Volunteers and the organizations that send them for short periods to poorer countries often describe the trips as “missions” or “brigades.” Both words describe organized, purposeful ventures to accomplish a goal. “Mission” has been used in religious contexts; “brigade” is primarily a military term. In whatever use, both words denote a group with a purpose, a calling, and a common cause.
What I am exploring here is the purpose of these missions and brigades and whether these hundreds of weekly arrivals really bring hope (or housing or health benefits) to Haiti or to the thousands of other poor communities around the world that receive international volunteers every year. It may seem obvious that the goal is to accomplish good for the communities visited, to “make a difference,” and often to “give back.” Whether this actually happens, and what other objectives might be involved in these volunteer trips, is rarely considered. These issues motivate this book. Do volunteers help or hurt? In what ways? Can these missions be handled more effectively?