Welcome 🙂 If you are thinking about / or interested in international volunteering, reflecting on motivations as well as privilege is crucial and irrespective of whether you are thinking about volunteering for a short time or for an extended period. Here below we offer you a few nuggets to get you started, and hope that you’ll stay with us and dig a bit deeper into our online resources
Have you heard of Ivan Illich? Illich (1926-2002) was a philosopher and educator, best known for his thinking around ‘deschooling’ and ‘conviviality’ and he was passionate about lifelong learning. In 1968 he delivered a challenging address to an assembly of American volunteers preparing to go to Mexico. Entitled ‘To Hell with Good Intentions’ his address cut to the heart of the dangers of paternalism inherent in ‘overseas voluntary service activity’. He said some tough things and ultimately entreated the young people to NOT go and volunteer in the ‘developing country’ of Mexico.
If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. Freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.
Phew! Pretty harsh, isn’t it? Why would someone tell you not to help the poor, help the needy? Why would someone discourage you from the noble act of volunteering that your family and friends salute you for? What could possibly be wrong with going to Uganda to help build a school for low-income African children and posting on social media about how the brokenness and suffering you witnessed transformed your world view?
We hear you cry: ‘My good intentions will be enough’; ‘Illich was old and tired, overly negative and cynical’; ‘Small acts can change the world’; ‘1968 was ages ago. We’re living in a globalised world now. We’re all one’
But take a deep breath…
Consider Illich’s words carefully. What was he referencing here? He was referencing the un-examined privilege and entitlement that leads young, inexperienced people to pack their bags to go ‘help’ and ‘fix’, the cultural hegemony (dominance) of the West and the enduring legacies of colonialism. If we open ourselves to what he has to say, what might we have to let go of?
…entitlement? The idea that as individuals we should be able to do what we want to, and what we feel is right?
…the perfect recipe? Adventure, personal challenge and helping the poor and the suffering all rolled into one exciting package?
…conviction? The idea that if we try hard enough, we can go and do good in other parts of the world; that it can be a simple thing?
As much as we would maybe like it to be, Illich reminds us that <<it is not simple>> and in today’s increasingly unequal and globalised world we have a particular responsibility to think critically about volunteering, particularly North to South volunteering.
For those of you thinking about North to South volunteering, what are your own personal motivations? These are extremely important to acknowledge, value and explore.