Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power

Donini’s article, “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power,” explores many topics we have touched on throughout our work thus far.  First, I want to delve deeper into his ideas of ethnocentrism.  One of the biggest problems Donini reveals isn’t widespread corruption, like Linda Polman writes about, but the disconnect between the culture of the aid givers and the aid receivers.  Throughout history many Western societies have attempted to imbue other nations with Western ideals.  This practice has certainly changed over the years; Western powers aren’t colonizing other nations, but there are still remnants of a cultural dichotomy.  This poses many problems.


Donini writes, “humanitarian ideals have the potential to unite, but humanitarian practice very often divides.”  Why then, if these ideals are recognized in most of the world, is there such an issue with humanitarian aid?  The answer is twofold: first, cultural divides and a lack of cultural sensitivity; second, the top-down, rigid structure of the aid organizations, themselves.   Cultural gaps exist, this isn’t an inherently bad characteristic, but the way organizations approach this gap can have profound effects.  For example, aid workers lacking respect for local customs and acting like their ideals are the only ‘right’ solution, then combined with foreign technology can certainly create a sort of rift between these two groups.  The humanitarian structure can foster this sort of behavior with their outdated practices.  Donini explains this connection as “top-down, externally driven, and relatively rigid process that allows little space for local participation beyond formalistic consultation. Much of what happens escapes local scrutiny and control. The system is viewed as inflexible, arrogant, and culturally insensitive. This is sometimes exacerbated by inappropriate personal behavior, conspicuous consumption, and other manifestations of the white car syndrome.”  Imagine of someone wanted to help you, but they refuse to take your opinions seriously, don’t consult your local expertise and lack an understanding of your culture.  You have no control now over what happens to you.  At first, I didn’t really understand why people in need would refuse help, but after trying to put myself in their shoes I can absolutely see why that would be an option.  While at first this behavior might have been ignorance, too much time and money has passed for this not to be arrogance, as well.



The idea of “cultural transference” doesn’t appear to be inherently negative, just like cultural divides, but when it only goes one way then it can create an aura of superiority.  Volunteers travel around the world to help others in need; they may teach them how to sink wells, build schools, etc, but what do they take away from that culture? Are they even receptive to the idea of learning something from a culture that receives their help?  Without an honest exchange of ideas this superior-inferior complex will be difficult to change.  Once again, Donini points to a lack of cultural understanding.  How can you truly change a culture without understanding those that live in it?  It seems arrogant to think otherwise.  This brings up an interesting topic: were the Elon students who went to Malawi behaving in an arrogant manner? Did they take the time to understand local customs? Some behavior common in Western society could be completely out of place elsewhere.  It could be rude or offensive.  However, in the case of students going abroad to help, I think that is more about learning to be a global citizen and starting the process of understanding and respecting other cultures.  While they certainly could have been a “vector for Western ideas,” they are learning how to exchange these ideas instead of just giving them.


Donini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power.” In the Eyes of Others. Doctors Without Borders, 2012.



Gourevitch, Philip. The Moral Hazards of Humanitarian Aid: What is to be Done? The New Yorker. November 4, 2010. Web. June 16, 2013.


“Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” Elon University News & Information. Elon University. June 13, 2013. Web. June 16, 2013.

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