Ethical short-term missions (STM) trips must be guided by good and right principles.
Our goals, motivations and method may change but our guiding principles are more constant. They are the broader ideologies we hold to be both right and true, and they act as a reference and a compass to guide our decisions and actions.
Core Principles that Guide Ethical Short-Term Missions:
1. Biblical Principles
While the Biblical mandate that underpins short-term missions is to participate in God's redemptive plan, there are Biblical principles that influence the way we engage. These principles determine what is 'good' and 'right' with respect to every aspect of the ethics framework; the goals, the motives and the method.
These Biblical principals are a part of God's nature and they are interwoven, meaning they cannot be treated as optional or mutually exclusive in the context of our short-term missions trip activities. They must all be present always. The Biblical principles include:
Putting others first. Sacrificing of ourselves – our wants, desires, goals and resources – for the sake of others.
Caring for and deeply considering others. Love is selfless, kind, embracing and does no harm.
Defending the rights of others, particularly those who are powerless, voiceless or vulnerable. Justice recognises the equality and personhood of every man, woman, boy and girl. It calls the systems that perpetuate injustice and poverty to account. It requires us to change, to act, to advocate and to empathise.
The basis of justice. It asserts that all people have equal worth and establishes basic human rights to life, liberty, dignity and access to the means to protect and promote life.
Seeks knowledge, encourages learning and promotes understanding. It safeguards against operating out of assumptions and leads to right action and evidence-based good practice. Its consequence is wellbeing and peace.
Anything we do in the context of short-term missions must therefore, demonstrate love, put others first, do no harm, be in response to local context and real issues, and be based in good practice. It must reflect equality and protect and respect the rights of others. It must ultimately promote peace – or 'shalom' – and result in wellbeing for the most marginalised. This is what it means for STM to be 'good' and 'right' in every aspect of the ethical framework.
2. Derived Guiding Principles
Other key guiding principles that shape and influence short-term missions activities are derived from the Biblical principles above.
- Human rights and child rights: Derived from equality and in pursuit of justice, human rights principles represent the conditions that must be met to uphold the equal worth and value of all people. Applying them ensures we recognise people as rights holders and not objects of our charity. It forces us to be holistic and prevents us from creating situations where our short-term missions activities meet someone's need at the expense of their rights.
- Best practice principles: Derived from wisdom, best practice principles are evidence-based and represent the collective wisdom of those with proven expertise in the related field. Applying them gives us the best chance possible of having a sustained and positive impact while avoiding any negative consequences.
Human rights are God-given and inalienable, which means they cannot be given or taken away by others. They are afforded to all people on the basis of being made equal in worth and value. God gave humankind the foundational gifts of life, dignity, free will, liberty and the right to sustain their life through rewarding work and stewardship over creation.
Human rights are foundational to development work and whenever STM teams engage in development or humanitarian action, their efforts should be consistent with human rights principles.
These can be found in the various international conventions and treaties such as the Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Safeguarding children and upholding their rights is first and foremost a Biblical imperative and must also be central to any STM programs that engage with children.
God's justice for children not only includes protecting them from immediate harm but also against having their broader rights denied, as this can negatively impact their development and their future.
To uphold God's justice towards children, the Bible outlines three specific obligations - protect, fulfil and respect children's rights to:
Survival & Development
These are the same obligations that underpin the Convention on the Rights of the Child and international child rights law.
LETS UNPACK THESE OBLIGATIONS...
- PROTECT CHILDREN'S RIGHTS: Prevent harm and child rights violations, respond to risks, and address wrongdoing when a child is mistreated, abused or harmed.
- FULFIL CHILDREN'S RIGHTS: Identify 'at risk' children, reach out to them, share resources and ensure they have access to services that will enable them to actualise all of their rights concurrently.
- RESPECT CHILDREN'S RIGHTS: Refrain from corrupt practices, exploitation, and from profiting from vulnerable families (directly or indirectly) in a way that results in their basic needs and rights being denied.
