We Can Do Better
We Can Do Better

We Can Do Better

Too often, short term mission trips to the developing world trample on dignity or harm economic growth. It's time to stop confusing charity with generosity.

October 29 th 2012

With summer over, another season of short term mission trips draws to a close. Churches, schools, and agencies (both for-profit and non-profit) have sent teams to work in the developing world. These mission trips (or "internships," or "working holidays") are major pieces in the lives of many North American believers—both spiritually and, as you'll see below, economically. My primary intent is not primarily to defend short term mission trips as a concept; rather, I sketch a few criteria for measuring if planners, fundraisers, and, most of all, participants in these trips do their work in the proper frames of mind, for the right reasons, and while taking biblical precautions.

As steel sharpens steel, I hope some sharp warnings will prevent future well-meant short term mission trips that fail to protect dignity, that harm economic growth, or that confuse generosity with charity.

And, lest my own position be unclear, I believe short term mission trips are well-meaning. Done properly, as part of an overall sustainable strategy of engagement, this work can have enormous long term benefit. I have participated in nearly ten trips myself, and continue to train other short term mission teams. I believe this work is worth doing, and—reminiscent of the Cardus Education Survey slogan—if it is worth doing, it is worth measuring and improving.

One more note of context: the economies of short term mission trips are staggering. 1.5 million Americans will engage in some form of a volunteer service trip in the developing world in 2012 and they will spend over $2.5 billion (that's right—with a "b") on these adventures. This does not take into account the North American infrastructure of the churches and organizations that ignite these projects. Assuming the Canadian numbers are proportionally similar, there is an astounding economic value to these trips for Comment readers on both sides of the border. Even from a strategic or policy and planning level, then, we are not only entitled but obligated to map out if we are truly engaging in meaningful and purposeful service. With dollars like these at stake, these trips are not just feel-good opportunities for a few; this is significant economic investment.

Pre-Flight Check Number 1: Will My Trip Put "Locals" Out of Work?

I am often astounded by stories of North Americans going into a developing country to "build" something. This framework suggests that there is no skilled labour in developing countries, or that trip planners don't trust the local labourers to "do it right." I was convicted deeply by a Nicaraguan who showed up on the "job site" of my first short term trip and asked for a job. He was turned away by our local partners because, since we were all volunteers, he was not needed. I immediately turned to in-country support staff and asked what a day wage was in this area. He was startled at my question but replied that it was about $8.00 USD per day. I chased the man down and hired him for the day. Our policy now for our teams is that we hire local contractors at the going wage and our teams support the contractor, who is paid in full for the work. While this approach requires some extra fundraising at home, it enables an engagement that supports the local economy, rather than replacing it. This, in turn, enhances the reputation of our teams in the local community. And, of course, paying a "living wage" in the developing world rarely threatens to break the bank back in the developed world. For example, on my last trip to Nicaragua, we contracted with local companies to renovate (new roof, windows, doors, paint, and an electrical upgrade) a five-classroom school for about $12,000. My youth team that supported that project had one of the best in-country experiences I have ever witnessed. I have often wondered what goes through the minds of local skilled labourers as they walk by construction sites full of unskilled North Americans having an "experience" while they are out of work. I further wonder what they think as we try to share Jesus with them after we effectively put them out of work for a week or two.

As a principle, involving locals has the effect of creating community ownership of the project. This is especially vital because in many countries the cultural understanding is that if you built it, it belongs to you. Ownership, and therefore ongoing care and maintenance, may not follow the gift of a building if the transfer of ownership is not culturally understood, or there is an expectation that the team will come back next year to fix anything that breaks down. Consequently, in any building project it is important to not only consult the community (asking whether they want or need the school, church, or other project) but also to include them in construction. Ask the community to provide some form of investment or financial support to the project. At the school I described above, the community supplied the water, which had to be brought by horse and wagon to the school work site. It would have been easy for us to hire a water truck, but resisting the temptation to be efficient and including the community was a transformational dimension of the project. By bringing together local labour (at full market value) and the community in partnership with the short term team, we created a healthy relationship between the team and the Nicaraguan community.

This same principle can be applied to how and where we source our materials for the building project. Assuming the project is necessary, desired by the community, and the community is involved, where should we source the building materials? Once again, common sense tells us that sourcing materials in-country contributes positively to the economy. However, often organizers of short term trips would rather send a container of materials to the developing country, or have teams carry in large amounts of supplies on their flights. This practice can continue the cycle of poverty, forgoing a positive economic driver for a negative drain instead.

In sum, any work we do cannot be at the expense of someone in country who needs the work or the sale. A few simple structural changes to the way we create the business plans (yes, business acumen is required!) for our short term trips can yield real, sustainable economic benefit in developing countries, ultimately laying the foundation for partnership—not handouts.

Pre-Flight Check Number 2: Are These Donated Goods a Good Idea?

Invariably, in the lead-up to every short term mission trip I have led, I have been asked by well-meaning people if they can donate their cast-offs (from clothes to computers) to the "poor" people of the country I am working in. I have two concerns with this dumping of "stuff."

Consider for a moment a team that dumps twenty suitcases or more of used clothing into a local community in a developing nation. First, if that team has a habit of bringing a similar amount of stuff each year, the community has no incentive to develop a legitimate economic market around the clothing needs in the community. Women, who might otherwise barter or sell their textiles, have no business opportunities because the North American mission team has effectively put them out of business.

