The Difficulties of Becoming a Global Citizen and the Trouble with Humanitarian Aid

The term global citizen is a phrase that is full of contradictions. In its most basic form, a global citizen can best be equated to a humanitarian, which is defined as being someone who, “is devoted to the promotion of human welfare and the advancement of social reforms; a philanthropist.” (American Heritage Dictionary)

But in order to promote human welfare, one must be willing to share the plight and hardship of others, be willing to give aid and support, and yet never assume to know what is right for another culture, or intervene in a way that forces one’s own ideas and perceptions on another. It is here that we reach a dilemma, however, because isn’t the notion of humanitarian aid simply a product of privilege?

The philanthropic nature of humanitarian aid work means inevitably that it is the haves taking care of the have-nots. Those who have something to spare, whether it be their money, their time, or their talents, are the only people capable of giving aid. This means that any type of aid could be construed as insulting or an act of pity for those less fortunate. Humanitarian aid efforts often times inadvertently force western concepts and values onto the people under their care.

So then shut down every humanitarian aid effort around the world, right?

We wouldn’t want to come across as a bunch of condescending, over-privileged know-it-alls, would we?

Although we must certainly be cognizant of how our aid efforts are perceived by native populations; the fear of being viewed as intrusive or overbearing does not justify simply becoming a bystander to injustice and disaster.

This kind of laissez-faire approach is perhaps the easiest and most convenient conclusion to reach, but denying aid to those in need goes against everything that a true global citizen is supposed to stand up for: the preservation of basic human rights, and a shared connection with, and compassion for, every creature inhabiting our shared planet.

So then if completely cutting off aid isn’t the solution then what is?

The first step must be to address complicated issues that inevitably arise when one country sets foot in another and establish a humanitarian presence there. Most everyone can agree that humanitarian aid, as a concept, is a very just and upright cause. In action however, humanitarian aid often falls victim to the flaws and weaknesses that come with any group of people working together.

It is important that we not forget the “human” part of humanitarian aid. People will make mistakes. Preconceived notions will play a role on which decisions are based, or how aid is distributed. Some of these things are unavoidable, and no matter how much we may try to open our minds to other ideas and other cultures, some beliefs will always be at odds with our own.

This does not need to serve as an excuse however, because as Talya Zemach-Bersin, a Wesleyan student who studied in Tibet puts it, “We cannot be expected to transcend historical, political, social, and global systems of power in order to become cross-culturally immersed “global citizens.” We can, however, be asked to become internationally conscious and self-aware American citizens who are responsible for thinking about those critical issues.” (Zemach-Bersin)

This approach works well for certain smaller concerns, but what about when human life is on the line?

In “Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit,” (a book written by a disaster response manager under the pseudonym J.) there is a scene where an aid worker named Mary-Anne discovers that a young woman’s child is dying of an unidentified disease and tells the woman that she must, “Take her daughter to the MSF clinic in sector 1-A immediately.” (J.) The woman seems concerned however, and eventually reveals that she is worried because, “The clinic is far, it is very hot, and her husband is waiting for her to cook.”(J.)

Mary-Anne understandably is outraged that the woman would even consider putting dinner ahead of her own child’s life, and is unable to come to terms with this difference in culture. She demands that the woman take her child to the clinic and the woman eventually complies, but Mary-Anne made her decision based on her own cultural views, not through the lens of her patient’s perspective.

These are the instances where whether or not a global citizen is overstepping their boundaries become more blurred.

Another example would be when people with life threatening diseases choose to refuse proven methods of treatment and opt instead for traditional healers (Polman)- something Linda Polman describes as happening frequently in her book “Crisis Caravan,” – how can humanitarian aid workers provide adequate care while at the same time avoid forcing western medicine onto patients? Is it more wrong to let a person die of a preventable disease, or to force treatment upon them?

A traditional healer using heated horns as a remedy. At what point should a patients right to choose their form of medicine, even if it causes them to die, take precedence over the use of available and proven western medical treatment to save their life?

A traditional healer using heated horns as a remedy. At what point should a patients right to choose their form of medicine, even if it causes them to die, take precedence over the use of available and proven western medical treatment to save their life?

Humanitarian aid efforts both past and present should be viewed with a keen and discerning eye, but they should not be condemned outright. Much the same way a few instances of exploitation by the recipients of aid (such as when militias use aid to regain their strength and prolong war) does not mean that aid should be cut off entirely, just because becoming a global citizen is difficult, and often times hard to accomplish perfectly, one should not give up on their duty to helping others. So long as the central tenet of humanitarian campaigns, and the foundation for medical ethics, “first do no harm,” is upheld, then thinking globally, and acting humanely across the world will always the right decision.


Works Cited:

“The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.” Fourth Edition. 2009. Houghton Mifflin Company. Print.

Bersin-Zemach, Talya. “American Students Abroad can’t be ‘Global Citizens” March 7, 2008. June 20, 2013. Section: Commentary Volume 54, Issue 26. A34

Linda Polman. “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?” New York: Metropolitan, 2010. Print.


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