To Hell With Our Good Intentions

This is a story of the time I fell for what the Nigerian-American author Teju Cole once dubbed as the White Savior Industrial Complex.  Now I am not white, but the rest did apply to me.

Right after graduating with my Master’s degree from the UK in 2013, I felt an overpowering voraciousness for change fueled by an unprecedented infallible sense of freedom which is more commonly known by society as unemployment.

This was when I “applied” to an international volunteer program to help take care of children, mostly indigenous, from difficult backgrounds in Quito, Ecuador. 2 days later, I got “accepted” without a tinge of regard for whether I had any relevant qualification for the role and my Koko the Gorilla – like level of spoken Spanish. In my positive impulsiveness, I packed my bag and took an 18 hour bumpy journey to join fellow do-gooders at a volunteer house on the Equator.

It was amazing! In my head and heart, I found my calling. I was thinking: why the hell isn’t everyone doing this? However, slowly but surely, and as my trip came to an end, I realized that I am actually relieved that everyone is not doing this.

This has been sitting on my chest for more than a couple of years now and is aimed at anyone who has done the same or is thinking of embarking on a similar experience. This is to all the well-intentioned naive volunteers who have fallen or will fall into the organized trap of “voluntourism” – an industry that sees 1.6 million people do volunteer work while on vacation every year, spending as much as $2 billion in the process.

Looking back at my experience, I’ve come to realize that “voluntourism” is at best ineffectual and at worst harmful to the developing communities it aims to serve. Fortunately, mine was restricted to the former. In retrospect, and after full days at the “mercados” of sublime Quito, I ended up taking home with me much more than Melene, a three and half year old school-less daughter of indigenous farmers, did.

In worse cases however, the damage can be depressingly direct, as Jacob Kushner, a journalist in East Africa, points out in a recent editorial, “The Voluntourist’s Dilemma.” In South Africa, “AIDS orphan tourism,” where volunteers temporarily care for children who have lost their parents to the virus, has left children with attachment disorders and encouraged orphanages to purposefully keep them in poor conditions to attract more volunteers. This is resemblant of Mother Teresa’s work model in Calcutta as Christopher Hitchens, among others, argued in his infamous essay The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice stating:

“MT [Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”

I am afraid that we, the well-intentioned volunteers like myself, have exacerbated this situation with our naivety in most cases or our selfishness in others. We have found pleasure and self – satisfaction in others’ miseries, and we have systemized it. Just imagine the change we could’ve done in those people’s lives had we properly utilized the 1.6 million people and $2 billion spent, imagine!  And, imagine the impact we could create if we can shift this industry from accumulating individual experiences for the volunteer into forming collective solutions for the volunteered for.

Forty eight years after his address to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects (CIASP) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on April 20, 1968, I find myself reiterating what philosopher and priest Ivan Illich declared: to hell with my good intentions! And to hell with yours, if you will continue to see “good” as a one-off thing and not as a commitment for positive change. And, to hell with our good intentions if we are not going to contribute to finding or taking part in long-term solutions that will create opportunities to secure sustainable futures for those in need. I’ve come across two people who have already started;Leila Janah’s SamaSource and Casey Gerald’s MBAs Across America. 

I know I will.

After all, I have experienced first-hand that the road to hell is truly paved by good intentions.


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