Kampala, Uganda. – When I am in the U.S., many people talk with me about their experience, or hope, of going on a short-term mission, service or learning trip in the developing world. While these opportunities for adventure and cultural exchange can have very positive effects, there are also considerable potential pitfalls that should be avoided.

Short-term mission, service or learning trips, in which participants spend between a week and a couple months in another country, can be wonderful, challenging and life-changing experiences. I credit my college break volunteer assignment in Kenya with overhauling my worldview and influencing my choice of career.

Indeed, such trips give one the opportunity to see another part of the world, learn about another culture and see that not everyone lives and thinks the same way. At the same time, one learns an enormous amount about oneself – one’s privilege, unquestioned assumptions, ability to endure and adapt.

Short-term trips can benefit the local situation, by giving people a chance to learn about the world outside their country and form relationships with people around the globe. This can be an exciting and educational experience for both the visitor and host.

One also cannot ignore the possibility that the visitors will contribute something in the way of a project or an infusion of cash into the local economy, especially if the relationship between the sending and receiving communities grows into a long-term one.

However, short-term trips can also cause problems, ranging from minor inconveniences to serious long-term damage.

First, the sudden appearance of a large group of foreigners can raise people’s expectations that they will soon receive large amounts of assistance. This is exacerbated by the tendency of visitors to make grandiose promises. Moreover, large infusions of cash or aid can build dependency on outsiders and reinforce disempowering stereotypes that Americans are all rich and have bottomless pockets.

Second, if one is not intimately familiar with the local context – the political, social and economic situation at the very micro-level – it is easy to completely misunderstand what is happening. One can entrench corrupt or abusive power structures through cooperation with certain leaders or do work that is wholly inappropriate to what is needed.

Indeed, if not carefully planned and executed, projects can cause harm to the local environment or cause people to change their behavior in unsustainable ways. For instance, if the visitors construct a water pump that requires parts from overseas, what will the local people do if it breaks?

Third, it is not always clear that the benefits of such a trip outweigh the large financial costs of travel, vaccinations, visas and accommodations. Often it would make more sense to send that money through an agency that is already doing good work on the ground.

Finally, one must be aware that one’s presence can often be a major inconvenience to the local hosts. The visit will often take them away from important work, whether plowing their fields or working for an aid agency that is trying to implement long-term change.

So what can be done to mitigate these problems and magnify the positive aspects of short-term mission, service and learning trips?

As a doctor would tell us, the best place to start is the principle of “First, do no harm.’ This requires an acute self-awareness of the potential harm one is doing, a trustful and honest dialogue with local people and a willingness to be flexible and change one’s behavior.

If you are going on such a trip, ask yourself, “What are my motivations?” “Do I genuinely want to learn, or is this about self-aggrandizement and a ‘messiah complex?,’” and “What assumptions do I have about the place I am going? Are they true?”

Before even booking one’s ticket, it is important to learn everything one can about the local situation. Look up the local newspapers online and read them every week before you leave. Watch films about the countries, read novels by local authors.

Once you arrive, continue this dedication to learning. Listen carefully to what people tell you – suspend your value judgments and don’t butt in with unsolicited opinions. Respect local culture, customs and mores – remember you are a visitor. Be humble about what one can achieve in a short space of time and try not to push your own agenda on your hosts – let them take the lead.

Indeed, constantly question whether the projects you are doing are really needed. Who identified the need for them – you or the locals? And which locals? Does it seem like only one local leader is enthusiastic, or does the project have broad appeal and buy-in from the community. Think about how the project will be managed once you leave – will it be sustainable without external assistance to prop it up?

Finally, one needs to be brutally honest with oneself. Dedicate a time each day for an evaluation and reflection of your experiences. Think how you can improve, which of your attitudes and expectations need adjusting. For while you may gain a great deal from your short-term trip – in knowledge, experience and adventure – this should not come at the cost of the local people, for they are the ones you have gone to serve.