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Short Term Mission Failure: a poorly kept secret?

No one likes to talk about short term mission failure. It is a lot easier to celebrate our successes.

For example, wells have been installed all over the world by organizations that collected donation money from people just like you. A lot of pictures are sent back home of the big celebration, unveiling of the plaque and congratulatory speeches.

Job Well Done!

This is usually the last we hear of the well.

The problem is that the pumps were broken by some local kid and haven’t worked in years.

The first time I saw this kind of thing (and it is not that uncommon) I thought, what is wrong with these people? They have to walk for kilometres for water, often to polluted streams, and this pump is just sitting there at their doorstep!

Why don’t they fix it?

That is a fairly obvious question. If someone gives you a gift shouldn’t you keep it up? Is this some sort of moral deficiency or “cultural” issue … I tried to come up with all kinds of explanations. Most of them were weird and sort of racist, but over time I think I am starting to understand why. The answer is many cases is that the pump was never thought to be their own. It was given to ‘the community‘ but it was never clarified who that is. When it is given to everyone, it is given to no one.

No one owns the well.

Everyone else assumed someone else owned it. When the outsiders came in with the water in the first case it is usually enormously appreciated, but because:

  1. no one actually owned the pumps

  2. no one collected money for maintenance

  3. no one was in charge.

This is how I know if a project will not last. I only need to ask a simple question, “Whose well is this?

I hope to hear people tell me that this is “my well“. Instead I heard over and over that “this is the well of [insert name of your favourite development agency here]”.

Why does the community think the well belongs to an outsider?

The pump is most commonly seen as a broken promise and a failed responsibility of the short term mission team

Even if you brought it in and most certainly told people it was theirs, words don’t mean as much as action. And too often, short term mission actions clearly show the local people that this well is not theirs.

At no point was the well actually given to anyone with an enforceable interest in maintaining the well.

Consider if you were suddenly told by a friend, colleague or pastor that the work that they have done for the past year is now yours. And – “oh yeah, by the way, the money run out in 6 months so you need to make sure that you find a way to keep it going …” How would you feel?

 No thanks!

You may feel a lot like many recipients around the world feel when they receive one of our projects. Sure, I like this project, but I like it as a user, a recipient, not an owner. Why are you trying to pass this time-consuming and expensive responsibility on to me?

  1. When wells are given to a community and not to an owner (person or team)- no one owns the well.

  2. If you form vague requests for maintenance schedules but avoid the plans for a person to make an income from his work – no one owns the well.

When there is no clear system in place, everyone expects that the company who brought the water will manage their investment, collect fees and repair the breakdowns.

For a short term mission project to last in a community, the community must own it at all times. From long before the planning phase, to long after you are gone. How do you make sure of real ownership? Simple.

Don’t do the kinds of things that owners do.

If you dream it, plan for it, pay for it, manage it and sell it to the community … guess who the owner is?

You, of course.

You are in charge and chances are good you will end up with another short term mission failure.

Do something different instead, find out the dreams, plans, resources, management and promotion of the community and join what they are doing.

Have you ever been frustrated by a big short term mission failure?

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