Growing up in a Christian household and in a country filled with poverty-related health issues, I naturally spent my childhood summers in a very particular way – mission trips. I grew up in Guatemala, a country that receives constant attention from different Christian groups as well as a considerable amount of aid from various NGOs and governments from around the world. In 2017, the United States alone sent $257 million to Guatemala, an immense amount compared to what it sent neighboring Nicaragua, $43 million, and Honduras, $180 million. This trend isn’t exclusive to the U.S. government; in fact, out of the 33 countries in Latin America, Guatemala was the 2nd most supported nation in Latin America from 1995 to 2004 by European NGOs.[2]

Certainly, this disparity in attention shows these actions are not entirely for humanitarian purposes. But even for groups with philanthropic intentions, I began to question: was all the help from different aid groups doing more harm than good? From my own experience, while the intentions of the people participating in mission trips stem from a good place, the short-term missions themselves are not sustainable.[1] Individuals from Guatemala, Korea, and the U.S. gather to help some rural village in Guatemala for around two weeks. From dental work to acupuncture, groups offered the villagers services to which they would not have otherwise had access. It was an enjoyable experience until I grew up and began to question what had happened to the villagers we had visited the previous year – and the year before that. Our goal was to help a specific group of people at a certain time; thus, we completely disregarded how the toilets we built and how the desks and books we donated to schools were being maintained and used. Because these missions are built around a very specific mindset, that of helping as many people as we could, considering the long-term effects are not a priority and those involved in these projects rarely questioned the root of these problems.

Photo of News Team member Yeeun Lee
Yeeun Lee joined the News Team this Spring.

Throughout the year, one can see a myriad of groups, from college students and Christian missionaries to NGO volunteers and other independent volunteers roaming the airports, urban streets, and rural towns of Guatemala. Volunteers pay hefty prices to cover, among many other things, the costs of the projects in which they partake. This is another aspect that people who come to volunteer sometimes do not consider: how an immense financial dependence on foreigners is created.[3] I have realized that having good intentions is not good enough. It is crucial to question every small donation and even if the NGO that I am trying to intern at is towards a sustainable cause. That is, a cause that emphasizes the needs of the local community, involves locals to take part in changing their community, and acknowledges how wide disparities in income inequality add to the vicious cycle of poverty-related health issues. As someone who eventually wants to work for an NGO or a health-related organization, to discredit humanitarian work is not my intention. I am gradually trying to make a conscious effort to ask these critical questions and not merely view all humanitarian work as good and helpful. I think that it is great that there are so many people willing to help out in other countries, but to them too, I would say: ask yourself whether the organization you are supporting or the project you are about to join aims to create long-lasting and meaningful changes.

Table depicting statistics about the countries mostly supported by European NGOs between 1995-2004
From Biekart, Kees. “Latin America policies of European NGOs: Recent trends and perspectives.” Institute of Social Studies (ISS), ISS, April 2005.

References

[1] Berry, Nicole S. “Did We Do Good? NGOs, Conflicts of Interest and the Evaluation of Short-Term Medical Missions in Sololá, Guatemala.”ScienceDirect, Elsevier, 6 May 2014.

[2] Biekart, Kees. “Latin America policies of European NGOs: Recent trends and perspectives.” Institute of Social Studies (ISS), ISS, April 2005.

[3] Westenberg, Saskia. “Feeding Dependency in the Americas: U.S. Food Aid Practices in Haiti and Guatemala.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 23 July 2013.

Leave a Reply