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7 ethical questions to ask before going on a mission trip

This year has seen many stories in the media about the abuse of privilege and power in humanitarian aid situations. What can short term mission volunteers learn as they pack their bags and head to the far-flung places of the globe? Cath Swanson, child safety officer at Africa Inland Mission shares seven questions to consider

As Christians, we may well trust ourselves and our motivations, but how can we contribute to more robust ethical practices that make life less vulnerable for the people we are wanting to help? Here are seven key questions to consider before jetting off... 

1. Have you learned about poverty and its multiple causes?

As Christians we already know that money is not really the answer - but we can easily act as though we - and our ‘stuff’ - are the solution to the complex nature of poverty. Don’t see lack of material resources as the key problem that people face - and remember that you are not going to ‘make poverty history’ on this trip. There is only one saviour of the world and it’s not you!

Act like someone who genuinely believes that the best things in life can’t be bought. (Bedtime reading: When Helping Hurts. S Corbett, B Fikkert)

2. Are you willing to be humble?

Go in humility, go to learn, go to share your humanity with other precious human beings, many of whom will demonstrate a level of physical, emotional and spiritual resilience you can only dream of. 

Your humble spirit will be evidenced as you stop seeing ‘poor people’ simply as the backdrop to your exotic adventure, but as individuals with lives, stories and a future that doesn’t necessarily include you on centre stage!

3. Have you thought about photos?

Everyone loves a great snapshot. But when you take photos, make sure that this is with the person’s permission. Don’t just take random close-up photos of people from the safety of your passing vehicle. Always make sure any photo portrays the subject in a manner which gives them dignity. (After all, nobody wants a terrible photo of themselves passed around!)

If possible, make sure that the person gets a copy - even a digital version. If you are part of a team, designate one person to be the photographer. Don’t publicly share the tragic details of someone else’s story without permission. And don’t exaggerate the details when you do!

Basically, love your neighbour as yourself and always consider "how would I feel if someone did that to me?"

4. Have you thought about the importance of boundaries between adults and young people? 

Don’t do anything with local children that you wouldn’t do at home if you were working in a children’s ministry.

Stay visible, be accountable, aim for transparency in all you do. Don’t single out certain children as favourites. Don’t give out your personal contact details. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Children need to know that there are boundaries between adults and children and to know that bonding quickly with a total stranger is not okay.

Encouraging children to cross these lines, even unintentionally, does not help the child to recognise what is safe and what is not.

5. Have you considered the implications of visiting an orphanage?  

If you are going to work in or visit an orphanage or baby home, find out about it first, and think hard about going in the first place!

These are among the most popular short-term trip locations. Many of these institutions pull at the heart strings and encourage paying volunteers as a means of funding the project or programme.  

Most of these children have living relatives and there are real issues at stake in propagating institutional care. A constant influx of well meaning, compassionate volunteers who want to help these children is very unhelpful to children who more than anything need stability, a private home life and a secure attachment to their permanent care givers.  

If you do end up working in a project or institution with children, then try to support the wider programme from the wings. You can do this by being genuinely useful to the day-to-day (probably low paid) local staff who might seem jaded and not be as enthusiastic and energetic as you are! 

The best short-term volunteers are those who genuinely want to be useful, even if what they are asked to do is not overly exciting or frontline. Sometimes this can be by doing office work, helping improve the website or by writing a project proposal.

6. Are you able to be generous when giving gifts? 

If you can, ask ahead what is needed and then buy the best quality you can afford. Make it meaningful and personal. Better to buy one decent leather football signed by the kids in your Sunday school than 20 cheap plastic balls from Poundland.

Better to buy some decent chunky crayons than a 500 pack of cheap felt tips. There is enough plastic junk in the world and there is nowhere to dump it!

Where at all possible, allow the local staff to oversee the distribution of the gifts so that the children see the blessing coming from their hand as well as yours. 

7. Have you thought about safeguarding?

Vulnerable children and adults living in poor contexts need more protection and not less. Set an example in your words and deeds so that you can positively influence others who are watching you.

Keep your ears and eyes open and be aware of any safeguarding risks that may exist. Ponder these in your heart.

Speak up if you see something that doesn’t seem right. Do this with a respectful and gentle attitude and in doing so you will earn the right to be heard. 

Cath Swanson is child safety officer at Africa Inland Mission (AIM)

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