When it comes to children's rights, there are certain people who have the primary responsibility to see them actualised. Using human rights language, these people are called duty bearers. When it comes to duty bearers, there are tiers of responsibility.
- First Tier: Principle Duty Bearer
This is always the government. That's because it is their responsibility to create the laws, policies, strategies, and allocate sufficient resources to ensure that children's rights can be upheld by everybody.
- Second Tier: Primary Duty Bearers
This include parents when it comes to children's care, teachers when it comes to their education and healthcare workers when it comes to their medical care.
Duty bearers are always people who have a long-term role to play in children's lives. They are part of the service systems or social support networks that form part of children's context.
Engaging in STM activities that support and equip the relevant duty bearers to fulfil their role is the best way teams and volunteers can contribute towards fulfilling and protecting children's rights.
When volunteers and teams take over the roles of long-term duty bearers for short periods of time, we are more likely to cause disruption, inconsistency, and undermine the social systems that children depend on.
It's often much more exciting, engaging and emotionally impacting for teams and volunteers to work directly with children than supporting their duty bearers. However, if it's not in their best interests and/or can cause harm, then it’s simply not ethical.
Never let a 'feel-good' experience for a team or volunteer override children's rights and best interests.
There are some STM activities that are known to increase children's vulnerability to harm or abuse, lead to exploitation or rights violations, or have a negative impact on their wellbeing.
Common examples include:
• volunteering in orphanages or shelters;
• participating in 'raids and rescues' for trafficked children; and
• medical missions, where unqualified or under-qualified teams or volunteers distribute medicines or hold pop-up medical clinics.
With children's rights and best interests in mind, STM teams should avoid engaging in these types of inappropriate activities.
'Best practice' refers to tried and tested approaches that have proven to deliver positive sustained results without causing any unintended harm or loss of other rights.
Best practice represents the collective wisdom of local communities, professional practitioners, researchers and academics. It's based on evidence, rather than assumption, and focuses on what is 'good' and 'right'. Typically in STM, best practice activities:
BUILD CAPACITY of duty bearers and local people, including churches, organisations, service providers, families and communities as a whole. These are the individuals and groups who are there for the long-haul and will be the ones who ultimately usher in lasting change.
CONTRIBUTE TO SUSTAINABLE IMPACTS by supporting efforts initiated by local people to address priorities determined by them, rather than the needs as perceived by teams or volunteers.
DO NO HARM to children, their families, their communities or undermine local capacities, coping mechanisms and economies.
The world can't be changed in a week.
True 'harvest' is a result of patience through the seasons and consistent labour. Let's be realistic about what we expect and claim can be achieved on a STM trip.
Teams and volunteers can make small and important contributions to long-term change processes. However, the pursuit of unrealistic expectations and 'quick wins' will lead to impatience and the abandonment of good practice. It’s also more likely to result in wasted resources and harm.
Be mindful of double standards in STM.
When applying best practice principles in planning your STM/volunteer trip, ask yourself these questions with respect to your planned activities:
“Would it be acceptable and permissible for me to do this within my own country?”
“Would I be happy if someone else did the same to me or my family?”
• Would I be permitted to volunteer or interact freely with children in a residential care facility, daycare centre or school?
• Would I be permitted to practise medicine, offer medical advice or hand out medicines with my level of training and qualifications?
• Would I let someone with my skills and experience build my house, or care for my child at daycare, or preach in my local church?
Whenever the answer is 'no', we need to ask ourselves why it would be okay for a team or volunteer to do so in another country, where they know even less of the language, culture and context.
Children, families and communities everywhere deserve the same standards that we'd demand for our own. The Bible puts it this way, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Therefore, any STM trip that permits double standards is on shaky ground.
- Principles are steadfast and stay with us through our whole STM journey.
- They are our reference and guide in all decisions and actions.
- These principles can stem from the Bible, human rights (including children's rights) or what we know to be evidenced best practice in a given field.