Sustainable Development Part 2: In Defense of Short Term Missions (STMs)

Sustainable Development Part 2

The soles of my feet collide with the dirt-paved runway. I inhale the crisp Haitian air. I am captivated by the majestic mountains surrounding me on every side. The ravishing beauty of the landscape and warm smiles of the people capture my heart. At that moment, I knew my 7-day trip to my homeland, Haiti would change me forever.

Short Term Missions ("STMs") are unsustainable by nature. They can contribute to vicious cycles of dependency and paternalism while cultivating a culture of self-righteous heroism among American volunteers. While many STMs are structurally robbing vulnerable populations of their dignity to work, it would be naïve to broadly lump all STMs together.

The following five facts about STMs stand as a defense for volunteers and organizations who partner with vulnerable populations through healthy and effective STMs (oh yes, they do exist.)

An STM can play a vital role in long-term investments in host communities.

It’s less about how long you stay and more about with whom you go. STMs are not the problem, unhealthy organizations are. Healthy organizations are committed to working with and not for their partners. Healthy organizations do not respond to poverty by giving out handouts and understand that the solution to poverty lies within the creative capacity and skills that individuals can use for self-advancement. For these organizations, STMs are a means to an end. The  individual experiences of well-trained volunteers are part of a bigger story.

An STM can provide manpower for organizations investing in capacity development.

It’s less about how long you go and more about what you do. Healthy STMs engage in productive development work, which esteems the dignity of individuals in the host community. Capacity development is one of the clearest ways of doing this. Capacity development is the transferring of knowledge and skills that strengthen the capacity of individuals to achieve their own development objectives. The primary focus is the growth of the individual through obtaining knowledge, skills and experiences. Instead of giving a man a fish, it teaches a man to fish so that he will eat for a lifetime without dependency on others. Organizations must find willing volunteers who specialize in a certain skill or sector in order to engage in capacity development.

For example,  Projects for Haiti conducts English classes, youth leadership programs, teacher trainings, business seminars and other trainings for the purpose of seeing Haitians accomplish their dreams. All of these transformative programs are hosted by well-trained volunteers who pay their way to travel to Haiti for 1-2 weeks.

An STM provides an unmatched avenue for mutually benefiting partnerships.

It’s less about how long you go and more about how you view the host community. It is normal for us to be outraged at the injustices faced by our friends living in dollar-a-day poverty. These emotions, however, could easily turn into a dehumanizing pity. Healthy trips shift this common paradigm by training volunteers to see the wealth and assets within the host community. These trips support the theory of Asset Based Community Development, which asserts that every community has assets that can drive the development process. This theory focuses on the community’s strengths and what they already have as opposed to what they “need”. Following this theory allows volunteers to realize that regardless of economic circumstances, host communities are filled with an incredible wealth.

An STM can change perspectives, which, can change lives.

It’s less about how long you go and more about what the impact is. The focus of STMs should never be about the needs of the volunteers. However, this doesn’t mean that the volunteers should be out of the picture. When done right, STMs strengthen local communities while providing volunteers with a distinct opportunity to see and experience the world in a profound way. A cross-cultural experience can become the foundation for volunteers to invest further in international development. It could become the catalyst for volunteers to become globally minded teachers, lawyers, doctors, police officers or policy makers.

An STM can be more valuable than donated money. 

It’s less about how long you go and more about what message you send. The presence of a volunteer could be more valuable than throwing money at a deep rooted problem. I’ve often read that going on a missions trip is a waste of money because the funds could have been given to the host community instead. While this logic is rooted in good intentions, it’s faulty. Throwing money at a problem only perpetuates a vicious cycle of dependency.  While it’d be nice to imagine that everyone is endowed with an altruistic heart that is prepared to fundraise thousands of dollars without a connection to a cause, it’s not the reality. Most people need to see, taste, feel and experience things before they commit to a cause without receiving anything in return. On the other hand, giving a week of your time to partner with vulnerable populations can not only provide skills and training for vulnerable populations, but it can also send a very powerful message. A message that says they are worth the most valuable possession.

You should try a HEALTHY STM.

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Sustainable Development Part 1: Naw, Keep Your Old Shirt

OH SNAP! Immigrants and Welfare Part 2