Category Archives: Assignment 6

Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power

Donini’s article, “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power,” explores many topics we have touched on throughout our work thus far.  First, I want to delve deeper into his ideas of ethnocentrism.  One of the biggest problems Donini reveals isn’t widespread corruption, like Linda Polman writes about, but the disconnect between the culture of the aid givers and the aid receivers.  Throughout history many Western societies have attempted to imbue other nations with Western ideals.  This practice has certainly changed over the years; Western powers aren’t colonizing other nations, but there are still remnants of a cultural dichotomy.  This poses many problems.


Donini writes, “humanitarian ideals have the potential to unite, but humanitarian practice very often divides.”  Why then, if these ideals are recognized in most of the world, is there such an issue with humanitarian aid?  The answer is twofold: first, cultural divides and a lack of cultural sensitivity; second, the top-down, rigid structure of the aid organizations, themselves.   Cultural gaps exist, this isn’t an inherently bad characteristic, but the way organizations approach this gap can have profound effects.  For example, aid workers lacking respect for local customs and acting like their ideals are the only ‘right’ solution, then combined with foreign technology can certainly create a sort of rift between these two groups.  The humanitarian structure can foster this sort of behavior with their outdated practices.  Donini explains this connection as “top-down, externally driven, and relatively rigid process that allows little space for local participation beyond formalistic consultation. Much of what happens escapes local scrutiny and control. The system is viewed as inflexible, arrogant, and culturally insensitive. This is sometimes exacerbated by inappropriate personal behavior, conspicuous consumption, and other manifestations of the white car syndrome.”  Imagine of someone wanted to help you, but they refuse to take your opinions seriously, don’t consult your local expertise and lack an understanding of your culture.  You have no control now over what happens to you.  At first, I didn’t really understand why people in need would refuse help, but after trying to put myself in their shoes I can absolutely see why that would be an option.  While at first this behavior might have been ignorance, too much time and money has passed for this not to be arrogance, as well.



The idea of “cultural transference” doesn’t appear to be inherently negative, just like cultural divides, but when it only goes one way then it can create an aura of superiority.  Volunteers travel around the world to help others in need; they may teach them how to sink wells, build schools, etc, but what do they take away from that culture? Are they even receptive to the idea of learning something from a culture that receives their help?  Without an honest exchange of ideas this superior-inferior complex will be difficult to change.  Once again, Donini points to a lack of cultural understanding.  How can you truly change a culture without understanding those that live in it?  It seems arrogant to think otherwise.  This brings up an interesting topic: were the Elon students who went to Malawi behaving in an arrogant manner? Did they take the time to understand local customs? Some behavior common in Western society could be completely out of place elsewhere.  It could be rude or offensive.  However, in the case of students going abroad to help, I think that is more about learning to be a global citizen and starting the process of understanding and respecting other cultures.  While they certainly could have been a “vector for Western ideas,” they are learning how to exchange these ideas instead of just giving them.


Donini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power.” In the Eyes of Others. Doctors Without Borders, 2012.



Gourevitch, Philip. The Moral Hazards of Humanitarian Aid: What is to be Done? The New Yorker. November 4, 2010. Web. June 16, 2013.


“Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” Elon University News & Information. Elon University. June 13, 2013. Web. June 16, 2013.


Assignment 6

As we discussed earlier on our blog, what we do affect some people in the world somehow and in some ways. It is important to be aware of tracking your behaviors and words, as they can affect and influence other people. An idea has capacity to change the world potentially. As Eleanor Roosevelt quoted, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people,” ideas are vital. As social networking has taken over the world lately, ideas are extremely viral as well. Kony 2012 by the invisible children was ranked as the most viral video of all time by TIME (TIME). The idea has spread worldwide within few days. It can be dangerous as its consequences exceed the expectations and intentions of the starters. An idea is a strong power. A great power involves great responsibility, quoted by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the article Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power, Donini states that “The perception issue is a minor aspect of a much more serious problem: the essentially lop-sided nature of the relationship between outsiders and insiders that breeds disempowerment, and sometimes victimization” (Donini). As people have different backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs that have been shaped differently, the perspectives on things are different. Everyone is different and he or she has potential to change each other’s life entirely. As a result, there’s a gap between people to people and societies to societies. Yet, the world has formed under the order and has cleared dissonance and extras, negating all the ideas by those who are oppressed and supporting the ideas of those who have. Everything that has been segregated and left out during the process is important to understand collective behaviors of humans. As a result, it made us harder to understand each other.


The maze will be the system that oppressors have built. The opressed people in the maze have harder time understanding each other as their ideas have been discluded and secluded.

The statement by Donini, “Humanitarian action works as a powerful vector for Western ideas and modes of behavior. It is a powerful mechanism for shaping the relationships between the “modernized” outsiders and the multitude of the insiders. Technical knowledge and expertise—the nutritionist, the camp manager, the protection officer—are never neutral. Try as they may, aid workers carry baggage, practice, and ideology that shape the relationship. And power.” Each individual humanitarian worker has tendency to carry on his or her own color along with the internal intentions such as missionary, market searching, and more. On the surface, the humanitarian workers give away charity for the bigger benefits from the beneficiaries. Unconditional support and humanitarian organization can’t go along as the revenue for the organizations is limited. For them, ‘free is not free’ is one way to put the mutual relationship between givers and takers.

