This article was originally published in the Fall ’07 issue of Revisions, The Least of These.
Isn’t it demoralizing for a community to have to have a team come all the way from the United States to help build…a house?
Two Christian friends from the U.S. who are doing an around-the-world mission trip for a year recently visited me in Mozambique where I’ve worked for the past year with a small non-profit through Princeton in Africa. As we sat one evening around a restaurant table during their visit, I could see my secular expatriate colleagues give pause and cock their heads in a look of polite but bemused wonder while my Christian friends explained that their world tour was funded through church donations. “You mean it’s almost all paid for by others?!,” was my colleagues’ wide-eyed response in a tone that equally meant “you are so lucky!” and “that’s not kosher!”
And if I’m right, which I think I might be, based on the many articles written on this topic and the questions I’ve been asked by fellow Christians, that’s how a lot of us feel about short-term mission trips. We’re not quite sure we like the idea of giving money to an untrained team traveling to do good works for a couple of weeks of the summer in a distant land with an unpronounceable name that we’re not sure refers to a city or country when all the team can say in the local language is “thank you” and, everyone’s favorite, “where’s the bathroom?” Even as I write this, my brother is in Bolivia on such a trip along with about fifteen other 13 to 19 year-olds.
Underlying our doubts, what we all want to know is: Will the team make a lasting positive change? Will they experience personal change? And most of all, is it worth all the change?—that is, the change in your (and your grandmother’s) piggy bank.
According to some wise development workers, missionaries, and Nicaraguans I interviewed for my senior thesis on this topic, here are some common misunderstandings about short-term missions that I hope to clarify.
Myth 1: Short-term mission teams take away more local jobs than they create.
One of the most common concerns about short-term mission trips is that we spend thousands of dollars to send an unskilled or semi-skilled team to build a house when local laborers could probably do the job ten times better, faster, and cheaper. What’s the point…isn’t this a waste?! How can local workers compete with this free imported labor? In truth, sometimes they really can’t compete, especially if local communities rely too much on mission teams to do work that the community is fully capable of. One pastor, for example, decided to wait several months for a mission team to arrive to fix the church’s roof, despite an adequate church budget that could have supplied a local laborer.1 In other cases, however, communities really don’t have the funds or resources to even begin a project. In these situations, the local laborers stand more of a chance of employment with the mission team than without it. Mission teams typically hire cooks, cleaners, guides, translators, drivers, and additional laborers, providing at least a brief opportunity for local employment, and perhaps longer term employment, depending on the type of project; a newly built school, for example, may provide stable teaching jobs. The key is knowing the needs and resources of a community and incorporating local workers into a project where possible.
Myth 2: Tourism doesn’t belong on a mission trip: “We are here to do hard work, not to have fun.”
These statements sound noble and prudent, but are they? Actually, a little bit of traditional tourism mixed into the trip not only provides the team with an often needed break, but also supports the local economy, gives volunteers a more complete and positive impression of the country, and provides the local population with a chance to proudly present their country’s treasures to their richer visiting counterparts. It can be a real boost to the receiving population to be able to give back to the team, and a bit of tourism is a simple way for them to do that. Plus the more tourism volunteers do, generally the more likely they are to return and to encourage others to visit. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend volunteers retiring to a five star hotel every night and flaunting their iPods as they relax on the beach, but a bit of modest tourism might do more good than you think.
Quick Tip: Small local handicrafts, stationary cards or coffee (if available) make great gifts for supporters back home. And at the same time, volunteers are supporting local tourism businesses.
Myth 3: Big Check vs. Volunteers: “Isn’t it better to just send money?”
Underlying this thinking is the rationale that sending money is more effective than sending volunteers and that more money could be donated if the quite significant amount of money raised for the airline ticket, passports and visas, accommodation, local transportation, and meals was instead sent in one large check to the mission agency or community. But is Big Check vs. volunteers really the choice? From my own observations and conversations with development workers, I think the actual options are Big Check vs. Bigger Check plus Volunteers. To illustrate this point, ask yourself—are you more likely to raise money for a project you are directly involved in or one that you have only heard about? Donation data from a non-profit in Nicaragua shows that donors who have visited or volunteered at projects tend to donate over twice as much in the long-run as donors who have not had such first-hand experiences.2 Generally, the more personal your connection to a good organization or community, the greater your trust and the more likely you are to raise money and also awareness for the cause.
