Overseas mission work used to be the domain of a few, but since the 1990s there has been an explosion of short-term mission trips (STMs)—from 120,000 in 1989 to 2.2 million in 2006. If you have participated in a short-term mission or supported someone going on one, then you have joined the “mission work as mainstream” trend.
But do short-term mission trips help or hurt the countries they serve? Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s wildly successful book When Helping Hurts suggests that short-term mission trips are often cross-culturally inappropriate and paternalistic. Many scholars agree, not only about mission trips, but also about global service in general. Dambisa Moyo’s 2009 book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, argues that foreign aid creates dependency, focuses too narrowly on economic growth and contributes to corruption. The real solution to alleviating poverty in poorer countries, she argues, is free markets and better governance; outside aid is not necessary.
Others disagree. One economist, Jeffrey Sachs, who has long been a major supporter of foreign aid, worked alongside people like UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the celebrity Bono to promote increases in foreign aid. They argued that rich countries were morally responsible for providing foreign aid to poor countries. Sachs pointed out that aid levels in the past were paltry or, for political reasons, the aid had been directed toward corrupt governments that squandered the aid, such as Mobutu’s Zaire. If the West targeted its aid to countries that really needed it, poor countries would get a big boost in their economic development.
This debate puts before us some very important questions: Can North American Christians, whether through traditional aid strategies or two-week trips, truly help people in poorer countries? If so, how?
Christians have long been engaged in helping people around the world improve their lives. Since the mid-1990s Calvin College has had an international development studies (IDS) program to help students learn more about how to help. But the debates have taken a toll on our students. As professors in Calvin’s IDS program, we have both noticed how incoming students have changed. Ten years ago, they entered Calvin with unbridled enthusiasm for “serving the world’s poor.” As the debates have unfolded, however, a jaded response has become common. These days, students are increasingly pessimistic about the prospect of serving in the Global South; such work, they have come to believe, is either opportunistic, paternalistic or both.
Our new Calvin Short, When Helping Heals, works through the debates about aid and STMs by looking back over the history of international development from the end of World War II to the present. We seek to discover what we have learned over the last 70 years about helping people. It’s surely true that some efforts have been harmful, but many others have been helpful, and we want to identify the lessons learned. Today, large-scale programs like the Sustainable Development Goals and grassroots development organizations like World Renew incorporate many of these lessons. Here are a few of them:
- Human and social development isn’t only about economics.
- Responding to immediate needs is sometimes necessary, but building on people’s and countries’ own assets is ultimately more effective than identifying needs and simply responding to those.
- We must focus on individuals and local communities, but we must also pay attention to larger systems, like judicial systems.
The overall message of this Calvin Short is that if we build on what works and learn from our mistakes, we can indeed commit ourselves to working with our neighbors to build a world where the dignity of everyone is respected, the voice of everyone is heard, and the well-being of everyone is assured.