Elon Students and faculty went to Malawi for an alternative service trip. These college students will have huge impacts on the people there in a good way and a bad way. Every words they say, every actions they take, people in Malawi will be affected. As they serve children in the local nursery schools, thousands of children will see and hear from the Elon students. Each student possesses so many possibilities. Some children might start having ideological American dreams. Some children will start building stereotypes on western people. This trend has already been started in Tanzania. Whenever beggars see foreigners they ask for money. It is obvious things to do, but the locals use this concept to take advantages over foreigners. My friends and I gave our changes to the beggars who ask not only to us but also to the locals. I can’t make assumptions on what the Elon Malawi group’s entertainment deal was. Based on my experiences in Tanzania, most of touristic scenes were either operated by the western companies or wealthy elites. Most of Tanzanians have never climbed Mountain Kilimanjaro as it’s too expensive for them to afford. By contributing to tourism in Africa, you are helping them and making a larger gap between poor and rich in Africa. Most of us do not think deeply on our actions and words because we are so conformed to our lives.




Abu-Sada, Caroline, ed. In the Eyes of Others: How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid. N.p.: MSF-USA, 2012. Print.

Donini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power.” In the Eyes of Others. Ed. Caroline Abu-Sada. N.p.: Doctors Without Borders, 2012. Print.

“Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. Elon University, n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“World Development Indicator.” Data. The World Bank, n.d. Web. <>.




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Preserving Ideas

When groups of Americans travel to different parts of the world to provide support and assistance, most don’t realize how much their own culture influences those around them. In Abu-Sada’s “In the Eyes of Others,” many chapters discussed how these third world groups sometimes negatively perceive people providing them with aid. Taking this even further raises the question: how do a humanitarian aid worker’s core values and culture resonate and affect the surrounding population?

As people, college students especially, travel to third world countries they unknowingly function as a “vector for Western ideas and modes of behavior” (Donini). Most students don’t realize it, but when entering a different country with completely different norms and values, they become ambassadors of America. American culture is extremely different to a culture of any third world country, so the spread of our ideas is basically inevitable. Western values will often clash with other cultures, so the spread can be harmful to other societies.

In his Ted Talk, Dan Dennett brilliantly makes a connection between toxic ideas and actual sickness. Just like many great civilizations in the past have been wiped out by different viruses they hadn’t built up immunity to, new “toxic” ideas sometimes have the same effect on older, more traditional ways of thinking. “We’re all responsible for, not just the intended effects of our ideas, but for their likely misuses” (Dennett).

Antonio Donini mentions in his article that “technical knowledge and expertise – the nutritionist, the camp manager, the protection officer – are never neutral. Try as they may, aid workers carry baggage, practice, and ideology that shape the relationship and power.” Going back to ethnocentrism, it’s extremely difficult for a person to stay unbiased in how they view another culture. Because of this, it’s very hard to stay neutral in humanitarian aid situations.

In Eric Townsend’s article, he talks about the Elon students’ service trip to Malawi. While tough to really analyze the students’ actions taken during the trip without making broad, unfair realizations, I can definitely assume that the surrounding cultures viewed them as outsiders. As college students normally do, they most likely spread their ideas and memes throughout the society they were in without giving the action a second thought.

In the title, the article uses the words “service opportunities,” as if opportunity is more important than the service itself. This combined with fact that they spent very little time in various regions of Malawi shows that trip was designed to benefit the students just as much as the socities they were helping. “The group also toured Blantyre to see the streets from the children’s perspective” (Townsend). This isn’t a bad thing though, education through first-hand experiences like these is crucial to aiding a region in the future. The only problem is the group probably didn’t stick around long enough to develop much more than their own ideas within these regions.

In Douglas Adams’ book “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” he talks about his fictitious invention, which is capable of preserving certain memes forever, Electric Monks:

“The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or video recorder […] Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all things the world expected you to believe.”

While we don’t have any Electric Monks on Earth (yet), it’s vital that we as humans do our best to preserve historical ideas and values before they are lost from society. Our brains are nothing more than organized collections of memes. As new memes are introduced, they can mask old ones to the point where we forget about them alotogether. They can be infectious, in good ways and bad. “They’re very easy to misuse, that’s why they’re dangerous” (Dennett).



Adams, Douglas. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. London: Pan, 1988. Print.

Blackmore, Susan. “Dangerous Ideas!” Dr. Susan Blackmore. N.p., 28 Oct. 2004. Web.

“Dan Dennett: Dangerous Memes.” YouTube. YouTube, 2 July 2007. Web.

Donini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power.” In the Eyes of Others. Ed. Caroline Abu-Sada. N.p.: Doctors Without Borders, 2012. 183-92. Print.

“Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. Elon University, n.d. Web.

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The Impact of Culture on Humanitarian Aid

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What would you bring with you on a service trip to, say, Malawi?  You would probably pack a suitcase full of clothing, a toothbrush, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, your passport, etc.  However, something snuck into your suitcase that you forgot to account for: your cultural background.  Not only are you bringing yourself, some belongings, and any supplies you might need while abroad, you also bring with you the culture in which you were raised.  In addition to the aid you provide the people of Malawi, you also give them a part of your culture while you are there.  Recently, 10 students from Elon University traveled to Malawi, a country in southeast Africa, to teach children in a nursery school and work with an HIV/AIDS support group.  This type of humanitarian action occurs all over the world, day after day.  What is the relationship between the people providing aid and the local beneficiaries?  What kind of tension exists “between insiders and outsiders arising from the cultural and political ‘baggage’ that aid agencies bring to the communities they serve”? (Donini, Abu-Sada 186-7).

