Category Archives: Assignment 6

A. Nicot – Assignment 6: Cultural Invasion vs. Cultural Uplifting

Yeah so I’ve been having more problems. Repeated apologies.

We are presented with the following case to examine: a group of Elon students travel to Malawi in order to participate in an demonstration of altruism. The shock! The horror! No doubt they sought to inculcate the natives into Western modes of thought. The Elon University website describes their actions as consisting of “service projects and immersion in [Malawi’s] culture.” God above knows what that means. The website goes on to detail their accomplishments: “Elon students helped build a garden to provide children with fresh produce, and they assisted with renovations to the center itself,” while in another location, “construction projects involved building a kitchen, clearing and enlarging a garden space, and creating a drainage ditch.” Scandalous. Now the Malawian street children possess food to eat when they need it, a roof over their heads, and the fishing village is now irrevocably polluted with the taint of proper drainage and expanded horticultural premises. No longer can the Malawians rely on their own, native traditions of walking in their own filth and digging up dirty roots to eat! The White Man’s Burden strikes again. Surely these colonialist, almost racist overtures must cease. This is the 21st Century after all! I mean, the website even provides further evidence for the misdeeds of these imperialist scum: “Participants spent a day working with an HIV/AIDS support group learning about the difficulty of living with the disease,” and “the group also toured Blantyre to see the streets from the children’s perspective.” So you see, their so-called noble intentions result in the destruction of native African cultural modes and the introduction of Western ones, rife as they are with history reminiscent of our darkest hours.


So Sorry.

The suggestion that an expedition by Elon students to a rural African community, such as the one presented here, could have “unintended consequences […] in terms of “cultural transference” ” is laughable at best, insulting at worst. Laughable because the overall effect of such trips seems to be inflated and the nature of activities contained therein poorly understood, insulting because it associates the students with modes of thought they no doubt do not and have never considered. Not that such modes of thought are necessarily bad in and of themselves, but they probably are to these students. The concern here lies with the same people I explored here, in a post dealing very much with the exact same issue – how does the “West” affect those to whom it gives humanitarian aid – except reduced in scope to students instead of larger initiatives. The people I’m talking about are again the ones wh0 aren’t able to tell the difference between uplifting a people, and imposing upon them. When a nation gives another access to the items and concepts required to function in the world they live in (and this is another point I’ll come back to) and demands from the beneficiary something which the benefactor needs for it’s own interests, this is uplifting a nation. On the other hand, it is culturally invasive to simply force cultural traits which aren’t relevant to being able to function within the global context. For example, extolling the virtues of tea amongst colonized peoples versus building hospitals. This is on the historic scale of 19th Century colonial politics.

On the scale we’re discussing, the scale of student charity trips, the exchange is much more one-sided. The students, at their own expense, arrive in a foreign country, help build things for the natives, attempt to understand the difficulties they experience, then leave, with nothing more than feel-goodery in their hearts and another line on their curriculum vitae. The students in this specific case didn’t travel to Malawi to impart the Western way of life. Well, if you define “the Western way of life” as “having access to food, having facilities to use, and having proper drainage,” then I suppose you couldn’t be faulted for claiming they did travel for that purpose. But I want to refer to what I mentioned earlier: the world we live in. We live in a world which for a variety of reasons and for better or for worse, is dominated by the West. Western standards are the norm in terms of appreciating quality. Western standards are, objectively, superior to others when it comes to such things as medicine, sanitation, and construction (though of course not in other realms, especially not the more metaphysical ones). This makes charity work of the nature we’re discussing uplifting for those benefiting from them. I wouldn’t call this culturally invasive at all, it is helping at no cost a people improve itself so it can compete on a more equal playing field.

I want to go on a small tangent and point out that the Malawians could have planted their own gardens and dug their own ditches. All they needed, presumably, were the resources which could have been paid for from the U.S.A. itself. The presence of the Elon students was wholly redundant and was largely for their own benefit, though the service rendered was for the benefit of the Malawians. A relatively unimportant distinction, but I don’t want it to be thought I am sanctifying the Elon students. Their motivation was fell-goodery.

