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To Hell With Good Intentions is a speech delivered by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich in 1968 to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects. The speech was delivered in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Illich had founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion in 1961. I was not familiar with this speech and this man's work until very recently, and so I've put a bunch of links within this post in case you, too, are not familiar. He's a fascinating man.
His audience consisted of American volunteers, so keep that in mind as you're reading the following few quotes. It's scathing. This passage (which I retreived from the website of the Swaraj Foundation) describes the address in this way:
"In his usual biting and sometimes sarcastic style, Illich goes to the heart of the deep dangers of paternalism inherent in any voluntary service activity, but especially in any international service 'mission.' Parts of the speech are outdated and must be viewed in the historical context of 1968 when it was delivered, but the entire speech is retained for the full impact of his point and at Ivan Illich's request."
Illich's address contains, early on, the following:
"Today, the existence of organizations like yours is offensive to Mexico. I wanted to make this statement in order to explain why I feel sick about it all and in order to make you aware that good intentions have not much to do with what we are discussing here. To hell with good intentions. This is a theological statement. You will not help anybody by your good intentions. There is an Irish saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; this sums up the same theological insight."
In his address, Illich pleads with his audience to stop their volunteer projects in Mexico. He writes, "you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesman for the middle-class 'American Way of Life,' since that is really the only life you know."
I read that and I knew that he was right. When you are traveling or working abroad, especially in the developing world, I think that it is very hard to silence the commentary, the comparisons, that will always be running through your mind. You're an outsider. You do not understand this life. I don't understand many of the activities here, here in Nicaragua and also in Guatemala. Nor can I really understand the way people see me. I don't want to sell my country's values, that is not why I am here, but I think that I'll still do it, just by thinking, just by reacting. We can't help but compare. If I keep my criticisms inside, does that make it different? My body will still be reacting.
Towards the end, Illich presents his audience with the following:
"If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. 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. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as "good," a "sacrifice" and "help."
If you read Illich's speech, you'll see what the introduction is talking about. Illich is biting and sarcastic, and some of what he says is outdated. And, I like to think that there's a little more hope for the international volunteer, that human interaction is important, that mutual growth in some way is possible. Otherwise, ultimately, does my contribution matter? What am I contributing to, anyway? Am I actually making something worse?
I've been working at a little school, an escuelita, here in Granada. I've been there two weeks. I go in and sit at these little tables with young kids, ages five to seven, some a little older. We work through the lesson, we read books, we color, they learn a tiny bit of English, I learn a tiny bit more Spanish. I like them, and they like me. The really hard thing is the teacher. I can hear this speech when I'm with her. I know she's seen people like me come and go, and I wonder how I would feel if some girl without Spanish came into my workplace like that, offering to help. Please, just imagine it for a second, turned around.
The very last lines of the address read as follows:
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.
His words sting, but in a way they help, too. It's true what I've always suspected; I am not solving any problems, and I do not have to feel like I need to blend in, because I never will. Maybe the best thing to do is to realize that I don't have much to offer, and maybe I have nothing, but this is my life. I am traveling now because I can, and I think there should always be travelers in this world. There always have been and there always will be, and it's never been perfect. But people will always be interacting, all over this planet, and I think the good outweighs the bad in that respect.
And so I am here, where I hire a tutor, go to the market, go out to eat and to the post office. And sometimes I take kids from the escuelita to the library; most of them haven't been yet, although it's just two blocks from school. They go nuts over the books, reading in Spanish, reading in English. We read dozens of books in two hours. Books are not important here; most people don't buy them, and most people don't read. The kids I work with mostly can't read yet. I take them to the library because I think it's sad that they've never been, that they don't get to read books, that maybe their parents have a fourth-grade education, and I take them because it is fun, and they are cute, and it makes me feel good to show kids books, because that is their right. And so here are my values, spread out on the table. Here is my money, my slowly improving Spanish, and the home I carry with me, the home I won't always be able to hide.