A vector is defined as “an agent that contains or carries modified genetic material and can be used to introduce exogenous genes into the genome of an organism.”  Imagine a bee pollinating flowers.  The aid worker is the bee, their cultural background is the pollen, and the humanitarian territory is the flower.  In the humanitarian aid industry, aid workers would be the agents that transfer their culture to the culture in which they are serving.  This can have some devastating effects, not only on the effectiveness of the provision of aid in that territory, but on the local culture in general.  In his TED talk, Daniel Dennet talks about memes, which are “ideas, behaviors, styles, or usages that spread from person to person within a culture.”  In our globally connected world, memes are spreading faster than ever to the far corners of the earth.  Memes that are spreading all over the world are wiping out cultures, languages, traditions, practices, etc.  Western aid workers are some of the most influential vectors of Western culture in developing countries.  When we travel to other countries, we bring our culture with us, just like the bees pollinating flowers.  Dennet tells us, “One of the things that we are doing is we are the vectors of memes that are correctly viewed by the hosts of many other memes as a dire threat to their favorite memes, the memes that they are prepared to die for.”  Often, this culture clashes with the local culture, causing a dissonance between the “outsiders” and the “insiders.”

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The Western nature of most NGOs and INGOs permeates through every level of the humanitarian aid industry.  “Humanitarianism imposes Western forms of organization, concepts of management, technical standards, and the like.  It brings values, food, clothing, and music of the North to the last corners of the earth.”  (Donini, Abu-Sada 190).  The organizational system, the technology used by aid workers, the clothing the aid workers wear- it all affects how aid beneficiaries perceive the organizations.  At its core, “humanitarian aid is a top-down, externally driven, and relatively rigid process that allows little space for local participation beyond formalistic consultation… The system is viewed as inflexible, arrogant, and culturally insensitive.” (Donini, Abu-Sada 186).  This creates a power barrier between the aid workers and the local people who are receiving aid.  The material possessions of the outsiders and their cultural “otherness” are causing the humanitarian aid industry to fail to fully connect with the aid beneficiaries.  “The consequence is that the ‘otherness’ of the humanitarian enterprise undermines the effectiveness of assistance and protection activities.” (Donini, Abu-Sada 186).  Obstacles to the effectiveness of humanitarian aid are created in a “situation where one group, recruited through connections and privilege, dominates the other, and leads to many operational problems.” (Fosso, Abu-Sada 118).  For example, cultural differences can affect the effective provision of medical aid.  In some areas, “the fear of operations and concerns about scars and possible amputation influences patients’ behavior.  Patients often delay a medical examination as they are concerned about their appearance and are afraid of being ostracized.”  (Fosso, Abu-Sada 119).  As you can see, cultural discord creates many problems for the humanitarian aid community and the territories in which they work.

The consequences of Western culture being imposed on non-Western societies are numerous.  As much as we are connected across the globe, it is important to keep our cultural identities.  People from all over the world and the cultures they come from represent all different facets of the human experience.  For all sorts of things to be done more effectively, numerous perspectives must be heard.  Specifically in the humanitarian aid industry, hearing suggestions from many people on how to help in a difficult situation can bring out the best ideas.  Often, the best ideas come from those who are immersed in the crises themselves- the local beneficiaries.  However, as the aid industry is set up now, “the network power of the system acts as a barrier for different or alternative approaches.”  Donini has a suggestion on how to improve the perception and effectiveness of the aid industry.  “Should an open debate where ‘we” do not determine ‘their’ agenda conclude that some new and more acceptable [way of providing aid] is indeed possible, it would go a long way in re-establishing the bona fides of a humanitarian apparatus that is currently seen as blind-sided and compromised.” (Donini, Abu-Sada 191).

As American college students, being aware of our cultural effect is critical in successfully providing aid to an area.  Antonio Donini’s statement, “Humanitarian action works as a powerful vector for Western ideas and modes of behavior,” is especially profound.  (Abu-Sada 189).  To deny the fact that we pollinate our culture wherever we provide aid only perpetuates the problem.  Sensitivity toward the sustainment of local culture must be shown, especially when working with children, whose minds are particularly ripe for molding.  We must show deference to local culture, or we could be the cause of a unique indigenous culture being absorbed into mass Western culture.  Wade Davis said, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you, they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”  Keeping this in mind, preserving each culture we interact with is a way of preserving the human spirit in all of its manifestations.


Works Cited


Abu-Sada, Caroline, ed. In the Eyes of Others: How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid. N.p.: MSF-USA, 2012. Print.

“Cultural Diffusion.” DeviantART. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“Dan Dennett: Dangerous Memes.” YouTube. YouTube, 2 July 2007. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“Meme.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“Packing Guide for Holiday Travel Suitcase.” The Lusso Report. N.p., 14 Nov. 2011. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

Townsend, Eric. “Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. Elon University, 13 June 2013. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“Vector.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“Wade Davis, Anthropologist & Ethnobotanist.” National Geographic. National Geographic, n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.


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Assignment 6


College campuses all across the United States offer service trips to their students in which students can help provide aid to a developing part of the world. Elon University takes pride in offering many of these programs to it’s students, including a trip to Malawi during the summer of 2013. On the Elon University website there is a story describing how students provided aid to “Chimwemwe Children’s Center, an organization that serves street children” through building “a garden to provide children with fresh produce” (Students Visit…). Students also “spent a day working with an HIV/AIDS support group learning about the difficulty of living with the disease” (Students Visit …).

