By Miriam Nelson
Across the United States, summer mission trips are a staple among youth groups, churches, and even secular service organizations. Many regard these trips as models of altruism where volunteers give up their time, money, and luxuries to travel to places that are typically impoverished and “un-Christianized.” They perform acts of service, give away free meals and goods, and attempt to evangelize the local people. But do these trips really have the positive impact that their participants claim?
In recent years, criticism of international mission trips, in particular, has become more mainstream—often centering on social arguments, such as the volunteers’ attitude of white-saviorism or the performative activism of posting photos on social media. However, for people who really believe that they are having a positive impact with their mission trip, who perhaps only travel domestically and carefully try to not patronize the local people, these arguments do little to prevent bags from being packed and plane tickets from being purchased. Besides social impacts, service trips—even domestic ones—surely have economic reverberations, too. Ideally, a successful trip would improve the local economy. But does it in practice?
Consider a youth group from Massachusetts that takes a mission trip to a low-income community in Indiana to perform unskilled labor at a local recreation center for one week. The plane tickets alone cost roughly $600 per person, which also just so happens to be the cost of hiring a local worker for a 40-hour work week at a wage of $15 per hour. Thus, without even factoring in the cost of the volunteers’ sleeping and eating arrangements, the opportunity cost of each volunteer’s plane ticket is equivalent to wages for a local to do the same job. Moreover, suppose this mission trip is to a low-income community, as mission trips typically are, where work is most likely hard to find for locals. If the youth-group just donated that $600 per person to the recreation center to hire local workers, the same work would get done with the added benefit of providing wages which would remain and circulate in the low-income community. Instead, though, the volunteers with labor costs of $0 are essentially out-competing local workers for these jobs.
Of course, the argument could be made that the trip still isn’t hurting the local economy. The volunteers are giving $600 worth of labor to a good cause either way, right? Does a missed opportunity to hire someone local really constitute harm, especially if the money is coming from the volunteers regardless? Perhaps there are other factors that might justify the economic inefficiency of sending volunteers instead of hiring local workers. For example, if the volunteers have skills that local workers don’t have, such as construction expertise or medical training, bringing someone in from another part of the country may seem to be justified. That is, until one considers that for work as consequential as construction or medicine—where one mistake could literally kill someone—unpaid volunteers probably shouldn’t be doing it anyway.
Here’s where a proponent of service trips may pose a spiritual or social argument. One might say that the value of the inefficiency is made up for because the volunteers are able to evangelize the local people while they are there. However, even ignoring the arguments against evangelism itself, is an ineffective trip really the best testament to one’s faith? Shouldn’t the goal be to create the most tangible good possible?
Of course, the most common argument for sending volunteers is that the volunteers themselves gain a lot from the experience, and this is true. The volunteers certainly reap lots of benefits. Doing work makes them feel good, they get to travel, meet people, and learn new things. But if this is the only justification for the volunteers to go on the trip—to benefit themselves—then perhaps it’s time to stop pretending that the trip is for service rather than a self-gratifying vacation.
Additionally, the earlier hypothetical assumes that the volunteers would be performing useful labor, but it’s entirely possible that the volunteers would instead be performing superfluous tasks, or poorly done work that has to be redone anyway; or that the purpose of the mission trip would instead be more focused on providing free goods to the local community. In the case of the latter, what would be the impact to the local economy?
Similar to philanthropic businesses that adopt a one-to-one model for donating goods, giving out free goods without considering the economic landscape of the community can often create more harm than good. Consider Tom’s Shoes’ former one-for-one model, in which the company gave away one pair of shoes to someone in poverty for every pair of shoes bought. While seemingly helpful, giving away these free shoes had unintended harmful consequences in actuality. Some argued that free shoes outcompeted local shoemakers and cobblers, but the greatest issue was that the shoes were simply a Band-Aid effort and failed to have any impact on the root causes of poverty for the recipients. In 2018, Tom’s dropped the one-for-one model in favor of a more targeted approach to philanthropy. Aspiring service trippers should be similarly aware that while giving away free items can sometimes be helpful, it more often than not has very little impact, and can even do harm if it outcompetes local businesses trying to sell the same goods.
By no means should someone who is service-oriented be discouraged by these issues. On the contrary, awareness of service trips’ problems should serve as motivation to plan effective acts of service. This means being cognizant of effects to the local economy and collaborating with local community members. Additionally, potential volunteers should instead consider putting their money toward direct cash transfers, which, unlike many service trips, has been shown to be an effective way to help people living in poverty. If volunteers are willing to give their time and energy to help others, they better be sure that their actions have a genuinely positive impact.