Waylaid Dialectic

June 14, 2012

Good intentions? Not so much

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 6:37 am
Tags: , ,

In comments below the ‘road to hell’ post Carol quotes some words of wisdom from J. at Tales from the Hood:

“The argument which says “Do something. Just do something. Even if it’s not particularly right, at least you’re doing something, which is more than millions of others can say…” is ultimately a bankrupt argument. Twisted as they may have been, Hitler and Pol Pot both honestly believed they were making the world better. They did something. They took the initiative. And we all know the results. So while I absolutely do not compare Heather or Liz or Cara to Hitler and Pol Pot, I do have to point out the obvious: Being deeply convicted that one “means well” and that “every little bit helps” does not mean that one is actually doing good rather than – you know – harm, and it is in no way a good enough basis for mucking about with the lives and livelihoods of other people…”

J. wins my vote for all time best aid blogger. And I have learnt a lot from Carol’s comments (thank you!) but it is simply wrong,  even in a very loose conceptual sense, to associate the intentions of Kony2012 or the 1000 shoes guy, or your average Johnny or Jenny do-gooder, with those of Pol Pot and Hitler.

While Pol Pot and Hitler may have had their own perverse visions of a better world in mind (one of village purity and the other of Utopia based on the master race) and while this I guess suggests they thought they were doing good, they harboured no good intentions whatsoever for their victims. Pol Pot wanted to brutally subjugate most of his population and Hitler wanted to exterminate Slavs, Jews, and Roma. These. Weren’t. Good. Intentions. And the roads to hell that Hitler and Pol Pot built weren’t paved with good intentions.

I think there are perfectly reasonable debates to be had about the potential unintended consequences of the operations advocated by the producers of Kony 2012 and whether, possibly, the movie propagated a picture of Africa that is ultimately harmful to the continent (in desperate need of a certain kind of help from a certain kind of saviour)*. But, with respect to the question that motivated my original post — do good intentions often lead to significant harm? — I am still convinced that the answer is no. And I certainly don’t the Hitler and Pol Pot argument works at all here.

*FWIW – I think the films critics might be right on the first of these and are probably wrong on the second – although I could be mistaken.

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