Another’s Perspective


Ethnocentrism is an uncomfortable subject to broach for many involved in the humanitarian aid industry; it’s a subject that touches on culture, privilege and race extensively.  The difficulty of judging a foreign culture by your own standards presents a multitude of problems.   Different situations, beliefs and histories make it extremely difficult for an outsider to fully understand the depth and scope of foreign situations.


Often times Western cultures overlook many of factors that are necessary for long-term, sustainable success in Africa.  These are things like democracy and legal systems, which are structures many Westerners may take for granted.  This isn’t some callous oversight by the majority of Western humanitarians, but its emblematic of a careless way of thinking that needs to change.  Often times we believe we know the entire situation and how to fix it, yet that’s rarely the case.  It’s a form of hubris that actually serves to alleviate those the aid was meant to serve in the first place.  For example, Teju Cole writes, “He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need” (Cole).  Western humanitarians see the obvious symptoms, but fail to realize the underlying problems.


While most ignorance isn’t malicious, many organizations don’t address these underlying problems because they aren’t as tangible, quick to “solve” or apparent to their donor base.  We, as global humanitarians, need to demand more from our aid groups.  The popular issue isn’t always the one that needs the most attention.  If we truly desire to help those in need, then we should plan for the long-term.  The quick fixes that stimulate donors but don’t resolve the issue need to be eschewed for actual solutions.  Technology gives us access to more information than ever before, so we can no longer use ignorance of an excuse; the current form of aid fails to address the real problems.


The most important way to fix the disconnect between the “is” and “ought” of humanitarian aid operations is to work intimately with the local peoples.  Many INGOs claim they foster cooperation and value local opinions, but that’s often just window dressing for donors.  Linda Polman in The Crisis Caravan writes about how Western workers live separately from the locals, isolate themselves with foreign technology and generally don’t embrace the culture.  The higher ups in the aid organizations may hear what the local concerns are, but they don’t listen to them.  We need to stop this ethnocentric way of thinking and consider that we actually don’t always have the perfect solutions.  Westerners, as outsiders, have trouble seeing the big picture.  Cole writes, “There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans. Such problems are both intricate and intensely local” (Cole).   Aid workers haven’t lived in these areas their entire lives, they don’t know the biggest fears, wants and needs of the local population.  At arms length many issues may appear differently, and we need to close that gap and embrace local opinion.



Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. March 21, 2012. Web. July 4, 2013.

Easterly, William. “The White Man’s Burden.” The New York Review of Books. January 2007. Web. July 4, 2013.

Polman, Linda. The Crisis Caravan. Viking, 2010. Print.


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