“To Hell with Good Intentions”

by Tamara A.

A response to the address given by Ivan Illich on April 20, 1968 in Cuernavaca, Mexico to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects.

 I remember sitting in my good friend’s kitchen last fall having a discussion about all of the overwhelming issues that our world is currently plagued with.  More specifically, we were expressing our concerns for the education and health problems that we had witnessed during our individual volunteer excursions that we’d undertaken in the last year.  Brian, who has recently completed his second year of med school focusing on the global health track, helped to plan and lead a group of college biology students to the Dominican Republic in order to conduct a prenatal education research project.  I had spent three months during fall 2009 in Arequipa, Peru working with Intiwawa, an organization promoting primary and intercultural education to grade school children in poor communities.  Both of the projects that we had participated in relied heavily on volunteers in order to have continued success.  However, we had both witnessed how some volunteers, no matter how big their heart, had only managed to cripple the progress.  Brian told me about this article, “To Hell with Good Intentions”, and urged me to read it.  Nearly six months later, I have finally read it and let me tell you, it definitely evokes some strong emotions and puts things in a new light.

As I began to read this address, I was opposed, opposed, opposed!  How can someone sit here and say that taking time and money to shuttle yourself to a less-fortunate part of the world to help better someone else’s life is wrong?  But even looking at that sentence, right there…what does “better” mean?  Illich makes a valid point in saying that “you cannot help being a vacationing salesman for the middle-class ‘American way of life,’ since that is really the only life you know.”  So when we say that we will help “better” a village’s situation or “improve” the educational system in this town, what are we comparing it to?  What are we building towards?  We have to take a long moment to understand that the American way of life and things are we know them are not necessarily right or appropriate for every other country or village.  Americans have been accused by many people of merely trying to impose our own way of life on different cultures.  Perhaps one of the most difficult realizations for an international volunteer to make is that what they see as an obvious solution or answer may not be the puzzle piece that fits in this new location and culture. 

Cultural sensitivity, the capacity to be aware and accepting of different cultures, is something that is stressed to people preparing to travel.  Likewise, cultural intelligence is emphasized in international business as a means to effectively manage business endeavors by understanding the impact that one’s cultural background plays in their behavior.  While these terms are taught and stressed repeatedly, there is so much more to them then most people see.  They are more than being able to exchange pleasantries in a foreign language, knowing the correct/incorrect gestures to use, not grimacing at the local food options, or dressing in a more conservative manner to show respect.  It is trying your darndest to learn what this culture is, where they come from, the values they hold true, the priorities set for their community, their attitudes towards newcomers, the progresses that they have made with and without outside help, the established social system, etc.  As Illich notes, “Not only is there a gulf between what you have and what others have which is much greater than the one existing between you and the poor in your own country, but there is also a gulf between what you feel and what the Mexican people feel that is incomparably greater.”  Coming from middle class America, it is nearly impossible to empathize with developing countries’ conditions that you may encounter.  In order to assist these communities in an effective and appropriate was, volunteers must be willing and able to humble ourselves to a different lifestyle; strip expectations we have from our own “world” and embrace a more simplistic and different “world” of those whom we wish to help.  The less we invade with our preconceived notions of what is good/bad or right/wrong for a community, and the more we seek to understand and get involved with it, the higher likelihood we have of actually being beneficial to others and benefitted ourselves.

To supplement this complete openness to new culture, an applicable skill set is also necessary to effectively spend time volunteering.  If it is construction work, have the physical abilities and skills.  If it is a teaching position, have the language to thoroughly communicate.  My time with Intiwawa showed me that even though a sweet German girl takes two weeks from her South American travels to spend time volunteering with Peruvian children, her perceived generosity was a waste because of her lack of Spanish and little understanding of the children and their situation.

Clearly, I’m an advocate for volunteers.  I think Illich is too extreme in denouncing all American volunteer programs.  But it is noteworthy to give credit to his arguments that we should humble ourselves, not seek to impose our culture on others, and possess a skill set that makes our work valuable to those we seek to help.  Don’t take this as a discouragement, but rather, a challenge to learn more and be open.  Embrace cultural differences wholeheartedly.  Most importantly, find the role where you can make the greatest impact based on your abilities.

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