Thursday, March 3, 2011

A philosphy of mission teams/mission work

One of the essay questions on one of my senior economic development courses at university was to write my philosophy of development. What a great question! I think I remember most of what I wrote, and I think I would still mostly agree with what I wrote at the time. I believed in grassroots development that was more than just a transfer of money or resources and included the participation of local peoples. I was leery of large INGOs that had a band aid approach to development believing they did more harm than good, all of the time. However, life experience and field experience adds new questions to my idealistic philosophy that I held. After working 6 years at a large Canadian food aid and food security organization, I quickly learned that there are many instances where food aid is the only response that is appropriate so that people do not starve. I learned that there are many organizations working on the ground with local partners to develop sustainable methods of development. I also learned that there are many organizations that choose not to work with local partners in a healthy way and this results in much damage.

Being in Haiti for the past year, I've seen both of these cases. Development and relief work is big business in Haiti. There are over 15,000 registered NGOs in Haiti! With that many organizations, one would think things would have changed here. But to look around, you see that is not the case. It makes me wonder why and what can be done to make lasting change. There are definitely systemic changes that need to be made in government and business - getting rid of corruption. There are also cultural beliefs and practices that inhibit lasting change. I'm not saying that this culture is bad - I believe that there is good and bad in every culture (including Canadian culture), but there are some historical and spiritual beliefs that do not encourage change.

I often wonder why I am here - I'm sure lots of you wonder that too! Although I guess I am technically a "missionary" I don't really feel like one in the traditional sense of the word, especially for Haiti. I didn't come to start a church or school, I don't lead Bible studies, I don't have any converts (nor have I tried to have any), I usually wear pants instead of skirts or dresses, I ride motorcycle taxis, etc.

So what do I do here? I do a lot of listening and learning. I'm learning to listen even more that talk or give advice. I've already made many mistakes by not doing that. The North American value of efficiency isn't always effective, especially in Haiti.

On a practical day to day level - I do work. I help Manno with his email communications. I coordinate volunteers and teams that want to help at the clinic. I give advice (when asked) for administrative matters at the clinic. I interact with my Haitian friends and neighbours everyday establishing relationships and building trust.

So what's my philosophy of mission teams and mission work? I'm not a fan of traditional mission teams. Gasp! Nope, I don't like them. I've seen too many teams of people in matching T-shirts at the airport arrivals ready to save Haiti. Sorry folks, you and your 9 teammates are not going to save Haiti in the next 7 days of your trip. Many of these teams come to Haiti ready to "fix" Haiti with no cultural or historical understanding of this country. They believe that North American models of development can be transplanted here and will be fruitful. They come to build churches, schools or medical clinics while Haitians stand around watching them wishing they could have a job. Or, they want to evangelize Haiti. Good intentions - but there are already churches here with many pastors who are doing this. Many pastors work in Haiti without pay - it's a calling for them. Is it not more effective for a Haitian to hear the Gospel from a fellow Haitian then a visiting missionary? What North American missionaries can bring is training and resources for the workers already here.

So what do I think mission teams should do?
  • First of all there needs to be a partnership between the team and the local partner. Both parties need to be in agreement for the purpose of the trip. 
  • Teams need to come with an attitude of learning and listening, realizing that they do not have all the answers (if any) and that they can learn a lot from their Haitian brothers and sisters. 
  • The team should not be the primary workers. When we do construction at the clinic, we always hire the local tradespeople to direct the work. The team usually spends their time doing grunt work, or sitting around building relationships with Haitians.
  • Teams should never give out food, clothes, candy, toys or other gifts in their own. Doing this is just asking for problems and reinforces the stereotypes of the "rich, white people" to the locals.
  • Teams should engage with the local culture and people making an effort to communicate and speak Creole.
  • Teams should understand that there is much more to Haiti than what meets the eye. People often say "everyone looks so happy even though they have so little". Which is a true statement. However, many people have been struggling to survive their whole life, they choose to have joy and hope rather than bitterness and anger. Even though people look happy, they are still struggling inside.
These are some of my thoughts, sorry for the rambling. I hope that you will join me in the struggle of understanding this beautiful country and come along and support those who are doing their best to make a difference.

1 comment:

jenny said...

This is something that we talked about on our trip to Honduras, and we got to see firsthand what an evangelism team in matching shirts looked like at the school for children from the Tegucigalpa dump. Thanks for the words of insight, Janelle! And I don't think you rambled at all. :)