A few weeks ago I attended a presentation at my church about a mission trip to work on Habitat for Humanity International building sites in Ghana. Recently-returned volunteers showed slides and shared their experiences helping villagers construct new homes. My attention wandered during the talk, and I began wondering why Ghanaians need imported, unskilled American labor to dig foundation trenches by hand and lug bricks across their villages from one building site to another. How many round-trip inter-continental airfares would it take to pay for Habitat to contract with a backhoe operator in Accra? How many hours would it take him to finish the entire team’s digging and hauling?

It is, of course, unfair to judge such work simply by how efficiently it is done. There are many benefits to mission trips beyond the value of the labor performed. The travelers learned a lot about Ghana, about back-breaking labor and poverty, and about themselves. But there are other ways to give. What about giving our expertise, network connections, and mentoring instead?

Consider JiNan Glasgow’s newly-launched project, Patent Free Zone (see also here). Glasgow, a Raleigh-based patent attorney and Duke Divinity School alumna, has been speaking to audiences around the country and abroad about a different way to think about foreign aid. Glasgow’s main message: put the combined intellectual capital of US patents to work in developing countries by giving it away.

The concept is simple, and its potential application is broad. In general, patent law around the world requires inventors to file for patents on a per-country basis. Most patents are filed in the United States and nowhere else, and those patents can be used by anyone else around the world, for free. Entrepreneurs in developing countries are free to use them to make anything they can. Glasgow’s plan is to offer a selected catalog of US patents, ranging from solar cells for high-tech manufacturers to hand-sanitizer.

Possible applications include offering complete technology solutions to small startups, such as those found at Kiva, to improve their products, or partnering with NGOs, governments, or companies to adapt US technology for the developing world. Because the most common source of new patents is from refinements to existing technology, it’s even possible that the results of those efforts could end up for sale in the US, reversing the usual direction of innovation. In any case, the goal is clear: to offer the best of what we have to those who need it.

Projects such as Patent Free Zone aren’t meant to displace mission trips. Often, handing someone a set of technical drawings is a lot less helpful than picking up a shovel. But what are we really good at, digging or innovation? What should we be offering in service to others: our weak backs, or our strong minds?

Fritz Gugelmann got his PhD under Stanley Hauerwas in Duke’s Department of Religion. He works at Duke Corporate Education, and consults for Patent Free Zone.