The Search for Great International Development Using STM Teams

This article recently appeared on Mark Crocker's blog at have a read and give us your thoughts ...

This is a bit of a long post, but if you can take a few moments to read it, then to the best of your ability, please try to give me an answer at the end. I think this is an important thought for us to collect.
I am attempting to discover current practitioners who can describe original (new) and beneficial (effective and working) methods of team based Short-Term Missions (STM).

I am specifically interested in discovering STM team initiatives attempting specific development projects within the majority world (also known as the Third World or Southern world). Specifically projects focused on sustainable, community owned and community-wide incremental growth. SEE endnote 1 regarding my summary of difference between Relief and Development goals and initiatives.

More...At this time, I am specifically limiting this search to team-based STM Initiatives, not individual originated STM initiatives.

Current Practices:
In order to better describe my objective, I have included a basic description of many current expressions of international engagement from a team-based STM experience.

While previous engagement in the world of international development had been seen as the responsibility of Government or Humanitarian aid agency (both NGO and FBO). More and more recently, the practice of individuals and churches has been to skip these intermediaries with the thought of direct engagement - ‘putting the money in the hands of the people who need it’. The intention is multi-faceted, with a desire for personal hands-on engagement, an economic consideration that attempts to cut out administration fees of the middlemen, and a re-affirming of personal responsibility to the issues at poverty and justice. This engagement generally takes place as a team effort over the period of 2-4 weeks.

The methods by which a majority of these STM teams often engage are through Mexico, Puppets and Construction. These team experiences tend to focus on close-by travel (IE Mexico); work with children in camps or some street evangelism and drama (IE Puppets); or find involvement in building, maintenance or painting (IE Construction). These Big Three are, in fact, often combined as many teams travel to Mexico to build a house for an impoverished family, while some members of the team work with the local children.

Further, it is generally considered appropriate for the team to receive a variety of goods (blankets, shoes, clothing, candy and occasional medicines) for the team to distribute to the host community.

Perhaps a final common way for people to engage in Short Term Mission is through a less participatory and more observational experience – the ‘vision trip’ – where a team tours the work of either a host national or host missionary to observe their projects and programs. This experience often culminates in an orphanage visit, where teams tend to present goods and/or resources to the organization (teddy bears, clothing, money, food and shoes)

Additional to these team based approaches, there is commonly an individual member of the team (often the leader) who is called on to preach and teach while in country. Even when this duty is shared amongst certain teams, this is primarily non-team activity as it focuses on the individual, yet often takes place on a team.

Of course there are more ways in which a team-based STM engages in international practice, but these are perhaps the most commonly recognized expressions. For my thoughts and evaluation of these practices, see endnote 2.

Present and Possible Future Focus for Teams:

While there are numerous teams engaged in STM team ministry, there is a realization of the limitations to volunteer - generally untrained - STM team engagement. While we do not ignore the fact that these limitations exist, the purpose of this document is to attempt to describe and discover possible new opportunities. How is it possible for the practitioners in the relief and development world to use the energy of an amateur STM team in the healthiest possible way?

This question was recently raised with a colleague in response to how a STM Team could effectively engage in a new micro-enterprise initiative with a community in South Africa. The reply of Roland Vanderburg, a CAUSE Canada specialist in micro-credit initiatives, was that although the overall project would need oversight through an individual on the ground in the community. Many of the steps along the way would definitely enjoy the ability of a STM team. The first result was a community survey, carried out by the team, where a base level understanding of present economic reality was established and delivered to indigenous leadership from within the community allowing opportunity for further dialog.

Other initiatives involve STM teams using basic Canadian skills in volunteerism, and hygiene to develop and train Home-Based Care (HBC) initiatives throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This allowed for the ongoing care of tens of thousands of HIV/AIDS orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) permitting the children to stay within their community, not further orphaning them from extended family while at the same time raising the community’s ability and awareness of it’s own capacity and resources.

At minimum, these examples of engagement are attempting to adhere to the following Best Practices:

• Community dreamed and owned – Who drives the project?
• Equality and Equity between partners - Opportunity for both to offer and exchange. Reciprocal (What do we get?)
• Impartial – provided to all, without qualification, for the equal development of the entire community
• Resources are shared. Funding is shared.
• Other ..

