Despite the negative stereotypes, says Robert Woodberry, missionaries have effectively improved health, education, economic development, and political representation around the world—seemingly more effectively than government aid and secular NGOs:
On average, people from countries that had one more Protestant missionary per 10,000 inhabitants 90 years ago currently have 1.5 years more education and 1.3 years more life expectancy. Similarly, for each additional year of Protestant mission activity, countries have $25.72 more GDP per capita on average. Even after rigorous attempts to account for competing explanations, the existence of Protestant missionaries explains about half the variation in democracy and 10 percent of the variation in GDP per capita in non-Western countries. On the negative side, Protestant missions are also associated with ethnic violence.
Of course, statistics can be misleading (and I will return to this problem later), but historical evidence enhances the statistics’ plausibility. Since Protestant missionaries wanted everyone to read the Bible in their own language, they spread mass education and mass printing in languages ordinary people understood—often against great resistance. In Africa, missionaries provided over 90 percent of formal education prior to independence and printed the first books and newspapers in virtually every African language. Prior to Protestant missions, both secular and religious elites kept books and education in archaic languages ordinary people could not understand, even in countries with ancient written languages like China, Korea, and India.