This morning, I read an update on the situation in Haiti with the group who were arrested for trafficking. First, I think we should be careful with the term ‘missionary’ here. I would note a difference between a ‘missionary’ who is someone vetted, trained, sent and supported by a body to whom he or she is accountable and a religious group travelling abroad. From past experience with mission organisations and training short-term teams for cross-cultural contact, I know there is are a broad range of skills and expectations in these groups (both the folk travelling and those who are sending).
Of course I don’t know the specific situation with this group, what the backstory is or what kind of training they had beforehand. But I do know how easy it is to carry one’s assumptions about ‘what probably goes on there and what we can do.’ I do know that, no matter how disorganised the (orphanage, shelter, clinic, church, food pantry, etc.) seems to be, that it’s unwise to come with the assumption that one can impose one’s own organisation on them. We often carry an earnest combination of ‘I want to help in whatever way possible’ and ‘let’s get things done’. We tend to drop in and make a superficial survey of the situation and then offer what seem to be reasonable suggestions or take some direct action without fully considering or consulting with the local partner. I’m wondering if this group made a series of these choices that led to their arrest; it’s also easy to assume that there is no defined mechanism in a given country for accomplishing whatever it is the group wants to focus on (otherwise why would a third party need to step in and do the work).
However, and this is a big however, there is a legitimate role that outside groups can play as a third party with fresh insights on what can be accomplished. Beyond the typical financial aid that can be funnelled, there is networking and brainstorming that come from international partnerships (and this is something that goes both ways; there are sometimes things that the local partner has never considered that seem obvious to the visitor and assumptions that a visitor might make beforehand that the local partner can quickly dispel and completely change the focus of a proposed project). The primary thing (and this goes with any kind of relationship) is open communication. There are huge two-way disasters in the making when either the visitors or the local partners have erroneous assumptions about a given project.
It then becomes dangerous (or causes an international incident) when the visitors don’t have a thorough understanding of local cultural norms or regulations. We are in Mumbai this week enjoying the interplay of ideas in a new place where (hopefully) we are both listeners and catalysts for new thoughts. But I’m just realising anew, especially in situations that are especially sensitive like prostitution or trafficking, that things could quickly go south is one is careless in either that listening or speak too quickly ideas that don’t appropriately address the issues at hand.