Henry, a Malawi child helped by the Chimwemwe Children’s Center

When assessing the effectiveness of these this program, one must wonder if these service projects really had a lasting impact on the residents of Malawi. Did the college students really make a substantial difference in the lives of the people they met in Malawi? If so, what kind of impact did they have? Although the small aid projects brought by the Elon students, such as the produce garden, may help some Malawi residents, Daniel Dennett would argue that the real impact these students is far more lasting and far reaching. Dennett states that, whether we realize it or not, we pass along ideas and cultural norms to everyone we meet (Dennett). For the Elon students visiting Malawi, they unknowingly passed along the norms and ideals of American culture. Dennett further explains that as these ideas infectiously travel from person to person, they have an incredible power to transform cultures (Dennett). Elon students most likely passed along ideas about religion, dress, behavior, Americans, humanitarian aid, and more. Adults may find the imposition of these ideas as impeding and disrespectful to their own culture. Children were likely impressed by, possibly even idolized, the American students. These children would be very likely to shove aside their own cultural norms to embrace the western ideals taught to them by the American students. How does this effect the countries that receive humanitarian aid? How can it be improved?  Antonio Donini argues that “the cultural baggage of western agencies is clearly challenging and presents many challenges” (186). Donini goes to explain that the recipents of aid often ask “‘Why do these young people come to our country? Is it because they can’t find work at home?'” or they wonder, why “‘they want to help but they tell us what to do without asking'” (186). The cultural insensitivity of Western aid workers keep aid workers from consulting victims as to what services and goods they needs. Instead, aid workers assume they know what is best for the victims, and apply their services accordingly.

I personally saw this type of ethnocentric influence during a service learning trip I took to Kerala, India. I traveled with about 20 Elon students to different schools around the state with a traveling science museum. The exhibits of the museum were meant to encourage “hands-on” learning, although that teaching style is not common in India. Most of the Indian students we saw were educated in science far beyond the scope of our exhibits. The students we saw all aspired to be doctors, engineers, and other science professionals. It felt as if we were almost insulting their intelligence by teaching high schoolers basic scientific principles they most likely learned in elementary school. Therefore, instead of talking about science, the students asked us about American popular culture. This kind of experience was typical of most of the schools we visited. And although these experiences were full of cultural insensitivity, the experience I found most shocking was when we visited a school in rural India. At this school, many high school students were already married and hoped to continue working on their family farms. Gender inequality was most obvious at this school. Most students could not speak english, and therefore could not understand any of the science exhibits we brought. Our “aid” was completely useless. Instead, we were treated like celebrities, swarmed by herds of students waiting for our autographs. Many Elon students pitied these kids. We wondered how they could already be married, how they could settle for such a lowly career, and how the girls could adhere to such restrictive rules. Now looking back, I see how insensitive we were to their culture. We looked at their situation through a western lens, assuming our cultural norms were more “right” than theirs. I realize now that we, the visiting Elon students, had no positive influence on the lives of these rural Indian children we encountered. No science lessons were taught. Instead, we simply introduced them to western cultural norms.



 A swarm of rural Indian students gather to as us for our autograph.

Although college students and other humanitarian aid workers may believe they are making an important difference in the countries they visit, the recipients of aid often have a different opinion. Donini points out that although “most will accept food aid and the new school even if it is not what they asked for, many wonder about the patronizing attitude of the outsiders who are here one day and gone the next” (189). In a video interview, Donini goes on to describe what he believes will be the future of humanitarian aid. It seems that we do not even recognize the cultural insensitivity we bring to humanitarian aid projects. And until we do, humanitarian efforts will continue to be both problematic and ineffective for its recipients. In her book War Games, Linda Polman leaves us with an important idea that we must critique humanitarian aid if not “for our own benefit” but for “the sake of the people who’ll see our next crisis caravan move in” (164).


Daniel Dennett. Dir. Ted Talks.YouTube. YouTube, Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

Donini, Antonio. Abu-Sada, Caroline. In the Eyes of Others. MSF-USA, 2012. Print.

Polman, Linda. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. London: Viking, 2010. Print.

“Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. Elon University, n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

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I’m Sorry: The Unintended Cultural Consequences of Short-Term Aid

“People often say, ‘doing something is better than doing nothing’. But it isn’t. Not when that something is often wasteful at best, and at worst causing a lot of harm.”

-Daniela Papi


This is a challenging topic for me to delve into, as I have been on several short-term mission or service trips and each time, felt like an integral member of a team of goodwill ambassadors headed to less developed countries to go help the “less fortunate of the world.” I, along with countless others of the Western, developed world have felt the call to personally respond to the call of international service by going on short-term service trips to a number of countries that seem to really need our help.

Short-term service trips provide the well intentioned from First World countries the best of both worlds – we get to go travel the world and experience a new land while feeding our unquenchable desire to serve others. And yet, upon further examination, I have found that there are severely negative consequences of going to these countries as members of communities that fall in starkly different corners of the world. Without the due amount of cultural awareness to the perceptions of those in aid-receiving circumstances, the cultivation of a firm promise to learn rather than to teach, all partnered with a strong dose of humility, short-term service workers only perpetuate the idea of the White Man’s burden. Though it may be completely unintentional, short-term service workers fail to consider the forms of cultural imperialism and ethnocentrism that defines their time in-country and more often than not, their service ends up being more detrimental than beneficial to those they are supposed to be serving.

Daniela Papi, the founder of a voluntourism company wrote an article in BBC to this effect. “…Much of this demand is fuelled by the belief that because we come from financially wealthier countries, we have the right, or the obligation, to bestow our benevolence on people. Never mind if we don’t speak the language, don’t have the skills or experience to qualify for the jobs we’re doing, or don’t know anything about what life is like ‘over there.’” She continues on to note the effect of cultural transference on those service workers coming from the Western, developed world, saying “We’re teaching our next generation of leaders that development work is easy, and that their skills are so valuable to the people abroad that it is worth donating money to send them to help” (Papi).

