I see them everywhere in Costa Rica, and they always make me cringe a little: they are conspicuous because they are mostly white, usually wearing matching t-shirts, walking around like they own the place and taking pictures of everything. Who are they? Tourists? Space aliens? No, they are Short Term Missionaries.
Why do I cringe? Because I too have been a Short Term Missionary—on seven different occasions, in fact. These experiences, plus a fair amount of research into the topic, tell me that the burgeoning phenomenon of short term missions is a decidedly mixed blessing.
For example, I recently joined a short-term missionary team for a day’s work in a precario (urban slum). Unlike some teams, everyone seemed to be motivated by a genuine desire to serve and committed no egregious cultural faux pas. We did worthwhile labor that really helped several families living in extreme poverty. I helped to pour a smooth cement floor in the entryway to Maria Rosa’s corrugated iron dwelling, which replaced the slanted mix of mud and excrement that had been there before.
So what was the problem? Well, nearly everyone in this precario are Nicaraguan immigrants driven to Costa Rica in search of jobs. In fact, Maria Rosa’s husband was six hours away trying to find work in—you guessed it—construction. As our team busily worked “for” the poor, the poor themselves sat and watched as North Americans with limited construction skills did work they themselves had left their homes to find. We had missed a golden opportunity to share resources that could have empowered them to improve their own neighborhood and to learn from them how to build under such exacting circumstances. Further, a professor at the seminary later told me that there are more than forty ministries operating in that precario. They rarely cooperate with each other and basically offer short-term handouts that foster dependence. My heart ached as I realized that we had contributed to this culture of charitable dysfunction.
This example of short term missions raises the larger question of how we can give to and serve with the poor in ways that are empowering and not debilitating. And this is exactly the question that Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert address in their book When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor…and yourself. Corbett and Fikkert, who are professors at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, have targeted their book at North American Christians who have good intentions but little experience with the complex realities of poverty and development. When Helping Hurts offers an introduction to the biblical basis for engaging poverty, basic best practices from the development field, and practical advice on how congregations can effectively be involved.
The strongest three themes of the book are ones that wealthy North American Christians desperately need to hear:
First, Corbett and Fikkert insightfully identify the root cause of “hurtful helping.” They claim that the default mode of middle-class Americans is to assume that they know how to fix poverty by giving away material goods, which reinforces “our” messiah complexes and “their” disempowerment. In the authors’ words,
One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being economically rich—their god complexes—and the poverty of being economically poor—their feelings of inferiority and shame.
Often this dynamic expresses itself when wealthy Christians offer short-term relief in situations that really require long-term rehabilitation and development.
In order to address this hurtful pattern, Corbett and Fikkert emphasize the importance of leveraging the already-existing assets of struggling communities in order to empower greater participation of the poor in their own development. This is really Development 101, but it is often not followed by well-meaning Christians. So the authors’ accessible and relevant presentation of these concepts is a valuable contribution indeed.
Finally, When Helping Hurts offers practical strategies for helping without hurting. In perhaps their best chapter, Corbett and Fikkert offer a number of diagnostic questions that could dramatically improve short term missions teams. Have local people invited the team and defined the team’s contribution? Could the cost of the short term trip (say, $20,000) be better invested by simply helping to fund existing local groups’ work? Is there pre-and post-trip training that helps participants stay involved in Kingdom work for the long term instead of just having a one-off experience of “spiritual tourism?”
When Helping Hurts does have its weaknesses. It is less than compelling in its presentation of patterns of structural injustice that cause and maintain poverty. It underemphasizes the radical call for the rich to share with the poor. It overemphasizes empowering the poor to gain financial independence to the neglect of the New Testament ideal of interdependence within the Body of Christ. Nevertheless, the next time I lead a short term mission team, I will definitely require that everyone read this book. I hope When Helping Hurts continues to have wide influence. Perhaps then I will cringe a little less when I see all those matching t-shirts.
Have you read this book? Did this review make you think of your own short term missions experiences? If so, please share your thoughts below!