Faith-based organizations recently received some good press over the weekend with the publication of Nicholas Kristof's New York Times op-ed piece - Learning from the Sin of Sodom. In it, Kristof chastises liberal do-gooders for their "snootiness" towards Evangelicals and sings the praises Christian NGOs and churches for engaging in the thankless task of battling the "common enemies of humanity" such as poverty and exploitation. Considering the complicated past of foreign missionary work during colonial times and the recent Haitian adoption scandal by American missionaries, I am sure that religious communities everywhere are grateful for the article. Indeed, the church has been responsible for bringing about some good to the communities they serve in the developing world. When working in a long-term capacity, churches and other faith-based organizations have established schools, hospitals, and other needed infrastructure that rivals that of some secular organizations and local governments.
While I commend the efforts of Christians to live out the tenets of our faith through service, I find problematic some of the more recent trends I have personally witnessed amongst churches and individuals - primarily the interest in short-term international missions projects. One to three weeks long, such short-term projects are typically glorified (or should I say, church-ified) versions of slum tours. Merely donating to an established local entity is not enough. Rather, some feel the need to "experience first-hand" the raw poverty and pestilence that plagues the non-western world. No real training or skills are needed other than a heart for down-trodden people (or an eye for poverty p*rn). The emphasis is thus taken away from selfless Christ-like service, and is rather placed on fulfilling the short-term missionaries' desire to be needed.
In providing the lay person with this short-term experience, oftentimes, no thought is given to long-term implications of the excursion. In the case of short-term medical missions projects, which are sometimes conducted independently of local hospitals and resources, thousands of patients are attended to but little consideration is given to follow-up care. The goal is to reach the greatest number of people in an allotted time frame. More than 70% of patients with chronic, non-communicable diseases live in the developing world; and therefore long-term management of such patients is required. To say that short-term medical missions is like putting a bandage on a festering wound would be an understatement. I guess it's more like saying to a brother or sister without clothes or food, "Go, I wish you well..." without doing anything for their physical needs.
I also find that with short-term missions projects, there exists little discussion on evaluation or assessment of their interventions. In order to meet fundraising goals, emphasis is placed on the wow factor a project can evoke - "we saw x amount of patients," "we donated x number of y," etc. And because record-keeping remains virtually non-existent, no one can definitely measure the long-term impact of such excursions on target populations. Such projects are only answerable to their congregations, who may not be terribly familiar with the nuances of outcomes measurement.
Admittedly, the aforementioned also applies to secular non-profits and organizations. However, I feel as if some of these issues are particularly aggravated in the Christian community, where motive trumps means or outcome. The attempt to shuttle scores of Haitian "orphans" to the Domincan Republic by a church group, highlights such pervasive attitudes. It seems as if faith has provided us with the license to embark upon hastily organized projects and missions, because regardless the means or outcome, our intentions are sanctioned by God. While Christian organizations such as World Vision, highlighted in the Kristof's oped piece, should be commended, I do think that for a vast number of faith-based organizations and initiatives, our strategies need to be re-evaluated.
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