Many short-term “missions” trips end up doing more harm than good.

There. I said it.  As American Christians, we spend millions of dollars every year sending people around the world to “help.”  But these well intentioned teams often end up playing right into the systems of injustice that keep people locked in poverty, helplessness and despair.

Well then. That’s a cheery opening to an article, isn’t it?

I apologize.  I am just really fired up right now.  For two reasons.  One, I recently finished an incredible book called When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself.  It is a must read.

Can American “suburbanites” spend time in a place like Kenya without doing more harm than good?

In the book, the authors explain something I’ve been learning firsthand on all my local and international trips for World Next Door.  Our good intentions are not enough.  If we’re not careful, we can end up harming the very people we’re trying to help.

The book puts into words thoughts that have been developing here on World Next Door for years (Don’t believe me? July 2009, September 2010, April 2011…). Reading it was a huge confirmation that we’re on the right track with our philosophy of ministry.

Our primary objective was to learn.

The Second Reason

But I said I’m fired up for two reasons.  The second reason?  I just led a short-term trip team made up of American businessmen. I took them into Kibera Slum in Nairobi, Kenya for a week of intense experiential learning and discovery.

But wait just a minute, Barry.  I thought you said that short-term trips were bad!

Ah, but that’s exactly why I’m fired up.  This was no ordinary “missions trip.”  This trip was a new kind of short-term trip. One of a growing number of trips that don’t fit the usual mold… One that leaves both the trip participants and the ministries we came to visit stronger and better off than before.

I’ve been on several of these “new” kind of short-term trips through my church, Grace Community in Noblesville, IN, but this was my first attempt at designing, organizing and leading one myself.

And let me tell you… From everything I can see, it was a huge success.

——-

Hearing the stories of amazing leaders like Jane Wathome of Beacon of Hope was central to our trip.

“So,” you might be asking. “What made this trip different?  How were you able to bring American businessmen to Kenya without doing more harm than good?”

Good question. Let me try to briefly explain how our trip attempted to break the mold…

Meet the Team

Our team was made up of young businessmen who have been in a discipleship group together for a couple of years. I joined the group about a year ago.  When our leader, Jeff, asked what we wanted to do for our annual team retreat this year, I threw out a crazy suggestion.  “Let’s go to Kenya!”

I honestly didn’t expect anything to come of the idea.  Until this trip, only a couple of them had ever visited the developing world before, and none of them had been anywhere in Africa, much less inside a Kenyan Slum.

Our team visiting the home of Pastor Fred.

Imagine my surprise when the response was a resounding, “Let’s do it!”

Out of nowhere I found myself responsible for taking four 20-something guys and the CEO of a large international company into the slums.

I wanted the trip to be different, so I got to work designing a tailor-made experience that would be life-changing for the guys but also helpful and honoring to our Kenyan hosts.

It was definitely a challenge, and there was no guarantee that it would work, but in the end I feel that we accomplished our goals…

Learning, Not Doing

First of all, our team spent our time learning, not doing.

Many short-term trip teams travel far and wide with the express purpose of digging a ditch or painting a wall or something.  While this is not necessarily a bad thing, having a big to-do list in front of us can keep us closed off from deeper partnerships and learning opportunities (“What do you mean ‘Take a break so we can meet some of your community’s leaders’? We’re on a schedule here!”).

Our business seminar was mostly discussion-based.

Instead, our team came with little on our to-do list besides “Hear Pastor Fred’s story,” “Learn about leadership from the staff of Beacon of Hope,” “Visit homes in Kibera,” “Pray for Tumaini Church.”  Not exactly a lot to accomplish.  But it gave us the flexibility and freedom to stay open to what God would want us to learn.

Now, we did end up teaching a simple business seminar for neighbors of Tumaini Church in Kibera (arguably doing, not learning), but even that was discussion based: our team asking lots of questions instead of coming in with all the answers…

Want to hear what else we did differently?  Click here to read Part II.

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Next Steps
    • I would love to hear your perspective on all of this. Do you agree that it is possible to do short-term trips without doing more harm than good? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.
    • Definitely pick up a copy of When Helping Hurts if this topic interests you at all. I guarantee you will find the book enlightening!
    • Have you already read When Helping Hurts? What did you think? What were your major takeaways?
    • Shoot me an email (barry@worldnextdoor.org) if you are interested in taking a trip like the one I just described. Perhaps we need to start replicating the experience!
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Steve said... 

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    October 20th, 2011 at 9:22 am  

    Agreed Barry, outstanding book. I’m still stunned by the definition of poverty by people in various countries around the world.

  2. Sharon said... 

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    October 20th, 2011 at 10:08 am  

    I’m reading “When Helping Hurts” right now. I’m only a little way in and, wow! Looking forward to hearing more about your trip.

  3. Dave Rod said... 

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    October 20th, 2011 at 12:45 pm  

    Yeah, I hope your readers weigh in on this. Very important issues to process. We can’t look at traditional “missions” the same way again.

