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Intentions vs. reality

Huzaima Bukhari

“Good intentions and grand theories do not make a good programme. Programmes work best when they’re based on a detailed understanding of the problem and how they are implemented on the ground”—Abhijeet Banerjee

Every day we come across someone telling us that although behavior of such and such person is harsh or rude but he means well or his intention is not to hurt but prevent a catastrophe from occurring or although a person’s words may be bitter but at heart he is sweet. This clearly depicts the idea that whatever might be our actions, as long as we are well-intentioned outcomes even if devastating, do not matter. Seriously? See how Blake Shelto has pertinently described this kind of a situation. He says: “When things go wrong or don’t turn out the way you pictured them in your head, you just have to go with the best intentions defense. I have a lot of good intentions.”

Actions can be seen, words can be heard but intentions are invisible, whether good or sinister. Intentions manifest themselves in consequences. If results are beneficial, is it important that underlying purpose is evil? Perhaps, this idea that intentions are more significant than the act sprang from the religious edict that God rewards people who have good intentions even if they do not act and punishes those who have bad but pretend to do good. The fact is that only an All-knowing God has the advantage over human beings to decipher what they are unable to perceive. For the general public the more appropriate edict as often stated by my late stepmother is that shariat zaahir per hai, baatin pe nahi (religious canons are based on appearances and not that which is covert). In other words, actions should be judged on face value.

For example, there are many orthodox and traditional families that prefer to lock up their unmarried females in homes on the plea that ‘zamana’ (present time) is not suitable for young girls to venture out. They are home-schooled and allowed restricted social mobility and that too under the strict vigilance of elders. Even though intention of protecting them is noble but in the long run, the personality of these females remains under-developed causing them to face a lot of problems in their marital lives or in case they are left alone as a result of losing their guardians. In contrast, an overwhelming number of people want their daughters and sisters to be street smart to enable them to prudently meet day-to-day challenges. A couple of real life examples would help to understand this better.

A young woman was thoroughly pampered by her husband who kept her away from worldly anxieties and did not confide in her anything about his business or financial concerns. She never felt the pinch of deprivation, which made her confident about her husband’s wealth and capabilities to provide for his family. Unfortunately, he suddenly died leaving her destitute with four sons aged nine to sixteen. She had no notion of what the outer world looked like and was unable to understand why her dead husband was so highly in debt. From a diary in his possession, she found out that the amount he owed to many was almost equal to the amount others owed to him but his creditors swarmed her door while his debtors conveniently vanished from existence. She was totally lost and within a few months appeared twenty years older. In her own words, she did not know how to walk on the roads nor did she have any clue about dealing with the world that seemed altogether a different place. No doubt, her late partner had the good intentions of providing his wife with a fairy tale life but he failed to apprehend the danger he was putting her in by his acts of complete secrecy and distancing her from his work and correct financial position.

Contrary to this episode, another family too was struck by a somewhat similar incident but a directly opposite situation. One morning the husband passed away in a car crash leaving behind a mourning widow and her daughters. However, the deceased had shared every bit of information about his finances with his spouse, a housewife too but whom he empowered with thorough knowledge about worldly affairs. His intentions of never leaving his family helpless is obvious from the fact that he meticulously laid out the minutest of detail in a drawer that also contained spare keys of the house properly marked and in some cases sketches were made to distinguish one from the other. As a result, his untimely death was definitely quite tragic for the family but reality is that it did not have to confront complications allowing the women to move on with their lives.

Intentions, especially good ones, must be accompanied by competence and ability to perform. Majority of the people, belonging to all walks of life are well-intentioned in that they mean well, want to put in their best, show positive results, do their jobs efficiently, excel in their fields and generally be depicted as good human beings. The real test begins when they translate this intent into practice. Conversely, a potential criminal may want to become famous by committing the most perfect crime but for this he would have to plan with extreme precision. Again, merely harboring this intent would not be equivalent to committal of crime but the act would. On a lighter note one is reminded of the famous moral, “One who digs a pit for others falls in himself.” Sometimes, the objective of harming another can boomerang towards oneself.

Browsing the web, one comes across plenty of examples of good intentions coupled with bad outcomes in the global development world. One is that of Ronnie Struiver, a South African engineer who in 1989 came up with an innovative idea of making drinking water accessible with the help of a round-about play pump that children could operate while enjoying the swing. Definitely a well-intentioned plan but after receiving worldwide recognition, accolades and spending billions of dollars, the scheme failed according to a report released by UNICEF in 2007.  The Guardian carried an item in 2009 that children would have to play for 27 hours each day to pump out targeted amounts of water for 2,500 people and where localities did not have many children, the older women found it difficult to operate them.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Just by holding noble aims magic cannot be created nor can anyone be glorified. One needs sense, sensibility, thorough insight, adequate knowledge together with practicality to materialize the abstract concept of intentions, specifically the good ones, to leave an indelible mark.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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