Martin Luther King and Ivan Illyich on Aid

Martin Luther King and Ivan Illyich give two very strong, yet seemingly opposing views about aiding someone from afar. While King suggests it is our duty to help, Illyich states that it is our duty to stay away before causing any more harm. How can aid be given that truly helps the recipients? Is that even possible?

King’s philosophy on the subject was taken from a letter written when he was placed in Birmingham Jail after participating in a nonviolent protest which he traveled from Atlanta to take part in. His skeletal argument was that one cannot rest if there is injustice anywhere and we have the right and duty to eliminate injustice for the sake of everyone.

Ivan Illyich expressed his view while speaking at the Conference InterAmerican Student Projects in Mexico, boldly telling his entire audience that what they are doing (volunteering abroad) was foolish and not helping anyone.

Although the arguments suggest opposite viewpoints, I don’t think the two authors would entirely disagree with each other.

Ivan Illyich gives very specific reasons for why “Latin American Do-gooders” are harming more than helping. Economically, the money used to operate groups of Americans going abroad could be put directly into the country they would be serving, rather than adding a “feel-good” factor for Americans.

Emotionally, those going abroad to serve are rarely educated about the culture in which they are serving and are diving in headfirst to areas where they are unwanted “there is also a gulf between what you feel and what the Mexican people feel that is incomparably greater.” He recognizes that their intentions are pure, but states that good intentions are not enough, the title of the speech being “To Hell with Good Intentions.”

Illyich would not have “called King out” on his work away from home or even his reasoning behind it. King does make many general statements about how fighting injustice that directly affects you is not good enough, but his efforts, in his situation, would have been justified by Illyich.

King opens up answering the question to why he was in Birmingham Jail, why he bothered visiting Birmingham, and already separates himself from the Illyich “Do-gooder.” King was invited by an organization he was affiliated with. From the start, King had a direct link to his cause and an invitation for entry.

King was not coming into the situation with an absence of true empathy, blinded by his need to help. He was fighting the same injustices he was personally facing at the time. In his letter, he states:

“When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Martin Luther King would pass Illyich’s standards for having the right to aid others: he was aiding a cause he was directly affected by. But how can others pass those standards? Or do we even need to have the “approval” of Ivan Illyich, when we could just go by King’s standards of aiding other people?

The root of both arguments come from the standards of solidarity amongst people. King argues that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly”, overall implying that we must stick together as mankind and should not be satisfied when our fellow man is troubled.

Illyich’s argument, while suggesting the opposite action as King’s, uses the lack of solidarity to argue his point: we should stay away from “helping” others, because we don’t truly know what they need, and in the end we cause more harm than good:

“If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: you will know what you are doing, why you are doing it and how to communicate with those to whom you speak.”

What it comes down to is how connected one feels with those they are working with. Do we see them as fellow people trying to make ends meet or do we see them as victims who can only be helped by an outside hand? Are we working with equal partners or charity recipients?

Not only is it important to know what aid recipients are going through, but it is equally important to know the economic and cultural impact being made through the work being done, which is where Illyich’s intended audience usually falls short. It is impossible to truly see through the eyes of others and to know exactly how they feel about the help coming in, but the least that can be done is to do everything in your power to understand the impact being made.

If international aid is done thoughtfully, then the good intentions being done are not backed only by empty deeds.

 – Courtney Prentice

Sources: Swaraj, University of Pennsylvania
Photo: Robbbeck