Exemplifying these concepts is the story of the Elon students went to Malawi, Africa this past summer for a two-week span to serve and serve alongside the people of rural and urban Malawi. I went on this exact Elon service trip to Malawi last summer and as a result, have an understanding of the nuances of cultural interaction, perception and ethnocentrism that occur between Western college students and Malawians on such a trip.

There are several positives and negatives that occur when examining a trip like this in terms of cultural interaction and transference. Unfortunately, the negatives are easier to come by when examining a short-term mission trip in this context. Even the smallest of interactions while in-country ranging to the trips themselves teach the members of the village that dependence on aid is something that is acceptable and to be encouraged. When our team walked through the rural Malawian village at the beginning and end of our days, we would be followed by hordes of children who had been taught to say a few English phrases as, “Can I have a pen?” or “Do you have any money?” The children spoke few other words of English and it was clear that they had been taught these phrases by their elders, whom had come to learn the value of playing the victim in these scenarios. All of the team members of the service trip felt an undeniable tug on our heartstrings and being in the position to freely give away pens, handed out our extra writing utensils to the children.

This exchange served as an example of how those of us from the Western world, especially in scenarios of short-term service, perpetuate the dependence of poorer communities upon sources of aid. Instead of empowering these children to find a means of raising sufficient funds to purchase pens for themselves, we, the vectors of Western ideology, reinforced through action the notion that it was easier to be passive recipients of aid, big and small.

Trips like this also often unintentionally fail to take into account the importance of the skills and expertise that are present in members of the population “being served” and how disempowering it is for them to be beneficiaries of aid. When we were in the rural village in Malawi, it was important for the members of the team to feel useful and needed during the reconstruction of a brick kitchen area, so though while we had hired local constructions workers, masons, etc., we also needed to contribute with our version of manual labor. This led to a significant decrease in how efficiently the kitchen could have been reconstructed and it also took away a source of financial resources that could have gone to local skilled workers. This broke one of the rules of service of Robert D. Lupton, the author of Toxic Charity, who says, “Never do for the poor what they have the capacity to do for themselves.” In his book, he gives the example of American missions teams who went to Honduras following Hurricane Mitch to rebuild destroyed homes. These teams spent an average of $30,000 per home, when locals could have rebuilt the houses for $3,000 each. These kinds of actions by short-term service teams reinforce the idea that when members of Western donor countries come to help, they don’t come with the intention of listening; an action that could lead to an increase in efficiency and benefit members of developing countries economically. It also continues the historical trend of cultural imperialism by not so subtly implying that Westerners know best and that they have the best – that we have the best education, access to resources, etc. – and that the beneficiaries of our acts of service can learn more from us than we can from them. Antonio Donini explains it perfectly in his essay, “Humanitarianism Perceptions, Power,” saying, “…Humanitarian actions in a top-down, externally driven and relatively rigid process that allows little space for local participation beyond formalistic consultation.”

Though it may not seem like it from the paragraphs above, I truly am an advocate for short-term service work when it is conducted in a respectful and effective manner that benefits the intended beneficiaries. By going to these countries, people from the developed world who had been previously isolated from the very real global issues of today can gain an understanding (albeit a limited one), but more importantly a passion to work for the betterment of our world.

These trips are how I became so fervently in pursuit of mindful, responsible global citizenship and though I do not advocate for the consequences of them, both intended and unintended, I believe that with the right leadership and structure, they can change. These short-term humanitarian trips can move from the well-intentioned exploitation of poorer cultures and cultural imperialism and instead lead to beneficial and long-term international partnerships and the sustained empowerment of nations as they strive towards their own definition of development.

In order to achieve this delicate balance, there needs to be a greater element of education for members of short-term service and mission trips. All of the good will and funding in the world will not prevent an individual from unintentionally causing irreversible, ignorant damage within a community that they are serving in.  It needs to be the responsibility of those who design and sponsor short-term service trips to educate travelers on the importance of sensitivity and humility in regards to cultural challenges or disparities encountered while abroad. Dan Dennett talks about the enormous weight of this in terms of cultural transference, saying, …When European Explorers and travelers spread out, they brought with them the germs that they had become essentially immune to… And these pathogens just wiped out the native people who had no immunity to it all. And we’re doing it again. We’re doing it this time with toxic ideas.” From gasping at the devastating conditions of a native person’s home to expressing dismay at the lack of writing utensils in a Malawian village, we are not-so-subtly asserting the ideas that we come from a society that is superior. We need to take the right precautionary educational steps to ensure that the messages short-term service workers spread are not toxic. Short-term service organizations need to re-emphasize the foundational importance of listening and direct an ear towards community leaders in order to best understand their own perceptions of needs and future goals for their region’s development and quality of life and then take on the role of helping make those goals a reality.  

These calls for these changes need to be taken seriously. Short-term service trips will not decline in popularity any time soon. There is too much of a heartened desire to “change the world for good” and a bevy of organizations, churches and schools that will rise to fill that need. So unless we follow Antonio Donini’s advice and stop turning down the volume on the results of perception surveys and start listening to our convictions about humanitarian work, short-term or long-term, we will “…find [ourselves] in the uncomfortable situation of being ‘condemned to repeat'” (Donini) our mistakes. And the population that ends up suffering the consequences of our actions will continue being the intended beneficiaries.

Works Cited:

Abu-Sada, Caroline, and Antonio Donini. In the Eyes of Others. N.p.: MSF, n.d. Print.

“Dan Dennett: Dangerous Memes.” YouTube. YouTube, 2 July 2007. Web.

Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011. Print.

