Monday, August 23, 2010

Helping Without Hurting, part 1

One of the consistent topics I wrote about this summer was my growing passion for battling poverty and the things that cause it in this world. However, the more I have sought answers, the bigger and more difficult to solve the problem appeares. Poverty is completely pervasive in this world. It is everywhere. It is huge. Thinking about taking it on makes me feel like Apollo Creed about to step in the ring with Ivan Drago. (If you don't know Rocky, click the link).

Yet, no matter how huge the problem is (and it is), I am dead set on looking for ways to solve it. Why? Because my heart was broken. As I become passionate about one thing or another (such as my skepticism towards church, disgust towards Christian politics, etc.), I seek out ways to further my understanding of the subject. I have no illusions that my ideas are the best; rather, I choose seek out experts in their respective fields and hear what they have to say. After learning from people who know more than I do, I adjust my own ideas and beliefs and move forward from there.

If I am going to claim that I want to learn from experts, I need to back it up by doing so. There are some particular individuals whom I call friends who have a similar passion for social justice and helping society. Picking their brains has steered me toward a handful of books and experts from which to learn. These books include The End of Poverty by Sachs, When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert, among others.

Very recently I began reading the Corbett/Fikkert book (thank you Amazon) with a great deal of anticipation and excitement. One of the ideas I have struggled with in the last few months is the value (or lack thereof) of short term missions. It seems to me that the costs associated with providing a large group of high school or college students with travel (airfare), lodging, food and other things become extremely expensive, and in large part is wasted. Perhaps I should provide a fictional example to illustrate what I am talking about. Let's say that we have a youth group of, say, 20 high schoolers. This group wants to take a week long mission trip to, say, Mexico, and build a church (or school or orphanage or whatever). According to Expedia, a roundtrip flight from Cincinnati to Houston would cost roughly $200 per person. The people on this trip would have to eat, so there would be costs associated with that. $15 per day per person for food costs sounds appropriate. Day to day costs of transportation to and from the worksite (buses, etc.) might cost up to $100 per person for the week. And so on. In general, individual costs for a mission trip can get up to $1000, but for my purposes here we can benchmark it at $500 for each person on the trip. Not unreasonable at all.

Twenty kids at 500 bucks apiece adds up to ten grand. Ten thousand dollars. Imagine how much good could be done with $10,000 in an impoverished community in a second or third world country. Instead, we use that money to send wide-eyed students with no skills or experience into a situation where they are by and large useless except for basic manual labor. In my high school, these trips are happening with 200 kids, not just twenty. The money being spent is astronomical. Here is my alternative: pay contractors in the country to build the church/school/whatever. This creates jobs (both for specialists and for manual labor) in places where work is likely difficult to come by, and in doing so helps the local economy in addition to helping whatever specific group the building or whatnot was for. Or give the money to missionaries who live in the community and know best how it can be spent. Or use the money to plant a missionary. Et cetera.

This is the (very) basic idea behind my many thoughts on short term missions. I hate the idea of wasted resources, and it seems as though more could be done with the money we use to send kids (or whomever) on these trips. But Corbett and Fikkert take this to another level. To these men it appears that our well-intentioned missions work and charity to third world areas isn't just wasting resources, but it is actually hurting the communities there. I began reading their book with all this in mind, and encountered the following selection in the introduction:
"We write this book with a great deal of excitement about the renewed interest in helping low-income people that is so apparent among North American Christians. While materialism, self-centeredness, and complacency continue to plague all of us, nobody can deny the upswing in social concern among North American evangelicals in the past two decades. There is perhaps no better illustration of this trend than the exploding short-term mission movement, much of which has focused on ministering to the poor at home and abroad.

But our excitement about these developments is seriously tempered by two convictions. First, North American Christians are simply not doing enough. We are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth. Period. Yet, most of us live as though there is nothing terribly wrong in the world. We attend our kids' soccer games, pursue our careers, and take beach vacations while 40 percent of the world's inhabitants struggle just to eat every day. And in our own backyards, the homeless, those residing in ghettos, and a wave of imigrants live in a world outside the economic and social mainstream of North America. We do not necessarily need to feel guilty about our wealth. But we do need to get up every morning with a deep sense that something is terribly wrong with the world and yearn and strive to do something about it. There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on.

Second, many observers, including Steve and I, believe that when North American Christians do attempt to alleviate poverty, the methods used often do considerable harm to both the materially poor and the materially non-poor. Our concern is not just that these methods are wasting human, spiritual, financial, and organizational resources but that these methods are actually exacerbating the very problems they are trying to solve."

The goal, then, becomes to discover methods that do not harm the people we are trying to help. The reason this post has a "part 1" at the end of the title is because I hope to relay what I learn as I go through the book. Maybe I won't learn anything and the book will turn out to be a complete waste of money. I hope that is not the case. We will see. But either way, I'm going to keep searching for ways that I can help solve this problem. Or maybe push/inspire/convince other people to solve the problem in ways I cannot. The only thing that is unacceptable is doing nothing.

And so on...


  1. I have found that most short term mission trips, particularly for youth, have the primary goal of developing servant hearts in those participating. That is to say, they are teaching experiences that will open eyes, create blessings by serving, and be ambassadors for the Christian life. As you say in closing, "The only thing that is unacceptable is doing nothing." By that definition, these mission trips are acceptable, because they are doing something for the long haul.

  2. Perhaps. But our focus should be on solving the problem here and now (with the future in mind), not just focused on maybe possibly inspiring some kid who might do something in the future.

    Talking about developing servant hearts is all well and good, but the purpose of that should be facilitating service. It seems that we (the west) think that by going on missions trips we have fulfilled our duty/purpose with regards to the poor. When many of these trips are doing more damage to impoverished people than they are actually helping them, we have a problem.

    It appears that you misunderstood my "definition"; it is always better to do nothing than to do harm.