Ivan Illich, author of “To Hell With Good Intentions,” in addition to being an Austrian philosopher, was also a Catholic priest and critic of modern western institutions.

By Gordon Younkin

Last week in my Introduction to International Public Health class we had a debate regarding the values and pitfalls of clinical tourism and international volunteerism. GlobeMed actually came up several times during the debate as an example of a beneficial international partnership. However, it is very important to take into account the other side of the argument and listen to people who would say we may be doing more harm than good.

In 1968, Ivan Illych, an Austrian philosopher, addressed the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects expressing his opinion that essentially any form of international volunteerism is inherently paternalistic and will do more harm than good.His speech was titled “To Hell with Good Intentions” and the transcript can be found here. While it is important to remember that this speech is nearly 50 years old, many of his points are still relevant today.

Illych encourages international volunteers to forget about their good will and good intentions and to instead focus their attention on the possible effects they may have on the community they are trying to serve. He posits that when Americans travel abroad, they impose upon the locals the American cultural norms of democracy and consumerism. He states that international volunteers “are 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.” Illych goes on to suggest that middle-class Americans cannot truly understand or dialogue with underprivileged populations because they share no common experiences or common interests. Apart from these cultural differences, volunteers can cause damage to local communities through negligence and a lack of responsibility.

One example that comes to mind is cholera outbreak in Haiti that likely happened as a result of the influx of international volunteers after the 2010 earthquake. Many blame the U.N. for causing the outbreak and subsequently covering up and denying their involvement. A more detailed description of the outbreak can be found here. In addition, many international aid projects are unsustainable and quickly go into disrepair due to a lack of follow-up. This is especially common in the case of infrastructural improvements such as clean water delivery systems.

How does GlobeMed fit into this? I think it is fundamentally different than the kinds of clinical tourism and international partnerships these arguments are addressing. I see our primary role as a partner to Adonai. The leaders at Adonai, as locals who know and can relate to the community, have the vision. Our role is to help that vision become a reality by means of providing resources. Yes, we do send students to Uganda every summer, but this is simply a means of maintaining an intimate partnership and encouraging the flow of ideas. As long as we remember that we are in GlobeMed not to impose our cultural and social ideals on Adonai and the community they serve, but to better understand worldwide inequalities and brainstorm ways to make a real difference, we will hopefully do more good than harm in this world.