The same applies to mission trip supporters. Aunt Sally, for example, wants to support her nephew’s trip to Mozambique, so she sends him a $100 check, not necessarily because she even cares a great deal about the cause or country, but because she wants to support her nephew. Without that very personal connection to a place or organization, it is unlikely that so much money could be raised.
Myth 4: The “mission trip effect” quickly wears off with little lasting impact on the mission team.
Sure, we think, volunteers may use water sparingly the first week they’re home from their mission trip or they might go on a shopping fast, but before long everyone slips back into their normal lives. The poverty of the world becomes once more a fuzzy dream.
I confess, this has happened to me. My mom can attest to my sudden enthusiasm for helping her with household chores fading just days after my return from a mission trip. On the other hand, a large reason for my commitment to working in international development long-term can be traced to my early experiences as a 13 year-old on a mission trip in Mexico. Apparently I’m not the only one whose life has been changed by such experiences. In my research, over half of Nicaragua Christian Academy’s teachers joined because of a short-term mission trip experience that inspired them.3 And nearly every missionary or development worker that I surveyed or interviewed said that a previous short-term volunteer trip had played a pivotal role in their decision to work long-term in
Myth 5: Mission teams diminish a community’s sense of self worth.
Isn’t it demoralizing for a community to have to have a team come all the way from the United States to help build….a house?
Sometimes, yes, a team’s know-it-all, valiant hero attitude can make a community feel like a helpless damsel in distress who desperately needs her American rescuer to accomplish anything. This is what’s called a dependency attitude and this develops when a community becomes so accustomed to financial help that it underestimates its own worth and capabilities and no longer seeks innovative ways to prosper. To my surprise, though, the Nicaraguan leaders and foreign missionaries that I interviewed said that well-run mission trips are actually more like a vitamin boost to a community, providing the encouragement and financial support necessary to jumpstart and support community development. As one Nicaraguan translator explained to me, it is a tremendous encouragement to Nicaraguans to know that the rich Americans they see on TV care enough to leave their comforts and come live and work alongside of them.
When [mission teams] come along it’s more about others than themselves. It is noticeable from the community. They see how some of the teams sleep on foam mattresses on the floor, while others [sleep] in people’s houses. They can’t believe that a North American is getting all muddy walking up a hill just to go see an old lady 120 years old.5 Then, according to this same translator, the volunteerism spreads. “It’s beginning to happen,” he said. “I have seen in the last three years that more Nicaraguans are having the initiative to go out. They saw the example and now Nicaraguan churches are sending out teams both within Nicaragua and to other countries.”6
Most surprising to me, though, was my conversation with an accomplished Nicaraguan who is both a pastor and a doctor and has devoted most of his life to promoting healthcare in rural Nicaraguan communities. According to his observations, mission teams actually encourage civic engagement by going to build a school or clinic in a community where the government rarely steps foot. This triggers a process that the Brazilian sociologist Paulo Freire calls conscientization, in which the community becomes more aware of its needs, and in this case, realizes that if a North American team can help, their own government should too.7
Perhaps mission trips may not always seem like the most cost-effective and professional international development strategy, but as the Nicaraguan pastor and doctor summarized a mission team’s impact, “Anywhere when you have someone that shows interest in you, it really makes a difference in one’s life.”8
Which leaves me thinking: next time, my world-traveling missionary friends, your meal is on me.
- Elisabeth Merritt, email to author, 27 Feb. 2006. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Liam Starkenburg, Interview by author, Managua, Nicaragua, Jan. 2006. [↩]
- Lisa Frist, Volunteer Tourism and Sustainable development, Senior Thesis (Princeton University, 10 April 2006), 64. [↩]
- Emerson Diaz, Interview by author, Managua, Nicaragua, 7 Jan. 2006. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed, (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989), 19. [↩]
- Gustavo Parajon, Interview by author, Managua, Nicaragua, 3 Jan. 2006. [↩]