Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To Hell With Good Intentions

For all of us who go to Nicaragua – or indeed, any place poorer than where we are from: India, Mexico, Appalachia, Detroit – our first instinct is to fix it. Whether we will admit it or not, the very first thing we do when confronted with a terrible situation is to furiously work through possible responses to that problem in our mind until we hit upon the “magic” solution.

I know this because I do it all the time. Even after ten years of living in Nicaragua, I still do it. I go to Nueva Vida, the neighborhood created by Hurricane Mitch resettlement, and with everything I see, I work through scenarios to “fix” what is “wrong” in Nicaragua. It works like this: Wash water running down the street. That creates mud and breeds mosquitoes that carry dengue and malaria so the city should put in a sewage system but they don’t have any money so people should have gray water catches in their houses but then children fall in those all the time so we should go to each house and put in a filter system so families can filter wash water to water plants and have kitchen gardens in their backyards and feed their families so they aren’t malnourished. There! Gray water filtration systems for everyone! Gang members on street corners: there’s crack cocaine and thievery in the community because all the young boys join gangs because they don’t have any skills to go to work and they beat their girlfriends because all they know is violence so we should teach them all how to treat people and give them skills so they can work for a living. There! Gender trainings and carpentry workshops for all gang members! Skinny dogs: pets don’t get fed enough, so…

And the list goes on, a constant and steady stream in my head.

Growing up in the U.S., we are taught that for every problem there is a solution and that our ideas are always best. Unconsciously, we believe that if other countries don’t look like ours, that’s because they haven’t “gotten there” yet. The idea that other ways of living are just as valid as ours does not even occur to us. We are hard-wired this way to such an extent that it is simply inconceivable to most Americans that our ideas aren’t the better way of doing things and so it is veritably impossible for us to keep our great ideas to ourselves.

MonseƱor Ivan Illich condemned this is the mindset in his address to US volunteers in Mexico in 1968, “To Hell With Good Intentions.” In his address, Illich disputes “the idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it.” He challenges the volunteers – and all of us who go to a place poorer than where we are from to “help” – to “recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the ‘good’ which you intended to do.”

Illich is absolutely right, we must stop trying to fix everyone…who are we – who am I – to know better than my Nicaraguan neighbors how to “fix” their country? Who am I to assume that it needs fixing?

I have struggled with this, and indeed continue to struggle with this all the time. It was not until I was a junior in college that I began to understand that these were even issues that needed to be dealt with. I was well educated, open-minded, and extremely well-traveled for a U.S. citizen. I had traveled alone around Europe visiting local families, I had spent a summer volunteering in Mexico, I had spent an entire semester studying and volunteering with reconciliation organizations Northern Ireland. I was critical of US foreign policy and practices, and considered myself well-informed. And still, I was completely unaware that the way I wanted to do things as a U.S. citizen – and the ideas that I instinctively wanted to spread that around the world – were actually part of the problem.

That didn’t change for me until one day when I was fervently arguing with my Spanish housemate that the image of the U.S. in other countries – and feelings about the U.S. – are overall very positive. After a lengthy discussion, she finally turned to me and in no uncertain terms said, "No, they’re not. We don't even like you."

It took someone shocking me, angering me, and in the end offending me to get me to begin to see my own irrelevance… the idea that I might be insignificant to the rest of the world had never even occurred to me. What an incredible sense of entitlement we are given as U.S. citizens! I cannot thank my housemate enough for turning my world 180 degrees so that I might finally get a glimpse what others see of my country, from outside of it.

When I first came to Nicaragua, I thought I was coming to help Nicaraguans. I was sorely mistaken. None of us are needed here. No matter what my skills are, Nicaraguans are capable of doing everything I will do here, and in most cases, do it better, faster and more efficiently. So what is it exactly that I do?

What I try to do is to accompany Nicaraguans, to, in the words of Paolo Freire, “suffer with them and fight at their side.” To walk beside them for awhile, as much as we ever can with that great gulf between us, between what we have and what they have. Accompaniment means that we don’t call the shots. We strive toward – and oftentimes fail to reach – a voluntary powerlessness. This is hard. And it’s certainly not sexy. We try to learn. And we receive infinitely more than we can ever give, as Illich says, we are “receivers…without any way of returning the gift.”

-- Becca