Goals are the outcomes we seek to achieve on a short-term missions (STM) trip.
Ethical goals in short-term missions are ones that prioritise the best interests of the most marginalised person in our midst.
Our short-term missions goals motivate us to act. They sharpen our focus and shape our expectations of a given trip, and are the benchmark we use to measure success and acknowledge failure.
While it's fairly safe to assume everyone who engages in STM does so in pursuit of a set of goals, it's not safe to assume these goals are the same. Each actor will have a different perspective and a different set of corresponding goals, such as these common ones listed below:
Goals of STM Actors
Sometimes these differing goals are complimentary; other times they are competing or at odds with each other. This means for one person's goal to be achieved, another's must be forfeited or be compromised. Consider this example:
The goal of the local Ugandan organisation hosting the team is to strengthen the relationship with the church and secure its ongoing prayer and financial support for programs. The organisation knows that when donors see the work with their own eyes and meet the beneficiaries, they are more likely to remain engaged.
The team's goal is to have a firsthand life-altering experience of missions. They want to do more than just give money. They want to volunteer their time to directly help the children their church supports. They may not be able to commit to long-term serving but they can give a week or two to the cause of missions.
To meet the goals of the sending church, receiving organisation and team members, the end goal of the trip could easily be one which permits STM teams to have direct contact with vulnerable children in a child welfare program. To give team members the firsthand experience they desire, this typically means allowing teams to run programs or activities in lieu of paid and qualified long-term staff.
What's wrong with that?
The above scenario seems like a win-win until we put the goals of the children and their families in the centre. What if their goal is to ensure their children get access to the services and support they need to overcome vulnerability? What if allowing team members to take over the roles of the permanent qualified staff compromises that goal – particularly if there are multiple teams that come in a year, which then creates a pattern of disruption? What if allowing teams to usurp local staff or do for local communities what they are capable of doing for themselves actually disempowers people through the subtle reinforcement of the 'white saviour complex'? What if they are never even consulted in the process of the STM trip being organised?
If we don't reorient the end goal to protect the best interests of the children, then we've allowed power and privilege to determine whose goal is more valid.
This is a slippery slope that quickly leads to children and local communities becoming commodities traded as 'experiences to be had' by teams and volunteers in the business of STM. It goes without saying that this is highly unethical.
The overriding goal
The overriding goal must therefore be the one that puts the best interests of local communities, families and children at the centre. It must be the one that challenges any notions of privilege or superiority and puts communities on equal footing with the organisations that support them and overseas volunteers.
Now lets reorient the goals in the previous case study by putting the community, in particular the children, at the centre.
The local organisation's goal is to provide an opportunity for the partner church to get a good understanding of what it does and the impact of its programs. This will ensure the church remains a committed prayer and financial partner. Staff will do a presentation on the organisation's work and at the end, the team will have the chance to meet a few of the families. The team has been informed that the best way it can support the children is to help promote the organisation rather than work directly with the children in the program.
The team's main goal will be to learn about the program and then help the local organisation develop some communications tools, including case studies, video and written blog stories, and a basic website it can use to promote its work. Hearing the firsthand stories from staff and community members will be just as impacting and give the team a real sense of the program's benefit. When the team returns home, team members will organise an awareness-raising event at their church and present some of these stories. By doing so they can encourage their church and members of their community to support the great work of their Ugandan partner.
The families' goal is to ensure their children get the best support they can to overcome vulnerability. They are keen to share their positive experiences with the team and meet some of the donors who have assisted their children access the program. In true local style this is best done over a shared meal.
Here the goals are oriented towards a true win-win. The team is positioned to make a legitimate contribution to the work of the church's partner and learn a lot in the process, and the children's needs and goals have been prioritised. There is no disruption to the children's programs and no risks to their safety caused by allowing teams direct access. In fact, the interaction with the family is relational: the team is there to learn from them and share a meal, which promotes equality and empowerment. The sending church will have a group of informed advocates, with the tools to promote the missions program and encourage giving.
Overall, the end goal of this STM trip is 'good' and 'right' for everyone, and is therefore ethical.
If you’re visiting programs that work with survivors of trauma, abuse or trafficking, beware of 'secondary exploitation'.
In the context of missions or development, this occurs when someone’s experience of trauma is exploited for some form of gain, usually financial. In STM, this often looks like survivors or clients of programs being asked to recount the events of their past for audiences of volunteers, donors or team members.
These stories can be heart-breaking and really help us understand what someone has gone through but they are deeply personal and can also cause stigma, evoke feelings of shame and re-traumatise the survivor. Retelling them over and over can also reinforce negative identity, where a person sees themselves as the sum of their worst experiences.
Stories belong to people, not to programs, and there should never be an expectation – perceived or actual – that a survivor will share the intimate details of their past with a group of strangers. Hearing a horrific story can be sobering and convict us of the need to give, however we shouldn’t be dependent on hearing someone else's trauma to stimulate generosity.
Our goals reflect what we hope to achieve through being part of overseas STM or volunteering.
Ethical STM requires that we re-orientate the end goal to ensure it's focused on the best outcomes for children and communities. This can mean we have to prioritise others above ourselves.