Last Mile Problems

24 Mar 2023

#e 2023 no. 333

Last Mile Problems

A last-mile problem is a challenge in delivering goods or services to a population. The underlying challenge of last-mile problems is that they require physical resources to reach those in need, but they can be costly due to geography, infrastructure, and cost.

One example is Internet access or electricity delivery to an individual house. Delivering any particular service from a regional distribution node to larger areas like a neighborhood is a relatively simple logistical process. We often see the regional electricity routing hubs or the big wires on poles that deliver electricity along the street to particular areas. It’s expensive to run the cables from these points to individual houses. Often, the cost of running lines to houses dwarfs the cost of setting up the regional hubs.

Other examples of last-mile problems include:

  • Providing enough food and medical supplies to remote areas.
  • Delivering clean water to isolated communities.
  • Providing materials to build schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure in rural areas.
  • Connecting under-served populations with financial services.

In the last two weeks, I’ve frequently heard about two “last mile problems” in mission: finding and reaching diaspora in less populated areas and translating Scripture into less-spoken languages. These cropped up frequently in my conversations with readers this month.

In larger cities, diaspora populations are easier to locate. Companies spend money on research to identify these populations. It would cost mission agencies a lot if they had to do that research themselves. Fortunately, the results of corporate study are often readily available on the Internet–or at least indicated or discussed, which is often enough to identify a market. Finding diasporas in places where commercial research is lacking is challenging. And, like houses in a neighborhood, there are many less populated places—small towns—across America.

Years ago, I thought immigrants were probably found only in bigger cities. But at Lausanne in 2004, I was disabused of this notion when I ran into a guy who did Ph.D. work in part on the unequal distribution of Chinese Christians in churches and would-be Chinese pastors. Most pastors, it seemed, would prefer to pastor a church in a big city—but most Chinese Christians in America were in rural areas. That was an eye-opening study. I started verifying it whenever we traveled across America. In small town after small town between one big city and another, I’d see evidence of Chinese stores, markets, restaurants, and the like. Plenty of immigrants (and probably multiple generations) were in rural areas, but they went largely unnoticed by research.

Once immigrant populations are identified, the second problem is reaching them. In a larger city, a small team could mobilize additional local resources to engage with diaspora populations (for example, student ministries in colleges can mobilize local churches to help engage international students). Local resources are less available in smaller cities and rural towns. In addition, there are anecdotal stories about how these diasporas are less welcome in some of these places—so reaching out to be a blessing to them can make a mission team less welcome (and less able to mobilize resources) well.

While the Joshua Project has information on diaspora peoples on its website, it’s a challenging problem to try and keep up with changing diasporas globally. Local populations are often very static, but diasporas frequently change (for example, hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to Canada this year alone). A better example of a site with its ear “closer to the ground” would be, which focuses on one particular part of the world. If more of those efforts were undertaken, then JP could aggregate its data. (Of course, there are some parts of the world where simply making lists of immigrant populations can incur all sorts of security issues or even be outright illegal.)

Another similar last-mile problem is the translation of Scripture into small languages. There are over 7,000 languages worldwide, and most of the larger ones already have Scripture translations (I wrote about this in an earlier column). We generally agree that Scripture speaks better to an individual when it speaks the heart language. There are many small languages that still need a translation. Further, many of the “large languages” can be subdivided into dialects, which are less intelligible to each other. An argument can be made that at least key evangelistic and discipling Scripture “story sets” should be translated into these dialects.

Wycliffe Bible Translators and other similar organizations are among the largest missional organizations on the planet. Yet, the number of formally trained translators still is not enough to fully engage with the number of languages that could feasibly need a translation—especially if we take dialects and stagnant or tiny languages into account.

Groups like Unfolding Word, software like the Waha app, and organizations like the Jesus Film are embracing ways to deliver forms of Scripture (be they small snippets like stories, complete translations, or translated media) to new languages and dialects. Most importantly, these groups (and others) are developing platforms through which they can enable end-users to provide translations. These platforms enable field translators and church-based translations to go from a known language (for example, Russian, Hindi, Mandarin) to a less known or less spoken language they have expertise in (for example, a dialect of Zhuang).

The main challenge in last-mile problems is this: expertise can deliver resources to regional hubs, but to deliver the same resources over “the last mile” to houses requires a scaled-up operation. Often this means using processes to “amateurize” the delivery of resources—you need trained teams of “installers” who can run cabling from the neighborhood power poles into the house. These don’t have to be high-end engineers.

Likewise, translating Scripture stories into local languages, or identifying a diaspora population nearby, should require training but shouldn’t necessarily have to require people who’ve trained in anthropology, ethnography, or to translate the entire Bible. This will require a mindset shift, but if we want to get to every language (and into the dialects as well), it’s likely a shift many people will have to make.