Did this pile of children's underwear, though appreciated by the mothers, actually help effectively? Or could we have bought more for less in the market and supported the local economy?
I read this article, “Letter to a Short-Term Missionary” a few months ago, and I think it contains valuable insight about short-term aid trips (though focussed on religiously-affiliated ones) that I’d like to share. Read it here, and then come back to read my take and contribute your voice to the discussion!
I’d like to preface this with the reminder of my personal experience with an international religious short-term aid trip (I wrote a post here). One of the biggest aspects to overcome once home from the trip, for both my mother and I, was that we felt that we had not made a difference, and that we had wasted money on flights and our costs that could have been put to better use by the locals. It took us a while to realize that while that was true, the experience also deeply changed our perspectives on life, and restructured our values system. Although we lived frugally before the trip, it inspired us to be more frugal and less focussed on consumer goods. And, the biggest change for me, it redirected me from studying music or art in university, to international development.
Personally, I agree wholeheartedly with all the bolded points of Bob Lupton’s letter. Short-term trips are more about teaching the participants about the world their eyes are so often blinded to, than about making immediate change in the world.
I think that time and again, short-term trips are marketed as being a huge help to the people we visit, when it actually is more likely to harm the culture, economy, and pride of the people we so want to help. Is bringing a suitcase full of stickers, candy, and underwear along to hand out really making a valuable difference in lives? Modifying the way in which these trips are marketed, to be more about your learning experience, is a better method than leaving short-termers wondering about their ‘impact’ after they leave.
The two-way relationship is also regularly lost – if it is only about handouts, and not about learning from each other and contributing to each other’s lives tangibly, I think the trip loses the ability to be a valid way of creating change.
Finally, the important and many times ignored aspect of the trip - preparation. Learning about the other culture, history, the organization the group will work with, other people’s experiences, being briefed on culture shock, etc., are all extremely important to having an effective team. Before I went on my trip, I read multiple books on short-term missions, completed a training course on aid work and cultural differences, and read 5 books on Rwandan history – all as part of the required preparation to go. In comparison, I have also seen family members go on similar trips to other countries, having received only a few hours of tutelage on the culture and language they would encounter.
As I begin to prepare in earnest for my placement, I have acknowledged to myself that I will most likely not make a huge change in any one person’s life, other than my own. I may have an impact through my work with the organization, but it will be a result of the cumulative effort of myself, my co-workers, and predecessors. I also go into this placement excited to learn a lot from the people I work with and for, and hope to gain an even broader understanding of the world through my interactions with another new-to-me culture. And believe me, my need for control means that I am already researching Malawi and as much other information I can find about the people groups, culture, language, bugs and critters, availability of groceries (I plan on trying out hand washing my clothes in the near future as well). Oh man, I better stop listing things because I am finding more to research and I’ll be up all night.
Anyhow – what did you think of the letter? Do you agree with Bob Lupton’s points and my arguments for them? Or do you have a different perspective to share?
Welcome! My name is Katiana and I am a development professional pursuing my dream to live out Isaiah 1:17 to the best of my abilities. I am passionate about teaching and working with vulnerable families and children to improve their lives sustainably.
This blog is composed of my personal opinions, which do not necessarily reflect the opinion or views of institutions or organizations that I may be or have been affiliated with.