The Aid Worker’s Burden


Ethnocentrism is the primary flaw within the mentality of the present-day aid community. Put plainly, ethnocentrism is a mentality of cultural or ethnic superiority that one either consciously or subconsciously uses as a means of measuring or comparing the culture or ethnicity of others. What happens now in the aid sphere is that those in the “developed” world see a “problem” in the developing world, as compared to their standard of living and cultural understandings, and then have an irresistible urge to respond, oftentimes in a way that hurts the beneficiaries rather than helps them. Aid groups see “others” with less than “us”, who have different, or perhaps “worse” living conditions than us, those who have lesser economic opportunities than us, and feel pity and a consequential motivation to change their circumstances. This emotional and (often unintentionally) condescending response, as Teju Cole highlights in his article in The Atlantic, has created the widely accepted and little acknowledged mentality within the aid community that, “The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” This enthusiasm blinds the aid community and serves to drive actions that are well intentioned but ultimately harmful to those they intend to help.

Take, for instance, the shoe company TOMS. TOMS has a business model of “One for One,” stating that, “For every purchase, TOMS will help a person in need. One for One.” TOMS was founded by a young man named Blake Mycoskie after he traveled to Argentina in 2006 and saw that there were children were walking around without shoes. Ignorance, based largely in ethnocentrism, hindered him from asking those in the country of Argentina what other, more pressing needs might exist, and he decided to start a for-profit business that would give one pair of shoes to a child in a developing country for every pair of shoes bought by another person on the other side of the world. Mycoskie, acting without significant knowledge of the economy of the countries he was seeking to aid, failed to recognize the impact it would have and unfortunately, “Wanting to do something to help is no excuse for not knowing the consequences of what you’re doing” (Wadmans). In the end, the ethnocentric model of TOMS has put shoes on the feet of over one million children, but at the cost of destabilizing developing local economies that rely upon the purchase of secondhand apparel and accessories by citizens, disempowering those who are acting as the recipients of free goods and failing to listen to the greater needs of the beneficiaries, and last but not least, not seeking to develop a sustainable solution to the issue at hand.

Ethnocentrism in aid propagates the outlook within the aid community that those who are on the receiving end of aid are lucky to be beneficiaries and yet, “Local circumstances alter the way humanitarian action is perceived, filtering it through a cultural, religious or political lens” (Abu-Sada 27). Noting this, it is of the utmost importance that we follow in the footsteps of the NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres, and place unblinking attention on how recipients perceive aid, the factors influencing perception and the perceptions of recipients by aid workers in order to best govern interactions and interventions and combat ethnocentrism in humanitarian action. Once more humanitarian organizations commence intensive introspection, such as what MSF did with their Perception Project regarding the perceptions of their distribution of aid and the intentions behind it, they can begin altering approaches so that they more effectively and sensitively address the actual needs of communities being served. Aid groups can then address real, pressing needs of communities rather than a projection of perceived needs and do so in a way that empowers local people groups and enables them through partnership or investment. The end goal of this will be that long-term sustainable solutions to foundational issues begin to emerge. As William Easterly says in his article “The White Man’s Burden,” Poverty never has been ended and never will be ended by foreign experts or foreign aid. Poverty will end as it has ended everywhere else, by homegrown political, economic, and social reformers and entrepreneurs that unleash the power of democracy and free markets.” Only after ethnorelativism is attained and a healthy dose of humility infiltrates the humanitarian aid community, can the disempowering impact of aid be addressed and the international system of aid be healed again.

 Works Cited:

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

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

Davenport, Cheryl. “The Broken “Buy-One, Give-One” Model: 3 Ways To Save Toms Shoes.” Fast Company. Fast Company, 04 Oct. 2012. Web. 13 June 2013. <>.

“One For One Movement – A Pair Of New Shoes Is Given To A Child In Need With Every Pair Purchased.” One For One Movement – A Pair Of New Shoes Is Given To A Child In Need With Every Pair Purchased | TOMS, n.d. Web. 13 June 2013. <>.

Wadhams, Nick. “Bad Charity? (All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt!).” Time Inc., 12 May 2010. Web. <Wadhams, Nick. “Bad Charity? (All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt!).” Time Magazine 12 May 2010: n. pag. Web. .>.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 13, 2013 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    I liked that you brought TOMS into this. I never thought about the business as actually harming the countries where these shoes are sent. I always thought it was such a great idea because it was helping people in need so I never thought about it from the other countries’ side. I really like this example as a form of America being ethnocentric.