Short Term Trips, Long Term Deficits: A Critical Discussion

Google image depicting a young girl in Uganda.
Google image depicting a young girl in Uganda.

By Amy MacArthur

Short term mission trips are one way for Americans to start seeing the women, men, and children as people with real desires, goals, traditions, and stories of both triumph and tragedy, instead of “the poor starving children of Africa who just need Jesus”.

They allow thousands of people to have the opportunity to interact first hand with the need which exists in the villages, in a raw, unfiltered way.  The problem is, this is not often what happens. Americans shower their sponsor child or the children of the orphanage with gifts which do not improve quality of life, hug them once or twice,  and then send them away having a full heart knowing they are “making such a difference, look at that smile!”. The day after the bracelets are gone, and the children are in the same exact situation they were before the American’s “life changing experience”. Many of the local school teachers confessed that it was frustrating to have “Mzugu”, or (loosely translated) “white people” come in and disrupt the children’s lives, occasionally connecting with a few only to leave them, and further their abandonment issues. They need more than a hug and a pickup game of soccer to come to know Christ in their lives.

The poverty they are facing is not just material. It is found in abandonment from a young age by their family due to AIDS or meningitis, or simply lack of funds. It is in the non-existence of basic medical needs from antibacterial cream, to soap, to tylenol. It is in the constant danger of being raped, murdered, robbed, or beaten when walking two miles to get water(which is often unclean due to animals/feces and gives them illnesses) for the day before making their way to the schoolhouse. We want to fix their lives by pushing our western ideals of poverty alleviation on them, and yet do not know the first thing about their culture or needs.

“Our perspective should be less about how we are going to fix the materially poor and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us.” – Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts.

As I prepare to embark on my first missions trip in July to Uganda through Hope For Kids International, I was reminded of my experiences on the Mexico Avodah. Former Providence staff member Justin Bleeker’s sobering words on the effect of short term mission trips during the fall 2013 Mexico trip will forever stick with me.

“We think coming in and building a home is allowing families to thrive. We rush in and give what we think is best, leaving feeling ‘so blessed’ without really knowing what their needs really are or the negative impact we have. We don’t think of is how the church is divided over who is ‘the poorest’, or that deacons and elders have to let another family know they won’t be getting a home.”

Part of making a positive impact rather than being a part of the problem is reading up on the organization you are partnering with or giving money to. Is it in cooperation with and or run by the local people who have knowledge of their needs? Or is the relief effort or supplemental programs all coming from outside sources.