Manifestations of Ethnocentrism in Humanitarian Aid

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The humanitarian aid industry is all about perception- how recipients perceive the aid they receive and how donors and aid workers perceive the recipients.  The latter is particularly intertwined with one specific sociological concept.  Ethnocentrism is defined as “the tendency to believe that one’s ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups are measured in relation to one’s own.”  The song, “Colors of the Wind” expresses ethnocentrism to a tee: “You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you.  But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.”  I believe ethnocentrism plays a huge role in the humanitarian aid industry, affecting how we view peoples all over the world.  When crisis occurs somewhere on the planet, we feel it is our duty to go and lend whatever support we can.  Our actions, donation or otherwise, are based on good intentions, but ethnocentrism sneaks up and grabs hold of us.

The very essence of humanitarian aid is ethnocentric.  Going out and helping other peoples, sometimes without their request, implies that we are superior to them, and we are going to make their lives “better.”  The popular charity song from the 80s, “We Are the World,” perfectly demonstrates the ethnocentric undertones that are evident in the humanitarian aid industry, particularly in the West.  Through lyrics like, “Send them your heart, so they know someone cares, and their lives will be stronger and free,” it is implied that we “Westerners” are responsible for the fate of millions of the less fortunate, that they are incapable of helping themselves, and that we are their “saviors.”  Further on in the song comes the lyric, “…let us realize that a change can only come when we stand together as one.”  Again, according to this, we are playing the role of someone who is swooping in to save the day.

On the other hand, Chinese humanitarian aid to Africa “has never used the term ‘donor-recipient’ to describe China-African relations, using ‘partner’ instead.” (Abu-Sada 127).  Self-reliance is what Chinese foreign aid policy focuses on.  In humanitarian territories where China provides aid, particularly medical aid, to African peoples, they strive to work together with the local people.  Chinese humanitarian doctors make a significant effort to train the local people in medical practices, such as acupuncture, so that the local people can help themselves after international aid is gone.  This is one way aid can become sustainable and how nations can work together to build each other up.

Li Anshan tells us, “It’s important to differentiate between help and interference.” (Abu-Sada 132).  Some people have written articles telling how all of Africa’s problems can be “fixed.”  Others, including William Easterly, combat these ideas by saying that they are oversimplified.  Several times in his essay, “China-Africa Medical Cooperation: Another Form of Humanitarian Aid”, Anshan makes the point that rarely have a struggling country’s problems been solved by an outside force.  His thoughts on MSF include, “…if MSF’s purpose is to save people’s lives in emergency situations, it should keep in mind that it should not meddle with others’ business in a country it knows very little about.” (Abu-Sada 132).

In his article, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” Teju Cole identifies humanitarian aid as “interfering in the lives of others.”  One of Cole’s main points is that we should involve the countries to which we provide aid and have discourse with them before we ride in on our “white horse.”  The difference between doing good and doing no harm is key.  “There is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’  There is the principle of first do no harm.” (Cole)   If in our rush to do good, we inflict substantial harm (as discussed in previous posts), what is the benefit in the good?  I have said before that humanitarian aid can sometimes function as a Band-Aid on top of a much more serious and complex problem, and I stand by this.

World Wealth Distribution Map

World Wealth Distribution Map

I have conflicting feelings about ethnocentrism in general, as well as its influence on humanitarian aid.  One glance at a world wealth distribution map will tell you that America and Europe have disproportionately large slices of the global economic pie.  I feel that because we were born with into more privilege than most other people on the planet, we have a duty to share what we’ve got.  In a May 2007 article, Peter Singer argues, “…if you are living comfortably while others are hungry or dying from easily preventable diseases, and you are doing nothing about it, there is something wrong with your behavior.”  However, the fact that I feel a need to help others is ethnocentric in itself, as it inherently means that I have compared my way of life to theirs and made the assumption that my way of life is better.  Since my life is better than theirs, I should do what I can to make their life better, right?  Sarcasm aside, I recognize that this way of thinking is ethnocentric.  I don’t consider myself to be any better of a person than anyone else walking this planet.  However, I do think that some of the things that are available to me, such as high quality medical care, adequate nutrition, and safe drinking water are things to which I believe all of humanity should have access.  In my eyes, this is not ethnocentric, as I believe these are basic human rights.

“Humanitarian aid comes from good people who want to help poor people live better.” (Saclepea, Abu-Sada 27).  By wanting to help others in need, am I assuming that I am better than they are?  Am I assuming that they are lesser simply because they have less?  Does having fewer possessions mean that they are living a lower quality life that must be “fixed”?  Delving deeper into this issue reveals that there are many questions about this issue.  There are layers upon layers of understanding related to the human desire to help others.  If we can think about aid as a transaction rather than an “archaic form of unilateral charity” (Jochum, Abu-Sada 104), we could learn to work together with those in need and understand that they are not the lesser.  Combating ethnocentrism is necessary if we wish to “be a part of a relationship of equals.” (Jochum, Abu-Sada 104).


Works Cited


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

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

Easterly, William. “The White Man’s Burden.” The New York Review of Books. N.p., 11 Jan. 2007. Web. 12 June 2013. <>.

“Ethnocentrism.” Princeton University, n.d. Web. 12 June 2013. <>.

Singer, Peter. “Humility Kills.” Jewcy. N.p., 24 May 2007. Web. 13 June 2013. <>.

“The Dark Side of Development Aid.” Blogcritics. N.p., 6 Dec. 2006. Web. 12 June 2013. <>.

“USA for Africa – We Are the World.” YouTube. YouTube, 05 Apr. 2008. Web. 12 June 2013. <>.

“World Wealth Distribution Map.” N.p., n.d. Web. 13 June 2013. <>.


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