Ethnocentric Pitfalls

While I had previously heard the term ethnocentrism, I had never studied it, nor did I know the exact definition.  After looking at multiple definitions I have found one that I think manages to be both unbiased and thorough.  Princeton writes that

“Ethnocentrism is 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 ethnocentric individual will judge other groups relative to his or her own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behavior, customs, and religion. These ethnic distinctions and sub-divisions serve to define each ethnicity’s unique cultural identity.” (Princeton)

The implications of ethnocentrism in humanitarian aid are quite apparent.  Any time two cultures interact so closely and at such a raw level you are bound to have judgements and preconceived notions that may affect the receptiveness and stability of the two groups.  For instance, the western perception that Africa, and by extension Africans themselves, are intellectually and culturally inferior can adversely affect the long term effectiveness of aid to those communities.  Teju Cole writes that aid workers, especially in Africa, need to view their recipients as equals.  He states that if aid workers respected the urgency and independence of those they were helping they would do a lot better.  He cites that many people that receive aid also want to learn how to provide it, especially when it comes to medical training (Cole).  I completely agree and think that while emergency aid is incredibly important, long lasting success can only come through development.

While I do agree with Cole on some things, I found the much of his vitriolic article to be frustrating in the extreme.  In The White-Savior Industrial Complex he constantly bashes the privilege of western nations and those that come bearing aid.  He states that “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. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”  He states that this emotional experience is all about validating the privilege we have in our countries.  (Cole)  What kills me about this is that he touts his statements about privilege as eye opening and shocking.  To be honest, the privilege and fortune we have here in America is made very clear to every child during their formative years.  Almost everyone I know is very much aware that they could have been born in any number of unfortunate circumstances.  That said, not all of them think about it very often, and fewer still take action on it.  And those that do, those are the people passing out blankets and mosquito nets.  Those are the people trying to make a difference, and I commend them for it.  And so what if they get a positive emotional response from it?  So what if they want to spend their lives helping those that are less fortunate.  Cole’s apparent condemnation of these aid workers baffles me entirely.

All this said, I am the first to admit that the aid system has problems.  For this very reason, I found the MSF study in In the Eyes of Others to be very interesting and a strong step forward.  MSFs comprehensive study seemed to have been carried out with the utmost diligence and clearly yielded some powerful insight.  I found it interesting that Cole’s push to have more development was corroborated in the responses to the study.  It is clear that for the aid system to advance, it needs to take a more long term approach.  That said, the survey did indicate that people liked MSFs immediate care and appreciated the economic effects that humanitarian aid can confer (In the Eyes of Others).

The issue of ethnocentrism was very apparent in Mali following the end of conflict there.  After the fighting stopped, nearly 30.7% of the funds were never delivered to help refugees and reconstruction.  Jacey Fortin writes that these big name donors waited until nobody was watching anymore to pull their checks, stating their assistance was no longer necessary.  This use of a conflict to improve your name is an obvious example of western corporations and institutions using those less fortunate than themselves for gain (Fortin).  We cannot allow this to continue.  By acknowledging and casting aside ethnocentrism we can work together to create an aid system with less corruption and better long term effect.

Works Cited

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

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 June 2013.

“Ethnocentrism.” Ethnocentrism. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 June 2013.

Fortin, Jacey. “Aftermath In Mali: Things We Forgot About Humanitarian Aid.” International Business Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 June 2013.


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  1. Posted June 13, 2013 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I also believe it is important to remember the positive aspects of humanitarian aid, as you pointed out. Aid workers are volunteering their time and money out of the kindness of their hearts, and that should not be forgotten. However, we also need to focus on the ineffectiveness of the aid provided. Does it really matter if the money donated was done with good intentions if a lot of the money is never even used to toward providing aid?

  2. Posted June 13, 2013 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I share your astonishment at Cole’s bashing of aid workers. I guess I can understand where frustration would come from, but to say that they act purely for selfish reasons is completely ridiculous. Aid workers, for the most part, are people who risk their safety, give up their comforts, and spend their time and energy helping people all over the world. We should be commending them, not condemning them. I agree that the system itself needs to be reexamined, but personally, I have a deep respect for aid workers who do the work that many shirk.