“To Hell with Good Intentions!”

untitledToday’s post comes from Katherine Koller, a student with our partner organization Thinking Beyond Borders. TBB is a gap year program committed to changing learning in to action. This reflection stems from a group discussion held during her gap year.

As we passed Ivan Illich’s speech “To Hell with Good Intentions” around the room, each of us reading aloud a paragraph, slowly all expressions turned to what I can only describe as dazed. His speech began: “I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves.”I wasn’t angry with the author; I wasn’t converted. At first I was simply numb to protect myself from the existential crisis that I feared would come upon further reflection.

I have to admit, it fazed me. I’m finding it incredibly difficult to organize my thoughts on this matter. I have far too many of them coming at me much too quickly.

I embarked on my gap year truly believing I’d be doing good. I don’t pretend to still believe this. Seriously, who have I helped on this trip? Ecuador: I replanted trees for farmers who had destroyed them in the first place, and would probably (one of them already did while we were there) destroy them again. China: I “helped” privileged Chinese students learn English so that they could score well on exams and become even more privileged. India: I begged and pleaded to go to work every day, to pick 50 cents worth of cotton for farmers who were simply indulging a silly girl. South Africa: I “assist” caretakers who are perfectly capable of doing their work themselves. And if I think of all the plane fare spent on this trip and what it could have done if it had simply been donated…sometimes my resolution truly wavers. But then I remember that the purpose of this trip is “service learning,” and I feel much better.

During orientation I was introduced to the idea of service learning versus actual community service. I was frustrated by this “service learning” where it didn’t seem like I was doing any good for anyone. Then I arrived in India. I was there to study sustainable agriculture. However, all I could focus on were the injustices towards women.

A year ago I didn’t know if I could be truly passionate about anything besides theatre, and I had absolutely no clue what I was going to do with my life. Now I do. I wouldn’t call it a desire so much as a need to return to India. I can’t see what I saw and do nothing about it. I need to return to India and work for a women’s or human rights NGO of some sort. I was born with so much extra anger and passion, and I finally know where I can productively channel it.  So there is no doubt in my mind that this year was not wasted.  It was the best-used year of my life. I don’t pretend that it wasn’t selfish, it was. I don’t pretend that I “sacrificed” to help others. And I am not ridiculously proud of myself.

But if I can follow the career path that this trip inspired me to follow, I can make it up to the world. I truly believe I can.  Because although Illich was correct in saying that you can’t do any good in a month, I believe that he’s wrong in saying you can’t do any good abroad period. I can start studying Hindi in college, I can spend years instead of months in India, and I can learn to understand the culture enough to help.

How can Illich say that Americans can’t do good abroad? I’ll admit, Illich hit pretty close to home with the whole “living in a hut and eating tortillas” thing, and yes in four core countries I didn’t speak one of the languages. But I am skeptical towards his assertion that I have done “willy-nilly” damage.  Throughout the trip we have been studying “bad” development, and I hope that I have sense enough that I’d realize if I were participating in it. To convince me on this point, Illich would have to provide further and more specific examples.  As for getting into politics instead, if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that politicians cannot be trusted to take care of the world by themselves.

I know that some adults will be shaking their heads saying, “silly little girl will change her mind a thousand times before she really decides what she wants to do.” Maybe that’s true. But at least I have direction now where I had none before. And at least I have good intentions, which I know won’t be enough.

So what do you think, if it’s good in intent and it’s just a little bent, does it matter?


  • Thank you for your post.
    It has the signs of becoming profoundly insightful.
    But do we ever truly arrive?

    You have learnt, seen, touched and been touched and are deeply reflecting.
    You have shared yourself with others and you are not the same person.
    You will never be the same again.

    I have been in this field for 15 years and I am still wrestling and struggling well with the kind of thoughts you have so beautifully articulated for us.

    The best I can come up with in my world is to earn the right to hear story.
    To learn my entire life time.
    And not become the expert.

    Thank you for all that you are.
    Your journey thus far, is a worthy one and I am so glad you shard it.

  • galen

    I feel like the point that Illich was trying to make is that instead of people who insert themselves into situations of poverty regarding their actions as inherently noble, they should instead see that another community of human beings has accepted their presence and is honoring them as a guest with a unique form of hospitality. In a situation like this, you have very little to offer your hosts; be humble and accept the many gifts and lessons you will receive from them. Let us acknowledge that, at best, you are in a strange land because of your own curiosity and interest (ie to learn)…for selfish reasons!

  • I found this while writing a post on Ivans speech given way back there in 1968 – how sadly relevant it still is..however.. I think there is a fundamental difference between people exploring international development as a career – like yourself. And those on a 2 week/2 month once off volunteer project. This is my post on the subject BTW http://www.thevolunteerstent.org/problems-with-volunteering/

  • As someone who has been a volunteer overseas and who has talked to many other volunteers, your experiences are common and extremely frustrating. If you ever want to travel and learn once again, check out my website http://learningservice.info with some tips that might help you avoid ineffective volunteering. -Zahara Heckscher

  • Katherine, thanks for sharing your perspective with us on this. I think Illich was really trying to get to the root issue of sustainable change and impact. I can see his argument and you have demonstrated you can too. However, I don’t think that the purpose of your trip or any other gap year/study abroad program is for the traveler to make a sustainable change, but rather engage in service learning. That is the true purpose. If an individual learned something while abroad, then that in itself made the trip successful and from what you wrote it seems like you did.

    As public servants before we even embark on the journey to “change the world,” the first thing we must do is learn it. We need to really become students of the issues that are out there and learn what our place/role is in them. We need to analyze what are the root causes of such problems and what can be done to fix them. You can only do this through service learning, which is doing the “silly little things” like picking cotton for a few hours a day as you mentioned or going over to someone’s house for dinner as our very own Kate describes in her ‘Everyday Ambassador’ workshops. Only through understanding and experiencing of different cultures can we truly pave a path for sustainable change. Remember, it is all about cultivating relationships with the people we are trying to serve so that we may truly meaningfully change the world. We just need to be cognizant that these trips and building/cultivating these relationships are not the end all be all. There must be action that comes after.

  • Reblogged this on My Day Out With An Angel and commented:
    is it possible?

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