Assignment 5


Although many American college students talk about “saving the world” and “helping those in need”, it is just as likely to see that same student wearing a pair of Nike tennis shoes that were made by Chinese child laborers. In American culture, as it is popular to keep up with the latest style, it seems equally as popular to seem engaged in the issues of the world. However, it does not seem that someone interested in the well being of the world would purchase goods from a company known to exploit its workers. In American culture, it seems people only accept the role of global citizenship when it is convenient for them. When helping others is going to inhibit personal style or success, then the duties of global citizenship are pushed to the side. In Western countries like America, it is very common to see our needs as superior to other countries around the world. The influence of ethnocentrism, or “the belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic group”, can create sense of separation between the “us” and the “others” (Wordnet). In trying to help the “others”, we often blur the lines between what we believe is best of them and what they actually want and need.  Below is a chart that highlights how certain beliefs or tendencies can contribute to ethnocentric behaviors.

Some of our ethnocentric attitudes highlighted in this chart come from traits and ideas we deal with everyday. In the article “Beyond the Pledge of Allegiance: Becoming a Responsible World Citizen”, Dr. Tom Arcaro discusses the overlapping definitions of patriotism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, and racism. Arcaro asks us to consider “can you be patriotic without being nationalistic? Can you be nationalistic without being somewhat ethnocentric? Can you be ethnocentric without being somewhat racist?” (7). He sites the Pledge of Allegiance, a pledge American students recite everyday, as an act of patriotism. But doest it instill more than that? Does it imply we protect our country and hold American and its citizens above all other citizens of the world? In this way, ethnocentric attitudes in our society seem almost inescapable, and therefore play an extensive role in humanitarian aid.  

Because many of these attitudes can be found in both donors and volunteers in aid industries alike, ethnocentrism has a profound effect on the effectiveness of humanitarian aid. No one in the aid industry is asking if the recipients of aid are satisfied with the care they receive or if the care is fulfilling all of their need. And, sadly, that doesn’t seem to be a concern for most aid organizations. Instead, they are more concerned about their image as it is perceived by donors and the Western community.

Ethnocentric tendencies in humanitarian aid can often be linked back to donor interests taking priority over the actual needs of victims. Aid organizations bring care to victims suffering all over the world through whatever services the donors believe will be most beneficial. However, very rarely are the victims ever consulted as to what kind of aid they would find most helpful. For many westerns, it seems the goal of providing aid is to make themselves feel accomplished by providing the services they feel are most necessary, which are likely not the services victims need most. In her book War Games, Linda Polman discusses how MONGOs delivered useless aide items to many areas of crisis. Polman sites examples of shipping “frostbite medication to victims of tropical disasters, and starving Somalis received laxatives, slimming cures, and electric blankets” (49). In these examples, donors are unaware of the true needs of the victims. They provide ineffective aid, wasting both time and money.

When reflecting on the work of MSF, Caroline Abu-Sada recognizes that motivations for people within this organization “largely depend on personal paths rather than general trends” (38). She continues to suggest that “the organization as an institution must assert its own motivations, which its members are expected to adopt” (38).  With unity in motivation, it is more possible to address the needs of victims rather than focus on personal interests. Aid donors are often so blinded by their own interests and fail to see the larger causes of suffering. Cole explains that unseen by most Westerners, “beyond the immediate attention that he rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems”(Cole). In this way, the ethnocentric attitudes of Americans can of understanding what assistance can be provided and what goals are unrealistic . Instead, Americans become caught up in the idea of “saving the world” when in actuality, they can not even accurately access the needs of the victims they are giving aide to. In Teju Cole’s article The White-Savior Industrial Complex he comments on how ethnocentric attitudes of westerns, specifically Americans, hinder the effectiveness of humanitarian aid. Cole comments that contrary to the current practices of the aide industry, “there is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them” (Cole).  Abu-Sada agrees that the opinions of the victims are often overlooked. She explains that “perhaps because of excessive confidence in the power of humanitarian organizations, there has been a tendency to neglect these negotiation processes” (63). And after these aid organizations feel that their work is complete, they leave that specific region to visit another suffering area of the world. But after humanitarian aid has been deemed “complete”, who decides if the humanitarian work was effective or not? Who decides if the needs of the victims were actually met? Cole agrues that personal interests of the donors, such their emotional needs, play a large role assessing the effectiveness of an aid project. He explains that sites of humanitarian aid are “a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied.” (Cole).

An add used by MSF to attract donors. Children are often used to attract Western donors even if they do not represent the main population effected by the crisis. This can lead to ineffective spending.


To address situations like these, Abu-Sada argues that mutual respect for a cultures and an attitude of humility must be utilized when providing aide. Abu-Sada recognizes that “international staff do not always have a good understanding of the political, economic, and cultural contexts in which they work” (62).  She goes on to suggest that “MSF should get back in to the habit of negoticating with the parties involved: politicians, ministries of health, and local people” (63). Overall, it seems that ethnocentrism seems to really create a lack on communication between victims and aid providers. By making the needs of victims a priority, aid industries could be much more effective in their distribution of aide.


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

Arcaro, Tom. “Beyond the Pledge of Allegiance: Becoming a Responsible World Citizen.” 13 June 2013

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 June 2013. <>.

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

“WordNet Search – 3.1.” WordNet Search – 3.1 Web. 13 June 2013. <>.


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One Comment

  1. Posted June 13, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    How you describe ethnocentrism as it relates to aid- doing what we believe is best for people as opposed to what they actually want and need- is spot on. I completely agree with this, and the aid industry and other arenas, such as politics, need to recognize that this is an issue and appropriately orient themselves as to avoid ethnocentrism.