What could be better than to give your gap-year or your annual holidays to serve people who are poorer than you are? Every year, thousands of Brits go on short-term mission trips and return home with great stories of the places they’ve been, the things they’ve done and the people they have met.

However, viewed from the other side, from the point of view of those receiving these well-intentioned Brits, things might look very different.

This excellent article looks at some of the pitfalls of what it calls voluntourism; it isn’t specifically about Christian mission trips, but many of the situations are similar.

As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs. There is a cost associated with such an endeavor. A 2010 report by the Human Sciences Research Council, based in Pretoria, South Africa, analyzed the thriving AIDS orphan tourism business in South Africa.

Under this program, well-to-do tourists sign up to build schools, clean and restore riverbanks, ring birds and act as caregivers to AIDS orphans for a few weeks. This led to the creation of a profitable industry catering to volunteer tourists. The orphans’ conditions are effectively transformed into a boutique package in which “saving” them yields profits from tourists. The foreigners’ ability to pay for the privilege of volunteering crowds out local workers.

Africa is traditionally a favorite destination for those searching for saviordom, but the harms of voluntourism are not limited to that continent. On the Indonesian island of Bali, for example, a burgeoning orphanage industry exists to cater to voluntourists who want to help children. Children leave home and move to an orphanage because tourists, who visit the island a couple of times a year, are willing to pay for their education.

These children essentially work as orphans because their parents cannot afford to send them to school. Instead of helping parents cater to the needs of their children, the tourist demand for orphans to sponsor creates an industry that works to make children available for foreigners who wish to help. When the external help dries up, these pretend orphans are forced to beg on the streets for food and money in order to attract orphan tourism.

However, despite the real downsides to these sorts of schemes, the article doesn’t argue that volunteering should stop.

Despite its flaws, the educational aspect of voluntourism’s cross-cultural exchange must be saved, made better instead of being rejected completely.

This then links to another excellent article which gives suggestions on how to make the best of a short-term volunteering trip.

Reading these two articles together is a good exercise for anyone who is involved in short-term mission trips, either as an organiser or participant. There are serious issues involved when relatively rich and inexperienced people want to ‘make a difference’ in situations which are usually far more complex and nuanced than they realise. Equally, this should not stop us from doing so – it should just push us to do things better. Another excellent resource is the Global Connections’ Best Practice for Short Term Mission. That last link also gives a list of organisations who are certified as following best practice. If you are considering getting involved in a short-term team, this list is the best place to start.