Intentions in Development Involvement

Mission trips, alternative spring breaks and various other volunteer trips all have one thing in common – the benevolence those who undertake these endeavors believe they are exuding on the societies they are sacrificing themselves to help.  However, the “sacrifices” devoted to a developing community and the “help” that volunteers are offering are not always seen in the same gracious light by those subject to the effects of volunteers “helping them to help themselves”.  As Ivan Illich boldly states in his “To Hell With Good Intentions” speech:  “I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.”. Through this article, Illich explains that American do-gooders are pretentiously invading developing Mexican communities in an effort to help the locals “help themselves”.  By sitting in huts and eating tortillas for a couple weeks in an attempt to “find common ground”, these volunteers are often under the impression that the efforts they are promoting will help small Mexican communities develop into a stable, wealthier society– in effect, they are becoming “salesmen for American idealism”.  However, at the end of the day, these volunteers often return home to brag about their self-sacrifice while possibly leaving the communities they left with impossible American ideals stamped in their minds and abandoning tradition in the process.  Additionally, Illich pointed out, many of these volunteers do not even come into contact with those they think they are helping – the poorest of the communities.  Instead, they are coming more into contact with a very small group of middle-class elite and enhancing the border between the poor and the middle class, all while giving off the impression that such a system is supported in American capitalism.

My intentions in Honduras, in ways, would be criticized by Illich.  As a senior in college with hardly an expertise in world culture and development, I have little insight into just what is right for developing communities.  I have never traveled to a developing country; I do not have family from a developing country; I only have rough witness accounts from friends and acquaintances of what living in these countries is like – unless you count watching the Travel Channel.  My understanding of how developing countries work is relatively limited – I have taken an Economic Development course and scratched the surface of what it takes for a country to reach development.  However, as a double major in Economics and Environmental Science, I am extremely biased in the processes needed to be taken for development and base much of my knowledge off of economic models.  I know that these models may be useful in concept – however, once one is actually contacting with or going to a developing country, real life for people in these countries is based off more than models.

In part, this is why I am here.  Sorry, Illich.  I want to see first-hand the process of development in action and what a developing country is like.  I want to see how the majority of the world lives in a way that can only be learned by personally experiencing it.  Through this experience, I am hoping that I will obtain an enhanced knowledge of development in real-world terms, not just through models.  In addition, I am likely, in Illich’s eyes, one of those pretentious people who would like to think they are helping.  However, there is a key difference in the work I am doing here and the work those who do alternative spring breaks do – I am not working only while I am in the country, but throughout the year.  Additionally, La Ceiba does not seek to go to Honduras once, help out a bit and then abandon ship – we are building relationships with our clients and those we work with in Honduras to figure out the best methods to help the community out.  While I may not personally return to Honduras very quickly after this December, I know that there are others representing the organization who will and will continue to bring what we think is best for the community.

I am enrolled in this course to make a difference.  Simple as that.  No other college experience thus far has given me the opportunity to actually make a difference in someone’s life.  By going out on the ground in December, I am excited to attempt to utilize the models and theories I HAVE studied and see how applicable they are in real life.  I realize that all theory will likely get thrown out the window as soon as I arrive and see the first small Honduran children, look inside the first houses, connect in my first relationship with those we set out to help.  It is a terrifying thought to be armed with nothing but only-possibly-useful theory in this situation, but I believe nothing will get done unless we at least try.  Through this process, I truly hope that I will obtain a better understanding of the world and development; I hope that I will forge close bonds with people from a very different background than me; I hope that I will become confident in my opinions on what is right for development.  Ultimately, I hope that our group can prove Illich wrong.

As Lila Watson explained when an intervention was about to be staged in her community in Brisbane, Australia: “If you have come to help me then you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s work together”.  This, I believe, is exactly what La Ceiba and I are trying to do.  We are just a bunch of kids searching for the meaning of economic development and the best applicable answer on what the community needs.  Villa Soleada is a brand-new community in Honduras that is trying to find its own place in the world.  By finding solutions from creating markets for additional income (such as the Esfuerzo de Amor project) to extending microloans, to helping these people in other business endeavors, we at La Ceiba are hoping to help a community build itself into a prosperous and sustainable village.  In Villa, they are teaching a bunch of relatively privileged American kids the answers they have been seeking in development issues.  As for the main difference between us and those that Illich scoffs at – we aren’t abandoning Villa in December.  When we return home, we will continue to work for this community.  When we are gone, more students will continue to work for this community.  We may see some negative impacts of certain programs we are incorporating and need to adjust accordingly.  We may need to completely change course on projects at times.  We may need to lessen our impact and hold back if our actions are seen to negatively affect the communities.  Hopefully, we will continue to work and at least be able to recognize when these changes need to take place. I’m realizing that it’s okay if they do need to take place, and if everything we thought we were doing right needs to change at times.  In the end, I know that La Ceiba is willing to change plans in order to do what is best for the community and to see what works; it has happened in the past.  And, in the end, I think we may need this community more than they need us.

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