The Impact of Culture on Humanitarian Aid

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What would you bring with you on a service trip to, say, Malawi?  You would probably pack a suitcase full of clothing, a toothbrush, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, your passport, etc.  However, something snuck into your suitcase that you forgot to account for: your cultural background.  Not only are you bringing yourself, some belongings, and any supplies you might need while abroad, you also bring with you the culture in which you were raised.  In addition to the aid you provide the people of Malawi, you also give them a part of your culture while you are there.  Recently, 10 students from Elon University traveled to Malawi, a country in southeast Africa, to teach children in a nursery school and work with an HIV/AIDS support group.  This type of humanitarian action occurs all over the world, day after day.  What is the relationship between the people providing aid and the local beneficiaries?  What kind of tension exists “between insiders and outsiders arising from the cultural and political ‘baggage’ that aid agencies bring to the communities they serve”? (Donini, Abu-Sada 186-7).

A vector is defined as “an agent that contains or carries modified genetic material and can be used to introduce exogenous genes into the genome of an organism.”  Imagine a bee pollinating flowers.  The aid worker is the bee, their cultural background is the pollen, and the humanitarian territory is the flower.  In the humanitarian aid industry, aid workers would be the agents that transfer their culture to the culture in which they are serving.  This can have some devastating effects, not only on the effectiveness of the provision of aid in that territory, but on the local culture in general.  In his TED talk, Daniel Dennet talks about memes, which are “ideas, behaviors, styles, or usages that spread from person to person within a culture.”  In our globally connected world, memes are spreading faster than ever to the far corners of the earth.  Memes that are spreading all over the world are wiping out cultures, languages, traditions, practices, etc.  Western aid workers are some of the most influential vectors of Western culture in developing countries.  When we travel to other countries, we bring our culture with us, just like the bees pollinating flowers.  Dennet tells us, “One of the things that we are doing is we are the vectors of memes that are correctly viewed by the hosts of many other memes as a dire threat to their favorite memes, the memes that they are prepared to die for.”  Often, this culture clashes with the local culture, causing a dissonance between the “outsiders” and the “insiders.”

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The Western nature of most NGOs and INGOs permeates through every level of the humanitarian aid industry.  “Humanitarianism imposes Western forms of organization, concepts of management, technical standards, and the like.  It brings values, food, clothing, and music of the North to the last corners of the earth.”  (Donini, Abu-Sada 190).  The organizational system, the technology used by aid workers, the clothing the aid workers wear- it all affects how aid beneficiaries perceive the organizations.  At its core, “humanitarian aid is a top-down, externally driven, and relatively rigid process that allows little space for local participation beyond formalistic consultation… The system is viewed as inflexible, arrogant, and culturally insensitive.” (Donini, Abu-Sada 186).  This creates a power barrier between the aid workers and the local people who are receiving aid.  The material possessions of the outsiders and their cultural “otherness” are causing the humanitarian aid industry to fail to fully connect with the aid beneficiaries.  “The consequence is that the ‘otherness’ of the humanitarian enterprise undermines the effectiveness of assistance and protection activities.” (Donini, Abu-Sada 186).  Obstacles to the effectiveness of humanitarian aid are created in a “situation where one group, recruited through connections and privilege, dominates the other, and leads to many operational problems.” (Fosso, Abu-Sada 118).  For example, cultural differences can affect the effective provision of medical aid.  In some areas, “the fear of operations and concerns about scars and possible amputation influences patients’ behavior.  Patients often delay a medical examination as they are concerned about their appearance and are afraid of being ostracized.”  (Fosso, Abu-Sada 119).  As you can see, cultural discord creates many problems for the humanitarian aid community and the territories in which they work.

The consequences of Western culture being imposed on non-Western societies are numerous.  As much as we are connected across the globe, it is important to keep our cultural identities.  People from all over the world and the cultures they come from represent all different facets of the human experience.  For all sorts of things to be done more effectively, numerous perspectives must be heard.  Specifically in the humanitarian aid industry, hearing suggestions from many people on how to help in a difficult situation can bring out the best ideas.  Often, the best ideas come from those who are immersed in the crises themselves- the local beneficiaries.  However, as the aid industry is set up now, “the network power of the system acts as a barrier for different or alternative approaches.”  Donini has a suggestion on how to improve the perception and effectiveness of the aid industry.  “Should an open debate where ‘we” do not determine ‘their’ agenda conclude that some new and more acceptable [way of providing aid] is indeed possible, it would go a long way in re-establishing the bona fides of a humanitarian apparatus that is currently seen as blind-sided and compromised.” (Donini, Abu-Sada 191).

As American college students, being aware of our cultural effect is critical in successfully providing aid to an area.  Antonio Donini’s statement, “Humanitarian action works as a powerful vector for Western ideas and modes of behavior,” is especially profound.  (Abu-Sada 189).  To deny the fact that we pollinate our culture wherever we provide aid only perpetuates the problem.  Sensitivity toward the sustainment of local culture must be shown, especially when working with children, whose minds are particularly ripe for molding.  We must show deference to local culture, or we could be the cause of a unique indigenous culture being absorbed into mass Western culture.  Wade Davis said, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you, they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”  Keeping this in mind, preserving each culture we interact with is a way of preserving the human spirit in all of its manifestations.


Works Cited


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

“Cultural Diffusion.” DeviantART. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“Dan Dennett: Dangerous Memes.” YouTube. YouTube, 2 July 2007. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“Meme.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“Packing Guide for Holiday Travel Suitcase.” The Lusso Report. N.p., 14 Nov. 2011. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

Townsend, Eric. “Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. Elon University, 13 June 2013. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“Vector.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.

“Wade Davis, Anthropologist & Ethnobotanist.” National Geographic. National Geographic, n.d. Web. 16 June 2013. <>.


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