Second, considering that Proverbs 3 commands us to honour the LORD with our wealth, with the first fruits of all our crops, I am often struck instead by the quality of what we "throw away" to the poor. If we were to truly invest in the economic lives of people in developing nations, should this not begin with truly dignified gift-giving?

Practically, how can this issue be solved? First of all, we should be taking less that is simply given away by mission teams. Importing donated supplies that are distributed freely often creates dependency and damages local economies. Instead, raise funds to purchase supplies locally. If providing supplies, sourced in North America, is necessary due to extreme or significant poverty, set up a kind of market with your supplies. Allow (yes, allow) individuals to purchase, for a nominal amount (a few cents) based on the local economy, a limited number of items. For example, converting the gift of a t-shirt, to a purchase of a t-shirt for a few cents, creates an economic transaction that restores dignity and generates accountability for both parties. In being accountable, you won't sell terrible product and the purchaser won't buy more than they will need. In this model, any funds generated by the sale can be donated back into the community through the local school, church, or community centre. Setting up a market is a great activity for team as it allows for a healthy interface with the local community, not in the context "haves" and "have-nots" but rather in a meaningful economic exchange.

Be generous, but do so in a way that aligns you with the market economy, and promote transactions that are dignified.

Pre-Flight Check Number 3: Is This Short Term Trip Designed for the Long Term?

Short term mission trips, like business trips, can be used to develop meaningful and strategic partnerships that benefit both parties for a long time. Participation in economic development and education initiatives that are sustainable, scalable, and promote dignity among those they are designed to serve are good reasons to participate in short term volunteer trips.

On the other hand, the commitment of several thousand dollars for an independent, North American-focused trip, which generates dependency or tears down another human being's dignity, is not a good investment.

Trip organizers must plan strategically in order to be good stewards of the cost of the enterprise. There should be no such thing as a stand-alone trip. Short term trips must be part of a strategy that develops partnerships that can be grown over time. This requires either an in-country partner or a long term commitment from the "sending" community to that partner. Develop a strategic business plan for a multi-year commitment and choose investment opportunities that promote economic growth based in good business practices. Charity should never mean that we toss out good business principles simply because something tugs at our heart strings.

A word about education initiatives. There is a difference between education and quality education. The former promotes literacy, which is a necessary baseline. But literacy is rarely the catalyst we think it is for lifting people out of poverty. On the other hand, strategic investments in quality education (often in specific communities or students) enable young people to shift their vocational station from labourer to professional. Again, this kind of investment mirrors what we know is good practice in the developed world. Scholarships and grants, often with criteria based on student success, are designed to foster incentive and allow people to dream beyond their current economic reality.

In both educational and economic development, we must allow the in-country partner to manage the programs; otherwise we are simply engaging in nuanced colonialism. True charity is found in good-business-minded stewardship. It considers a long term (big picture) goal and is released without strings attached! In this sense, short term mission trips are a "short" piece of something much larger.

Pre-Flight Check Number 4: How Will We Prevent Poverty Tourism?

I will confess: I have been a poverty tourist. And in retrospect, it was one of the most disrespectful things I have ever done. At a particularly poignant moment, in Managua's infamous La Chureca dump, I was taking a picture of a young child (maybe five or six years old) in her "impoverished shack." But, it soon struck me, what long term intent did I have for this photo? Who was the audience? Why did I feel compelled to take the picture? Did I have the right to take the photo?

I put myself in the position of the child or the parents. If a group of tourists arrived on my street and began taking photos of my children as they played in my front yard, I would likely call the police or do worse! Poverty tourism is not just problematic, it is biblically reprehensible. Capturing images of human beings (often children) in our perceived state of poverty is an affront on their dignity. Furthermore, the use of those images to evoke an emotive response or, worse, drive donations is actually engaging in a kind of poverty-pornography. We too easily forget that they are made in the image of God and, for these neighbours in our human journey, the second commandment is powerfully enforce.

As I train short term teams on this topic, I include an article by Kennedy Odebe, a Kenyan man who grew up in Kiberia, one of the world's largest slums. In "Slumdog Tourism," Odebe remembers what it felt like to watch poverty tourists come and view his life like we do animals in a zoo. I find my teams respond to this conversation with a desire to leave the camera at home. I am often at a loss as to how to respond. In one sense they are right, we must discipline ourselves against poverty voyeurism. Other the other hand, the joy of photography is the documenting of our journeys, usually with the people who matter most to us. A short term mission trip should not be different. The standard, I think, is that as we participate in meaningful, dignified, cross-cultural friendships, then yes, photographs are appropriate. On the short term trips that I lead, I now take a small photo printer so that we can, in a limited way, share the joy of photos with the friends we make in our journeys. Sharing a photo is often a defining moment of the trip for the both the North American and the friends they make on these kinds of trips.

All human beings are responsible to each other, and for faith-based mission trips, the responsibility to honour all human life and to ascribe dignity to others is theological. As Jesus pointed out, even as you do to the least of these, you do to me. That is truly convicting.

Short term mission trips can be a meaningful aspect of our Christian life. Furthermore, they can provide important and meaningful contributions in communities throughout the world. Our generosity is required, but the charity that comes through these trips can cause harm. As your church or school considers its next missions trip, take time to consider these few questions in your strategic planning.

Ray Sawatsky
Ray Sawatsky

Based in British Columbia, Ray Sawatsky is the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of Global Aid Network (GAiN) Canada. Ray has served in a variety of non-profits as a Director of Operations, a Director of Fundraising, and a President, and has volunteered on numerous non-profit boards.


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