Last week, while I was waiting in the airport for my mom’s delayed flight to finally come in, I wanted to barf. This time it wasn’t the bus tacos that I just cannot resist but instead a bunch of matching tucked-in light blue t-shirts, cherubic smiles, and goatees galore. It could only mean one thing: it’s mission trip season. One Spring Break in college I went to a small village in Northern Mexico and helped for a week to rebuild a church and ate tortillas with old ladies and felt great about the fact that I was doing something “good” with my time rather than getting drunk on Lake Travis and mistakenly yelling out “I love you Mario Gomez” to Save by the Bell’s beloved AC Slater whose name is actually Mario Lopez (I had to wait another year for that one and it was actually Mr. Sean Greenberg responsible). Every Spring and Summer, hordes of groups like the one I was with make their way down here and, just like I did and am possibly still doing, royally screw things up.
Let me back up a few months to the first time I helped translate for a medical brigade that comes down here every year to hold walk-in clinics in rural villages. This particular group of very nice and very knowledgeable doctors, nurses, and translators would drive down a different dirt road every morning in big white vans packed to the gills with basic medications, vitamins, and medical supplies to give away in the town’s health center. Behind a blanket or flimsy door would be the makeshift OB/GYN room and the rest of the space would be filled with tables to be used for general consultation. Stretching down the street would be a line of people who had heard that it was American doctor day. One by one they would sit down and tell me their ailments which I would then relay to the doctor or nurse. All the kids had the flu, all the adults had pain everywhere in their body, and everyone complained that their pee was neon in the middle of the day. A month’s worth of vitamins and antihistamines for the kids, ibuprofen for the adults, and “don’t drink pepsi when you’re working in the blazing sun, drink water.” High blood pressure and symptoms of diabetes were common and those particular patients were given a week’s supply of medication and told to see the doctor in town. They almost always replied that they already knew they needed medicine but couldn’t afford it which is why they had come to us in the first place. The visits started to go like clockwork and I was seeing almost fifty people a day. Many of the kids would walk out the door and get back into line with different adults and do it all over again. Free medicine- why wouldn’t they?
I do not at all want to discredit what these fine doctors were doing. Many of the people we saw were greatly lacking in access to general health necessities and I have no doubt that when the doctor came out from behind the sheet, turned off her spelunking head lamp (eww), and called the next pregnant woman into the room, she was helping them in a vastly important way. But after a day or two I started to see the look on the faces as we pulled into town and I was not at all proud of what I was doing. I was ashamed. From their point of view, they were in need and the white people stepped in to fill it just like they always do every couple of months. How could they not see themselves as charity cases? We have stuff and they don’t and for one day we give it away because we can and they can’t. Some sort of infrastructural problem in the community? Well, just wait awhile and an American NGO or mission group or some other outside organization will come and fix it for us for free then leave. This isn’t helping someone to get their feet under them temporarily like after a natural disaster. This is the way in which foreign aid on the personal and governmental level continues to dig the dependency hole deeper and deeper.
What makes me barf about mission groups is that they do a little construction project, drive down the streets literally throwing toys and clothes at open arms, and then tie it into a message of accepting Jesus (not always) that subconsciously implies that maybe they too could have all this material luxury if they do so. Let me once again clarify that I do not think these are bad people with malicious intentions. In fact they have great intentions and I can personally attest to the spiritual value of working in communities in need. I also stress that I am not at all implying that the people welcoming these groups into their communities are lazy, selfish, or ungrateful for accepting the free gifts. I am surrounded by wonderful families that work harder than I could ever imagine. But its hard to take pride in your community and to want to fix the inherent problems yourself when someone else will eventually do it for you for free. And how does that make you view yourself if you are always in the position of receiving aid from elsewhere? Its no mystery why people always assume I’m rich and wonder what it is that I brought to give away no matter how meagerly I live amongst them. The color of my skin speaks louder.
I realize I am making huge generalizations and for that I apologize. There are a lot of organizations, medical brigades, and mission groups that distribute aid in a responsible way and the communities greatly benefit in the long term by becoming more self-sustained in their efforts. But a lot of money and work is wasted on short term benefits that become long term damage. I also realize that you may be saying to yourself, “Well this is a rather hypocritical rant. Aren’t you doing the exact same thing you’re complaining about? Aren’t you just giving stuff away? Two years may be longer than a week but it’s still temporary. You leave and they’ll wait for another like you.” Yes I know. That is what my friend who left was battling with and something that is always in the back of my mind. But there are ways to help others responsibly and I am searching for them all the time.
I’ll give you an example: there is a town here in the South that is infamous for being completely swept away by Hurricane Mitch in the early 90’s. As is often the case after large scale disasters, the international community was eager to act and all sorts of groups flooded (maybe not the best choice of words) in. Some of them had no plan at all upon arriving and turned into a huge burden like we saw in Haiti. But the German and American governments acted quickly to set up temporary housing (tent-city kind of thing) and set about rebuilding the town. German engineers drew up a blueprint for a basic cinderblock house that each family would receive if and only if they put in 80 hours of work. The new town is beautiful and, although it isn’t perfect, the people have a sense of pride in what they built themselves and work hard to maintain and improve it.
In my case, I want the only reminder of my presence here these two years to be knowledge, new skills, and good memories. I want to change the mindset in myself and others that the best solution to the problems abroad, many of which we have created (a point that cannot be overstated), is a blank check. That money is nothing but a shovel. If and when we can instead provide, or better yet allow others to create, their own wood, hammers, and nails, they will be used effectively from within to build a ladder that will stretch far beyond level ground.