuse.”

“Part of what we do is expose conditions at these companies and in our own small scale show how you can run a good business,” she says. “You can run a good, successful business and care about the world.”

Who would pay to go on a trip like this? The participants in the Indonesia excursion included a restaurant owner from Philadelphia, a retired jazz musician from Marin, a couple of labor organizers and a handful of Stanford professors. Each paid $2,150 for two weeks on the road.

In addition to Benjamin, Reality Tours employs eight others to organize and lead its excursions, which run from a low of $185 for a jaunt into California’s strawberry fields to explore agricultural issues to $3,300 for a trip to South Africa.

Benjamin herself leads about four trips a year, but her human-rights work takes her on the road much more often. She regularly speaks to young people interested in social justice work and has one main piece of advice: Get an MBA.

“They want to go work in poor communities overseas,” Benjamin says of the young people she speaks to. “They ask, ‘What should I do? Study health?’ I say accounting, to help people operate their own businesses and cooperatives.

“I think the greatest need is for business skills--but business skills for people who don’t want to get rich,” she says.

Benjamin herself is far from flush, joking that she made a salary “in the high 20s when I was in my 20s” but now pulls down a salary of $25,000 a year. So does her husband, and that’s more than enough for her family of four, she contends. “There’s no better career I could have in the world,” she says. “We’re always moving people to change. . . . I don’t get inspired by the poverty I see. I get inspired by what people are doing to make their lives better.”