To hell with good intentions?
Ivan 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 follow the drive inside you to help the poor? Why would someone discourage you from the volunteering that your family and friends salute you for? What could be wrong with helping to build a school for poor children in another country and sharing about how the brokenness and suffering you witnessed transformed your world view?
Maybe you are thinking: “My good intentions will be enough”; “Illich was old and tired, overly negative and cynical”; or “Small acts can change the world”
But take a deep breath. Let’s stay with Illich for a while longer …
What questions do his words raise for prospective international volunteers, particularly those preparing to travel to the ‘global South’. If we were to open ourselves fully to them, where might they lead us? What might we have to let go of?
…entitlement? The idea that as individuals we should be able to do what we feel is right?
…the perfect recipe? The idea of personal challenge, travel and helping the poor all rolled into one?
Are you somebody who is thinking of international volunteering? If yes, what are your own personal motivations for considering a volunteering journey? Or maybe you volunteered in this way in the past? Can you put your feet in those old shoes? What was motivating you? It can be super valuable to acknowledge and explore motivations
Check out this guidance on ‘ethical action’ from No White Saviours
The ethical action is one that protects the rights and dignity of those who are affected by the actions. It entails you as a person of privilege to ask yourself a number of questions that will indeed keep you on track. Among these will be questions like; why are you making these volunteer trips? What are your intentions? Do you have the qualifications to solve the problems you’re eager to solve? Do you have these problems back home? Or you are simply interested in solving exotic problems?