Papi, Daniela. “Viewpoint: Is Gap Year Volunteering a Bad Thing?” BBC News. BBC, 30 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

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The Western Vector

“Humanitarian action works as a powerful vector for Western ideas and modes of behavior.  It is a powerful mechanism for shaping the relationships between the “modernized” outsiders and the multitude of the insiders.  Technical knowledge and expertise –the nutritionist, the camp managers, the protection officer – are never neutral.  Try as they may, aid workers carry baggage, practice, and ideology that shape the relationship.  And power.”

– Antonio Donini


When thinking about the above statement from Donini’s article in Abu-Sada’s book In the Eyes of Others, I am faced with many ideas that are associated with humanitarian aid.  The statement is very thought provoking and can be broken down and discussed.


The first sentence from Donini essentially states that humanitarian aid is a “vector for Western ideas.”  I interpret this statement to mean that as humanitarian aid has grown, so has the influences that come along with it.  The Western “modernized” world feels an obligation to help and many of these aid workers, or organizations, do so with motives different than just offering aid.


The second sentence brings up the idea that there is a difference between the aid workers, or “outsiders”, and the people receiving aid, or “insiders”.  To me, this statement is referring to the influence the outsiders can have on the insiders, both positive and negative.


The last two sentences can be lumped together for interpretation.  I take this to mean that the influences that are exerted by the outsiders are not necessarily intentional.  No matter how neutral or unbiased they can try to be, the fact is that they bring along with them many influences from their own “developed world”.


The breakdown of this statement leads me into applying it to a recent article on Elon’s E-net.  The article, Students visit Malawi for Service Opportunites, discusses the activities that 10 Elon students had a chance to experience and participate in.  The fact that this article just discusses the positive influence from the student’s perspective proves Donini’s statement to be accurate.  The opportunity to visit and “help” in Malawi served the students with the opportunity to experience the culture in Malawi.  However, does this visit actually provide the Malawian people with the aid that they need or deserve?  Is the influence the students have on the young Malawian children taken into account?


The example of the Elon students is very similar to that of many other institutions and humanitarian aid organizations.  With the world expanding and the availability of social media, the Western world feels an obligation to help.  The fact that so many outsiders are willing to push their help upon locals or insiders without asking the relevant questions.  Are we providing the help these people need and what impact am I having on the people I am helping?


Works Cited:

Abu-Sada, Caroline. In the Eyes of Others. United States: MSF-USA, n.d. Print.

N.d. Photograph. n.p. Web. 16 Jun 2013. <>.

Townsend, Eric. “Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. Elon, 13 June 2013. Web. 16 June 2013.

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All Aboard the Cultural Shuffle

To me, one of the most fascinating things about humanity is the way we share ideas and culture.  The relationships, power struggles and peace treaties that our cultures go through shape the present and future in ways we will likely never understand.  The video featuring Dan Dennett was eye opening for me.  I loved the way he described memetics, especially his reliance on the virus metaphor which I thought was particularly fitting considering the subject matter of this course.  He stated that as certain ideas move in they push out the old ones, causing whole tribes and traditions to simply disappear.  He also blamed much of the worlds conflict on this encroachment, stating that some people don’t like the new ideas and will fight to protect their “dangerous ideas” (Dennett).

Dennett advocated that we must protect other cultures from western influence lest their traditions be consumed by our own.  I agree with the spirit of his statements, that all cultures are worth preserving, that we must be respectful of others.  These are things everyone can agree on.  My issue is that in todays world an idea can travel much, much faster than a virus.  Within seconds I can communicate with anyone with computer access.  We cannot shelter other cultures from our own.  The good news is, we don’t need to.  Sharing traditions, food, music and stories only enriches us.  While a group of friends eat McDonalds in Shanghai, their peers in America are eating Dim Sum.  And while a group of people in America are practicing Yoga, a crowd is watching the newest Michael Bay movie in Mumbai.  Don’t get me wrong, too much culture has been lost, and I am a firm advocate of archiving all of the incredible traditions of the world so that we can have them forever, but the issue is that at the end of the day, if a person likes something else better than what they have, they are going to make a change.

And not all cultures need help being preserved.  In fact, I learned in my Middle Eastern politics class that many people in the Middle East are moving towards more conservative Islam in response to recent US foreign policy and cultural advances (Hart).  They even have a knock off brand of Coke called Mecca Cola.  This is all a reaction to not liking American culture and people in the community making an effort to preserve their own.  Furthermore, in an instance of complete serendipity, I recently read a very interesting article about Daniel Everett, a missionary and linguist that traveled to a remote Amazonian tribe looking to decode their language and proselytize their people.  This tribe, the Pirahãs, are completely atheist.  They believe everything has always been as it is now, and do not put much thought into the future or the past.  While trying to convert them, Everett found that he was losing faith in his own god, and eventually became an himself atheist.  I find this most amusing because here you have a man educated in Western culture, sure of his beliefs, and he is completely changed by what these “backward” natives thought.  It also I think it reinforces the notion that Western culture is not infallible and that the exchange of cultures is an organic one and something we should make an effort to leave alone (Gryphen).

Yet cultures can often clash during humanitarian work.  When you have so many people from different areas of the world in such a raw situation there is bound to be some tension and bitterness between groups.  I thought Donini’s chapter in In the Eyes of Others was very interesting because it is another instance of the aid system trying to correct itself.  His findings seem to suggest that a major issue is this top down approach that aid workers take.  He states that workers are often perceived as “inflexible, arrogant and culturally insensitive.” (Donini187)  With minimal local consultation, many recipients that the aid could be put to much better use if they were included.  I think this exclusion is the result of a lack of respect for the capabilities of recipients.  These workers come over thinking “What can I do for these people” when they should be thinking “What can I do to help these people help themselves?”  By having respect for their own desire to better themselves the aid can be utilized in a much more efficient manner with better long term success.