Donini in his article talks of “cultural transference.” I suspect “invasive” is a better term for what he is describing than “transference” but that is his semantic choice. And certainly he has a point. Humanitarian aid is often tied to a certain Western imposition of itself onto the recipient, but usually this is found at the level of state-to-state rapport, or that of major organizations-to-state. On the scale of student trips, I believe a certain degree of “transference” occurs but perhaps in the reverse of what might be initially suspected. I would posit that (again, we’re continuing the exploration of this specific case relating to Elon students in Malawi) experiencing the life of Malawian unfortunates affected the Elon students more than contacting Western youths affected anyone, children or otherwise, in Malawi. The children will continue to live the lives they have lived, and unless they formed some sort of mystically deep connection with one of the visitors, will proceed as normal. Maybe they’ll die before they reach adulthood, who knows. The Elon students however, being very much (one hopes) their own minds and their own selves, will be affected by their journey as they are invaded with pity for the condition of the Malwian urchins or admiration for the fortitude of their sidaiques (AIDS sufferers).

Donini also speaks of universalism, but having already covered ethnocentrism and how beneficial an image of cultural superiority resulting in cultural uplifting is, I don’t think I should approach it redundantly. I will say that Donini has the insufferable habit of putting words in quotation marks. Words such as “us”, “we”, “they”, or “modernized” which are simply descriptors or group-identifiers not based in any kind of bias, and not indicative of any kind of position be it ideological or otherwise…

Donini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power.” In the Eyes of Others: How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid. Doctors without Borders, n.d. Web. 20 June 2013.

Small, Evan. “Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. Elon University, 13 June 2013. Web. 20 June 2013.


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What Are We Doing and What Can We Do Better?

Daniel Dennett

“We are all responsible for not just the intended effects of our ideas, but for their likely misuses” (Dan Dennett).

I believe that In the Eyes of Others, MSF tries to combat the misinterpreted ideas about their own humanitarian aid organization, in the same way that Dan Dennett asks people to be responsible for the intended and unintended uses of their ideas and how to correct this. As Dennett said in the video about memes, you can never extinguish the idea but you can encourage a mutation from these toxic ideas. MSF approaches to correct these toxic ideas that locals have about them with neutrality and asking why to understand the situation, which is exactly what Dennett says to do as well. I thought Dennett was really insightful and his ideas can be applied perfectly to the MSF humanitarian aid situation.

“Neutrality and impartiality, the studies show, are not theoretical concepts or pie-in-the-sky constructs; they are essential ingredients of effective humanitarian action” (Donini). 

The notion that our ideas are a responsibility we must maintain feeds into what I really want to discuss, which is the increase in service learning at universities, mainly Elon University, and the impact it is having not only on the people they are helping, but also the students themselves. Elon University prides itself in earning the third best university for community service (“Kernodle Center…”). Apart from service being one of the five advertised Elon Experiences, service is also encouraged for students not yet attending Elon, Elon’s new program Pre-SERVE, where incoming freshman go on a service trip with other incoming freshman while helping local charities to build houses, feeding the hungry, and so on (“Kernodle Center…”). When finally arriving at Elon, there are several opportunities to get involved with different kinds of service, but Academic Service Learning is engrained with classes in order to form Elon students into true global citizens. However, with all of these new service programs, what research has been done by students or staff about the productivity that Elon gives? Are Elon students actually remaining neutral when providing service? I think these are an important questions Elon students and global citizens must ask themselves, as well as how they are actually affecting those they are providing aid for.

“”Why do these young people come to our country?” people ask. “Is it because they can’t find work at home?” or “They want to help, but they tell us what to do without asking us.”” (Donini).

