10/13/2014 01:59 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Mission Trip or Ego Trip

The latest version of American do-gooding takes place in developing countries with the Mission Trip. Whether it has a religious or secular focus, a team of well-meaning Americans will descend on a village intent on "doing something." There are three distinct types of intervention. First are those events in which we pay for the privilege of putting ingredients in plastic bags which will get sent to poor countries or places where there has been a natural disaster. These food packs can be life savers in those areas where crops have failed. However, they can also be delivered to areas where farmers are growing crops and trying to sell the produce in the same areas where food is being given away. If you plan to volunteer your time and money for something like this, be sure to find out the policies and track record of the organization in delivering food where needed and not competing with local farmers.

The second type of do-gooders are those people who show up at the village ready to "do something." Often their mission is to paint a building, build a wall or dig a trench. They do this for a week or 10 days and then they leave. Meanwhile, the local people have had their lives disrupted and are often left with poorly done work which must be re-done and without money to do it. What these volunteers should do is make their visit, but pay local people to do the work. In the meantime, the volunteers can spend their time learning about another culture and another way of living.

The third version is the medical team which parachutes in with its staff, equipment, medications and takes over the local hospital and "does something." It could be cleft palate repair or some other minor surgery. But these well meaning healthcare providers are forced to play Solomon--choose who gets the procedure among the thousands of people eligible. After 50 or 100 of these are done, the medical team packs up and goes home feeling great, but leaving patients without follow up care, a disrupted hospital and many disappointed people who were not selected. There are better ways to improve the health of people in developing countries than this ego trip. Healthcare providers can volunteer for an extended tour through US agencies or organizations like Doctors Without Borders. Or, they can donate money to the non-governmental organizations using community based public health improvement programs. Teaching women to boil water or use mosquito nets properly will favorably affect the health of many more people than the parachute programs that stroke the egos of these medical volunteers.

In many ways, developing countries are at the same place the US was in a hundred years ago. We made major gains in lifespan and reduced killer diseases by public health programs that gave us clean, safe water and purer foods. This is where major results are made. Not in the one-shot, fly-in and fly-out programs.

When you think about a mission to a developing country, ask yourself this question. At the end of the project, who will feel good? If it is the community, great--congratulations. If it is you, find another way to contribute.