5 strategies to avoid being arrested when you volunteer internationally

davidlivermore | February 5th, 2010 7 Comments

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As I watch the news reports pouring in about the Idaho missionary group arrested for child abduction in Haiti, I keep asking What were they thinking?! I don’t have enough first hand information to make dogmatic judgments about their intentions but if anything, it’s surprising we don’t hear more reports like this given that 4.5 million U.S. Christians travel each year to participate in “short-term missions” trips like this one.

Research on this phenomenon—whether it’s short-term missions groups, or volunteers with other kinds of charitable organizations—reveals 5 strategies that would have kept this Idaho group from ever being in this situation:

1. Be clear about your objective
Was the Idaho group’s objective helping Haitian orphans or was it to start an organization, build an orphanage, and fill it with kids? I said I wasn’t going to judge their motives but it’s easy for even the best of intentions to suddenly lose focus and make the “program” (the orphanage) the end-all rather than the cause (the kids!). And clearly Haitians should be part of informing whether the objective and the means for accomplishing it is appropriate—especially when it involves their children.

2. Partner with the experts
My friend Kurt VerBeek who has also researched this phenomenon asks, if your daughter had an eating disorder, would you find a group of volunteers to help? I’d immediately look for an “eating-disorder expert”. But sometimes we treat disasters as if a little bit of zeal and passion are all that’s necessary.

It’s appropriate for us to be moved by the heart-wrenching realities that have gone of for our neighbors in Haiti. And there are ways volunteers can be involved. But there are development experts who have given their lives to studying and improving the best ways to help. Even a brief exposure to someone with expertise in orphans will tell you that there is a significant shift away from building the kind of orphanage this group had in mind. Whatever the issue you’re seeking to address—water, HIV AIDS, trafficking, orphans etc.—find someone with expertise to be sure you’re not making things worse. There are likely ways you can be involved. But let the experts inform what that involvement looks like. (And did I mention hearing from the Haitians themselves?!)

3. Work with the Legal System
We’ve been continually hearing that the Haitian government is in disarray. And many of us have been to places like Haiti where a government official will inform us that a “tip” (wink, wink), might help get some paperwork processed more efficiently. So it’s easy to conclude that the informality of the legal system in a place like Haiti means anything goes. Legal systems exist everywhere—even in remote tribes. The rules might not seem as explicit and complex as they are in places like the U.S., but they’re taken very seriously. Don’t mess with the law and think that your good intentions will be enough to get you by.

4. If you haven’t done it here, don’t do it there.
It’s now being reported that the Idaho group leader left her fledgling business at home to start this new organization. Regardless of whether that’s true, again and again volunteer groups get involved in things internationally that they haven’t done successfully at home. People are teaching English who have never had a single course in teaching ESL. Individuals are starting NGO’s without any budgetary or organizational leadership. Youth groups are wiring church buildings when we wouldn’t let them near our circuit boxes. You get the idea.

5. Partner with the Haitians
The best hope for Haiti lies in Haiti. That doesn’t mean we should just turn a blind eye and go on with our sweet bourgeois lives and wish them the best. But have we not seen the amazing resilience of the Haitian people over the last 3 weeks? It’s compelling! We shouldn’t manipulate them with our money and promises but instead, we need to shut up, sit down, and find empowering ways to truly collaborate with local leaders and organizations. Yes there are corrupt Haitian leaders. But there are also upright, smart, virtuous leaders rebuilding Haiti from the ground up. Take time to find them. Not just so they can be your interpreter. Listen to them. Ask how you can help. Then ask again, and again, and again…and don’t be too quick to offer solutions. Let them truly lead the way in rebuilding.

As businesses get more involved in creative CSR campaigns and as religious groups, universities, and individuals take up important causes, these five strategies will not only improve their effectiveness, it will help ensure they don’t end up arrested.

My heart aches for everyone involved in this recent news story. It doesn’t have to be this way. I have to believe that most, if not all of the volunteers involved, truly wanted to help. With just a bit more forethought and intentionality, they wouldn’t be sitting in a Haitian jail cell. And more importantly, their money, time, and efforts could have been truly used to help Haitian families.

7 Responses to 5 strategies to avoid being arrested when you volunteer internationally

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