This year I have a new job which is titled "Uquest leader" for campus ministries. My job is to plan a "poverty alleviation/ transformational development experience" which will include equipping college students with information about world issues and taking them on a short term "mission trip" to Nicaragua.
I've been reading the book "Helping without Hurting in short term missions" with Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I definitely recommend reading the book if you are a missions junkie, wanting to spend time abroad, or even wanting to attend a short term trip to "save the children." It is definitely eye opening and a painful but necessary read.
According to Corbett, short term mission trips have been quite the common trend aka voluntourism with around 2,200,000 people sent as short term missionaries to "save the world" in 2000 and rates still rising*. It is estimated that approximately 2.2 billion dollars is spent on short term trips every year*. If it could be shown that significant improvements had been made because of this money being spent or people being led to Christ who had never heard the Gospel, that would be one thing. But the terrible news is that many of these mission trips are doing more harm than good.
Let me address a few typical problems.
1. Short term participants often do not understand the language of the country they are traveling too to visit. Without understanding the language how can they bond with the local people? Must they hire translators? Will they be able to understand and learn the culture without knowing how to communicate?
2. Short term participants often GIVE free goods. They bring presents thinking they are saving the world, all the while destroying the communities' local businesses as well as pride. Americans often go to visit thinking they know what's best. But when free clothes are dumped it takes out the need for the villages to shop and barter. They are then encouraged not to work hard for their money but to beg and ask for more. No wonder when they see a white person they can't help but ask "Prestame... Give me.. please." No more. The free goods must stop. There is a difference between relief and emergency providence (after natural emergencies) and giving to the poverty trap.
3. Short term participants waste A TON of money. If the money they spent going on their trip could be given directly for the community to invest in education, infrastructure, health or create more local jobs, it could go so far. But instead trips of 40 people often spend 40,000 solely on airfare before even getting to the country they desire to help. Then there is the fact that so often participants on trips have no skills in the area they are assigned to work. For instance what is the point in charging $2000 per high school student to send them on a construction and VBS trip when in reality 85% of them have never done construction before in their life and will be slow not to mention miserable in the sun. Have they ever volunteered for VBS in their local church or is it just the glory of international service and tourism that interests them?
4. Short term participants develop a false view of the world and sense of pride. This is something I personally have a hard time with. I grew up wanting to help people and somehow my first mission trip I learned that I could do something small to change the world. The problem is not my attitude towards helping the problem is the attitude I begin to develop that I think I know the answers or that I can be someone else's hero when in reality I am "poor" too and Christ alone can save us all. We think we have all the answers for other countries or families' poverty. In reality unless we have done tons of research on the history of their community and spent time getting to know them personally, we have no idea what specific needs we could actually help meet.
I'm not saying we should just throw all efforts at helping people around the world out the window. What I am saying is we need to evaluate the actual impact so many short term mission trips are making. We need to research how to better invest our money to help not hurt people who are struggling with poverty. We need to seek to understand by learning from the people of different communities instead of coming in with our own game plans of what we think needs to be done.