UPDATE: Good Intentions Gone Bad

After coming across several saviour complex conversations in real life and on social media, particularly in Palestine, this article comes to address a few things every international “saviour” needs to read and keep in mind before committing another such action. This is not a direct accusation to anyone in particular and is to serve as an opinion expressed by an indigenous from a land where a lot of people choose to “volunteer” in. If you feel offended by this post, it’s most likely that you have a saviour complex problem and might want to reconsider the way you look at such “benevolent excursions”.

To hell with good intentions

For years, many international “do-gooders” who advocate political and humanitarian causes in Palestine in particular usually end up deciding on going for an excursion or “mission-vacations” there –often the West Bank and Gaza sometimes- in order to “volunteer”. By that, they would think they help the local community by giving out food or medicine forgetting that there are people in that very community who can and are willing to do this job. Therefore, instead of actually helping the people, they not only create a burden, but also, in fact, are taking the local jobs from the indigenous people who need these jobs so that they can afford feeding themselves or their families. So how are “good intentions” exactly helping?

“If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as “good,” a “sacrifice” and “help.” – Ivan Illich, To Hell with Good Intentions, 1968

That being said, the efforts of international “activists” are not to be disregarded considering the many things that have been achieved. The problem is with activists coming from all over the world to spend their free time to do something to “help” is only considered as such from their own –often insufficiently unaware – point of view or that of their peers. In the name of good intentions, ignoring or probably not as aware as one should be, crossing thousands of miles to come to Palestine is, in this case, a waste of money, time, and effort. A good share of the blame has to go to the NGOs, businesses, and governments who exploit them for money and labour.

“I wanted to make this statement in order to explain why I feel sick about it all and in order to make you aware that good intentions have not much to do with what we are discussing here. To hell with good intentions. This is a theological statement. You will not help anybody by your good intentions. There is an Irish saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; this sums up the same theological insight.” – Ivan Illich, To Hell with Good Intentions, 1968

A burden the locals have to carry

When people come from other countries to volunteer or work in Palestine, they almost always take up jobs or impose themselves on the local, indigenous community by doing things the latter can do on its own. In the eye of the indigenous, the internationals are not only occupying their jobs, but are also imposing a burden and a responsibility. Though not often shown, the people of these communities are usually unable to take care of these “activists” and ensure their safety, adding more responsibilities for them to bear until these internationals leave, which is often exhausting given the nature of daily life.

You are welcome but…

When the voluntary work an international is doing takes the job away from a Palestinian, exactly whom are they helping? In reality, there are very few roles for internationals that don’t break that rule; offering something the locals can’t do in a variety of fields such as medicine and engineering for example.

The only time international voluntarism can be fathomed is when a skill of profession can be offered and does not compete with those of the locals. One the locals can certainly make use of such skills or knowledge; a rare skill that few in the region have. But even with most unusual skills, people would do better to raise money for Palestinians to get that education, abroad if necessary, given they return to help their people and probably mentor potential individuals to reach a certain level of proficiency, which is always helpful.

How can you help?

There is a wide range of alternatives to crossing thousands of miles and spending big amounts of money on travel and living expenses. The least one can do is to support and endorse BDS. For years, BDS has and continues to prove that it’s one effective way to help Palestinians.

Another way to support Palestinians is to buy Palestinian fair trade products (e.g. olive oil) that are made in Palestine. This way, Palestinian farmers are supported directly. However, the problem with community-based organisations (CBOs) is that they have no ways for international donations, but “where there is will, there’s a way,”

Supporting local organisations that help Palestinians in a range of fields (agriculture, construction, etc.). Money can be donated, or fundraised, which will go to local organisations that work in Palestine, or contribute towards education programmes or projects that aim to teach Palestinians necessary skills.

Below is a compiled list of organisations that help:

Dalia Association
Ad-Dameer for Prisoners Rights
Islamic Relief-Gaza
Natuf Organization for Environment & Community Development
Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children
El Wedad Soc. for Community Rehabilitation

Instead of being a burden, taking the jobs of Palestinians, and going on “benevolent excursions” motivated by good intentions to “help” those in need in a country that’s hours away by plane, the money spent on flight tickets is better invested in doing any of the few aforementioned alternatives.

Good intentions never saved anyone. Actions, however, always do!


Reading the comments/discussions over my article above, I have come to find that there was some missing nuance in some parts. This update serves as additional clarification to make things clearer.

It’s important to distinguish between voluntary work that results in taking a job from the indigenous, and not adding or contributing to the community and/or their case at all (as mentioned above). On the other hand, some voluntary work is of a good outcome such as the work done, for example, by ISM and EAPPI, which are both activist organisations. ISM is direct action based (like Rachel Corrie placing herself in front of a bulldozer) and EAPPI is a witness organisation (acts as a deterrent for army/settlers attacks) so they are different in nature to the volunteer organisation I mentioned in the article. Their work of deterrence to violations can actually contribute to the struggle if it’s done in ethical/principled way.

A proportion of the people who came across this article found it “offensive” while others brought a lot of valuable voluntary work (e.g. the work of Arrigoni and Mavi Marmara) to the table -without fully understanding the point behind the article above- concluding that I also mean this kind of voluntary work as well). Though mentioned, there is no harm in repeating things again with more explanation.

While some kinds of voluntary work helps the cause, it’s undeniable that some people come to make a career out of Palestine. There are several real life examples and it only requires a bit of research.

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About Nader Elkhuzundar

Nader Elkhuzundar is a commentator on Palestinian affairs and Co-founder of Beyond Compromise (www.beyondcompromise.com). Elkhuzundar occasionally freelances for The Guardian, International Business Times, and others. He's a social media enthusiast and tech savvy with particular interest in new technologies and analytics, and enjoys reading over Arabic coffee and dark chocolate.
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One Response to UPDATE: Good Intentions Gone Bad

  1. A says:

    Great insight

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