I believe that in order to make Elon students and other university students global citizens, there needs to be preparation before a plan of action and less of the personal emotional benefit that we find as the reason for the White Savior Complex. In the article Elon University has posted about students going to Malawi this summer, we are simply told what students have done in concise form. We are lead to believe these actions of building houses and teaching are great, but how do the locals feel? As is discussed in War Games, people must be informed of the situation and context of humanitarian aid before supplying it (Polman). It has been shown that service provides an increase in critical thinking and also increases the likelihood of doing more with service in the future, but making sure these students have a neutral viewpoint is essential in effective humanitarian aid (Sedlak, Doheny, et al. 99) (Wittmer 359).

“…as humanitarians, that we address those vulnerabilities that we recognize and fit our schemas, we speak to those who speak our language and who have copied our institutions, we impose our mental models, we tend to shape reality in our image rather than trying to see it from the ground up” (Donini). 

I think the fact that Elon has service learning courses is a step in the right direction. Learning about the many factors that go into humanitarian aid, for instance in this course, can be very eye opening and change a person’s views. But like the quote above, we need to break past what we already know, and come up with the truth because it is talking about the inherent ethnocentrism that we as Americans have, so much apart of us that we do not realize it. The most important people involved in humanitarian aid are those that we are trying to provide, and if we are insensitive to their culture, needs, problems and beliefs, then we are not doing a good enough job as global citizens. We as students have seen gains in studies in communication skills, critical thinking and we become more caring (Sedlak, Doheny, et al. 99). Some believe that service learning even helps students understand a larger community (Wittmer 359). Either way, what we learn from service should be used to make the humanitarian aid industry a better place, not just something you can put on a resume or something that fulfills your own emotional needs. Our ideas need to expressed to the world, and maintained so that negative effects are minimized, and previous ideas that many are unable to break past because of ethnocentrism need to be edited by more global thinkers being created in these university settings.


Works Cited:

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

“In the Eyes of Others: How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid.” In the Eyes of Others: How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

“Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement.” Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement. Elon University, n.d. Web. 14 June 2013. <>.

Polman, Linda. War Games. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Sedlak, Carol A., Margaret O. Doheny, Nancy Panthofer, and Ella Anaya. “Critical Thinking in Students’ Service-Learning Experiences.” College Teaching 51.3 (2003): 99-103. JSTOR. Web. 14 June 2013.

Wittmer, Dennis P. “Business and Community: Integrating Service Learning in Graduate Business Education.” Journal of Business Ethics 51.4 (2004): 359-71. JSTOR. Web. 14 June 2013.

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A6 A look in the mirror

US college students as humanitarians?

Today on Elon’s E-Net web site there is a “feel good” story about Elon students working this summer in Malawi.  After taking a longer, closer look at the Donini article (“Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power“) at the end of the Abu-Sada (ed) book, reflect on this specific Elon travel experience and others like it to locations in the “developing world.”    Use specific sections of the Donini GetImage.ashxarticle and quote his specific statements as they relate to your analysis and critique of Elon’s global outreach.

In addition to the sections of Donini’s article that you choose to reference, make a special effort to explore and comment on his statement that,

“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.” 

What does it mean to be a”vector for Western ideas?”  What are the unintended consequences of 10 Elon students spending time in a Malawi village in terms of “cultural transference”?  [In the photo of the E-Net story are countless children.  Are they susceptible to “infection” by Western ideas more so than their parents?] To give yourself a better understanding of this idea you will want to learn from Daniel Dennett:


  • Due by 10:00pm EST June 16th.
  • Late posts will be downgraded at least one letter grade.
  • Comments to at least two colleague’s posts by  June 17th by 10:00PM EST.
  • At least three citations: at least one from text and/or other assigned reading, and at least two from outside academic sources.  Note:  you are to read/watch/listen to all of the material in the hyperlinks in the parent post above; your contact with the material should be apparent in your post.
  • List references at the bottom of the page (MLA format).
  • At least one photo and/or video link.
  • Minimum 0f 500 words (excluding references).
  • Grade will be based on quality and quantity of response to the post prompt including adherence to the above benchmarks.
  • Keep in mind that you are writing for a broad audience that is educated and interested in this topic; infuse your post with the sociology you are learning/have learned in a non-jargonistic manner

Please check Assignments/Assignment 6 before you Publish.

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