Tanzania school group with author

Is There Anything to Be Said For International Mission Trips?

December 15, 2020

Poverty tourism is rightly criticized for its inherent arrogance and lack of cultural awareness. Typically, a comparatively wealthy group of volunteers descend as a group, often complete with matching T-Shirts that boast slogans like “bringing light to the darkness.” Over a short period of time, rarely more than two weeks, these arguably well-meaning volunteers do things like paint or teach English or play with kids in an orphanage. What could be so bad about that?

The problems are many, from inducing volunteer organizations to round up fake orphans when mission groups show up, to depriving local workforce of low-skill job opportunities. Moreover, rarely is there an ongoing relationship between the visitors and the recipients. The model is normally that the volunteers parachute in (not quite literally) throw a lot of money around and bring largely unneeded donations of things like used clothes. One practical tip on donating used clothes, consider the climate – thick wool sweaters aren’t much use in the tropics.

Sadly, these kinds of trips could be incredibly productive if the focus was turned around to how will the visitors be transformed. At the end of the day, the work that the mission group do and the resources they inject make little long-term difference. But these same volunteers could be incredibly transformed by the experience if the emphasis is placed on how they will be changed and what they will learn and by extension apply that in their own lives going forward.

If these programs are built to inspire and challenge the volunteers, in a spirit of mutuality and long-term commitment with elements of reciprocity, then you’ve got something worthwhile.

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