Does serving a mission in a low-income country change your commitment to the poor?

In a recent research paper, economist Lee Crawfurd seeks to answer this question by comparing missionaries who served in a predominantly high-income region – Europe – with those who served in low- and middle-income areas – Africa, Asia, or Latin America. The missionaries assigned to these different region look very similar on a range of relevant characteristics, such as the number of languages they speak or the number of countries they’d visited.

Here is what he finds:

We find that returned missionaries who were assigned to a low-income region are more interested in global development, years after their assignment. They are also more likely to continue to volunteer. But we see no difference in support for government aid or immigration, and no difference in personal donations.

Here’s a bit more detail:

We find the largest effects on interest in development for those assigned to Africa. We also see a positive effect on attitudes towards official aid for those assigned to Africa (but not Asia or Latin America). Third, those assigned to Africa are more likely to donate to international charities, more likely to volunteer for international causes, more likely to have a career in global development, but less likely to support a political campaign.

There are limitations in this work, of course. Foremost, the stated objective of missionary service is not to increase commitment to the poor, beyond its role of increasing commitment to the gospel which includes a central commitment to helping the poor. The data is drawn from missionaries on Facebook groups for returned missionaries, which I would imagine oversamples returned missionaries who have remained active and remain interested in their missions.

Still, we have a fair amount of evidence – reviewed in the paper – of the “contact hypothesis,” which is that exposure to different groups tends to reduce prejudice against those groups. As Crawfurd concludes, “greater proactive engagement may simply be too much to expect of the contact hypothesis, which is actually focused on the reduction of prejudice (negative attitudes) rather than the promotion of positive attitudes.”

[Also note that this paper is what economists call a “working paper,” which means that it hasn’t yet been published, although I know that various peers (myself included) have provided feedback on earlier versions of the paper. Economics takes a long time to publish papers, so many come out as working papers or discussion papers in the interim.]

11 comments for “Does serving a mission in a low-income country change your commitment to the poor?

  1. Thanks for posting this. There are a few confounding factors that come to mind:

    Missionaries are instructed not to get involved with immigration, so explicit reference to mission experience probably has priming effects that obscure any differences when it comes to support for immigration.

    If the idea is to test the contact hypothesis, missionaries who go to Europe may not be a great control group, since it’s not at all unusual to spend a good amount of time as a missionary talking to immigrants and poor-to-working-class people, including those from Africa and Latin America. So missions could be changing the attitudes of both groups by similar amounts.

  2. My mission to Africa taught me that we really do not have real poverty in the US. We have first world problems for the most part.

  3. Another confounding factor is that “commitment to the poor” is a very ambiguous concept. Interest in global development, government aid, volunteering, immigration, or donations doesn’t seem like the most accurate measurement for “commitment to the poor.” The widow who cast in her mite had more commitment to the poor than many others. We probably never hear of the alms of those who have the greatest commitment to the poor, whereas we may hear much about those who profess commitment to the poor. Furthermore, some forms of “commitment to the poor” may actually prove detrimental to the very poor to whom the “commitment” is extended. And as Mr. Green pointed out, there are poor people everywhere.

  4. “The widow who cast in her mite had more commitment to the poor than many others.” I have never heard that the temple funds, to which the widow donated, were used for the poor. I’ve always assumed they were for temple upkeep and for the livelihood of the priests. Can anyone confirm one way or the other?

  5. Ryan, there were several tax like structures in ancient Judaism that helped the poor. I’m not sure when it started but the idea of a ma’aser or tithe to charity for the poor is in place by the medieval era. In the Talmudic era there’s a zedakah for charity which is freely given gifts that go to the poor. There’s debates over how that’s tied to the later ma’aser and whether it’s already in place in the Ptolemic period (Dan 4:24, Ben Sira 3:30, 7:10 and Tobit 4:7, 12:8-0) In the Talmudic era there’s also a conception of the poor having a right to certain charities thus they are an obligation by the community to the poor. (More or less akin to welfare in our culture) This comes out of zedakah or righteousness. Thus verses that talk about doing righteousness (Prov 21:3) are seen in terms of this duty in the Talmudic era.

    I suspect those structures are what Jesus is talking about. Since the community is the people there were rules and expectations of how much people would give based upon their wealth with even the very conception of poverty being tied to such things. There was even an expectation that the poor shouldn’t contribute to these donations. It’s quite possible that Jesus is not only criticizing the rich but also criticizing the perception that the poor can’t also contribute. That is there’s two aspects to the criticism of the widow’s mite.

  6. Jonathan, thanks for these great thoughts. When I was a missionary (1994-1996), I don’t remember receiving any specific instruction about immigration, so I’m not sure if that was broadly instructed at that time. Even if I had, I’m not sure I’d expect those priming effects to be so big on a survey years after the mission, but obviously I couldn’t rule it out.

    The point on European missionaries largely working with immigrants (many from Africa) is a really important one. It would be cool to be able to distinguish that (with better data).

  7. David, I would have sworn the instruction not to get involved in immigration proceedings was in the white handbook. That would have been just a few years before you, but I’m going by memory here, and I’m assuming that rule would always exist in all editions of the white handbook. Memory and my assumptions may be off.

    I do think that studies like this are both interesting and important, because I suspect that missionary experiences of one kind or another play an important role in the church’s distinctive character.

  8. Jonathan, I was once an assiduous reader of the white rulebook, but it’s entirely possible this was there in my time but subsequently escaped my memory.

    Agreed on the interest of this kind of research.

  9. I was never a missionary, but as a young adult I read the book Of Human Bondage and it shaped my thinking about the very poor. I determined the ways I could help the very poor were by spreading the Gospel via supporting missionary work, by helping my own neighbor who was in need, by paying a generous fast offering and by creating jobs. I have tried to do these things all my adult life.

  10. If missionaries did more service work in developing countries, I’m sure that would further shape their feelings about the poor. And it would help members better understand Prez Monson’s 4th goal or mission of the Church. Kris, I like your ideas, they are all good. Particularly paying a generous fast offering. I would also suggest contributing to LDS Humanitarian Services.

    I hoped my children would be called to missions to developing countries. One did go to the Philippines. My son-in-law went to Colombia. I’m sure both missions were transformative. My other son and my daughter-in-law went to South Florida. They didn’t go to a developing country but they did get a taste of another culture.

  11. I served my mission in Sweden in the early eighties. Regarding the subject of immigration, I’m reminded of an Elder in my district who got into some trouble when he tried to help an LDS family from Chile not get deported from Sweden. One of their kids ran away from home to avoid deportation and it made the news. The Elder’s family had contacts with one of the Senators from Utah, so the Elder had his family contact the Senator to see what he could do. The Senator, however, contacted the church to let them know what one of their Elders was getting involved with. That quickly rolled down-hill and the mission president gave the Elder a call to cease and desist. The church’s concern was that type of activity by missionaries could affect visas for missionaries.

    Regarding my individual case, while I was a missionary in an advanced European country, I was also a military brat and had lived in the Philippines not too long before. I suppose the survey may have corrected for one’s previous experience with third world countries?

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