I have a deep suspicion, at times cynicism, about short-term mission trips. Some of you already know this about me. I say this with reservation because I know so many people who say a short-term mission trip was so transformative for them (though I do remember reading a study awhile back that said these trips have lasting impact on precious few people.) So while I can freely admit that these trips have positive merits there are two things that deeply disturb me. One is concern for the dignity and welfare of the poor who are supposedly being "helped" and the other is the all to frequent experiential consumerism I fear I hear in those who take these trips.
Rafia Zakaria has an excellent op ed piece in Aljeezra America, The white tourist’s burden. "Growing Western demand for altruistic vacations is feeding the white-savior industrial complex." She writes:
... If designer clothes and fancy cars signal material status, his story of a deliberate embrace of poverty and its discomforts signals superiority of character. As summer looms, many Americans — college students, retirees and others who stand at the cusp of life changes — will make similar choices in search of transformational experiences. An industry exists to make these easier to make: the voluntourism business.
A voluntourist is someone like Jack, who wishes to combine exotic vacation travel with volunteer work. For anyone interested in being one, a dizzying array of choices awaits, from building schools in Uganda or houses in Haiti to hugging orphans in Bali. In all of them, the operational equation is the same: wealthy Westerners can do a little good, experience something that their affluent lives do not offer, and, as in Jack’s case, have a story to tell that places them in the ranks of the kindhearted and worldly wise.
As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs....
It troubles me that the central aim is often not on discerning how to partner with others in order to authentically improve well-being. Rather the aim is for the volunteer to have a particular type of "experience" that is meaningful to him or her. That is not to say authentic partnership can't be meaningful but it is to say that true partnership is frequently frustrating, messy, and at times disappointing. Partnership is also long-term. The traveler is often actually a consumer, purchasing an experience for his or her own therapeutic purposes.
It troubles me further that for volunteers on these trips, the experience becomes a type of conspicuous consumption. Just like sporting my new iPhone shows off my techie style, talking about my noble experience working with the poor becomes a way of sporting my superior moral character and street smarts. And what really troubles me most is that I can identify these traits in my own life at times and I am deeply aware of how seductive this stuff is.
But the problem doesn't end here. As Zakaria shows, too often these trips are actually disruptive and destructive of the long-term welfare of the people being "helped." They can destroy jobs, break-up families, and foster dependence. This type of work needs to be carefully scrutinized but far too often good intentions are thought to be enough. Due diligence and serious introspection is needed.
Zakaria rightly concludes:
Despite its flaws, the educational aspect of voluntourism’s cross-cultural exchange must be saved, made better instead of being rejected completely. Natalie Jesionka, a columnist at the Daily Muse, offers future voluntourists some direction on making a real impact on their trips. ...
Two book length resources I would suggest are Corbett and Fikkert's When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, and Bob Lupton's, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It.