Thoughts on “To Hell With Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich

Phuong Nguyen - Ecuador


November 10, 2017

In response to Ivan Illich’s address to CIASP in 1968, titled “To Hell with Good Intentions," a speech made to a group of volunteers about to embark on a service trip to Mexico. He basically tells them they are not wanted, that they are insulting the host country they are trying to help, and could never dream of reaching the audience they intended to. Programs that seek to "better" developing countries are counterproductive. So, to hell with good intentions, stay home. 

Ivan, in my defense, I have no good intentions.

I did not come to Ecuador to help. I did not come to teach children English or  paint useless murals or build playgrounds that will flood or tell my host sister marriage is a choice. That is not my place.

I came to Ecuador to take. I came to borrow their language for six months, to slip on 5-inch heels and dance at strangers’ weddings, to sit in at a family’s meals, to witness the slaughtering of guinea pigs as a delicacy.

But you generalize us all as “ultimately-consciously or unconsciously – ‘salesmen’ for a delusive ballet in the ideas of  democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.”

It is 2017 now Ivan, with the exception of Cuba, Latin America has now exclusively adopted the democratic system.

It is 2017 now Ivan, and today the United States cannot even uphold the facade of equal opportunity nor the theft that is capitalism anymore. We aren’t selling these ideals, we don’t even believe in them. (At least, not me).

So count me out of your accusations and bad-mouthing.

There are truths in your harsh approach to the matter of voluntourism.

“I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapability to do the ‘good’ which you intended to do.”

There is a story of an organization, which I will not name, that hosts high school students in Nicaragua. There is a component of this program roughly equating to a mandatory community project within the duration of the student’s stay.

One student built a playground in her community. She left, satisfied with this impact, this “improvement” she left that community with.

During the rainy season that playground flooded with water. From there, thousands of mosquitoes were introduced into the community, carrying the miniscule nuisance of a deadly disease called malaria.

I do not believe in traveling for the benefit of the country one is to visit.

“Come to study. But do not come to help.”

You got that right.

“The U.S. cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that here we have Heaven-on-Earth… All over the globe the U.S. is fighting to protect and develop at least a minority who consume what the U.S. majority can afford.”

The U.S., I believe, has poisonous patriotism. We are a prideful nation, probably more so in this moment than in 1968.

We cannot differentiate between a protest against police brutality/racial inequality and a protest against the flag.

We boast of diversity but do not accommodate it. Within and without the U.S., minorities suffer.

It’s time to concede that we are not a Super-Nation, we have civil flaws, misplaced values, and unqualified leadership.

And I believe this is what you alluded to when you said, “stay with your riots here at home.”

We are working on it. That does not mean I am condemned to experience one way of living my whole life. I will come and go respectfully, and with my impact on the country I am trying to learn from in mind. I want to saturate myself with as much knowledge as possible so one day my good intentions can reach fruition.

For now, to hell with good intentions, but I am not staying home. 

Phuong Nguyen