Learning from Missionaries?

I was at the grocery store today after I paid my internet bill. Outside, there were an exorbitant number of mzungus in suits. Inside, there were also a lot of mzungus in suits. After walking past a few, I realized they were Mormons and, I assume, working as missionaries. It’s certainly not uncommon at all to see missionaries, and I think at least half of the white people on my flight from Amsterdam to Entebbe were church groups.

The reason seeing likely missionaries is interesting is there’s been some talk on some development blogs about what aid and development workers can learn from missionaries.

While I find the general argument about getting to know local cultures and language compelling, some of the others not as much. And, please don’t take my critique of the argument as a critique of religiously affiliated development organizations or missionaries, because it isn’t.

First, I don’t have any experience with missionaries, but I think to compare development workers, in their entirety, with missionaries, only a fraction of what churches do in the developing world, is a little unfair. I’d be amazed to find out if there weren’t development workers who stay in one country for years or decades. But, just like there are development workers who come and go without learning enough about where they are working to be truly effective, I’m sure there are “missionaries” that do the same.

I’m thoroughly unconvinced by the argument that “The expat lives in a little bubble of fake-home, cushioned by consumable shipments, huge shipping allowances, and hardship pay” while missionaries “live in houses that are nice by local standards, but not in the expat palaces your average foreigner inhabits. They bring their stuff with them in suitcases, not container ships.” To start, I don’t find that to be true. Second, I’m not convinced that living a comfortable life makes development workers worse at their job. In fact, you could probably make the argument that it makes them better. Not to mention, the incentives are needed in order to get good people.

I have plenty more thoughts, but I’ll leave it at that. I agree with the overall premise, that spending the time in one place to learn languages, culture, etc. will make development workers better, but am not sure we need to learn that from missionaries.

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2 responses to “Learning from Missionaries?”

  1. zarc42 says :

    Jambo rafiki. Habari za? (Sorry – I rarely get to use my Swahili, and I miss it.)

    Thanks for the counter-argument and the link back to my blog post on it (http://reachfwd.wordpress.com/) – I appreciate a dissenting voice, and I actually do find that you phrased my opinion on it much more eloquently than I did myself.

    Particularly I agree that living a more comfortable life as a development worker necessarily makes you worse at your job – indeed, better incentives are certainly more likely to attract people who have more appropriate skill sets for the jobs.

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