Missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits: Are we hurting more than we are helping?

We all consider helping communities in need. This enthusiasm typically arises during natural disasters.  We risk romantisizing how we will benefit a community which we know little about.  However sincere, our efforts may not produce the result we imagined.

As new Anthropology students, we are just learning the importance of ethnography. Although foreign relief programs have good intentions, few expose their participants to the practices and beliefs engrained in the community they will visit.   As anthropologist Erin Taylor highlights in her article regarding the influx of foreigners in Haiti, the goal of foreign aid workers should not be to reshape society, instead to provide the local government with the resources to lead.

During her time in Haiti, Taylor spoke with Catholic priest, Father Marc.  He observed that foreigners in Haiti, can be classified into three groups: missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits.  Mercenaries are expat employees residing in developing nations for financial gain.  Missionaries “justify their labours on the basis of humanitarian convictions, though these may be at odds with local beliefs” (Taylor). Misfits are unable to function productively within their home countries.

Taylor recalls a group of American missionaries in Haiti wearing T-shirts which stated, “God sent us to save Haiti”.  This conviction gives them the false impression that their efforts can save a nation which will always be subject to natural disasters.  “Whether such conviction is grounded in religion or any other ideology, it dangerously blinds the believer to being dismissive of local abilities.” (Taylor).  Taylor remembers meeting a missionary who builds houses for Haitian citizens.  Despite his positive attributes, this man only helped individuals who contributed to his church.  “This is not saving Haiti, it is using resources to deliberately engineer the local culture in the image of the foreigner’s beliefs” (Taylor).

In Paul Farmer’s book Haiti After the Earthquake , he writes “more money should be directed to the Haitian government so that it can look after its own people. Corruption may be endemic, but without a budget, the government will never be able to turn itself around. NGOs cannot save Haiti.” (Farmer).  Our primary focus should not be on helping, rather supporting others in their initiative to lead their own society.



2 thoughts on “Missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits: Are we hurting more than we are helping?

  1. It’s easy to relate this to the “volunteer phenomenon” seen every outbreak of earthquake since 2008 in China. First of all, the party and government did not effectively activate the national emergency responsive system, or lack there of, essential for disaster rescue and relief. Second of all, huge waves of volunteers and voluntary enterprises rushed to the quake center by car-pooling carrying loads of relief necessities, creating uncontrollable traffic jams and chaotic scenes of unloading/looting resources. Stagnant crowds of “visitors” clustered on the ruins also posed an inevitable trouble to survivors’ life, and among whom were quite a number of sanctimonious show-offs. Without effective resource distribution, control and management, the original intention of volunteering would not be realized.

  2. This reflection on NGOs’ and volunteering’s hindering rather than helping role of intervening in disaster stricken nations is extremely thought-provoking and well supported by ethnographic experience. As a culture, we are almost brainwashed into believing that we are superior to others and anything that we can do to help will always be helpful, but the ethnographic research in your blog depicts the truth; there are many instances in which we make matters worse in specific situations when proper preparation and understanding of other cultures is not done before interaction. This entry gives many specific examples and points of view from ethnography to support the argument, like experiences from volunteers, Father Marc and Taylor. You did a good job of exploring all areas of the study. It was very interesting and thought-provoking, and now what I see even more clearly is that what we think as a society to be true is not always that.

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