  4. Will said... 

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    October 20th, 2011 at 2:40 pm  

    Looks like a book I need to read. Just got back from Haiti and I left feeling we were perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Those we served were gracious, appreciative and relieved (from pain). However, the act of serving reinforced the Pavlovian behavior when we “blondes” came into the village. The bigger questions are how do Haitians establish a perpetual health care system, how will Haitians establish their own education system. In other words, how, when we missionaries visit, can we help the “missioned” establish enough courage, remove enough barriers, and/or be adequately equipped to climb out of poverty and establish a new norm. I also struggle with my own arrogance. Is my “norm” appropriate or counter-cultural. It gets really confusing. I can’t wait to read Barry’s next article.

  5. Rob said... 

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    October 20th, 2011 at 3:05 pm  

    Most excellent! I have also read the book and it is one of many resources continuing to shape me.
    Our student ministry ‘missions trip’ slogan relfects this shaping.
    At first, thanks to the wonderful ministry called World Servants, our slogan was “to love and to serve”.
    In recent years the addition of one word has transformed our slogan and posture. We now seek “to listen, love and serve”.
    In my early student ministry ‘missions trip’ years, which began replacing summer camp, much of the emphasis was on our going and doing. We went with good hearts and plenty of resources, but often without a long term commitment. In fact, many in the youth minsitry world went from one trip to the other, looking for the best experience for the students.
    This shift is healthy and has a greater impact in the long run. We are learning so much more with long term relationships and learning postures. God is as Present “there” (whereever there is) as He is among the teams we are sending. Thanks Barry! Keep running down this track, which keeps molding me!

  6. Tyler said... 

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    October 20th, 2011 at 5:04 pm  

    This article makes a very good point. It seems when we are “doing” on these short-term trips that we forget why we are actually there, and that we get lost in the task, blinding us from what God may be trying to show us. I agree with all this but is it not necessary to have these short-term trips “do” for the ministries to function in these different places? I have my own arguments against this but I come out doubting.

  7. Chuck Gross said... 

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    October 21st, 2011 at 8:15 am  

    Hi Barry:
    When Helping Hurts falls into my “A” list of books. My church background was one of go there, do something (or tell them what they are doing wrong and give the answers) and leave. You have read the book, but more importantly are doing the book and leading others. Thanks for the example you set.
    Chuck Gross
    President Advisory Board
    Safe Families for Children Central Indiana

  8. Keith Carlson said... 

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    October 21st, 2011 at 3:57 pm  

    Barry, thanks. Very convicting. The twin read for When Helping Hurts is Serving with Eyes Wide Open. This goes after the two fundamental goals we have for short-term trips: long-term transformation in the participants and value-add to the receiving ministries. The empirical data is showing that neither goal is being accomplished by traditional short-term trips. Unless we have the courage to do trips in a different way, we will be spending millions of dollars, and countless hours in a fruitless effort that at best makes us feel better about ourselves (now that’s a really noble goal, eh??). We HAVE to change!

  9. Jeff said... 

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    October 28th, 2011 at 9:03 pm  

    “When Helping Hurts” is RADICAL thinking. It turns the typical Western approach on “Mission Trips” upside down. Wanting to help leads us to provide relief (money, food, clothes,etc). But it breaks the heart and dignity of the local people. Or our mission help simply doesn’t fit with the local culture. What Barry showed us with this book and the Kenya trip was the power of “development”. Going into an area like Kenya and learning from the people, walking in their shoes and developing authentic relationships…allows you to help through “their systems, their needs, and with their hearts and hands”. What is sustained is the local dignity needed to help themselves. As a CEO of a global company centered on “hunger” as our cause, I see this “when helping hurts” theory in a powerful way. All companies can learn from this “development approach”. Providing development solutions on the ground in areas of need is vital. We must share the value we create. But it must be led with our employees heads, hearts, and hands going local… before giving profits back. If we are not careful, the corporate sector help can cause the greatest hurt to poverty. But if understood, companies can ultimately create the greatest sustainable solution to poverty through connecting locally and leading with development. I have a new perspective on helping and a hotter fire in my passion to make a difference. A must read….WHEN HELPING HURTS. Also consider a WND mission trip with this approach!

  10. Pastor peter said... 

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    January 13th, 2012 at 3:58 am  

    When pastor fred of Tumaini shared you experience with him and your team i was encouraged and he even suggested i check on you to see what you do and to connect with you.Am inspired by your strategy and i believe you are going to break grounds which have remained rough for many missionaries who have not mastered the old tradition of quietness and listening before you act.Hoping to keep in touch and even looking forward one day to host you in my local church which i minister in Kenya Nairobi.The ministry is matatu ministry which serve in the street among drug addict,people living with Hiv/Aids and children.We also operate a community street library for the disadvantaged.Shalom communities

    • Barry Rodriguez said... 

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      January 16th, 2012 at 4:36 pm  

      It’s great to hear from you, Pastor Peter! Thank you for that encouraging comment. I hope I can come to visit your ministry at some point. It sounds like you’re doing some really great stuff!

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