To Hell With Good Intentions?

Ivan Illich gave a famous speech that explains why it can be selfish to go into other countries and help, imposing ideas, belief customs and knowledge upon other “less fortunate” communities. The knowledge aspect focused not necessarily on beneficial knowledge but that of which the local community was missing out on globally. They didn’t know what they didn’t have until someone new came and introduced it to them. It led to their yearning for a different way of life, for things and privileges that they didn’t even know they were missing. The missionary or “do-gooder” left their brief stint in a third world country feeling good about themselves, uplifted that they were able to help out in some small way and instead left a much bigger, negative impact behind.

So being here, in the refugee community, I keep thinking about this. Should I have said to hell with my good intentions? Because while we are helping and creating a tangible structure that can be used and will benefit the community, I cant help but feel a little exploitative. I realize that I’m here to learn about disaster and benefit in my own knowledge base by learning about their loss. It is for the greater good maybe, but also I wonder if I’m doing some damage and disturbing the water that has finally been able to calm down a bit post tsunami. I wonder if maybe people don’t want to share their stories, or maybe are tired and just want to focus on moving on. Maybe they take solace in knowing that they have the support of their community that all went through the same thing and they don’t need foreigners who can’t and won’t understand trying to sympathize and help.

And it does feel a bit pretentious at times. One of the drivers for my being here is that I gained all this architectural knowledge and wanted to do something that mattered with it. And this idea that I have something to give is an assumption based on a perception of self-worth. What might actually be given is the knowledge that we are all privy to a first world privilege in education. The locals understand that we learned this new method of construction because we were fortunate to be able to pursue a higher education in a specialized field. Everyone hears of how America is the “land of opportunity” and I’m here embodying that concept of opportunity that isn’t equally available to everyone. And if I’m the supposed image of the American dream, what does that make the reflection of the people in the community think about themselves when they analyze the differences between us? Does it just highlight the gaps that before weren’t noticed?

Even the Peace Corps states in their handbook that part of their mission is to "help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served…Earning the admiration and respect of people who often have never met a person from the U.S.” It feels propagandist, spreading the word that the U.S. is so great and we have so many opportunities and resources. So many in fact that were willing to share with other countries. And then the struggle comes from the appreciation I feel so deeply for the opportunities that I have been lucky enough to receive in the U.S. that enabled me to be here, and appreciation for the hard work that I know was behind it all. I can’t allow myself to really believe bad things about the privilege of opportunity in the U.S., I just wonder about the potential unintended consequences of these things.

I think about my impact on the kids that we have been spending every day with. They have become so excited by our presence and by the activity we’re creating on the site. They visit every day and try to help in any way possible. School is only two times a week and so coming to observe us, interact with us, practice English and help build is something stimulating for them to do. They hold our hands and bring us around to show off their homes, or better yet to show us off to their friends and family. Especially after a few weeks of being here they have gotten used to us being around and look forward to it every day. We can tell it in the smile that breaks out on their faces when they come to check for the third time that morning if we are at the site yet. So arguably this is a good impact, we are helping teach them empowerment through self-construction, English and about the differences in people from around the world. But we are leaving in a few weeks once the project is done. How are kids who have continuously lost things for a year supposed to view this? It’s just another person that has disappeared from their lives, just another activity they no longer have, something else they no longer can look forward to. I know that its not so cut and dry. That we are helping in some ways and perhaps making them sad in other ways. Perhaps the solution is simply trying to not intentionally cause harm, though we must first recognize what exactly is causing harm.

So of course, I’ve been asking the locals what they think. A member of the community helping us gather materials and tools said that its almost better that the destruction was so pervasive instead of just a few houses because everyone comes and helps when its so widespread. They come from within Indonesia and abroad so construction is quick, he appreciated the shear manpower behind people coming to help; the simple fact that more people gets things done. I asked about any potential bad feelings and he said that it actually mostly comes from within the refugee community because of envy between who got money from the government and who hasn’t yet. The economy was doing well before and it had a lot of construction but now there is about only 20% of the original construction happening. Everyone is waiting for the Palu government to help. The end users of our building have already formulated other uses for the space besides just a community center. After the kids dance competition was put on they were saying it could potentially be used for the stage in the future.

I also know that what were doing is seen as a good thing by the the local school, Tadulako University. The students helping us were given a speech that stated that we are here building and they are residents of Palu so should feel some responsibility and obligation to help us. Kind of a guilt trip, but hey, guilt wouldn’t be a feeling if it was something rejected. They would purposefully stay away and refuse to help.

So is it pretentious of us to be here? Are we assuming that we know best? Assuming that we can impose out idea or solution onto the local community and it will be the right solution? Perhaps this type of argument can be debated and refuted with the inclusion of participatory design methods, the locals would tell us if we were imposing a completely unfeasible or unusable solution. Building a strong relationship and foundation of trust becomes the focal point between help and harm. Open dialogue. Based on this dialogue, the community center does seem to be one solution to some of the needs here, there are many other solutions to many different types of problems, but at least a few can be solved with this building and at least its something that the community is excited about and wants. Maybe all we can do is strive to be net-positive in overall impact. Understand that not everything the local community gains from interacting with us is a good thing, but also understand that overall everyone is better off for having gone through this interaction. And participatory engagement parallels the grassroots movement where its ground up approach is controlled by the affected local population and therefore is generally empowering instead of harmful.

Morgan MarzoComment