I want to start by saying that not every mission trip or volunteer trip to a developing country is harmful, but most of them are useless. It's called voluntourism, and you may be guilty of it.
Going to Africa, taking pictures with orphans, and making friendship bracelets won't actually help any of the people living there. Donating supplies is kind of you, but in the long term it's harmful. You take business away from the struggling economy in that country and don't teach anyone any valuable skills. Groups like TOMS create a cycle of dependence. Giving shoes for free is nice, but you put local shoemakers out of business and make the locals dependent on us. A country can not improve if it's reliant upon another.
Poverty isn't an accessory or an attraction, realize these are real people with real problems you probably aren't fixing. Your Instagram is not the most important factor here.
Most short term trips are not very effective in really helping a country or people. If you're genuinely interested in helping, look at long term programs who respect a country's autonomy and culture.
And please, if you're going on one of these trips, learn about the culture you'll be surrounded by. Don't show up to a country where all you know is that "people are poor". Do some research! That's a great way to avoid offending anyone or pushing your culture onto them. Many Americans are guilty of ethnocentrism, where we see our own lifestyles as superior, and it's important to make sure your mission trip won't be forcing your ideas onto someone else.
My friend who grew up in Trinidad was always angry when people came to her country and said things like "Wow! You have air conditioning?" That is belittling and insulting. People came to her home in the Caribbean with no concept of the culture or people who lived there. Why are you going on a mission trip to a very Christian and developed country? Yes there may be plenty for the country to improve upon, but it's not always up to you. My Trinidadian friend said, "As someone who has grown up in a third world country, and who has family in third world countries, it's just a hot mess when it comes to mission trips. They're often insulting and useless. The countries they 'help' aren't able to recover if we give them everything".
Mission trips aren't evil, and many of them are helpful, but a lot of people do more harm than good in the pursuit of a clear conscious.
So what should you do? If you really want to help change the world, how can you do that without being problematic?
Make sure the trip you're going with cares more about the people you'll be helping than you. If you really want to do good, be selfless, find a group that isn't interested in the volunteer experience, but the help they can provide. Don't take selfies with orphans you'll never see again. Being kind and a positive energy is great, but don't let a child get attached to you if you're never going to see them ever again, that isn't helpful for either of you.
Recognize that if you're only going for a week, you should do something impactful with that time. As Michelle Staton recalls, "In Uganda, I became used to seeing groups of young people come for week-long visits at the orphanage where I taught English. They would play with the kids, give them a bracelet or something, and then leave all-smiles, thinking they just saved Africa. I was surprised when the day after the first group left, exactly zero of the kids were wearing the bracelet they received the day prior" (Read more). At the end of the trip, the people you're helping should benefit more than you did. That seems simple and obvious, but it's important and often overlooked.
Be a volunteer, not a tourist. Don't treat this trip like a visit to a museum, looking at a culture so different you can't recognize it. Just go and be helpful, not rude. Research the culture you will be in, and respect it.
Or don't go! I know it makes you feel good and adds to your resume, but that shouldn't be the goal. Michelle Staton pointed out that "Two weeks on a medical trip to Tanzania can cost you $3,040, not including airfare, which is roughly $2,000. If six people go on this two week trip, that's more than enough money to pay for a local doctor's annual salary." (Read more). If you genuinely care about a culture and think that you can help them, don't sign up for a multi-thousand dollar trip. Donate that money to an organization like UNICEF or Doctors without Borders. They can do more than you can. It's less fun, but if you're actually a good samaritan who is concerned about the well being of others, it's infinitely better.
It's frustrating to recognize you may not be in a position to help. As a college student with no teachable skills, there's not much I can do to save the world. I don't have the money to donate or any skills to teach. If you're not a doctor, or you don't speak the native language, you may be limited in what you can accomplish, but that's OK. It's better to recognize your limitations then to spend $1000s making friendship bracelets with orphans.
Your mission trip or volunteer project shouldn't be a resume builder or a vacation trip, it should be something meaningful where you are actually being selfless. Keep that in mind next time you sign up for one.
Want to read more? This isn't a problem that I'm breaking the news on, there are tons of informed articles with more information about the problem of voluntourism and solutions.
Reasons why it's a problem and solutions