Damaging effects of short-term missions


I don’t think I can add much more to what my colleague Job writes here in a post about the futility, waste and even damage that short-term missions (i.e., those “Spring Break” volunteer opportunities that students and adults alike engage in). Harsh words? Maybe. True words? Yes. I’ve long been suspicious and downright cynical about these “humanitarian missions”, where a big chunk of time on the ground is spent on tourism and feel-good photo opps, and limited (if any) time actually devoted to making any kind of significant progress or difference in the local communities they purportedly benefit. Most of the money donated to these missions is spent on the personal expenses of individual participants (airfare, lodgings, food, and “pocket money”), the total sum of which could probably build and feed an entire village in most rural areas of the world. Why do religious institutions, schools, and otherwise well-meaning charities continue to sponsor and promote these financially inefficient programs, rather than putting more effort into developing, strengthening, and supporting local and national institutions that have demonstrated their commitment to finding long-term solutions and who have a deep understanding of what’s truly needed by the communities they serve?

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…

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