If there is one thing I have learnt after 16 years of working in international missions and development it is that it is exhaustingly complex! Issues don’t fit into neat boxes, pat answers can’t find their place and cookie cutter solutions usually create more problems than they fix. All of the assumptions I carried into my ‘career’ have become myths debunked and the sobering reality that I and others like me are left to grapple with is that it is dangerously easy to do harm- even with the best of intentions. If this is the case even for those of us who have invested years into learning a language, culture, and taking a deep dive into certain social or missional issues, what about short-term mission? How much more of a concern is it when applied to the activities of short-term teams?
There are voices out there that will emphatically argue that we should do away with short-term teams altogether. I on the other hand think there is a potential worth harnessing within short term missions, an opportunity for reciprocal learning and advocacy worth promoting. Yet, for such potential to be realised and for adverse outcomes to be avoided short-term missions must become more reflective, more conscious of complexity, and be built upon a strong foundation of ethics.
ETHICS IN SHORT-TERM MISSIONS
Ethical frameworks for making decisions typically include assessing the answer to three questions:
- Is the goal good?
- Is the motivation good?
- Are the directing principles (means) good?
If the goal is good, the motivation is good and the means are good, then it is deemed ethical. The added complexity however with regard to short term missions (STM) is that there is more than one group of actors involved and often unequal power dynamics between actors based on a flow of financial resources. So whose goal and motivation are we assessing? Is the ‘means’ good for who? The church/donor or sending organisation? The receiving organisation? The team members? Or the local community, program ‘beneficiaries’ or children who the teams seek to interact with?
DO WE HAVE A DILEMMA HERE?
When the only ethical lens applied to a STM trip is a team or church-centric one, children can easily become the perfect ‘means’ of creating an impacting, moving, life changing experience for team members. We see this when teams want to be directly involved in caring for children in orphanages; which can be a deeply moving experience for a team member, and highly detrimental for the child’s development and wellbeing. We see this when teams want to get involved with child survivors of trafficking in aftercare shelters; which will no doubt stir team members to become passionate about preventing human trafficking, but is highly inappropriate with respect to the child’s rehabilitation. When STM trip itineraries are designed without adequate regard for how the team and their activities impact children’s wellbeing, then regardless of how beneficial it is for the team, the practice is deemed unethical.
Ethical STM trips therefore assess the ‘good’ of the goal, motivation and means from the margins, or in other words, from the vantage point of the party with the least amount of power in the relationship. When applied to team’s engagement with children, ethics from the margins demands that protecting children’s best interests supersede all other motivations and goals, and forms the primary directing principle.
APPLYING CHILD-CENTRIC ETHICS TO SHORT-TERM MISSIONS
Ensuring a STM team engages ethically with children and upholds children’s’ best interests is a matter of applying a child protection and safeguarding lens across all stages of a STM program- from recruiting and preparation to on-field engagement. ACC International in collaboration with Better Volunteering Better Care has recently released the Child Protection in Short-Term Missions Manual and Toolkit, a comprehensive tool outlining a Biblical framework for protecting children, core principles for enhancing children’s wellbeing through STM, key considerations for avoiding harm, along with practical tools, case studies, self assessment forms, checklists, and hand outs for teams. The manual also includes a section on short-term teams and orphanages, and unpacks the harmful effects orphanage volunteering can have on individual children, the role it plays in fuelling an exploitative ‘orphanage industry’, and the reasons why ACCI, along with many other organisations across the globe, are calling for an end to this practice.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO PROTECT CHILDREN IN SHORT-TERM MISSIONS?
You can download the Child Protection in Short-Term Missions Manual and Toolkit here and use it as a guide to ensure your organisation or church’s STM program is ethical and upholds children’s best interests.
Proverbs 31:8-9 encourages us to speak and act on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and defend their rights. You can do this for vulnerable children by adding your voice to the call to stop orphanage volunteering by clicking on the petition link Stop Orphanage Volunteering.
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