The problem with mission trips

Words by Caitlyn (she/her), 18 NSW 

I was on FaceTime with a friend when they said they wanted to do a mission trip with a prominent charitable organisation to build houses in a developing community. After they realised that my screen hadn’t in fact frozen, they asked why I’d gone completely silent.

I, an Indian-Australian, am always the one to add my two cents. And yet discussing racial matters with white friends still terrifies me every time. I approached the situation tentatively and brought up the issue of white saviour complexes.

‘White saviours’ are people who attempt to rescue BIPOC, but in ways that are immediate and temporary. Real, deep-rooted issues are treated as checkboxes, with the unsaid priority of the ‘volunteers’ being the intrinsic, and often extrinsic, fulfilment and commendations they receive. Trending issues are addressed quickly and sloppily, and then soon forgotten.

This treatment of BIPOC is infantilising and insulting, and it can be seen everywhere. These issues arise from Western civilisation colonising and taking resources from the land. Then people from those same countries come back and assume that they’re more capable of solving crises than the people who know the lay of the land and work tirelessly to improve their living conditions.

To go on these trips at all takes an enormous amount of fundraising. You’d think that every spare cent would be funnelled towards the communities these trips are meant to be advantageous for, and yet volunteers are put up in hotel rooms for the entirety of their stay – in buildings we can safely assume are actually structurally sound.

The question then becomes, who are these trips really helping?

Many times, their argument was that they’d be changing lives – as though missing the ‘saviour’ part of my critique. They asked, ‘What was so wrong with wanting to help people?’ It was an interesting question. Why would there be anything wrong with that?

My mind went straight to teachers. Knowing that they’ve helped their students can leave teachers fulfilled and passionate. The difference is that teachers aren’t hired so that they can feel fulfilled, but rather for the service they provide their students – a service they are qualified to provide, unlike people who go on mission trips. The people with the most positive outcome are the students, the people being helped, not the teachers.

All of this just got me thinking about moral desert and its implications on our behaviour. Put simply, moral desert is the idea that rewards are doled out in response to moral and virtuous actions. The problem with this thinking is that doing good deeds becomes less about the contributions one makes to society, and more about feeling good about oneself and how others may praise them. It becomes transactional in many peoples’ minds.

In the end, my friend admitted that they just really wanted to build a house, and they wouldn’t be able to here because nobody would hire them. Somehow failing to recognise that the reason why nobody would hire them here is that they aren’t qualified, they’ve never constructed a house, and haven’t acquired any of the necessary knowledge or experience to do so.

I asked my friend why the people running these trips were willing to hire people that would never be hired in Australia, and that they would undoubtedly never let work on their own property. My friend didn’t have a response to this.

I then asked if there was anything I had said to them that they fundamentally disagreed with. There wasn’t anything. I could breathe again knowing my stance hadn’t ruined our friendship but rather had encouraged growth.

For now, we’ve agreed that they’re better off applying to go on The Block if they really want to build a house.

I’m just hoping that sometime soon, mission trips will be scrapped in favour of programs providing qualified professionals, funding, and making real sustainable change.

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