I’m Sorry: The Unintended Cultural Consequences of Short-Term Aid

“People often say, ‘doing something is better than doing nothing’. But it isn’t. Not when that something is often wasteful at best, and at worst causing a lot of harm.”

-Daniela Papi


This is a challenging topic for me to delve into, as I have been on several short-term mission or service trips and each time, felt like an integral member of a team of goodwill ambassadors headed to less developed countries to go help the “less fortunate of the world.” I, along with countless others of the Western, developed world have felt the call to personally respond to the call of international service by going on short-term service trips to a number of countries that seem to really need our help.

Short-term service trips provide the well intentioned from First World countries the best of both worlds – we get to go travel the world and experience a new land while feeding our unquenchable desire to serve others. And yet, upon further examination, I have found that there are severely negative consequences of going to these countries as members of communities that fall in starkly different corners of the world. Without the due amount of cultural awareness to the perceptions of those in aid-receiving circumstances, the cultivation of a firm promise to learn rather than to teach, all partnered with a strong dose of humility, short-term service workers only perpetuate the idea of the White Man’s burden. Though it may be completely unintentional, short-term service workers fail to consider the forms of cultural imperialism and ethnocentrism that defines their time in-country and more often than not, their service ends up being more detrimental than beneficial to those they are supposed to be serving.

Daniela Papi, the founder of a voluntourism company wrote an article in BBC to this effect. “…Much of this demand is fuelled by the belief that because we come from financially wealthier countries, we have the right, or the obligation, to bestow our benevolence on people. Never mind if we don’t speak the language, don’t have the skills or experience to qualify for the jobs we’re doing, or don’t know anything about what life is like ‘over there.’” She continues on to note the effect of cultural transference on those service workers coming from the Western, developed world, saying “We’re teaching our next generation of leaders that development work is easy, and that their skills are so valuable to the people abroad that it is worth donating money to send them to help” (Papi).

Exemplifying these concepts is the story of the Elon students went to Malawi, Africa this past summer for a two-week span to serve and serve alongside the people of rural and urban Malawi. I went on this exact Elon service trip to Malawi last summer and as a result, have an understanding of the nuances of cultural interaction, perception and ethnocentrism that occur between Western college students and Malawians on such a trip.

There are several positives and negatives that occur when examining a trip like this in terms of cultural interaction and transference. Unfortunately, the negatives are easier to come by when examining a short-term mission trip in this context. Even the smallest of interactions while in-country ranging to the trips themselves teach the members of the village that dependence on aid is something that is acceptable and to be encouraged. When our team walked through the rural Malawian village at the beginning and end of our days, we would be followed by hordes of children who had been taught to say a few English phrases as, “Can I have a pen?” or “Do you have any money?” The children spoke few other words of English and it was clear that they had been taught these phrases by their elders, whom had come to learn the value of playing the victim in these scenarios. All of the team members of the service trip felt an undeniable tug on our heartstrings and being in the position to freely give away pens, handed out our extra writing utensils to the children.

This exchange served as an example of how those of us from the Western world, especially in scenarios of short-term service, perpetuate the dependence of poorer communities upon sources of aid. Instead of empowering these children to find a means of raising sufficient funds to purchase pens for themselves, we, the vectors of Western ideology, reinforced through action the notion that it was easier to be passive recipients of aid, big and small.

Trips like this also often unintentionally fail to take into account the importance of the skills and expertise that are present in members of the population “being served” and how disempowering it is for them to be beneficiaries of aid. When we were in the rural village in Malawi, it was important for the members of the team to feel useful and needed during the reconstruction of a brick kitchen area, so though while we had hired local constructions workers, masons, etc., we also needed to contribute with our version of manual labor. This led to a significant decrease in how efficiently the kitchen could have been reconstructed and it also took away a source of financial resources that could have gone to local skilled workers. This broke one of the rules of service of Robert D. Lupton, the author of Toxic Charity, who says, “Never do for the poor what they have the capacity to do for themselves.” In his book, he gives the example of American missions teams who went to Honduras following Hurricane Mitch to rebuild destroyed homes. These teams spent an average of $30,000 per home, when locals could have rebuilt the houses for $3,000 each. These kinds of actions by short-term service teams reinforce the idea that when members of Western donor countries come to help, they don’t come with the intention of listening; an action that could lead to an increase in efficiency and benefit members of developing countries economically. It also continues the historical trend of cultural imperialism by not so subtly implying that Westerners know best and that they have the best – that we have the best education, access to resources, etc. – and that the beneficiaries of our acts of service can learn more from us than we can from them. Antonio Donini explains it perfectly in his essay, “Humanitarianism Perceptions, Power,” saying, “…Humanitarian actions in a top-down, externally driven and relatively rigid process that allows little space for local participation beyond formalistic consultation.”

Though it may not seem like it from the paragraphs above, I truly am an advocate for short-term service work when it is conducted in a respectful and effective manner that benefits the intended beneficiaries. By going to these countries, people from the developed world who had been previously isolated from the very real global issues of today can gain an understanding (albeit a limited one), but more importantly a passion to work for the betterment of our world.

These trips are how I became so fervently in pursuit of mindful, responsible global citizenship and though I do not advocate for the consequences of them, both intended and unintended, I believe that with the right leadership and structure, they can change. These short-term humanitarian trips can move from the well-intentioned exploitation of poorer cultures and cultural imperialism and instead lead to beneficial and long-term international partnerships and the sustained empowerment of nations as they strive towards their own definition of development.

In order to achieve this delicate balance, there needs to be a greater element of education for members of short-term service and mission trips. All of the good will and funding in the world will not prevent an individual from unintentionally causing irreversible, ignorant damage within a community that they are serving in.  It needs to be the responsibility of those who design and sponsor short-term service trips to educate travelers on the importance of sensitivity and humility in regards to cultural challenges or disparities encountered while abroad. Dan Dennett talks about the enormous weight of this in terms of cultural transference, saying, …When European Explorers and travelers spread out, they brought with them the germs that they had become essentially immune to… And these pathogens just wiped out the native people who had no immunity to it all. And we’re doing it again. We’re doing it this time with toxic ideas.” From gasping at the devastating conditions of a native person’s home to expressing dismay at the lack of writing utensils in a Malawian village, we are not-so-subtly asserting the ideas that we come from a society that is superior. We need to take the right precautionary educational steps to ensure that the messages short-term service workers spread are not toxic. Short-term service organizations need to re-emphasize the foundational importance of listening and direct an ear towards community leaders in order to best understand their own perceptions of needs and future goals for their region’s development and quality of life and then take on the role of helping make those goals a reality.  

These calls for these changes need to be taken seriously. Short-term service trips will not decline in popularity any time soon. There is too much of a heartened desire to “change the world for good” and a bevy of organizations, churches and schools that will rise to fill that need. So unless we follow Antonio Donini’s advice and stop turning down the volume on the results of perception surveys and start listening to our convictions about humanitarian work, short-term or long-term, we will “…find [ourselves] in the uncomfortable situation of being ‘condemned to repeat'” (Donini) our mistakes. And the population that ends up suffering the consequences of our actions will continue being the intended beneficiaries.

Works Cited:

Abu-Sada, Caroline, and Antonio Donini. In the Eyes of Others. N.p.: MSF, n.d. Print.

“Dan Dennett: Dangerous Memes.” YouTube. YouTube, 2 July 2007. Web.

Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011. Print.

Papi, Daniela. “Viewpoint: Is Gap Year Volunteering a Bad Thing?” BBC News. BBC, 30 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 June 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22294205>.

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