Harmful or helpful: Exploring the ethics of missions and school trips

Harmful or helpful: Exploring the ethics of missions and school trips

Short-term missions or volunteer trips are conducted around the world with the best intentions to care for children and their families and communities. People fundraise, visit, give and serve hoping to make a difference to individuals and to the injustices in our world.  Increasingly, research is suggesting that these trips can be harmful to the countries being visited. This research has raised questions like:


  • What are harms done to children in orphanages by visiting volunteers?
  • How have short-term teams created a culture of dependency, disillusionment and dis-empowerment in the countries they seek to serve?
  • What prejudices and stereotypes of “poor people” are reinforced by taking people from wealthy nations on overseas mission trips?
  • Why have studies shown that high-school mission trips have no lasting impact on rates of adult volunteering or giving?


These questions, and others, were the basis of a leadership forum that the Rok Kern team hosted in Adelaide, Australia earlier this year. We partnered with Interserve Australia, ACCIR, TEAR Australia and Tabor Adelaide to explore what it means to do ethical missions and short-term trips with leadership from South Australian Christian schools and churches.

The harms of volunteering overseas

Each year, millions of Christians travel the world, seeking to put their faith into action. They seek to follow Jesus’ example of caring for the poor, the outcast and the marginalized. However research into the effects of these trips, consistently highlights the harm done from these trips to the host-country and the lack of long-term change in the people travelling overseas. This suggests that simply seeking to serve or help others is not enough. The Christian call to love others needs to be acted upon in a way which honors the lives of those being visited. It needs to see them as people too, not just objects of charity. The leadership forum was a chance for us to to look at the research surrounding volunteering overseas and to explore our response. It is important that we Christians – who have grown up in countries where poverty is often pushed to the edges and unseen – reflect on our own assumptions and desires to help before striving to put our faith into action in places where poverty is more open and confronting.

Why is Children in Families talking about the harms of volunteering?

Children in Families (CIF) is passionate about seeing children grow up in families. We believe it is where they belong. But research shows that approximately 16,000 children are growing up in Orphanages in Cambodia. At least 90% of those children have families who could raise them in healthy environments, given the support to do so.  Families  have been led to believe that the children will have better outcomes by being raised outside of their families. And so they place them in orphanages.  As we explored in our Anne with an E series,  the research is very clear that this is not the case.


The demand for children growing up in orphanages is being driven by people in wealthier nations. They are seeking to support vulnerable children and to visit and interact with them during mission or school trips. Up to 15% of Australian schools visit or fund-raise for orphanages and 52% of Christians in Australia financially support orphanages. The leadership forum was one way that the CIF Rok Kern team can engage with these groups about the harm these visits do to.


Can’t volunteering be beneficial?


CIF believes there is a role for foreign volunteers (one of our volunteers is writing this blog post after all). We believe that volunteering works best when the volunteer has skills in a particular area and is familiar with the culture. Also, they can work with our staff to improve our practices, ensuring that all the children in CIF care get the best support possible. That is why most of our volunteers do not do any direct work with clients. Instead, we support and work with our Khmer staff to help them do their work in the culture they know best.

Children in Families ABLE Technical advisors are volunteers with specific medical training
Children in Families ABLE Technical advisors are volunteers with specific medical training

The Rok Kern alternative

However, we also passionately believe that there is a role for short-term teams and trips. When teams see trips as a way to learn from Cambodians about their lives and the work they are doing living out the gospel, the trips help both the people coming and organizations like CIF.  The Rok Kern program takes the latest research into best practice with teams. Working with schools and churches, we create a study tour that is focused on learning from Cambodians about Cambodia. We explore some of the complexities around development and mission. And we equip participants to “seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly” in their own lives. Our goal is for participants to understand the harm of orphanages and to experience why family-based care is a feasible and effective model for caring for vulnerable children. It was this research that we explored with our forum participants, reflecting on their current trip experiences and proposing a framework for evaluating their visit.


Hope for change

It was a great privilege to meet with school and church leaders who want to be part of changing how the next generation engages with missions and caring for vulnerable children. Questioning popular models of missions and volunteering takes courage and humility. And willingness to wrestle with some of the complexities. We were encouraged that each participant was willing to do so. Our participants had this to say about the forum:


“It is incredible how some organisations use good will and the best of human nature for their financial betterment. Thank you for exposing the truth behind the volunteering industry.”


“There was a lot of practical advice on how to ensure that the trip we are conducting will see a lasting impact in our student’s lives. […I learnt that] there needs to be a strong connection with the students lives back home when in-country so that they see lasting difference in the way they approach their lives.”


“The leadership forum gave me a better understanding as to how to make sure that our trips are ethical and run well.”


Mike, from TEAR Australia, has many years experience conducting teams and overseeing development projects. TEAR have spent many years exploring the ethics around team visits and how to support communities to grow and thrive. Mike had this to say about the forum:  


“I think Rok Kern is addressing critical issues that schools and churches facilitating mission and service trips need to consider. Team visits to poor communities overseas, conducted well, can present an invaluable opportunity to learn about the richness of other cultures, the nature and impact of systemic injustice, local resilience and resourcefulness, and opportunities for positive partnerships between Australians and international communities. Conducted badly, team visits can reinforce an unhelpful myth of western superiority and promote damaging paternalistic interventions into the lives of the poor. Rok Kern does a great job of helping people to understand the difference between these two approaches.”


An invitation

Would you like to find out more about the ethics of short-term mission trips? Or about the harms caused by volunteering in orphanages? Would you like tools and research to explore these issues more deeply? We are hosting a webinar in January to explore these issues more. We would love to have you be part of it. To register, please click here

Harmful or helpful: Exploring the ethics of missions and school trips