On good intentions

Belfast, N. Ireland

As part of my assigned reading in preparation for a new class tomorrow called Community Learning and Reflective Practice in Northern Ireland (in which we volunteer with different organizations for six months – I will be working with the monks of Clonard and the good people of Fitzroy Presbyterian in their reconciliation attempts), I read an essay I had seen before, courtesy of Richard Goode, called To Hell With Good Intentions by Ivan Illich. This poignant piece is as discomforting as it is direct, as unsettling as it is prophetic. I am struck by its relevance particularly regarding the field I am pursuing.

Fascinatingly, as my brother has also noted regarding his program at Eastern Mennonite University, it seems that so many of us white Americans (or other Europeans) come to study conflict transformation or international development so that we can go ‘help’ the ‘undeveloped’ peoples of foreign countries. Meanwhile, folks from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin and South America, come to these programs to gain the necessary skills to go back home to be of service in their communities and regions of origins. Rarely, do I meet white folk who take these courses intending to go back home and participate in the issues of their own place. Instead, we feel we should help the rest of the world, supposedly the people who really need it. Might such notions have paternalistic, imperialistic, and perhaps even racist elements (or at least tendencies) embedded within them? It is as if we assume that everything runs so smoothly in our white, Euro-American, ‘developed’ places that if we are actually to do any real good, then we must go abroad. Granted, overseas travel and work are not without their merits. But we must pursue such experiences cautiously and with fervent humility.

But why should I muse over such things, when Illich has said it so well? So without any further ado, I submit to you the words of Ivan Illich. Click on the link below and prepare yourself to feel uneasy, perhaps even judged. ‘Tis a beautiful thing to be sure.

To hell with good intensions, Ivan Illich.

much peace,


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