The Benefits of Ethnomedicine



In many developing nations, traditional medical healers and herbal medicines are a prevalent part of the present culture. When humanitarian aid organizations send medical professionals and treatments to these developing nations, traditional medical methods become ignored. Many Westerners would agree that shying away from traditional medicine would mean progress for developing nations, and is therefore an essential past of development. This kind of ethnocentric attitude is leading to an unnecessary loss of culture. Recent studies show that traditional medicine is much more beneficial than once realized, and may be an important aspect in the future of medicine. This type of medicine is defined as ethnomedicine and “explores the medical institutions and the manner in which peoples cope with illness and disease as a result of their cultural perspective” (“Ethnomedicine”). Organizations such as The Institute for Ethnomedicine search “for new cures by studying plant medicine and patterns of wellness and disease among indigenous people” (“The Institute…). In order to preserve traditional cultures and learn more about these methods of medical care, humanitarian aid organizations must remain open-minded to these practices. By ignoring their benefits and only using Westernized methods of medicine, aid workers are bringing even more harm to the victims of crisis.

One of the major misconceptions western society has of ethnomedicine is that it is ineffective. Many associate the ideas of “magic” and “witch doctors” with traditional medicine, when in fact many researchers have found that these herbal medicines can be very effective.  A study conducted by Daniel Fabricant and Norman Farnsworth in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives found that we still have a lot to learn from traditional medical methods, and threats to traditional cultures may hinder these findings. The study stated, “the body of existing ethnomedical knowledge has led to great developments in health care. With the rapid industrialization of the planet and the loss of ethnic cultures and customs, some of this information will no doubt disappear.” (Fabricant and Farnsworth). Preserving traditional medical practices should therefore be of great importance to medical aid workers. Aid workers should be respectful of traditional ways. The study further “demonstrated that 80% of these have had an ethnomedical use identical or related to the current use of the active elements of the plant” (Fabricant and Fransworth). Many of these medical remedies are concurrent with the findings of modern science. By inaccurately dismissing traditional methods inferior or useless, aid workers are encouraging victims to reject their own culture. These kinds of ethnocentric behaviors from the humanitarian aid industry will be detrimental to the cultures of developing countries.

In addition to its scientific credibility, ethnomedicine is what many residents of developing countries are accustomed to. When aid organizations give out modern medicines and encourage westernized medical practices, victims can become confused and uncomfortable with these unfamiliar practices. They often prefer their own traditional medicines and will seek out these methods instead of the medical aid being offered. In a study by Edward Green, he examined how STDs often go unreported in African medical clinics, as natives believe traditional medicine is more efficient than westernized medicine. He reported that “most STD cases are never even presented at biomedical health facilities; they are presented to traditional healers and their patients seem to believe that traditional STD cures are more effective than ‘modern’ cures. Traditional healers therefore need to be a central part of any scheme to lower the incidence of STDs” (Green). As Green suggests, there should be more of an effort to infuse modern medical practices with traditional methods when providing aid. This would make native residents more comfortable, encourage the preservation of traditional culture, and allow westernized doctors to use modern medicine when they see fit. In respect for the wants of the native residents, medical aid organizations should be more conscious of ethnomedical practices.


An African herbal medicine being created.

Critics of humanitarian aid also believe that aid workers are ignoring the needs of the victims. Ethnocentric biases keep western aid industries from identifying the true needs of the victims. In is article Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power, Donini explains that all aid workers carry “cultural baggage” that impacts the native population. In the case of medical aid, ignoring ethnomedical practices and traditional cultures can lead to ineffective aid. Donini explains that victims often believe “they [aid workers] want to help, but they tell us what to do without asking” (Donini). In this way, medical aid organizations do not notice native preference for traditional medicine because they do not even ask about the victims’ preferences. Teju Cole argues, “there is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them” (Cole). This kind of consultation will encourage the preservation of traditional medicine and truly benefit the recipients of aid.

For those who would argue that traditional medicine would be ineffective in the case of humanitarian aid, a study by Gerard Bodeke and Cora Neumann found that refugee camps in Thailand are utilizing local ethnomedical practitioners to provide aid. The study stated the following:

The Burmese regime’s protracted violent conflict with its ethnic minorities has resulted in 2 million migrants and refugees settling across the border in Thailand. In addition there are an estimated 600,000 internally displaced people in border regions within Burma. For many, conventional health services are limited or unavailable. Traditional health practitioners are adapting their practices to meet refugee and migrants’ changing needs, creating options for sustainable community-based health services. (Bodeker and Neumann)

This instance not only shows that traditional medicine can be effectively used in humanitarian aid, but creates the idea of instilling self-sustainable medical communities when aid workers leave. With western medical practices, once the aid workers are gone, there is no one left to continue providing modern medical care. However, by infusing modern medical practices with ethnomedicine, native healers can continue these medical practices long after aid workers have gone. This can help expand the effectiveness of aid and exponentially increase the benefits for aid recipients.

To move past the ethnocentric bias prevalent in the medical aid industry, aid organizations must reflect on their own shortcomings. In the book In the Eyes of Others, Caroline Abu-Sada examines the work of Doctors Without Boarders to reveal how the organization can more effectively provide aid. She concluded that “the MSF should definitely get back into the habit of negotiating with the parties involved: politicians, ministries of health, and local people” (Abu-Sada). Abu-Sada agrees that by consulting local officials, medical aid can be vastly improved. Like Abu-Sada and Doctors Without Boarders, other medical aid organizations must reflect on their history and realize the relationship with natives must be restored to effectively provide aid. This will ensure that traditional medical practices are kept relevant and that victims receive optimal care.

The benefits of ethnomedicine cannot be ignored. For residents of developing countries, traditional medicine is preferred and can ultimately be more effective when providing aid. Aid organizations must revisit their practices and work to include these traditional medical methods. This way, medical aid can be more effective and last even after aid workers have left the crisis. Western aid workers must work to lose their ethnocentric tendencies and embrace the profits of incorporating traditional medicine into their practices.

The following is a video explaining the benefits of integrative medicine and the importance of using more traditional medical practices:




Abu-Sada, Caroline. “In the Eyes of Others: How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid.” Doctors Without Borders. 2012. Print.

Bodeker, Gerard, and Cora Neumann. “Revitalization and Development of Karen Traditional Medicine for Sustainable Refugee Health Services at the Thai–Burma Border.” Journal Of Immigrant and Refugee Studies 10.1 (2012).

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 June 2013. <

Donini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power.” In the Eyes of Others. Ed. Caroline Abu-Sada. Doctors Without Borders, 2012. Print.

“Ethnomedicine.” Medanth. 01 July 2013. <>.

Fabricant, Daniel, and Norman Farnsworth. “The Value of Plants Used in Traditional Medicine for Drug Discovery.” Environmental Health Perspectives 109.1 (2001).

Green, Edward C. “Sexually Transmitted Disease, Ethnomedicine and Health Policy in Africa.” Social Science & Medicine 35.2 (1992): 121-30. Print.

“The Institute for EthnoMedicine.” The Institute for EthnoMedicine. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2013. <>.

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