I struggle with this. I used to be evangelical Christian, and went on a number of these trips, including 4 international ones. Looking back I am uncomfortable with my naivety, arrogance (although I did not recognise it then) and cultural ignorance (even with significant training each time). The exception is my fourth trip, that I will discuss below. I guess I also have an odd perspective because my grandparents were long-term missionaries while my Dad was growing up, and later were the national directors (in NZ) for one of the world’s larger missions organisations, so it is hard for me to see missionaries as all bad, when my family and many others I know are incredibly loving and generous.
I am more concerned about the development and aid side than the proseletysing. I guess I’m a bit of a minority, where I think that simply turning up in a foreign country and evangelising for a week or 4 is ineffective, but doesn’t cause anywhere near the harm that turning up to do short term aid work with unskilled workers does. Turning up for a couple of weeks to build with no experience or professional training in construction is detrimental (and a couple of days practicing does not count). You do not have the skills to build as efficiently as locals and are pushing them out of potential paid work. Furthermore, if you are trained and/or experienced, but it isn’t pecialised enough that locals can’t do the same, then again you could be taking needed employment from locals and perpetuating a foreign saviour stereotype. There are exceptions, such as highly trained and specialised professionals doing work where there is nobody able to do the same work (or, even better, teaching local people to where appropriate).
Similar with things like orphanages. Imagine being a small child, and people come in, get attached to you, and leave again. That isn’t a way to build security and stability in children, especially vulnerable children. There are countless examples of this sort of thing.
I’m not saying all foreign aid and development work is bad. As I said above, trained/experienced/specifically skilled people coming in to places where those services are lacking, or places of diasater can be a huge help, as can people doing manual labour in some very specific situations (for example, I had friends who went in and cleaned out houses after the Japanese tsunami. Not a specialised job, but one that needed people to do grunt work. My friends actually lived in Japan at the time, and so were used to working and communicating within Japanese culture), but often well-meaning short term projects cause significantly more long term harm than good.
As I mentioned above, the final of the 4 trips I took I felt better about, but still reflect on and question my role. I did some work in a developing country with an English speaking school system. The organisation I worked with did not try and convert to Christianity, but instead worked on religious reconciliation and shared religious experiences/knowledge. I had a teaching degree and a couple of years of teaching experience at this point. I worked with the school, at the principal’s request and invitation, to help train volunteers in reading tutoring, using some basic reading skills. The reason I worked there and not a local teacher is because the principal wanted the students exposed to different methods of teaching reading, because the one’s they used weren’t reaching a portion of their students, and I had taught using one of these. The organisation was almost entirely staffed with and led by local people (with a couple of exceptions).
After I left, there was a woman who had done her teacher training overseas who was able to continue working with the tutors. The tutoring program continued for about 18 months after I left, until the community decided to reprioritise what they wanted their volunteers to do (as they should if they think it best). As I say, I still feel uncomfortable, because I really don’t want to further perpetuate saviour complexes, but I feel this organisation at least, was an example of missions done right.