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.]