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Each year, more than a million Americans, the majority of them teenagers or college students, travel to other countries on “service trips.“ Lasting for a week or two, the trips are conceived as a way for Americans to see developing world poverty up-close and to “help.“ The help usually takes the form of some low-skill labor project like building a classroom or rehabilitating a small house. Originally the sole province of church youth groups, the service trip has become increasingly popular as “a vacation with meaning.“ 

Now that another million travelers have returned home and are back to their normal lives, the Wall Street Journal this week points out the myriad reasons why such trips are a bad idea. The summary is that it is ridiculous to spend tens of thousands of dollars flying Americans to a foreign country to poorly perform a task that could be done cheaper, better and with more beneficial long-term effect by high-skill local labor.

My epiphany on the pointlessness of such trips came while spending a month volunteering at an international NGO’s famine-relief operation in Ethiopia. Despite my good intentions it was abundantly clear that I had no useful skills for the situation. Apparently this message is sinking in—the Washington Post ran a story this summer noting that many churches are abandoning such trips.

Minimizing such an egregious waste of money and resources is a good thing. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what the long-term impact will be if service trips cease. As silly as many of them are, they are probably the only opportunity participants will ever have to come into contact with people living in absolute poverty. As Andy Crouch, executive producer of Round Trip, a documentary film-based curriculum designed to improve church service trips, notes “To experience the absolute poverty in parts of the developing world, to see people who couldn’t possibly be doing anything more to escape poverty, can be a transformative experience. It begins raising systemic questions that don’t necessarily get raised when you see the relative poverty in the United States. It’s very important for people in the rich world to be exposed to absolute poverty and I don’t know how you do it without an encounter with a real person.“

That’s the theory at least. Evidence suggests that these trips have no lasting impact on the participants, however. “The truth is that often the trips are set up in such a way that contact with the people [that the trip participants] are allegedly serving is minimized or sanitized. You’re not really getting to know people at all and that’s more true the younger the participants are,“ says Crouch.

Which begs the question of whether it’s even possible to achieve the goals of a real encounter with poverty in a week to 10 days. According to Crouch it is—if the trips are radically different. He suggests three ingredients for trips to have an impact:

1. Make trips a part of a lasting, organization-level partnership: Many youth groups feel they have to go someplace new each year to interest participants. Visiting the same place year after year allows the Americans to begin building more of an understanding of local context and needs, and increases the likelihood that the “help” they offer is actually helpful.

2. Properly set expectations: The more a trip is described as a learning experience rather than an opportunity for an unskilled teenager to “help”, the more likely the trip is to have an impact.

3. Small is beautiful: if personal contact is the sine qua non of such trips, they have to be small enough to allow actual personal contact between Americans and their counterparts.

Still, Crouch doubts that one trip can make a difference:

“The trips only make sense if they are part of a comprehensive program of changing peoples attitudes and behaviors. Evidence is shockingly clear that a single trip has no impact. No matter how well you do a trip, especially when you’re talking about teenagers, they are at such a high-velocity developmental stage that I don’t think any single experience is going to have an ‘impact.‘...If you want to see any lasting change you can’t have the trip end when people get back, or even after that one meeting where everyone shares their pictures. The organizations that have thought about this the most and are doing the best job are making these trips part of a much longer engagement with the issues. For instance, there’s one organization that requires a year-long commitment and the trip occurs in the middle—they meet just as often after the trip as they do preparing for it. What we need to do is go out and have our world rocked and then come back and in a sustained way make some real commitments to change and be held accountable for enough time for those changes to sink in.  The grooves in our culture are too deep for us to escape from without that level of commitment.“

The market for service trips that require a year-long commitment—and commitment to change—is probably much smaller; but changing the lives and long-term viewpoints of a small sub-set of the current vacationers is better than providing a poverty fly-by for the masses.

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