14 April 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Wrestling with how to “help”

I recently put up a post about a speech Ivan Illich gave to a group of young American volunteers about to head to Mexico to “help”.  It’s one of those speeches that makes you re-question all of your good intentions and perhaps reflect on your past actions with a new light.

And then it can make you stuck, and confused.  If I shouldn’t “go to help”, but I want to HELP, how can I?  I’ve read this speech many times over the last 5 years and continue to struggle with what is right, what is ethical, what ethnocentric, and what is more harmful in the long term even if it makes ME, or others, feel good now.

I read a post a woman named Jody put up using some quotes from my blog.  She called her post “Wrestling” – and I appreciate that.  I hope that, if anything, my blog makes us to continue to wrestle with this stuff until we feel our actions are better inline with our intended impacts…. it’s tricky – so much grey area!

I am re-posting my comments to her blog below.


Thanks!  I don’t know that I have ever been quoted like that before – but I’m glad to see that my words are resonating with you.

Wrestling is a good word to use for the thinking that needs to go into successful traveler’s philanthropy work. I wrestle with this daily – and I know that my attitudes and actions more than five years ago when I first moved to Cambodia were very different than how I feel now and that they are based on a very different perception of reality.  Both, though, were based on good intentions and a desire to “help”, I just didn’t realize before that I had such limited knowledge of how to effectively do so.

I also realize, a) we’re all still learning b) there is no “right” answer c) every situation is different d) short term and long term impacts can sometimes be dichotomous e) creating value for travelers IS valuable as their actions and funding can be strong forces for good or for harm in the future so inspiring people to improve the way they give, travel, and live has value f) aligning that value for travelers with long-term positive impact on the communities/causes being “supported” is really hard.


But the best I think we can do is to think about these things and be willing to change our actions based on what we learn, even if it means admitting past mistakes, and then talking about those changes so that we can inspire others to do the same.

Great to “meet” you.  Please come visit us in Cambodia some day!

Read the original post  here.