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. I was impressed by your insight that the motivation of U. I was equally impressed, by what I interpret as a step forward among would-be volunteers like you: openness to the idea that the only thing you can legitimately volunteer for in Latin America might be voluntary powerlessness, voluntary presence as receivers, as such, as hopefully beloved or adopted ones without any way of returning the gift. I was equally impressed by the hypocrisy of most of you: by the hypocrisy of the atmosphere prevailing here. I say this as a brother speaking to brothers and sisters.
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This text version of the speech was scanned from an original mimeograph distributed to Conference participants on the following day. This original document was not edited and this document reflects the exact wording and punctuation used by Illich. The audio tape of this talk also shows it did not stray from the remarks represented in this scanned version. Monsignor Illich had prepared a speech in Cuernavaca before travelling to Chicago; he added introductory remarks after an afternoon attending sessions and meeting with CIASP members.
He drafted a quick introduction to the original presentation and modified the written presentation. The entire speech is usually cited as being given in Cuernavaca Mexico… but it was delivered in Chicago on April In the conversations which I have had today, I was impressed by two things, and I want to state them before I launch into my prepared talk.
I was impressed by your insight that the motivation of US volunteers overseas springs mostly from very alienated feelings and concepts. I was equally impressed, by what I interpret as a step forward among would be volunteers like you: openness to the idea that the only thing you can legitimately volunteer for in Latin America might be voluntary powerlessness, voluntary presence as receivers, as such, as hopefully beloved or adopted ones without any way of returning the gift.
I was equally impressed by the hypocrisy of most of you: by the hypocrisy of the atmosphere prevailing here. I say this as a brother speaking to brothers and sisters. I say it against many resistances within me; but it must be said.
Your very insight, your very openness to evaluations of past programs make you hypocrites because you — or at least most of you — are decided to spend this next summer in Mexico, and therefore, you are unwilling to go far enough in your reappraisal of your program.
You close your eyes because you want to go ahead and could not do so if you looked at some facts. It is quite possible that this hypocrisy be unconscious in most of you not in all, of this I am very certain.
Intellectual insight into the difficulties of fruitful volunteer action had not sobered the spirit of Peace Corps, Papal and Self-Styled Volunteers. 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. I would prepare my statement differently, particularly in style, had I had those five hours of conversation with you. I would have made it loss harsh and even more definitive. I cannot change now because my control of English is not good enough to keep my statement understandable if I change it while reading it.
Before I prepared this statement, I wanted to say something more. On coming here I considered it my duty to continue my efforts toward getting you out of business. I now see that too much money, too many vested interests, too many illusions back CIASP to allow this organization to disappear. I have reached the conclusion that, quite conceivably, there are a few people who could profit from the experience of the past years of CIASP and develop some kind of educational agency which makes it possible for North American students to live in Mexico.
I have no evidence that CIASP as a whole should or could serve this purpose in the future because it might be too much marked by the sins of its origin, which are not recognized as sins by you, but rather considered as simple shortcomings.
I do not believe that such conversion is possible for a whole organization, but I do believe that it is possible for a few individuals. This is amazing! I can only conclude that your invitation means one of at least three things:.
Some among you might have reached the conclusion that CIASP should either dissolve altogether, or take the promotion of voluntary aid to the Mexican poor out of it institutional purpose. Therefore you might have invited me here to help the others reach this same decision. You might also have invited me because you want to learn how to deal with people who think the way I do — how to dispute with them successfully, and how to refute them.
It has now become quite common to invite Black Power spokesmen to address Lions Clubs. And finally, you might have invited me here hoping that you would be able to agree with most of what I say, and then go ahead in good faith and work this summer in Mexican villages.
This last possibility on1y open to those who do not listen, or who cannot understand me. I did not come here to argue. I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans.
I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. Of course, this surprising conviction was supported by members of a Missionary order, who would have no reason to exist unless they had the same conviction except a much stronger one.
It is now high time to cure yourselves of this. You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers with its two party system, its universal schooling, and its Family car affluency.
Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U. By now it should be evident to all America that the U.