That respect is very important any time two cultures meet and commingle.  The Elon trip is a perfect example of this.  If the students are respectful of those they meet, i’m sure they will never have a problem.  Yet, as they built that kitchen and garden, I’m sure the locals were looking on, wishing they were the ones learning to level a floor or frame a window.  Yet they are also likely grateful for the new resources they have.  I do worry about the dozens of children you see in their photos.  Its during this time that our values and cultural identity is created and often the effects of western culture become apparent.  Yet while there is a risk that these kids will get exposed to our culture, the Elon students have been exposed to theirs, and I have no doubt it was a life changing experience for them.

Works Cited

Abu-Sada, Caroline, and Antonio Donini. In the Eyes of Others. N.p.: MSF, n.d. Print.

Dennett, Dan. “Dangerous Memes.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 16 June 2013.

Gryphen. “The Immoral Minority.” : That Awkward Moment When the Primitive Tribe You Have Come to Convert to Christianity, Instead Converts You to Atheism. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2013.

Hart, C. “Political Islam’s Fight for Control and Failed U.S. Policy in the Middle East.” American Thinker. N.p., 30 May 2013. Web. 16 June 2013.

Townsend, Eric. “Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. Elon, 13 June 2013. Web. 16 June 2013.


How Elon Students are Helping “Developing Worlds”

Give freely to the world these gifts of love and compassion. Do not concern yourself with how much you receive in return, just know in your heart it will be returned.” 

These are the words spoken by Steve Maraboli, and words that Elon students certainly live by and follow. Through various service trips that Elon offers, the students who partake in them definitely spread love and compassion wherever they are traveling to. Usually it is to developing countries who do not have much, so they are not able to give back to the students. However, the experiences they share and the memories they help create for the Elon students is enough. Also, the feeling in one’s heart after traveling to and helping people in developing countries is something that cannot be felt by receiving a concrete item. It comes from knowing that you have spread love and compassion. One recent example of Elon students fulfilling everything this quote says, would be the Elon alternative break trip to Malawi a couple weeks ago. I first heard of the Elon trip to Malawi on my way back from my alternative break trip in Jamaica. One of the girls who went to Jamaica was going to Malawi as well, and I happened to sit next to her on our flight home from Jamaica at the end of spring break. She mentioned to me that she was going and I thought it was amazing how she was giving up her spring break and two weeks of her summer to help people in developing countries. I think it is awesome that Elon offers trips like this to its’ students, and at an affordable price. Our Jamaica trip cost $1,100 for the entire week, and little spending money is required because the area we were in was a poverty stricken area. I am assuming it was much the same for the group that went to Malawi. When reading the article on the Elon website, “Students visit Malawi for service opportunities,” I thought it was interesting to read that the group spent a day working with an HIV/AIDS support group. According to this article, about 12 percent of the population in Malawi is inflicted with HIV/AIDS (“Students visit Malawi for service opportunities”). Twelve percent of a population of just one area is an extremely high number and I think it was beneficial for the Elon students to spend time with people who make up a large portion of the population where they were staying. HIV/AIDS is something we here about quite frequently in America. Having the opportunity to speak with and listen to people living with this disease must have been eye opening for the group. I think it takes a lot of courage to be able to do something like that.

For this assignment, we were asked to reflect on Elon travel experiences similar to the Malawi trip, in developing countries. I have had the opportunity, as you know from some of my other posts, that I went to Jamaica this past spring break. I also went as an alternative break trip through the Kernodle Center at Elon. I don’t think anyone can quite understand the reality of life in developing countries such as Jamaica and Malawi, until they experience it first hand. With Jamaica especially, you usually see travel commercials on tv that highlight the pristine beaches and luxurious places to stay while you vacation on the island. However, that only makes up a small portion of the country, and I was exposed to the majority of the country that is not shown on television. What’s interesting about the country and people who live in Jamaica, is their attitude toward life. Many of the people living there have little money and live in small houses, oftentimes with no running water. However, despite the little that they had, they were some of the friendliest people I have ever met. I feel like people in America who do not have much feel sorry for themselves on a day-to-day basis, and don’t take the time to appreciate that they are alive. In Jamaica, the people learned to use the resources they had and make the most of their situation. When we taught kids at a local day school, they were some of the happiest children I have ever encountered. They were so glad to just be spending time with us and they laughed and smiled and it was so refreshing to see kids act like this. Children in America can be so whiny and ungrateful if they do not get their way or get some toy that they want. In Jamaica, kids are raised without getting much so they don’t expect anything. In a way, I wish kids in America were raised like this because the kids in Jamaica proved that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Playing with some of the kids at recess in Jamaica


“What ‘we’ experience is not what ‘they’ experience. The experience of receiving humanitarian action is not the experience of being a humanitarian (Donini).”

I would definitely agree with Donini when he says that the experience for a humanitarian aid worker is quite different from that of the person receiving the aid. I think the humanitarian aid worker experiences a sense of accomplishment, no matter how much or how little humanitarian aid is given. The person receiving the aid feels a sense of worth, in my opinion. They are receiving some form of aid that will better them as a person. Whether they are receiving clothing items to clothe their family, or receiving medical aid so they can be a stronger, healthier person. In the way of emotions, I think that the humanitarian aid worker and the person receiving the aid both feel the love and compassion that I mentioned earlier from the quote by Steve Maraboli. The humanitarian aid worker feels love and compassion when they are able to help others, and the person receiving humanitarian aid feels like they are loved and is compassionate towards those giving them the aid. I think these two emotions bounce back and forth between the humanitarian aid worker and the victim of a crisis. I believe that the Elon students who traveled to Malawi recently, definitely felt love and compassion as well as spread it to the people in Malawi. I know this was the case when I went to Jamaica on a service trip.

