Fear and “Otherism”

Ethnocentrism is the action of judging another culture based on the views of one’s own. This is a major obstacle in facilitating humanitarian aid to other countries. Being a citizen in a third world country and suddenly seeing a group of well-dressed Caucasians imposing their various forms of aid upon you will often be unwelcomed and can come off as intimidating. Working among people from vastly different cultures can be extremely difficult for those giving and receiving aid. Ethnocentrism is a major contributor to aid inefficiency, as evident throughout Abu-Sada’s “In the Eyes of Others.” A great way to make humanitarian aid more economical is to stay educated, open-minded, and eliminate the unconscious feeling of superiority that ethnocentrism can often put across.

In SOC111 with Dr. Arcaro, I learned about the concept of “otherism” and how it is connected to ethnocentrism. Otherism is the overarching term that describes various prejudices such as racism, classism, and sexism. It’s the sometimes inhuman feelings we have towards another who is different from us for any reason. There are a number of ideas that contribute to the various forms of otherism. For example, one of the leading arguments for sexism is human biology – women should stay home and raise kids since they are the ones who birth them. After discussing otherism and its varying subcategories, the idea that was always present was fear. Evolutionary psychology would constitute that “[it’s] human instinct to fear ‘the other’” (Arcaro). This “fear” manifests itself on both sides of humanitarian aid, though in vastly different ways.

For the inhabitants receiving support and assistance, fear becomes evident through intolerance, sometimes leading to violence. In the very first paragraph of “In the Eyes of Others,” Abu-Sada mentions how five MSF staff members were killed in Afghanistan, in an area that they had been working out of for the past 25 years (10). Because of this incident, MSF was forced to rethink its role in some of the areas in which they provide development assistance – principally, how they are perceived by the surrounding culture.

For the groups that provide humanitarian aid, fear will often emanate itself in an unconscious feeling of superiority. This is called counteranthropomorphization: or that idea that “just because A≠B, does this mean A>B?” (Arcaro). Of course no aid worker would be able to admit this to someone else, let alone his or herself. Part of actively being a global citizen is staying unbiased and viewing everyone equally. When coming in direct contact with inhabitants of third-world countries and witnessing first-hand the inferior technology, economy, etc., as well as their ever-present cultural differences, it’s extremely hard to disregard these aspects and view them as equal.

In more blatant situations of superiority concerning those who give humanitarian aid, Teju Cole has coined the phrase “White Savior Industrial Complex.” Many Americans believe themselves to be “better” than citizens in third world countries, and for that reason impose support upon them to help fuel this feeling of superiority. Backing up about 200 years ago, in a time when Americans were much less open minded than today, this feeling of superiority manifested itself through the African slave trade. Americans openly believed that since A≠B, then A>B. They literally regarded blacks as less-than-human; they weren’t American citizens, they were property. Nowadays, close-mindedness is frowned upon, so many Americans turn to the facilitating of development assistance in less privileged regions to stimulate their superiority and boost their self-esteem.

The understanding and adherence to the norms of a surrounding culture is fundamental when interacting with other people. This is especially true when providing direct assistance to people in third-world countries, though also something that many agencies seem to struggle with. People that provide aid find themselves not accepted by locals because of their own ethnocentrism and ignorance of the culture they are enveloped in. This problem is only amplified when workers help others more for their own personal benefit that for the benefit of those around them; “there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm” (Cole). On a psychological level, ethnocentrism is a tough obstacle to overcome when providing aid. It’s done unconsciously because it’s human nature to “fear the other.” The fact that it’s so tough to overcome makes it that much more important. Being able to put one’s self on the same echelon as someone who is reliant on the aid of NGOs to stay alive is just one step in becoming a global citizen.



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

Anonymous. “Confronting the Demons Of Ethnocentrism.” Tales From the Hood. WordPress, 17 June 2011. Web.

Arcaro, Tom. “Race”. Elon University. Elon, NC.  11 Apr. 2013. Lecture.

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 21 Mar. 2012. Web.

Ferrante, Joan. Sociology: A Global Perspective. Belmont, CA: Wadswoth, 2008. Print.


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