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Issues to consider

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? 




1945 – 2000

In the post WWII period, international volunteering flourished through the establishment of state-supported organisations in the ‘West’. Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) was established in Britain in 1958; the Peace Corps was founded in the USA in 1960 at the behest of President Kennedy; and in Canada, the ‘Canadian Executive Service Organisation’ (CESO) came into being in 1967. APSO, the Agency for Personal Service Overseas, was founded in 1973 in Ireland, and sent skilled Irish volunteers to developing countries for 2 years periods or longer. These programmes continued until 2001 when APSO was merged into the Irish government’s Development Cooperation Ireland (DCI) office. During these decades international volunteering was largely conceived as a means to enact (and develop) one’s sense of global citizenship, to show solidarity with peoples in other parts of the world and to make a contribution to global peace and progress on ‘development’.


2000 – present day

In recent times, state-supported organisations have been supplanted by a rapidly growing number of independent organisations that arrange volunteer placements. There are a number of non-profit volunteer sending agencies around but the increasing demand for opportunities to “help” while travelling abroad has led to the mushrooming of organisations that sell ‘volunteer travel opportunities’ to customers as purchasable commodity.  While the profit motivations of for-profit ‘voluntourism’ organisations drives down the ethics of their offer, it doesn’t slow down business. The idea of travelling to ‘find yourself’ and change the world at the same time is an appealing one, and it’s being sold to thousands of students and young people everyday. 



Here at Comhlámh we are not a volunteer sending agency but we do support responsive and responsible practice among not-for-profit volunteer sending agencies. A good-practice volunteer sending agency will support you to explore hard questions as part of preparation for any placement, and will encourage you to pursue development education avenues prior to placement, and upon return home. You can learn more about good practice among volunteer sending agencies in our section on the Code and check out the agencies who engage with us on our Code of Good Practice.


**You can learn more about good practice among volunteer sending agencies in our section on the Code of Good Practice**

Developed in 2006 by global citizenship educator Vanessa Andreotti, the table below presents a series of topics e.g. ‘basis for caring’, ‘what individuals can do’ and for each of these topics, two kinds of responses (‘soft’ response and ‘critical’ response). Have a look and see what you think

Problem Poverty, helplessness Inequality, injustice
Nature of the problem Lack of ‘development’, education, resources, skills, culture, technology Complex structures, systems, power relations, attitudes that maintain exploitation and disempowerment
Basis for caring Common humanity/being good/sharing and caring Justice/complicity in harm
Grounds for acting Responsibility FOR the other (or to teach the other) Responsibility TOWARDS the other (or to learn with the other)
Understanding of interdependence We are all equally interconnected, we all want the same thing, we can all do the same thing Asymmetrical globalisation, unequal relations, Northern and Southern elites imposing their own assumptions as universal
Role of ‘ordinary’ individuals Some individuals are part of the problem, but ordinary people are part of the solution as they can create pressure to change structures. We are all part of the problem and part of the solution
What individuals can do Support campaigns, support structures, donate time, expertise and resources Analyse own position/context and participate in changing structures, identities, attitudes and power in their contexts
How does change happen From the outside in (imposed change) From the inside to the outside
Basic principle for change Universalism (non-negotiable vision of how everyone should live, what everyone should want or should be) Reflexivity, dialogue, contingency and an ethical relation to difference

If you have found this ‘Issues to Consider’ page useful and interesting please check out our interactive online resources! They are full of tons more engaging resources that will get you thinking and reflecting and help you chart out a way forward 

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