The Fatal Conceit of Youthful Idealism

J.K. Rowling came down hard on Twitter two days ago, destroying the bonafides of orphanage volunteering programs (from here on out to be known as the “orphan industrial complex”), whereby wealthy college students volunteer to “help” at orphanages in the developing world. Rowling rightly calls such interventions “voluntourism”, created not to actually help impoverished children but to provide feel-good experiences for idealistic elites. The problem is not just the poverty-voyeurism involved, but that such experiences harm the very children they were meant to help. Such study abroad programs incentivize the breakups of families because orphanages become profit-centers and the students themselves harm the children they believe they are helping by exposing them to an unstable round robin of anonymous caregivers who stay for a week, earn the children’s affections, and then leave. It’s a tragic situation all around, and the students taking advantage of these experiences never stay long enough to understand the collective damage they are causing in their quest for authentic experiences.

The quest for meaning-through-suffering can turn even more tragic for the students themselves, unfortunately. The case of Kayla Mueller, now making the rounds because her parents are doing a series of interviews blaming Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for not helping to negotiate her release after she was kidnapped by ISIS in 2014, is a particularly awful case in point. The complete story, as far as I can tell from news reports cobbled together, is that Mueller had a desk job in Turkey but wanted a more meaningful connection to the Syrian people themselves. In particular, she wanted access to Syrians who were living through the destruction of their country in order to take photos and get interviews for her blog. Against the advice of everyone involved including, if I remember correctly, MSF staff before she left Turkey, she traveled to Aleppo without any institutional affiliation, was chaperoned by her friend who did tech work for MSF, and turned up, unannounced at a MSF hospital in Aleppo, much to the horror of the staff there. They knew, as she should have, that an American in that area was an invitation to kidnapping and put the entire operation and their staff at risk. They provided her with a place to stay overnight and a van to the bus station the next day. Probably as a result of word getting out that an American was in the area, the van was pulled over by ISIS and everyone inside kidnapped. What happened next gets murky, but it seems clear that MSF negotiated for their own staff to be released and left Mueller’s release to the negotiations of the FBI and her parents. They possibly prevented some information from reaching her parents, but that in itself is a little unclear.

Mueller died while in ISIS custody last year, possibly as a result of a Jordanian airstrike but possibly also murdered by ISIS who then blamed the Jordanians. While she was the main victim of the youthful desire to both help others and make one’s own life more meaningful through contact with poverty and suffering, she was not the only victim. The MSF staff who were kidnapped (again probably due to Mueller’s very presence in the area) with her suffered in captivity for weeks until their release and MSF has taken hit after hit in the press for failing to negotiate on her behalf. Mueller’s instincts were no doubt no different from those of thousands of well meaning college age idealists around the globe: go to the developing world, seek meaningful connections with the people living there, explore and attempt to understand their pain, and help them to a better life in the process. These are all laudable goals, as far as they go. But voluntourists like Mueller and others suffer from a knowledge problem that is much more intractable than they would like to admit.

It’s not just governments who suffer from the fatal conceit of unintended consequences. Individuals, particularly those who aim to help others of different cultures and backgrounds, do serious damage to those they aim to help by not understanding the needs of the people themselves, the incentives their very presence on the ground creates, or the myriad other ways in which good intentions go bad. The first responsibility of anyone who seeks to help others is to ensure, as far as possible, that one’s intervention does not leave those people worse off. The tragic results of Kayla Mueller’s idealism and those of the hundreds or thousands of students who go to “volunteer” in orphanages each year should serve as a warning, not against idealism itself, but against the fatal conceit that often accompanies it, that of thinking that good intentions themselves are all that matter.

These two examples also demonstrate a particularly Hayekian point, that while our brains are set up to think that direct aid is the most efficient and most laudable way to help other people, such aid may be much more harmful than more indirect forms of assistance, particularly when it comes to societies and cultures that are so very different from our own. It’s a knowledge problem, not a motive problem. Direct assistance may make very good moral sense where one is a member of the community, is on the ground, and knows the culture of the people and what is needed, as in the case of the so-called Cajun navy during Louisiana’s flooding last month. Direct assistance where one does not understand the language, customs, or needs of the people may (and as many international development experts like William Easterly argue in fact does) do much more harm than good.

The real world is a complex, messy, and difficult place and helping those who need it the most requires not just good intentions, but careful planning, advice from those who came before, and, most importantly, strict attention to the wishes and needs of the people themselves, since they are the ones who understand, more than anyone, what they truly need. These examples are indeed tragedies all around, but as Westerners we can’t just focus on the Western victims like Mueller. There are many other victims of Western voluntourism and while we may never know their names or faces, we should at least acknowledge their existence.

Edited to add: Another example a friend mentioned is Amanda Lindhout, who wrote about the consequences of youthful travel to Somalia, which ended with her being imprisoned and tortured for over a year. I haven’t read the book yet, but it serves as a similar lesson against this kind of heedless idealism.

  • Yes. Do gooder’s are idiots. Trying to help other people is complete foolishness, and hopeless. People can only help themselves. And charity begins at home.

    • Lauren Hall

      I hope my message wasn’t that do-gooders are idiots. Helping other people is central to our humanity. Moreover, I would argue we have moral obligations to assist others. My point is merely that we need to be aware of how we help people to ensure that our help does not become harm. The wisdom of the argument that “charity begins at home” may be in part a kind of Hayekian wisdom about helping the people who you know the most, precisely because you know both what they need and the limitations to your aid.

      • Research the definition of Do-Gooder. It’s not the same as someone who is willing to help others. It’s someone who believes in going out of their way to help others with a mindset of total misguidance & unrealisticness and insistence that they “have to”.
        You’re wrong that “helping people is central to our humanity” and “we have moral obligations to help others. Pure rubbish. More of the pure rubbish we’re apt to find from ‘Bleeding Heart Libertarians’.
        “Helping others” is totally voluntary, and is only valid & meaningful if the Giver derives a benefit or satisfaction or pleasure in doing the Giving. Slavish obligatory “Giving” is not even giving, it is a disgusting, unattractive blood sacrifice on an altar of Force and Shame which denigrates the Giver, the “Receiver”, and anyone else unfortunate enough to be witness to the spectacle. In addition, the vast majority of the time the blood and flesh sacrifice helps no one, least of all the “recipient”.
        Your comments are seriously deluded, and dangerous, feeding right into the murderous agendas of political altruists.

  • SimpleMachine88

    Not to mention the damage this causes when the result is ransoms paid to ISIS. Another ethical question is whether an American captured by terrorists is has an ethical obligation to take their own life.

    • AP²

      Having listened to some previous hostages kept by the Taliban, I’m not sure whether taking their own life is an option. It’s not like they have weapons on them, they’re often tied up, and refusing to eat would probably only lead to being force fed.

    • Lauren Hall

      That’s an interesting one. I suppose some of that depends on why the person is captured in the first place. It seems, and I’m thinking this through on the fly, that someone who willingly put himself into danger might have more of a duty to escape or commit suicide than someone who was captured as part of their duties in some other way. Of course, soldiers are often taught that they have an obligation to commit suicide if they believe their continued captivity might cause grave danger to their comrades or country. I’m not sure myself what the moral obligations of a private citizen in that case would be. If the person is not sure what use his death would be made of by his captors, for example, one might actually have a moral obligation to stay alive.

      • Bleeding Heart Libertarians should be captured and tortured. They have a moral obligation to commit suicide, because their continued existence causes grave danger to our country.