Re-thinking Missions

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.


  1. KG said...:

    Hmm...this your post is deep oh! I had to read it twice to

    Anyhow, I'm totally with you on the short-term nature of these projects. Yet again, we have the poverty p*rn issue which being a fad, translates into a burning desire to 'do something' regardless of strategy.

    I'm all for helping as I realize the extent of poverty. (Also as long as lack and poverty exist, there will still be a market for aid in any form right?) But these missions should be done with more common sense and strategy abeg. There should be more long-term views and not just an over-abundance of useless short-term projects which are ultimately 'glorified' vacays for the volunteers involved.

    I think you also pointed out the major factor when you said: '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'. That attitude is what is driving a lot of these missions and is majorly bothersome. I doubt this is what Jesus had in mind when he issued the Great Commission. Someone please tell me if I'm off-base here oh.
    And let's not even talk about how that same attitude translates into other areas. We'll be here for the next half century.

    On the other hand though, I guess it is better than doing nothing.

    p.s. Was great seeing you this past weekend.

  1. Ore said...:

    Oh, you changed your blog template. It looks great!

    I haven't read the Kristof article yet, however I recognise what you're talking about. I have no experience with missions work, although I can imagine that the short duration of the programmes means that they might often be superficial in its analysis of the problems of the communities and in its tackling of the issues.

    However, you make a great observation when you say that it can also be the case with secular nonprofits. The desire to 'do something' or 'do good' can overshadow the need for a deeper understanding of the problems at hand and a more thoughtful strategy towards addressing it.

    Sadly even organisations that plan long-term programmes, may be forced - due to factors like funding constraints, donor stipulations or need to produce quick results - may find themselves slightly compromising on the quality of their programmes.

    Freedom Foundation is one Nigerian NGO that was borne from a church although it's gradually carved out an identify for itself that is not entwined with the church. FF appears to do some great work rehabilitating area boys and prostitutes. It also provides education for orphans and other vulnerable children. The best thing about their work seems to lie in the continuity and follow-up. I'm attending an open house hosted by them this weekend and looking forward to learning more about their work and strategies. It's very important for organisations to look for cases where something's working and learn from them.

  1. trae_z said...:

    Easy dear, this piece is hard; but your intentions/message was well passed across.