Better to give than to go?
Time is spent on publicity, garnering sponsorship and planning programmes. Money is spent on flights, insurance and accommodation.
A week passes and another mural is painted, a new latrine built, or a children's camp executed with first world efficiency.
And then what?
After the hoo-ha of an overseas community service stint dies down, it does seem like the investment doesn't quite match the expected results of seeing lasting transformation in a community.
So why go for short-term volunteer trips?
After all, all the money, time and other resources that go into the "going", could be given to the cause itself.
I am a serial short-term tripper — 16 at last count. Yes, I have visited orphanages, walked through the corridors of mission hospitals, and not necessarily given to the local community as much as I would have liked.
I was sitting by Lake Victoria in Uganda, on the last day of another short-term trip recently, when my husband turned to me and said:
"Wow, so this really counts towards something."
What he meant was that the trip had helped to confirm our decision to spend a year doing humanitarian work in Africa.
Looking back, I realised that this major decision was the culmination of numerous exposure trips, each time learning more, being equipped more, for our longer-term commitment.
Did those short-term trips seem questionable then? Yes. Was I disappointed when some of the projects died without continuity? For sure.
But not everything can be measured in dollars and cents.
Returning short-term volunteers, with their intimate involvement and the power of their stories, can be passionate advocates of a cause.
For the receiving communities, I've seen how they've valued having encouragement, friendship, job creation and shared expertise.
Empowerment and dignity
There's also empowerment and dignity in teaching volunteers their culture, language and skills. Such relationships are often highly cherished in developing communities and invaluable in establishing continuity in projects.
For those thinking of sowing longer-term into a cause, short-term trips not only increase one's scope of cross-cultural understanding, but also bring one on an amazing journey of self-discovery.
Humility, tolerance for ambiguity, and adaptability are just a few of the qualities needed to do humanitarian work in a foreign land.
Those short-term trips with different communities (orphans, vulnerable women, the sick, sex workers) also helped me to discern what I wanted to do in the longer-term, which would have been harder to do just by sending donations.
The downsides of short-term trips must be acknowledged. Orphans left with repeated tearful goodbyes and broken promises of "I will come back", the creation of an artificial third culture in a developing country over-exposed to first-world comforts, and the lack of continuity of projects, are all real problems.
But should they cause us to throw in the towel or spur us to look for solutions, such as learning greater cultural sensitivity, actively seeking ways to support local efforts and empower nationals, and coordinating teams and establishing friendships to continue the work started?
If the reason for short-term trips is to earn moral merit and tick off a bucket list, then I'd urge caution.
But if one is keen to explore ways of meaningful service to the needy, then I'd suggest that short-term trips, with the aim of inspiring ourselves and raising future leaders instilled with a sense of social responsibility and compassion, could be very worthwhile and useful.