Primum non nocere: Ethical Principles of Mission Trips after Disaster

[1] The Rev. Mark Wm. Radecke, an ELCA pastor at Susquehanna University has penned an excellent article in a recent issue of Christian Century entitled "Misguided Missions."1 In discussing short-term mission trips, Pastor Radecke explains that "I’ve found that [mission trips] can have a profound effect on the faith and life of participants, and good work is often done: people living in poverty have their needs addressed by energetic and caring people. But the liability of badly implemented mission trips far exceeds the missed opportunities of staying home. Poorly conceived trips can distract hosts from their primary ministries, use up significant sums of money and energy on low priority tasks and create unreasonable expectations for visible results in a short period of time."

Primum non nocere: Ethical Principles of Mission Trips after Disaster by Kevin Massey

[2] I appreciate Pastor Radecke for sharing these thoughts, because they underscore some important ethical principles about volunteering in disaster response. I’m going to share some brief reflections on Pastor Radecke’s article, and some ways we try to practically apply these ethical principles.

[3] The principle ethic undergirding volunteering in disaster response is nonmaleficence. We need to plan and implement opportunities in which volunteers contribute to the healing of a community without in any way harming or impeding healing in the process.

[4] An example of how volunteering efforts could impede healing can be found in the unfolding response to the Haiti earthquake. Before the Haiti earthquake, unemployment in Haiti was around 60%. Most Haitians were accustomed to living on $2 a day. That was before the earthquake, and economic conditions have worsened significantly. Following the quake, generous donors shared millions of dollars with non-profit organizations to respond. The ELCA’s World Hunger and Disaster Appeal has raised over $10 million. Also, scores of people have communicated the desire to volunteer to help rebuild and clean up.


[5] Ethical questions emerge however around the practicality of coordinating unskilled volunteers to come to Haiti and work there. For the cost of a team of 10 persons from the United States to come to Haiti for a week, more than 20 Haitians could be employed for a year at their accustomed standard of living. As well intentioned as those volunteering efforts may be, they could represent a use of resources that could be differently used to much greater effect.

[6] Pastor Radecke outlines pitfalls to avoid and principles to follow to make for the best designed and effective mission trips. One key pitfall he describes is that groups often change the destination of a mission trip every year. "If this is 2010, then we must be in Tanzania: Tanzania this year, Bosnia next year, Nicaragua the year after that, and the Philippines on year four." One important goal of a mission trip is to develop and nurture relationships between groups. True accompaniment involves making a commitment to journey with people over a period of time. I spoke recently with a volunteer who made four disaster response trips to the Gulf, all to the same community. He had learned a lot about the local community and had true relationships and friendships with people.

[7] Radecke shares with us under a banner entitled "I see what your problem is" the following anecdote, demonstrating how just as in the volunteer planning in Haiti, local needs sometimes differ from the volunteer groups’ needs:

A team I led a decade ago agreed to help lay the foundation for a modest new church. I sent a check ahead to hire someone to dig the foundation trenches before we arrived — a half day’s work at most, with the proper equipment. When we got there, there was no such equipment to be seen, the job was less than half finished, and I was less than half thrilled. But as my Costa Rican friends saw it, it would be crazy to give the money to someone already rich enough to own a Bobcat; there were six unemployed adults in the community who were eager to do the work with picks and shovels for the same sum, even though it would take all six of them three full days to do it. When we enter our hosts’ world, we do things their way.

[8] Another pitfall is what Radecke calls, "I have, you need." This is the presumption that the local communities don’t have anything to offer. This mistaken presumption can hinder effective response both because it creates a power imbalance, putting the local community in a subservient posture, but also because it can lead to neglecting local assets which could be brought to bear in the response.

[9] In Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) training and materials for local coordinators, we have begun outlining the assessment of local assets as the first step in assessment. Previously, assessment templates had begun with the assessment of what has been broken, destroyed, or lost. By beginning with the counting of local assets, we can maximize the amount of local participation and ownership in the response.

[10] Another example of this is that LDR participates in a multi-week mission trip program with Church World Service in which we concentrate volunteers in a four to six-week period to accomplish certain targeted projects. This year we completed over 10 homes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A terrific component of this program is that it includes a host dinner night in which all of the volunteers gather for a dinner hosted by a local church. Volunteers break bread with members of the community in which they are working and are served by them. A deeper accompaniment is fostered here too when volunteers can experience being cared for by the community as opposed to just coming from the outside to do the caring.

[11] Radecke concludes with this excellent summary: "Short term mission teams travel down roads paved with good intentions; it’s important to avoid these wrong turns. Instead, those of us who lead such trips can foster solidarity and Christian friendship with the partners alongside whom we serve, and we can create space in which all participants — guests and hosts — can ponder, reflect and grow."

Rev. Kevin Massey is a Board Certified Chaplain (BCC) and Director of Lutheran Disaster Response.


© July 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 7