I think most, if not all, missionaries or humanitarians started out their journey because of a mission or service trip to another country. I know we did, as did many/most of our ex-pat friends living in Haiti. And so, when we give advice that is contrary to what we personally did, it seems contradictory. And yet, it isn’t … let me explain.
It all boils down to what Maya Angelou once said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
We started our journey by feeling a deep calling to help others in need. That led to a food-packing event, which then led to a mission trip to an orphanage, which led to a second trip to the same orphanage, which ended in us moving to Haiti. There is very little of that I would recommend to newbies.
For example: A food-packing event is a lot of fun and feels great because you know the food is going to communities with great need, but it wasn’t until I lived in Haiti and worked with farmers that I realized how that hurts the Haitian the farmer and market vendor. Rice and beans can and should be grown in Haiti – and when we pack up American rice and beans to send to Haiti, it puts the Haitian farmer AND the Haitian market vendor out of business … which leads to increased poverty, and therefore, increased need and dependence.
But without being open to hearing and understanding the people, my new neighbors, I would likely not have ever understood that. Without being open to setting aside my pride in how I helped, I would never have been able to see how I hurt.
I could go on and on about what volunteering in orphanages does to perpetuate corruption and how harmful it is to the children’s emotional well-being and development, but that is another post. But I will say this, I learned firsthand what it does and this is an extraordinarily complex topic that is difficult to understand in and of itself, but especially if we aren’t willing to set aside our own feelings and biases and humble ourselves to seeing it with new perspective.
There is a lot of controversy over mission and service trips these days, and I am thankful that many are choosing to share their perspectives. I don’t necessarily think that foreigners should never visit developing nations with the intent of helping. But I do think that if foreigners choose to do that, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- 1. Development is not a hand-out. Development is empowerment and opportunity.
- 2. Going into a country to paint or build takes jobs away from nationals who can earn an honest wage. (On the other hand, if you have a valuable skill – bring it and teach it!)
- 3. Visiting orphanages perpetuates a cycle of corruption and disruption [in the emotional and mental well-being of children].
- 4. Treat others the way you would want to be treated. (Would you walk into a neighborhood you’ve never been to in America and start throwing candy out the window to random kids? Would you want someone foreign to come into your community and pick up your children, or hold their hands, or kiss them? Likely your answer to questions like these is no, so please be considerate of that when you visit other nations.)
- 5. Keep your eyes and ears open. This is the ONLY way to truly be receptive to changing how we do development and to seeking out ways that are best for the people (not ourselves).
- 6. Remember that you do not always know better, simply because of your upbringing and privilege. Keep this in mind every single day.
- We don’t have to feel guilty for all the ways we did it “wrong” before … we learn as we go. Our family did plenty of things that I wish I could change. And, while we cannot go back in time, we can change how we do things now and we can help advise others who are open to it. When we know better, we do better. And when we know better, we can truly see the ways in which we help and the ways in which we hurt. If we are open to it, and humble enough, we can admit where we screw up, educate ourselves and others, and we adjust our sails to move forward.