Sunday, February 08, 2009

To Hell with Good Intentions

Sorry I haven't been writing, but I haven't had internet access since last weekend...  On Sunday all the students in my study abroad program traveled to a small rural town called Ixtlilco el Grande, where we stayed until Wednesday.  While we were there we stayed with families, many of whom didn't have running water or refrigerators let alone any luxuries.  Then we moved to an ex-hacienda which had been turned into a resort/hotel, where we stayed for two nights.  At the ex-hacienda, we had various conversations about cultural issues and such, one of which was based on Ivan Illich's article "To Hell with Good Intentions."  

Many of the students in my program are Social Work majors, so they obviously rejected the notion that there is nothing we can do to help other people.  But I also think it's really important to recognize that even trying to help often does damage.  One student told a story about a village where a bunch of do-gooders put in a well for easier access to water, and they probably expected a giant "Thank you, you've saved our lives."  But actually the women were really unhappy with the well because it took away the time that they previously had to bond with the other women in the village when they went to the river for water everyday.  
Similarly, I heard of someone who visited a small rural town (much like Ixtlilco) and noticed that there weren't any recycling bins.  So in her quest to "green" the town, she organized a project to have them collect their recyclable materials, but it took eight months for them to gather enough to make it worth anyone's effort to haul it off to be recycled.  Because the people of the town were forced to make their money stretch as far as possible, they lived by the first two R's of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle."  And because of that, they most certainly are much "greener" than any city with a shopping mall and a lame-ass recycling program.  
I don't agree with Illich that there is nothing we can do.  I think that there are a lot of really good programs that are doing a lot of good things for the people of Latin America.  But successful programs need to based on the needs of local peoples, not the "needs" that foreigners see.  Solving Latin American problems with U.S. solutions will never work.