Damaging effects of short-term missions

During my MA in theology, I wrote a paper on short-term missions (STMs) in January 2010. Seven years later, not much has changed: too little critical reflection on STMs is happening. One of the most prominent Christian mission organisations, YWAM, still includes STMs as part of their discipleship training school’s outreach part.

Having just finished the 2012 edition of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself, I am again frustrated. Why are STMs so problematic?

(Numbers between brackets below are page numbers of this book.)

Money down the drain

Research from 2006 shows that Americans alone spent $1.6 billion on STMs (p. 151). Let me repeat that: 1.6 billion US dollars. In a lot of cases, this is money that is used to send people to organise a summer camp, do a paint job, or bring some food over. All things that could have been done by locals for a much better price.

Moreover, research also shows that long-term mission is competing with this budget. The money Christians donate is a limited resource; what is spent on STMs isn’t on missions that actually make a difference.

Many Westerners prefer donating to STMs because they see a fast return on investment. They pay the money and a few weeks or months later they can attend a PowerPoint-powered presentation of a white person with some black kids in it and feel good about themselves. Long-term mission generally doesn’t have this kind of fast, “rewarding” output.

Because: no difference

You understood correctly when I implied that STMs do not make a significant difference. They do not change cultural and economic situations of the people they are targeted at. At most, they are a band-aid on a wound that needs surgery.

But what about the missionaries on those trips? One of the arguments that I’ve heard several times goes something like this: even if it doesn’t help the locals, at least the effects on the person going there are significant. I hate to disappoint you there as well, but that’s also not true. Longitudinal research shows that there is no significant change in the ethics/morality of people going on STMs, nor is there a lasting effect on how they spend their money. STMs have no noticeable effect in the long run. The one or two exceptions you (and I) may know are exactly that: exceptions.

Or worse: damaging effect

It can get even worse: they damage poverty alleviation. When Helping Hurts poignantly points to three problems with STMs, and I’ll add a fourth.

First of all, most of them focus on a solely material definition of poverty (p. 155). People living in poverty do not just need stuff like money and food. On the contrary, just offering those things creates or further establishes dependency, making an already problematic situation worse. There’s need for restoration of relationships and economic empowerment, but those structural challenges simply cannot be solved in a mere two-week trip.

Second, it displays our Western God-complexes; we – again: often unwillingly – see ourselves as the world’s saviours.

The naivety of (often) young travellers that they will transform an African community while not speaking the language, not having a skillset that actually could be of meaning and being quite demanding along the way, is shocking.

I’ve seen it happen first-hand when being in Burkina Faso. A Belgian STM team had come to organise a kids camp, but the majority of the teenagers that came with weren’t fluent enough in French to not only communicate to the kids but also to the local partners. They identified their most significant experiences going to the local supermarket and the crafts market. Ultimately, they were a draining nuisance on the missionary organisation they were supposed to help. That mission organisation never accepted them for STMs again.

Our Western history is flooded with examples of Messiah-complexes showing our strong conviction that we are here to save the rest of the world. One of the first ways this arrogance is displayed in how we do not understand the culture when we travel somewhere. We jump to conclusions about local ethics, behaviours and structures before we’ve taken the time to properly listen. We should learn to listen.

We can also start by renaming these STMs to what they really are: mission holidays. They aren’t really helping locals, at best they are giving the “missionaries” on those trips a good experience, or if the experience wasn’t that great because the Majority World can be rough, a good feeling about themselves.

Third, in the wake of our colonial history, STMs reek of Western dominance. What the heck are we communicating to locals if we travel 10,000km to do a paint job? I’ll tell you: the underlining – even though hopefully unintended – rhetoric is that you need a Westerner to do a proper job.

With STMs, we aren’t just communicating that we know better, by logical consequence we’re giving locals feelings of inferiority. And by doing so, we’re making it worse. STMs aren’t parting with the West’s colonial history; they are affirming and enforcing a relationship of dependence, power and superiority. Ironically, they are completely ignoring the contribution colonialism had to the impoverishment of many of these countries and communities in the first place by stealing their resources and their pride.

Finally, you might actually be doing damage related to the problem you’re trying to solve. Like me … When I did my internship in Burkina Faso in 2006, I worked at an orphanage. There I encountered Aziz, a 6-year old boy whose dad was a witch doctor thrown in jail and whose stepmom kicked him out on the streets. There, gangs grabbed him and enforced narcotics on him, making him dependent on them so they could use him as a drug mule because the police wouldn’t suspect him.

When I got to Ouagadougou, Aziz had all the textbook symptoms of severe attachment disorder – I know because I actually checked a university textbook on development psychology. Now, this Western kid (me) arrived there and invested three months of time and energy in this kid, helping him to deal with his attachment issues, only to leave him again after that time. And leaving him in a worse condition than when I got there; because I affirmed the causes of his attachment issues, i.e. that people in his life will keep abandoning him.

Luckily, I found out through the newsletters of the missionary organisation that they were able to help him more long-term, but that’s definitely not because of me and it might just be in spite of me.

Now, tell me that STMs are not damaging! I know this is just an example, but it is one that I’ve heard time and again. I’m definitely not the only one who’s done it wrong at the expense of those who are already powerless.

Questions for STMs

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert finally raise several good points and questions for those who still want to go on an STM trip.

First, what type of help are STMs offering? Relief would be helping to reconstruct houses after a natural disaster of a fire like in Hout Bay recently. It seems that the help STMs think they offer is this category, but relief should be offered in drastic situations for a short period of time. By the time an STM is organised, it would already be too late for relief.

Most contexts that STMs focus on do not fit this category; those contexts are in need of long-term development (p 157). Development, however, is a process and not a product of a two-week trip.

Second, do we know what the needs and assets are (p. 158)? Let’s take the example of the paint job again: is it really the biggest need of the community to have Westerners come paint their house? And do they really not have any assets in the community that can actually paint a house? How can you use and empower the skills set pool that is already present where you’re headed.

Third, what is the participatory relationship (p. 160)? We are all opinionated and have an idea of what should be done about a situation, but what about the opinion of the locals and those who need the help. In Mark 10, Jesus arrives at Bartimaeus, a man who is blind and clearly needs help. It’s not even difficult to see that he needs help. But Jesus doesn’t just decide for the blind man, he asks Bartimaeus: “What can I do for you?” By doing this, he gives him ownership of the situation.

If the only purpose of an STM is to help impoverished communities, I believe every single one of those trips should come to the point where they calculate their spendings and ask the people they are planning to help (or a local partner): would you prefer that we come to help you or would you rather us donate the money so you can organise the help yourself?

I wonder how many local partners would choose the first option.

If you’re interested in reading my 7-year-old paper, you can do that here or just below this paragraph.