Why Mission Trips are a Bad Idea

I've seen quite a few people trying to raise money for mission trips to places like Haiti or Kenya, using crowdfunding sites like gofundme.org. There was a time when I would have thought this was a good idea.  Some organizations want to do good work in other parts of the world and people in first world countries tend to be generous with their time and money when faced with photos of starving orphans and wooden shacks.  Now that I'm married to a man from an African country, and we've traveled extensively, I've learned there are several problems with the whole idea of a mission trip, which is nothing more than a glorified vacation that puts money in the organizer's pocket and leaves you feeling good.

Most people who are said to be benefitting from your visit don't need you to save them by spending 10 days in their country. I know the attraction is that by you raising $3000 and showing up, they will be better off.  The truth is  they need long term services and a commitment which often requires your understanding of the problems they face. They often need a better water supply, local pharmacies, trained doctors, English teachers, and a government supportive of their needs.  They need continuting financial support to complete secondary education or vocational training. All of this takes time and educated professionals.

In 2009, we went on a "business networking trip" organized by a Milwaukee alderman to South Africa.  It was my first trip to Africa, and we were there to listen and learn about how we could potentially partner with them.  One of the days we visited a school to donate computers.  It seemed like such a great idea, but when we got there, the mayor said the computers couldn't be used yet because the school had no electricity to most of the classrooms.  How had that detail gone unnoticed? The alderman continued to tell my husband that computer donations were still a good idea months afterwards.  When my husband upgraded some of his office computers, he shipped the old computers to a village in South Africa.  The software had "gone missing" during the customs inspection, leaving the computers virtually useless.  Another time we shipped a laptop to Ethiopia, paying $200 for postage, and had to spend the value of the computer in import taxes.  Even though you believe you're helping solve a problem, it might be harder than you think.
Children at the South African school

These mission trips go to places which often are better off than our own US neighborhoods.  Recently I saw a mission trip going to Nairobi, Kenya.  Have you ever seen a photo of Nairobi with its high rise buildings?  Or read about its "silicon valley" entrepreneurs? We could probably learn a few things from them. Sure there are orphans in Africa, but we have plenty of children who need shoes, school supplies, and adult mentors. Check out  volunteer organizations in your own zip code or ask your local churches who needs help nearby before you race to the other side of the world. My husband grew up in Somalia.  My home church in Illinois used to raise funds through UNICEF for this country, but it turns out that he lived in a walled villa and had servants.  He attended private schools. I was the one raised by a single mother who could barely buy groceries and heat our house in winter.

When you think you are helping these people, you might actually be hurting them.  If you provide items, let's say like free shoes, you could be putting the local shoemaker out of business.  TOMS shoes owners learned this firsthand, and changed their business model to include other philanthropic projects like access to water. When you build houses and churches, there are local people who are not working. Unless you have a specific skill they don't have, you shouldn't be there interfering in their lives. Driving through Uganda a few years ago, we saw men laying fiber optic cable using shovels and pickaxes. There were road construction projects being done similarly. When I asked why they were not using heavy machinery, the driver explained that more jobs could be provided using manual labor.  Automation was faster and easier, but they needed lots of jobs in the rural areas, and this was a means.

The average mission trip costs the participant several thousand dollars. If you sent that money directly to an aid organization anywhere in the world, they could do more good using local people who know what is needed.  You'd put locals to work and buy them products needed for a particular situation. In some countries, $3000 would be enough to support a family for an entire year.

Your selfies usually won't help anyone but you. Being in a pool of little black kids saying you're helping them might look good on your social media site, but doesn't do anything for their pride.

What can you do instead? Well, if you can afford to travel, go visit another country.  Meet the people by eating at their restaurants or staying at their hotels.  Whenever possible, use businesses owned by locals rather than international chains. Hire them to be tour guides. Buy locally made goods to bring back home. You end up having a great vacation and support them too. At Petra, Jordan, I could have hiked the hills on my own, but I paid a Bedouin guide to take me on a donkey for a couple hours. He spoke English well and I learned more than I would have from the travel book I'd brought with me.  He shared personal stories about his life at Petra. The experience I enjoyed was much better because of this.
My Bedouin guide at Petra

You still want to help orphans?  Contact local churches and schools in these countries and connect with children who need financial help. You can fund food, housing, school supplies, and clothing. Sometimes it doesn't take much.  I support an Ethiopian teen who was able to stay in school and continue his studies and it only took $100 per month. When we met, he was carrying bags for tourists and shining shoes to earn change, always worried about where his next meal would come.

Do you have skills that could help a budding entrepreneur?  Share your knowledge or services from your own living room.  Skype and Whatsapp makes conversation easy, if you want to create a dialogue. When we visited Lalibela, Ethiopia we met a young man who was an exceptional guide.  He shared his day with us as if we were already good friends, and treated our son like a little brother.  We helped advertise his guiding services by creating a website so he could connect with people all over the world and got him listed on TripAdvisor. Now he's able to have work that brings income.
"Happy," the guy in the blue shirt, was our guide who grew his business

When you visit a place, find out what is needed. Some private schools or charities have a Facebook page where they list what they need. We found Sjaki-Tari-Us, a school and resource center for special needs kids in Bali that posted school supplies. They also have a donate button on the website. We collected a suitcase of paper, crayons, and gluesticks before we went on our trip and donated them in person. Our son, who has Down syndrome, got to spend a couple hours playing music and dancing with the local kids which was great for everyone.

A little bit of cash can go a long way on an international loan site like Kiva.  You fund your lending accounty, then make a loan to someone you find on the site. They grow their business and repay the loan.  You can lend again. This website even has a US donor page. Turns out there were plenty of Americans looking for small loans to grow businesses, and some have matching funds. If you have limited funds, this might be the best option to make your "mission trip" dollars go furthest.  Whatever you decide, do the research and make sure you're benefitting someone other than yourself.


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