There are a number of churches, individuals and agencies very interested in engaging in this type of holistic and team-based development participation. They begin with the recognition that all communities need the same basic list of resources in order to effectively develop and begin to thrive, because they are the needs of all humanity (see footnote 3) . Some are actively participating in pioneering these new methods.

The question is how to get beyond paying a drilling company to install a well in a village, to a wider question of how to resource the community to develop local clean water systems that can quickly and easily be adopted by others in the community (IE BIO-Sand Water Filter projects)

I would like to discover what other types of effective participation are STM teams actually engaging in the developing world.

Thoughts? Please add yours at the original post...

Endnote 1. Defining Relief and Development:
Often spoken with the same breath, commonly found in an organizations name, the differences between relief and development are significant.

On one arm we have Relief. In simplistic terms, the objectives focusing on caring for the physical needs of a person who is in imminent danger of death. Organizations should give quickly and efficiently the necessities for life. At this stage there is not too much thought regarding long-term needs. Support is generally from outside the disaster area – whether from another nation, or another part of the same nation.

On the other arm we have Development. This is a far more complex interaction, but to once again sum up in one statement; development is the engagement of a community to create self-sustainable health and wellness, self-determination with hope for the future and the ability and resources to make that future possible for themselves and beyond. At its best, development is self-determined.

Of course there is no firm and hard line between the two arms, instead most work in this area lies in the continuum of practice and opportunity.
The problem is found in both parties to the relief and development partnership:

On one side, the host recipient often cannot see two distinct arms, but rather the one person offering support in front of them. If the distinction is not made early or firmly enough, it is often too easy to rely on unlimited support beyond relief.

On the other side, the providing agency (or church stm) may not realize the lessons learned by numerous others who have walked down this road beforehand. It is evidently all too easy to disengage from inappropriate partnership agreements as evidenced by the souring of unequal partnerships around the world, and by supporters who easily remove themselves from the relationship.

When the position of participants to the relationship begin in an unequal Hero/Victim role, the relationship tends to easily and naturally perpetuate itself, often resulting in unhealthy relationship and painful misunderstandings on both sides.

Endnote 2 Personal Evaluation of Current Team Based STM Initiatives (incomplete):

Evaluating the Participants who ‘go’:
Positive: The above methods tend to permit a great number of people to get involved in a first-hand experience with international and cross-cultural engagement. Often this initial experience is the process by which individuals discover their interest in international work and subsequently participate in further education or projects. These individuals may become financial supporters, continue to communicate the vision, and may even set themselves toward personal longer term engagement.

Negative: The full range of engagement is limited by the amateur nature of the team. Engagement may become so highly personalized, and objectives are evaluated by how a team member ‘feels’ about the experience . Dependency and paternalistic methods may be unknowingly instigated and modeled as Northern World Participants (Western) bring their own cultural baggage.
Evaluating the participants who ‘receive’:
Host Nationals:
Positive: There is a great deal of encouragement and felt support from many of these communities when a STM team arrives. Resources, Skills and Education are transferred
Negative: Historically set patterns may be difficult to change in the short period of time that a team has in country.
Host Missionary:
Positive: Often the boost from visitors from ‘home’ have been described as invigorating and encouraging for the host. As team members go back home, they share the burden, the victories and concerns of the host, and may further engage with the project.
Negative: The common reality is that the usual STM team is a random make-up of a variety of individuals with a varying skill-set. This tends to limit the host in terms of opportunites and objectives. Furthermore, if , as is often the case, financial support is a necessity for future operations for the host organization, the host may accept an unwanted team simply in order to continue positive relationships.

Endnote 3 Community Development for all
The resources that all communities need in order to developed and begin to thrive are identical with our own needs, they are needs of humanity:

• Food and Nutrition Security
• Safety and Security
• Water and Sanitation
• Infrastructure – Roads and Lights
• Economic Opportunity
• Education
• Health
• Spiritual, Emotional and Social Support

Presently, the majority of engagement at this level is through placement of mid-termers and/or long-termers engaging with the projects for months and years. Yet at the same time, it is not uncommon to find STM teams attempting to begin engagement at this level as well.