More than Good Intentions

By Meredith Greenwell and Laura Dick

Monsignor Ivan Illich, in his address (“To Hell with Good Intentions“) to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects (CIASP) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on April 20, 1968, presents a biting condemnation of student volunteer programs abroad for their arrogant idealism.  Even today, his critiques apply to students from developed countries taking part in any “development” venture. The Two Dollar Challenge, as a student-run organization recognizes that we cannot help anyone with good intentions, however,  we would choose to add one word to Illich’s critique: alone.  We cannot help anyone with good intentions alone.

In response to Illich’s claim that “there is no common ground whatsoever” on which [volunteers and individuals living in poverty] can meet and interact, we defer to a TDC member who found such a statement insulting. To assume that we cannot share wisdom, humor and common ambitions with those in poverty insinuates a level of inequality that the TDC will not prescribe to.  We are bonded by more than just our class or life circumstances; and while it may come as a challenge to reflect on those commonalities, they do exist.  It is just this challenge – to find such commonalities (between ourselves and the people we’re looking to help), and to use them in our joint efforts to create a better future.  As a group of students, sheltered/shielded from the reality of even our own community – the world of those whom we are trying to help is more visceral, more real than anything most of us have ever had to experience.  Yes, this reality can and will be shocking.  But to assume that we cannot learn and profit from it as human beings and even use that knowledge and experience to help others in whatever way we can underestimates our capacity to change the world for the better.

Illich pleas for foreign aid workers to remove themselves from a culture alien to them, a situation beyond their comprehension, before they do irreparable harm.  This harm, according to him, is all the more dangerous for those of us who are unconscious of it: so wrapped up in our own comfortable worlds are we that we cannot see the potential harm of our actions.  To compound the problem, we are often working with people who cannot tell us to go away: so un-empowered that they cannot refuse well-intentioned meddling.  Our own blindness to the realities of a life of poverty from lack of personal experience and the immense power differential between even naïve volunteer students and those they attempt to “help” mean that far from making a significant difference though well-meaning gestures, these actions can do real harm.

These well-reasoned critiques of Illich have prompted much soul-searching on the part of the Two Dollar Challenge.  To justify our actions and the actions of those we support (to ourselves), we must acknowledge the Monsignor’s criticism.  To this end, we argue that economic development is not simply about changing the lives of those we’re trying to help, neither is it entirely about changing our lives; rather, it should be about building relationships through a mutual process of learning about and from one another.  There are many aid organizations that see their role as one of implementing policies in developing countries, helping to bring people out of poverty.  There are others that focus on creating awareness of poverty among privileged people: changing our lives to include a greater consciousness of a world beyond our narrow horizons.  In part, this is what TDC attempts to do with Challenge Week.  But we also see ourselves bridging the gap between these two types of organizations: creating relationships between students in developed countries and organizations working on the ground, with men and women and children facing very real poverty.  It is these relationships that we prize most.  A part of our perceived role as such a connection involves our demand for responsibility from the development community to recognize the effects of their aid on the communities they are working with, whether those effects be positive or negative.  Attempts to do good must not rely on intentions alone, but must look critically at actions and their impacts.  This critical self-reflection, prompted by recognizing the validity of opposing arguments such as Illich’s, can only make aid organizations more effective.

It is in following just such a response that the TDC intends to continuously evaluate our theory of change, setting the path that we see for the TDC and assessing the tools by which we expect to achieve our objectives.  We believe that we, as students, are poised to give the next generation of aid practitioners and responsible wealthy global citizens the tools they need to change the world’s circumstances: to critically look at the way development is being done, and by doing so, to continuously improve the process(es) of development aid.  We, and others as represented by Illich, could argue that we have at best inadequate and at worst harmful tools and abilities.  But the fact that we are wealthy students with limited life experiences does not make us any less human, just as poverty does not, and we can use our common humanity as the foundation for meaningful relationships, and ones that can go beyond good intentions and even good actions to reach beneficial outcomes (for ourselves and for those individuals with whom we build a relationship).

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