Mission: impossible (to help)

Graphic by Juhi Karnalkar | Mercury Staff

At first glance, short-term mission trips might seem like a good way to get involved in humanitarian work, but they are actually more harmful than helpful to the communities they seek to assist.

Mission trips seek to help disadvantaged communities, usually in other countries, by doing activities such as building houses and schools, caring for children and providing medical assistance. Trips are frequently church-sponsored, and most mission trips available to college students are short-term trips that are one or two weeks long.

While accessible, these trips are too short to have long-lasting helpful impacts. Their brief duration allows for short-lived solutions such as bringing food to communities, instead of long-lasting sustainable solutions like working closely with communities to allocate resources such as machinery for improved crops.

Another fatal flaw in short-term mission trips is that they seek to fix rather than to help. These trips aim to rescue disadvantaged communities from their problems and believe that their methods are globally applicable regardless of the history, current affairs and needs of specific communities. Because of this, mission trips can offer unhelpful solutions that stunt community growth and lead to counter-productivity. For example, a common activity in short-term mission trips is building homes, but ironically, those trips are most populated by teenagers and college students who have limited or no training in building infrastructure. Sending a bunch of college students to construct a house that a local could’ve built better or was entirely unneeded is uncalled for, wastes the community’s time and presents the community with the unnecessary work of figuring out what they’re supposed to do with an unhabitable or unneeded home.

Mission trip activities like building houses also strip natives of financial opportunities. There are already builders, teachers, farmers and other natives with expertise in disadvantaged communities who can perform their craft better than college students from another country. Trying to do local specialists’ craft for them presents them with unnecessary financial competition by temporarily taking away a job they could’ve gotten paid for.  Short-term missionaries fail to understand communities’ core needs and thus disempower them by spreading the message that they must depend on foreign assistance, even with tasks they can already handle.

Additionally, mission trips are exploitative when they serve as a glorified vacation instead of a genuine humanitarian effort. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s heard missionaries talk about how mission trips have forever changed them, pulling up pictures of them posing with poor children as evidence. However, if a missionary’s main goal is to broaden their perspective, expose themselves to the injustices of the world or experience culture, then a humanitarian trip isn’t the right place to achieve it.

Furthermore, missionaries who go on mission trips solely to spread the Gospel to non-Christian communities are disingenuous. Attempting to convert a disadvantaged community’s religion is unfair and wastes their time as they would likely prefer actual aid over Bible study. Humanitarian efforts that can’t offer qualified help while spreading Christ could run the risk of becoming a serious detriment. Renee Bach was an American religious missionary who said she felt compelled by God to run a children’s hospital in Uganda despite having no medical background. 105 children died under her care by the time the hospital shut down five years later.

There are better ways to support disadvantaged communities than going on harmful short-term mission trips. Donating money to charitable organizations – like Me to We, KIVA, and the Water Project – that work closely with communities to help boost their economy, allocating scarce resources and empowering native workers are all more effective options. By donating to charitable organizations, you are ensuring that all your money goes toward its intended cause.