The U. S cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that here we have Heaven on Earth. The survival of the U. All over the globe the U. Such is the purpose of the Alliance for Progress of the middle classes which the U. But weapons are not enough to permit minority rule. This task is given to the U. In Asia, the U. All three of these efforts seem to be failing. In Chicago, poverty funds, the police force and preachers seem to be no more successful in their efforts to check the unwillingness of the black community to wait for graceful integration into the system.
And finally, in Latin America the Alliance for Progress has been quite successful in increasing the number of people who could not be better off — meaning the tiny, middleclass elites— and has created ideal conditions for military dictatorships. The dictators were formerly at the service of the plantation owners, but now they protect the new industrial complexes.
And finally, you come to help the underdog accept his destiny within the process! All you will do in a Mexican village is create disorder. At best, you can try to convince Mexican girls that they should marry a young: man who is self made, rich, a consumer and as disrespectful of tradition as one of you. You start on your task without any training. How odd that nobody ever thought about spending money to educate poor Mexicans in order to prevent them from the culture-shock of meeting you!
In fact, you cannot even meet the majority which you pretend to serve in Latin America — even if you could speak their language, which most of you cannot.
You can only dialogue with those like you — Latin American imitations of the North American middle class. There is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on. Let me explain this statement, and also let me explain why most Latin Americans with whom you might be able to communicate would disagree with me.
Suppose you went to a U. Very soon you would be either spit upon or laughed at. People offended by your pretentiousness would hit or spit.
People who understand that your own bad consciences rush you to this gesture would laugh condescendingly. Soon you would be made aware of your irrelevance among the poor, of your status as middle class college students on a summer assignment.
You would be roundly rejected, no matter if your skin is white — as most of your faces here are — or brown or black, as a few exceptions who got in here somehow. Your reports about your work in Mexico, which you so kindly sent me, exude self complacency. Your reports on past summers prove that you are not even capable of understanding that your do-gooding in a Mexican village is even less relevant than it would be in a U. 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 in comparably greater.
This gulf is so great that in a Mexican village you, as White Americans or cultural white Americans can, and so, imagine yourselves exactly the way a white preacher saw himself when he offered his life preaching to the black slaves on a plantation in Alabama. The fact that you live in huts and eat tortillas for a few weeks render your well intentioned group only a bit more picturesque.
The only people with whom you can hope to communicate with are sons of the middle class. You come from a country which industrialized early, and which succeeded in incorporating the great majority of its citizens into the middle classes. It is no social distinction in the U. Indeed, most Americans now do.
Anybody in this country who did not finish high school is considered underprivileged. In Latin America the situation is quite different. Thus, people who have finished high school are members of a tiny minority. Then, a minority of that minority goes on for university training. It is only among these people that you will find your educational equals.
At the same time, a middle class in the United States is the majority. In Mexico, it is a tiny elite. Now, it is among the members of this middle class that you will find a few people who are willing to waste their time with you. And it will be the foreign priest who will especially confirm your self image for you.
After all, his livelihood and sense of purpose depends on his firm belief in a year round mission which is of the same type as your summer vacation mission. There exists the argument that some returned volunteer have gained insight into the damage they have done to others and have become maturer people. Perhaps there is also something to the argument that young men should be promiscuous for a while in order to find out that sexual love is most beautiful in a monogamous relationship.
Or that the best way to leave LSD alone is to try it for a while — or even that the best way of understanding that your help in the ghetto is neither needed nor wanted is to try, and fail.
To Hell With Good Intentions
An intensive leadership experience equipping high school graduates with powerful and practical skills for a lifetime of social impact. I did not come to Ecuador to help. That is not my place. I came to Ecuador to take. It is now Ivan, with the exception of Cuba, Latin America has now exclusively adopted the democratic system. It is now Ivan, and today the United States cannot even uphold the facade of equal opportunity nor the theft that is capitalism anymore. At least, not me.
BotB: To Hell with Good Intentions by Ivan Illich
Jump to navigation. The speech, titled To Hell With Good Intentions , has become somewhat of a staple in the world of community service and service-learning. It is a thought-provoking piece that challenges the very idea of international service, directly questioning our intent to send well-meaning American college students to volunteer in far-off corners of the world, often in communities, cultures, and languages very different from their own. These programs ranged from long-term, credit-bearing programs where students were living and serving in the same community for an entire semester to one day, one-off service projects in various corners of the globe.