Donini touches on a few interesting topics in his statement, “Humanitarian action works as a powerful vector for Western idea’s…that shape the relationship. And power.” By powerful vector for Western idea’s, I think he is talking about the ideas and culture that someone in a Western society brings to another country. For the Elon students who traveled to Malawi, they may have acted in a manner that is normal for them but not normal for the people of Malawi. Over the course of the two weeks that the students were there, the people in Malawi they worked with may have started to adapt the ways of the Elon students, aka people in a Western society. After the two weeks were over, however, I think that the people in Malawi slowly started to go back to their old ways. Dan Dennett, in his video, says “am I saying that a sizable minority of the world’s population’s had their brain attacked by parasitic ideas?…most people (Dennett).” Even though he was kind of joking when saying this, I think he is correct. Many people are influenced by what is around them and the ideas that they get in their minds usually stems from an outside source. When a group of people travel to another country to provide humanitarian aid, their cultures and mannerisms are usually vastly different than those of the country they are traveling to. When you bring an entirely different culture into another country it can stir things up a bit. People start to act like who and what they are around, so I definitely think there can be some negative aspects to humanitarian aid in this respect.


“Quotes About Helping Others.” (74 Quotes). N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.
“Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.
Dolini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power.” In the Eyes of Others: How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.
“Dan Dennett: Dangerous Memes.” YouTube. YouTube, 02 July 2007. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.
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A Closer Examination of the Effects of Humanitarian Aid

Humanitarian aid cannot remain entirely impartial despite its best efforts to be. Aid organizations are comprised of people, all of which are flawed in some sense by their own prejudices, personal opinions, and agendas. In “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power” by Antonio Donini, he says that, “Technical knowledge and expertise – the nutritionist, the camp manager, the protection officer – are never neutral. Try as they may, aid workers carry baggage, practice, and ideology that shape the relationship and power.” (Donini)

The notion of providing humanitarian aid is in itself a partial decision to become involved in a conflict or a disaster area by providing relief. As noble as it is to take the side of the victims, that decision also inadvertently entangles the countries providing the aid into the conflict.

children wait in line to receive food from aid workers.

children wait in line to receive food from aid workers.

In one of my favorite books, “Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck, there is a scene where he describes having a coyote between the crosshairs of his rifle. Although the coyote is nowhere near his camp, he feels conditioned, even obligated to kill it. “Coyotes are vermin. They steal chickens…they must be killed. They are the enemy.” (Steinbeck) He soon realizes however, “There isn’t a chicken around for miles, and if there are, they aren’t my chickens…why should I interfere?” (Steinbeck) As he lowers his rifle, he, “Remembered something I heard long ago that I hope is true. It was unwritten law in China, so my informant told me, that when one man saved another’s life, he became responsible for that life to the end of its existence. For, having interfered with a course of events, the savior could not escape his responsibility. And that has always made good sense to me.” (Steinbeck)

I have always felt that this scene depicted the conundrum of international affairs in a strange, but very eloquent way. Steinbeck feels the desire to interfere with the Coyote’s fate; he feels that he should lash out at it violently based on his own personal opinion of coyotes, even when it is in no way interfering with his life. He realizes however, that by intervening, he has become inextricably linked to that coyote for as long as it lives. Humanitarian aid operates much the same way.

A modern, industrialized Western nation sees a country that it views as backwards, or underdeveloped, or poor, or violent, and it enters that country to try and solve its problems for it.

By doing so however, that mission cannot end simply when the aid campaign does. When the aid campaign is finished, the duty to that country is not, although far too often it is viewed that way. Humanitarian aid is a temporary solution, a means to an end, but it does not solve problems. Humanitarian aid provides relief, which is an important word to grasp. It provides relief from disaster, or violence, but it does not provide an answer.

The glowing review of a recent Elon University volunteer trip makes this short-term mentality quite evident. The title of the article, “Students visit Malawi for service opportunities” alone should bring with it some concern, implying that the only interest students have in Malawi, is the “opportunity” to work with poor people.

Regardless, the students traveled to Malawi, where they built a garden, taught nursery school children, and assisted with renovations. All of these took place however over the course of just one short month. This means that the students had very little time to learn about the country, or to understand its issues short of, what is described as a tour of Blantyre, “to see the country from a child’s perspective” and visiting the African savannah to experience, “life in rural Malawi.” (Small)

However I’m sure none of these tours changed their preconceived notion that Malawi is a country that must depend on Western nations generosity to survive. This interference also can have negative effects on the children that can be seen receiving aid from these students. They are far more susceptible and easily molded, and may come to see aid not as a crutch, but instead commit wholly to Western ideologies and relief efforts, rather than using them to supplement their own culture.

Humanitarian aid westernizes nations, or at the very least, strips them in some sense of their self-reliance and their cultural identity. Whether that is an intended consequence or not, it is a serious one that must be contemplated before intervening, and it must be something whose impact is viewed in the long-term, not over the course of just a single month.


Works Cited:


Steinbeck, John. “Travels with Charley” Penguin Group. Print. 1961.


Small, Evan.  “Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities” June 13, 2013. June 16, 2013.


Donini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power”

Abu-Sada, Caroline. “How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid” Doctors Without Borders. Print. 2012.

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